Jesus is Our Rescuer

Every story of rescue we’ve explored during the season of Lent–Hosea & Gomer, the prodigal son & his father, Abram & Lot, Naomi & Ruth, Ruth & Boaz, Moses & the nation of Israel, and the thief on the cross & Jesus–served to set the stage for the ultimate story of rescue: Jesus and each one of us.

On Easter Sunday, Pastor John preached about Jesus. He preached about his death on the cross, his resurrection, his victory over death, and the hope we have in him. It was not an unusual Easter message. In fact, it may be one of the most straightforward, simple messages we have heard in a while. It was the perfect Easter message because it is the message all others must be built upon. It is the story that needs to be told and retold because without it, our faith has no foundation. And even though it is familiar, there is gold yet to mine, treasure yet to be found. Our Jesus–the story of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life now living within us who know him–is a well of inexhaustible riches and mysteries–there is always more to discover.

On Sunday, Trevor, one of our Elders, read a few verses of scripture and prayed before the message. One of the passages he read was John 3:16-17:

For 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.

Another was John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As he prayed, he thanked Jesus for the death that he died and that he rose again. I found myself silently adding to his prayer once he finished, overwhelmed again by the familiar verses, the story I’ve known all of my life…

Thank you, Jesus, for dying a terrible death at our hands, for choosing to endure the suffering–but thank you, also, for the life that you lived! For showing us how to live, how to love…

As I listened to Pastor John’s message and pondered things later on, it was that simple thought that stayed with me–

In everything he did, from the beginning of the story to that bloody day on the cross and then after he rose from the dead, Jesus showed us how to love. He didn’t just tell us, didn’t simply teach us–he lived it.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

How does he love us? In all the ways that we have learned about throughout this series. His love rescues and forgives, runs toward us, protects us from the judgment of those who seek to harm us, welcomes us home, frees us from our bondage, redeems us, refuses to leave, clings to us. And on the cross, he displayed how far his love will go to show us another way, to show us how his kingdom works, to give us sight and a new way to see the world. On the cross, he endured our violence, and his love absorbed our hate. He set us free from the bondage of our shortsightedness and self-absorption and he offered grace to cover our shame. He reminded us–along with the thieves next to him–that he is the restorer of all things, of paradise lost and our forgotten identities.

As Pastor John said on Sunday, we are in constant need… And Jesus constantly comes to meet us in our need. He brings us hope when all seems lost, and he reminds us how to live and love as we learn from him, walk with him, remember how he did it, and see how he is doing it still. He is, as Brian Zahnd so eloquently phrased it in The Unvarnished Jesus, “the Gardener who touches living things with living hands,” and invites us to follow him and do the same.

As we have explored stories of rescue over the last seven weeks, we have seen that the need for rescue is present when an antagonist is present. That antagonist takes a different form in every story. At times, it shows up in a family member, other times in an entire community. It can be a nation, an accuser, or systems that set themselves up against the weak and the marginalized–creating the need for a rescuer to come. An antagonist is anything that sets itself up against the way of love, anything that stands in opposition to the ways of the kingdom Jesus ushered in. It can be self-imposed bondage, forced captivity, or a mix of the two, but every antagonist in whatever form it takes has one goal: to maintain their power and assert their control. 

But–no antagonist can stop the rescuing love of Jesus. We are never alone in our bondage, never left to fend for ourselves in the face of whatever antagonist has set itself up against us. He always comes. How has he rescued you? Can you recall times his rescuing love has showed up to save you?

I can’t count the times he has rescued me… it would take volumes to document every moment and all that Jesus has saved me from. Here are a few examples…

I was a tiny baby enduring beatings for a spirit I supposedly carried within me. I don’t remember the earliest days, but I lived. My life was protected.

I was a little girl, afraid and ashamed, angry and confused–more than I knew. I lived somewhere between complete chaos and pretend peace, a painted smile set in place. In the midst of it, Jesus spoke kindness to my heart. He stirred my heart toward him with gentle thoughts that weren’t my own. In the flowers I watered, the sun that warmed my face, the grass I rolled in, the creeks I splashed in, the trees I climbed, I saw a God different than the one I had been told of. I longed to know him, this Jesus who showed up in my dreams and in the moments of breathless fear. He protected me from completely believing the lies I was taught about why I should fear him. He pricked the core of me with an awareness of his goodness that would grow later.

As a poor preteen with a broken family, a sick mom, and a growing sense of the injustice around me and the rage within me, he rescued me from hopelessness. He brought people to me who breathed his grace like oxygen into my depleted soul. I wasn’t ready to run all the way to his arms, but he continued to come to me. He kept me tethered to him through the people who loved me well and provided for needs I didn’t yet know how to name.

When that preteen grew into a secretly rebellious teenager, those people who loved me well kept showing up. They continued to carry Jesus to me. There were nights I shouldn’t have awoken to the light of a new day for all of the self-imposed danger I placed myself in… I found out later, those same people had spent those nights awake and on their knees, knowing I needed their intercession more than they needed their rest.

The shame of those wild nights would have overtaken me… but he rescued me with grace.

I was pregnant with my daughter, spinning across four lanes of traffic in the snow during the busiest hour of the morning and came to a complete stop in the face of oncoming traffic. My car was completely untouched and I drove away, heart in my throat, breath held–protected in a very real way.

He has rescued me from fear that used to keep me awake at night.

He has rescued me in grief that threatens to suffocate.

He provided a rescuing embrace in the arms of a friend when guilt called me a killer.

He has rescued me from lying narratives that were taught as truths, from identities devoid of truth, from attacks on my character.

He has rescued me through therapy that helps me find him with me in the midst of the most painful of my memories. He has shown me where he always was, where he always is–with me in the middle of the mess.

He has silenced the voice of the powerful that wielded their might to control me; he has set me free from the shackles of their accusations and condemnation.

He has rescued me in my loneliness with his very own presence.

He has restored my dying hope with painted skies and flowing water. He’s cured my cynicism with delight as I’ve marveled at blue jays, butterflies, rocks and streams that he created.

He continues to show up in the faces that refuse to turn away from my brokenness–he’s saved me through kind eyes, shared tears, and the gift of wild laughter more times than I can even remember.

Every antagonist in my life has met their match in my Jesus. 

Including me. 

Many times, the antagonist in my story is me. I’m not the terrified little girl anymore, or the self-destructive teenager, nor am I the critical, questioning young adult I used to be. My self-imposed bondage looks different today… To maintain some sense of control, some idea of knowing the plan, I put shackles on myself. I limit my thoughts and ponderings and hide them away to “keep the peace.” I lock up my opinions, fears, and needs so I won’t burden those I love. I put myself in the corner and force my eyes to gaze at the floor. I quiet my song and restrain my dancing.

And Jesus comes to me, the captive who is also the captor, the caged bird holding her own key, the little girl in the corner held in place by the glare of the woman who sent her there… He comes to me, cups my chin, lifts my face, speaks gently and softly with words that loosen the grave clothes I’ve re-wrapped around my heart. He breathes grace and peace, courage and the deepest love into my heart until it beats with his again. And then he asks me,

“Are you willing?” 

Am I willing… to fly, to sing, to live in the freedom he gave me long ago–and to carry that freedom, that rescuing love, to others? Will I be to others what others have been to me throughout my life–a life lit up with the love of Jesus, ready and willing to pour out for the sake of others?

I get to choose whether I will be an antagonist or a rescuer. We all have that choice. One stands in opposition to the kingdom life Jesus shows us how to live. The other is impossible without living connected to, abiding in, the love of Jesus, our vine, our life-giving source. I’ve been both, sometimes in the same day, even moment-to-moment. I want the life of Jesus to live through me–to live my life the way Jesus would live it if he were me.

Except for when I don’t… Because power, control, some sense of knowing how things will turn out–these are tempting things to grasp at, to reach for. Especially now, in a season full to the brim with uncertainty, a season where fears seem present in the very air we breathe. We want stability, safety, a promise of “normal” tomorrows. It is tempting to reach for control, for power in these days, to think that’s what we need to make it through. But…

What we really need is rescue.

Will we let Jesus rescue us again–here, now? Can we acknowledge our fears, admit our proclivity toward power-grabbing, and let his arms hold us as we cry out our need for him? We are in constant need, and our Jesus constantly comes to meet us here. He is our rescuer in every season–even now.

–Laura

I was having a phone conversation with my 90-year-old dad last week, and at one point in the conversation, he shared with me that because of a book he’s reading on the Apostle Paul’s teachings, he is seeing some scriptures through a new lens and experiencing a fuller understanding of the ministry of Christ. He expressed that he’s appalled; he’s studied theology all of his adult life and yet still has so much to learn. I responded that I don’t think he needs to be appalled, and encouraged him to embrace the mystery that there is always more to learn, always more to glean, always a deeper a layer to explore.  We will never know the full mystery of God–that’s what makes our faith exciting, sometimes frustrating, beautiful, challenging, transformative and life-changing.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has many layers to explore, many implications for the world and many implications for each of us. Laura did a beautiful job of expressing the many ways that the God of love, who rescued the entire world on the cross, has rescued her in personal ways over and over again. The beauty of her encounters with God, her willingness to see how he was with her in some devastatingly hard seasons, her willingness to let the Spirit “mess in her business”, her willingness to let God continue to shape and re-shape her understanding as she digs in and seeks, her willingness to mine for deeper layers of healing and deeper layers of revelation are beautiful and worth emulating. I hope you’ll spend some time asking God to show you how you have been rescued.  Rescuing love is part of God’s nature.

Brad Jersak, in his book A More Christlike God takes us through scripture, pointing out the ways that God came after people in scripture over and over again. In a very abridged version, I’m going to try to capture some of Jersak’s examples:

After sinning, Adam and Eve tried to hide from God. What does God do? He comes looking for them.

Cain does not heed God’s warning and murders his brother. What does God do? He goes looking for him. He protects him.

Abraham gets tired of waiting on God and has a son by his servant. What does God do? He still honors his promise to Abraham.

Moses takes matters into his own hand, murders an Egyptian and hides in the wilderness for 40 years. What does God do? He comes looking for him and asks him to lead.

David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered. What does God do? He honors the promise of a royal line that will not end through the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon. 

Israel, instead of reflecting God’s glory to the world, becomes unjust and corrupt exploiting the poor and oppressing the marginalized. What does God do? He calls Hosea to be his example of rescuing love. 

Then God becomes human, that he might find and heal humanity.

A woman at a well, abandoned by five husbands: What does God do? He sits with her at a well, converses with her, loves her, values her. She, in turn, introduces her entire community, the community she’d been avoiding, to him.

A Jewish tax collector became an oppressor of his own people: What does God do? He singles him out for a dinner date. Declares that salvation has come to his home. What does Zaccheus do? Pays back those he defrauded–becoming generous rather than greedy.

A woman caught in adultery: What does God do? Kneels beside her, writes in the dust, the accusers leave, and then he tells her that he doesn’t condemn her and gives her a fresh start. 

A demoniac man: What does God do? He gives him his mind back, his clothes back, his family back, his life back–he sets him free. The man then tells the entire region about the miraculous, powerful love of God.

A paralytic man: What does God do? He speaks forgiveness to the man, then tells him to take up his pallet and walk, making a spectacle of those who blamed the man for his condition and excluded him from the temple. 

“Finally, here is the whole human race, chosen and dearly loved by the God who is always for us, always toward us, and always in pursuit of us.  Driven by fear and pride, our need to maintain our systems of power, enforced by violence–we arrest, and condemn, torture and crucify this God. …the world’s premier religious system and political empire–conspired to murder the Lord of glory. And what does God do? 

He says, ‘I forgive you. While you hated me, I loved. You who took my life, I give you my life. While you were my enemies, I made you my friends.’

Christ did not come to change the Father, or to appease the wrath of an angry judge, but to reveal the Father. God is like Jesus, exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” (Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God)

I don’t usually use so many borrowed thoughts and words in my posts, I hope you will forgive me for that this week, but these feel so important right now, and they barely scratch the surface of all the rescuing stories found in scripture. At the crucifixion, God was rescuing us. He was not pouring out wrath upon Jesus. God was not condemning Jesus. God is not pouring out wrath on the world right now during the pandemic. God. Is. Love. God is with us. God is for us. God rescues us. Follow Laura’s leading above and spend some time contemplating how he’s rescued you how he’s been with you, even in the hard. He is so good to us!

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15-19:

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.  For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation…

Our rescuing God makes us new and invites us to enter into the deep things with him, the counter-cultural things, the kingdom of heaven things, and then join him in his mission to rescue the world–one precious, beloved person at a time.

For God so loved the world…

–Luanne

beautiful name

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue: The Thief and The Garden

If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.

Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.

Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:

Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.  

Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.

As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)  

There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.  

Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.

It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34),  is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”?  Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.

The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus).  If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.

And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)

We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.

The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence;  he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it.  His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.

Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.

Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.

This same word  paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.

I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.

God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.

God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.

In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.

Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:

He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.

Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…

–Luanne

I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:

Jesus’ life is available now.

Our personal rescue is available now.

The healing of the nations is available now

Jesus rescues us.

Jesus remembers us.

Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.

Paradise begins here

All true. All beautiful. Even now.

As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?” 

I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.

And yet, I know

I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.

To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.

It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved.  Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.

Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.

Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)

Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?

None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.

I think that is an important point to note, to remember…

The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.

He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”

What did he mean?

“After we lost your mom.”

He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.

We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.

Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…

None of us are on the outside. 

Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.

Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”

He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)

We are all branches on the vine. The vine is Jesus. We grow connected to his life, his love, the nutrients we need for survival. We grow together on this vine. He invites us to make a home inside his love, to stay there, to find that attached to the source, we have all we need. He is the vine that bears the weight of each branch and all the branches. He is the source and the witness to the growth of each one and the fruit they produce. He is the channel through which our lives are nourished, sustained, upheld.
“Love one another the way I love you.”
He invites us to learn from him, and then to do likewise with and for one another. We are connected. Whether we want to be or not. None of us can walk through these days alone. Not one of us is strong enough to carry the burdens of the others. Only the vine can bear the weight of the collective branches… But each branch can bear witness to the branches around it. 
This Easter Sunday will look different. Church buildings will be empty. Family get togethers will be cancelled. Neighborhood egg hunts for the littles won’t be held. Our arms will ache to embrace another, and lonely tears will fall. Unknowns will abound–but don’t they always, anyway? Fear may bubble to the surface, grief may steal our breath.
And–
Our Jesus, who conquered death and holds its keys, is with us in this place. He sees. He knows. He chooses to bear witness to our pain, to suffer alongside us, to grieve our losses as his own– and, as he models the kingdom value of co-suffering love, he invites us to do the same. To lift our eyes and see. To enter in with those around us and allow them to enter in with us. Because he knows what we sometimes forget–
As we lift our eyes to bear witness to the pain, we can’t help but also see the beauty of the kingdom all around. He knows that paradise exists where love presides. He shows us the way–will we follow?
–Laura

 

Wild flowers in lush bright colorful plants

 

 

Lent: A Rescuing Love

On the calendar of the capital “C” church, the season of Lent has begun. In our particular faith tradition, many individuals practice Lent, but Lent is not something we do corporately. This year, even though we are not having corporate Lent services, or special prayer and fasting (we do that in January), Pastor John wants to lead us through a series that sets our hearts on our rescuing, loving God and prepares us for the greatest event in the Christian faith–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We began this series by reading the 3rd chapter of Hosea.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley.  Then I said to her, “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.”  For the Israelites will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days. (Hosea 3:1-5)

God is not asking an easy thing of Hosea. God is asking Hosea to go again… Let that sink in. Go again to your wife, the wife you still love, the wife who is unfaithful to you, the wife who is sleeping with other men, the wife who has broken your heart, the wife who has done this before…go again. Go. Demonstrate agape love, unconditional love, love in action. Love her the way I (God) love my people, even though they chase other gods, offer sacrifices to other gods, and credit those gods for their provision. Hosea, go and be me to your wife, so that Israel will see, through your loving example, how I love them.

So, Hosea goes. He buys his wife back. He doesn’t drag her down the street by her hair. He doesn’t create a public spectacle. He doesn’t play the tough guy by yelling at her and putting her in her place. He takes items worth a great deal in that culture and exchanges those costly items to purchase his wife back. He redeems her. Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God. Costly love that redeems is the way of God.

So Hosea takes her home and says to her: “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.

When you read those words, what tone of voice do you hear Hosea using? Is it a “Listen up, girl, this is the way it’s going to be…” tone of voice, or is it gentle? Although we can’t know for sure, I think Hosea’s last phrase gives us a clue. Hosea, who has been faithful the whole time says to her, stay with me, be faithful to me, and I’ll be faithful to you. This isn’t a threat. This isn’t an “if you cheat on me, I’ll cheat on you and show you what it’s like”. No, this is “I love you. I’ve been here being faithful to you the entire time. I will remain faithful to you, and we will take this journey together.” Hosea’s faithful, costly love will be what restores his wife. It will happen over time, as she chooses him and he walks with her.

The chapter then goes broad, and the Lord tells Hosea what’s going to happen in Israel. He says their political system is going to fail them. Their religious system is going to fail them. Their false gods are going to fail them. Then, when every other thing they have chased fails them, they will return and seek the Lord. What will they find? Punishment? No. We are told they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days.

The word translated trembling can mean “in awe”. After all of their wandering, after chasing what the world offers, after worshiping everything but God, they will return to the Lord and discover his goodness. They will discover his costly love that buys them back. They will discover his companionship. They will be left awestruck.

God’s rescuing love is demonstrated in action. It’s a love that loves. It’s a love that redeems. It’s a love that empathizes, that joins us where we are and restores us as we walk with God.

Every man-made system in which we place our hope will fail us, but God will never fail us. He will not reject us. He will pursue us. He will love us. He will restore us. He will be with us.

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us; he paid a costly price to buy us back; he places his very own Spirit in us and tells us over and over that he will never leave us or forsake us…

…and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

Go again and love…

–Luanne

Go again and love

As Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion, the words “Go again…” are hard. For anyone who has felt the sting of betrayal–be it marital infidelity as it was for Hosea, or the betrayal of a close friend, or the rejection of a family member–those two words, and the two that follow, can feel like an insult added to the injury of our pain. As I write this, there are memories that surface–some old, some very fresh–that remind me of the sting of betrayal and rejection I have felt from those I love. I am sure you have stories, too. I think that’s why this short passage of scripture is still relatable and significant today. It’s appalling, what God asked of Hosea…

I wonder if he wrestled… I wonder if he asked God any questions. Did he go for a long walk, or maybe a run? Did he throw a bit of a tantrum? Did he yell in the privacy of his own home, or break something in his pain and frustration? Did he cry a little? Or maybe even all-out ugly cry, snot and all? Did he wonder how many times his heart would have to be broken before it couldn’t be put back together again? 

Hosea doesn’t tell us how he felt or the ways he might have wrestled with God’s instructions. But everything I listed above? I’ve reacted in all of those ways and more in response to various betrayals and rejections in my own life. To be left and disregarded, betrayed by one who has vowed to be there, to love you–the pain is hard enough to work through one time. But again? It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Hosea to have said something like, 

“Seriously, God?!? I know you’re, well, God. So you know the whole story! She’s done this before. Everyone knows. She’s embarrassed me, betrayed me, left me alone–not once. Over and over. You know exactly how many other lovers have captured her attention, how many others she has given herself to, the ways she has smeared her name–and mine! You know what she deserves. So do I… I don’t want to exact the law upon her–I still love her. But you’re saying it’s not enough to let her live, to mercifully spare her life and the just consequences of her behavior–you want me to go after her? Again? And pursue her, love her, bring her home as mine? When she has given herself to everyone but me? Are you really asking me to do that? Again?”

These would have been fair questions, especially in the time that Hosea lived. Luanne wrote above, regarding his wife, 

Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God.

Pastor John shared that for Hosea to choose his wife again rather than reject her risked his own reputation. Really, he was risking more than that. He was risking everything. To choose her again meant embracing the unknown, the what ifs, the chance of her leaving him again in the future. Those around him just would not get it–until they did. 

I want to tell you a story that I know, a story that resembles Hosea’s…

There was a woman, she was a faithful, loving wife and a wonderful mother. She loved Jesus with her whole heart, battered and wounded as it was. Life had not been easy or kind, but she was hopeful, joy-filled, warm, and as present as she knew how to be. Eleven years into her marriage, she got sick. Very sick. Her future was uncertain. 

Not long after her health began to deteriorate, she found out that her husband had been unfaithful to her, more than once, with more than one other woman. And he was leaving her for one of them. He had fallen in love and just did not want her anymore. She had become to him a “good friend,” and nothing more. He left her alone, sick, without resources, and with their children to care for, promising he would do his part. He didn’t.

Over the next months, the man had some doubts… He missed her kindness, her friendship, he missed their kids, their family. He wanted to come home. The woman set aside her ache and said yes, he could come home. Those around her didn’t understand why she welcomed him back…

He came home.

Stayed a few days.

And left… again. There were whispers of, “I told you so…” as people learned he’d gone. 

A little bit of time passed, and again he wanted to return. Again, she welcomed him home, but only if he was there to stay. He assured her he was. Again, there were murmurings from their community.

And again, he left. 

He came back one more time. Her heart was battered, torn apart. She had no reason to believe him this time, and told him so. She took some time…

They took the kids out together and spent time as a family over the next days. He seemed genuine.

One night, at the county fair, their kids watched him kiss her under the stars next to the Ferris wheel. Their eyes sparkled, her breath caught in her chest, their kids looked at them, giggling and hopeful. All seemed right in their world this time. 

He came home.

Days later, he told his kids he missed the other woman and her kids, told his wife he was sorry, but he couldn’t make this work. 

She begged him not to go. Said she’d do anything, be anything, change everything about herself–if only he’d stay. 

And he left again. For good this time. Her love, the redemption she offered, her welcoming arms—none of it was enough to make him stay. The whispering community largely deserted her and her kids. 

She struggled. She sobbed and screamed in her bathroom with the fan on and the water running. She thought the kids couldn’t hear her, but they did. They didn’t know if she cried because she missed him… or because she was sick and in pain… or because they didn’t have money for groceries. They didn’t know for sure, because she didn’t speak poorly of their father in their presence. She assured them of his love for them, and tried hard not to complain about her own pain. 

Fast forward to more than a decade later. She fought through her illness and experienced the love of Jesus carry her through her darkest days. She was in a different state, with her daughter and young grandchildren, at a summer festival. They rounded a corner and came face to face with her. The one who knew the whole story because she was the other woman. The one he left her for years ago. The one he eventually left for another someone new…

Shock and fear flashed across the other woman’s face. Tears spilled as she hung her head. How were they both here, today? They hadn’t lived in the same state in more than ten years. Before the other woman could say anything, the scorned wife went to her and wrapped her arms around her, held her tightly as both women cried.

“I’m so sorry! So sorry…” the other woman choked out between sobs.

And then I heard my mom say, “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. And I love you.”

I cried at the beauty of the moment, but I wasn’t shocked. I knew how she felt, how she’d wrestled and come to a place of love and forgiveness. But I turned and glanced at a friend who happened to be nearby and had witnessed the whole exchange. Tears rolled down her face; her expression held the awe of one who’s witnessed a miracle. 

And that’s exactly what it was. A miracle of love that didn’t make sense according to the world’s systems. My mom’s love, despite her efforts, didn’t keep my dad home. Her love didn’t rescue their marriage. And it didn’t rescue him from a life filled with regrets. But, we can be sure, her love rescued one, and impacted many… When she embraced the other woman, it wasn’t in her own strength. It was the love of Jesus in her and with her that led her to reach out to the one who was responsible for much of her pain. And that love, pouring through my sweet mom, spoke to this woman that she was loved, redeemed, forgiven, rescued from the guilt and shame her own choices had caused in her life. It was a gift unexpected and most certainly undeserved. It was a gift that changed more than one life that day.

My friend told me she had never seen anything like that. She was overcome by the beauty of the love of Jesus expressed that way. I have heard her tell the story and how it impacted her heart many times, in small groups and to other friends. That’s the power of loving God’s way. 

Real love doesn’t reserve a little room for revenge, for retribution, for resentment, expectations, conditions… It doesn’t react, separate, distance, avoid, isolate or divide. Real love can’t exist if there’s even a little sliver of hate. Because real love acts and responds. It is demonstrated by moving toward, pursuing, including, inviting, holding space. It redeems,  it empathizes, it rescues. And it does this without any guarantees of how the recipient of that love will respond.

Hosea had no way of knowing if Gomer would stay after he brought her home again. History would say otherwise. But he pursued her anyway. She did stay and they were reconciled. My mom had no way of knowing if my dad would stay. History told her otherwise, too. She embraced him anyway. And he left, and they were not reconciled as husband and wife.

God knows that we are an unfaithful bride. That we repeatedly leave him. He does know it will happen again, and how many times we’ll run to something or someone other than him. He knows. And yet… he keeps coming. He doesn’t wait until we ask if we can come home. No, he–like we see in Hosea–moves toward us first. He pursues and he never stops pursuing. When we turn away, he moves around us until we’re face to face again. When we run, he runs with us, never leaving us alone. When we fall down in exhaustion, he picks us up and carries us home, restoring us every step of the way. 

Luanne wrote,

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us. . . and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

My mom experienced the rescuing love of God. She wasn’t reconciled to her husband, but Jesus became her husband and loved her with a love that left her awestruck. She responded by extending that love–even to one the world would call her enemy. 

I don’t know your story, but I know mine. I could tell you many stories of betrayal and rejection, the many times that others have been unfaithful to me… I could tell you more about the times I have been the unfaithful one in my relationship with Jesus. That list is long, friends.

But he loves me as though the list doesn’t exist.

He pursues me even when I try to get away. He holds me in my pain and experiences my hurt as his own. He rescues me when I run straight into the fire over and over again. He always has. He always will. That’s what love does. He is who love is.

Who is he asking us to “Go again and love” this week? May we be filled with his love, awestruck by the enormity of it, and–in his strength–may we move toward others instead of pulling away.

–Laura

rescuing love (2)

Giving: Forgive Before You Give

“Giving” is the theme of our new series. It’s a risky endeavor…when a church begins to talk about giving, there can be some strong reactions from those hearing the message. Some take on an “I knew all they wanted was my money” mindset, some take on the mindset of “It’s my money and no one can tell me what to do with it”. For some, it reveals priorities, the things we’re willing to spend on or give to generally are things that matter to us, and some of us find safety and security in holding on to our money because, despite the fact that on it is written “In God We Trust” when it comes down to it, we ultimately trust money to take care of us.

If it’s so risky, why talk about it? And when we talk about giving, are we referring only to money–or is the subject of giving a reminder that we give our lives to God, every bit of them–our talents, our gifts, our time, our resources, our minds, our beings?  And what is the heart that God desires in our giving?

One thing is for sure, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:21-24 that he wants our hearts toward others to be in the right place before we give at the altar.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. He is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. When he gets to this portion he says:

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

There is much to glean from these few verses. One is that Jesus is shaking up a traditional understanding of what it means to be godly. He affirms that it was said long ago and passed through the generations that people should not murder other people. I think that we would all agree with that statement; however, in kingdom living, refraining from murder is not enough. There are plenty of other ways to devalue a life.

Jesus goes on to say anyone who is angry with a brother, or anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca”, or anyone who calls someone “fool” is in danger of judgment. Pastor John took us deeper into this, pointing out that even if we don’t physically murder someone, we can murder them in our minds and demean them in our treatment.  To call someone “Raca” or  “fool” or anything else derogatory demeans that person’s value. To harbor anger against another is to set an internal fire ablaze which spills out in unkind or demeaning words and sometimes in violent actions.

So Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others, and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.

It’s interesting to consider that the word translated “brothers” in this passage means someone “from out of the womb”; therefore, Jesus is asking us to consider how we think of and how we treat all humankind.

This is a challenge. Being human, we classify, divide, label, separate, and draw lines between us. Many of the ways we divide are generational, so Jesus says to us, you’ve heard it said… , but I say to you don’t demean anyone, don’t think negatively about anyone, don’t talk negatively about anyone, don’t call others derogatory names, don’t place human beings in categories.

Jesus reminds us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 & Luke 6:45). Are we asking God regularly to search us, and know our hearts: try us, and know our thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting? (Psalm 138:23-24 KJV) If not, it’s a good practice to put into place.

Jesus tells us in his sermon that to treat others with contempt is on par with murder. This is where it gets hard. We treat others in our family, our communities, our workplaces, our churches with contempt if they don’t see things like we do.  We live in a great nation, and many here believe God loves us more than he loves people in other nations; therefore, we can treat other nations with contempt. Do we look down on others who don’t share our same citizenship? Do we stereotype? Do we lump entire people groups into “less than” categories? Do we ever see Jesus teaching that people of one nation are his favorites or are superior to those of another? If Jesus favored anyone, it was the poor, the sick, the oppressed.

And here, inside our borders, how are we treating one another? Are we labeling people? We’ve got the liberal left, the radical right, the Fox followers, the CNN followers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the rich, the poor, the white-collar, the blue-collar,  the African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, and white, there are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.,  those who are for war, those who are against, and many, many other ideologies that have strong proponents on each side. To top it off, we are headed into an election year that’s going to be brutal as far as name-calling and divisive language go.  What are we, the followers of Jesus, to do?

Jesus says to us: “You have heard it said…but I say…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow. That’s a tall order. What does it even look like?

Paul, in Colossians 3:12-14 urges us toward this when he writes: As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues. (J.B. Phillips)

We are representatives of the new humanity–those who have God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13 NLT)

We are loved by God and are to share that love with every other image-bearer of God on the planet. It looks like merciful actions, kindness, humility (not thinking of oneself as superior in any way), tolerance, patience, and living with an attitude of forgiveness.

We are asked to forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven us. And here’s an important thought…God forgave us freely, but it cost him greatly. To forgive doesn’t mean to stuff emotion and pretend as though conflict doesn’t exist. To forgive means to wrestle it through, it means to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, it means to have hard conversations, bathed in love, with hope for reconciliation. In my own life, I’ve had to ask for God’s help, confess when I’m not ready to forgive, express the desire that I want to do this His way and offer my willingness to Him.  He then leads me through the process. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours, sometimes it’s months, sometimes years. It helps a great deal to pray blessing for those with whom I’m in conflict. Praying good things for them helps to get my heart and thoughts in a better place. And, yes, sometimes I’m praying blessing while at the same time acknowledging that my heart isn’t completely there yet, again, asking God to help me get there. 

Paul goes on to say, and Jesus would agree, that above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.

So, before we give to God, we are asked to give our “for” to others, and seek reconciliation. It’s not always possible to reconcile. There are times when the other party does not want to, or the situation is so toxic that to converse with that person would not be wise. In those instances, Paul tells us if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18). If physical reconciliation does not happen, strive for peace in your heart and thoughts toward others, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to reconcile.

So giving the way God wants us to begins with recognizing that God is for us, and he wants us to be for others.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting 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)

Pastor John combined and paraphrased the Matthew and Colossians scriptures to help us see it more clearly:

“Do not reduce the value of the life of another, but raise the value and worth of all others. If you have not done that and you are coming to give your gift to the Lord, your gift that declares you are for the Lord, go to the one that you are against; go to that one and establish your “for”. Reconcile with them, then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Give your “for” as freely as the Lord has given his “for you”. 

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.” It is vitally important that we pay attention as we read scripture. Context matters. Audience matters. The culture of the day matters. It matters that our passage is but a few verses connected to three entire chapters of teaching from Jesus. These aren’t standalone verses in a sermon focused solely on money, or even just about forgiveness. They are part of the whole that, as Luanne identified, is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and what it looks like to live as kingdom-minded people here on earth. The sermon in its entirety establishes the ways of the kingdom and emphasizes kingdom values, namely the value of people over religion. The context is so important, because this is one “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” among several others, set within a teaching given to show the people that religiosity will only take us so far—it’s love that takes us all the way.

Jesus is editing the script on religion. He’s not discarding what they’ve previously been taught, he’s reminding them—and us—about God’s original intention, and then expanding their understanding. The laws God gave through Moses were designed to teach the people how to live lives of love, focused on Him, following his lead. The laws describe how love acts, what it does and doesn’t do. They outline the basics of how to treat all others, how to live in such a way that love for God and love for others would direct their entire lives, everything they did and did not do. The laws had become something else, though, in the hands of humans who may have started out with good intentions, but who eventually overcomplicated God’s words, added rules and requirements designed to maintain control, and to box God in, to make him small enough to control by checking boxes. In the hands of those who stood to benefit from systems, what was intended to lead us into love for God and one another became something that did the opposite. It became a hierarchical system built on impossible expectations that divided the people rather than connect them.

Jesus comes onto the scene to press the reset button. But he doesn’t simply reset the system—he takes it several steps further. He connects everything to love of God and one another and tells his hearers more than once that everything hinges on this one command. The command to love. Sometimes this can be interpreted as watering down our faith, this emphasis on love. But there is nothing more demanding than following Jesus’ example of self-emptying love. He’s not lowering any standards by refocusing the people in this way. As Luanne wrote,

“Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.”

Jesus places a high value on giving. He instructs us many times in scripture to give generously, to give to the poor, and to give our lives to follow him. He modeled this value by giving everything, even his very life. Giving was not the greatest commandment, though. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. Giving without loving is meaningless. The giving must flow out of the loving. Giving every material belonging, and even our very lives matters not if not done from a place of love, as 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us:

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (MSG)

Bankrupt.

We are bankrupt without love. Our English word “bankrupt” comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means “a broken bench”. The root of the Italian is from the Latin rupta, which is “to break or be defeated.” Without love, we are completely broken, and we can offer nothing—not even a safe place to sit—to another. The good news is that recognizing our brokenness–seeing how empty, how bankrupt we are when we’re not connected to and operating from a place of love—can reconnect us to the One who creates beauty from brokenness, the one who scatters the fears that break us down with his perfect love that restores and rebuilds. Before we can be put back together his way, though, we have to acknowledge how we’ve been operating, where we’ve been rule-following and calling it love, where we’ve been “letting it go” by hiding our hurts deep inside and shutting the door rather than moving toward honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness.

Pastor John said, “Before you come to God, stop pretending.” Offering anything from a loveless place is just playing church and practicing religion. It’s pretending. It’s what the people Jesus was speaking to were used to seeing and practicing. Ritualized giving. Giving because the rules said what and how and how often giving was required. Giving because of the fear of the consequences of not giving. They didn’t understand God’s heart, his love, until he came to them in the form of Jesus. He came to set all things right, to restore what had been so broken by religion. And what had been most broken by the religious systems and structures of that day were their hearts. They weren’t connected to a God of love. They were going through the motions of following rules and avoiding negative consequences. Jesus came to reclaim their hearts, just as he comes to us to reclaim ours.

Our motivation to give and forgive has to be love. We can’t be truly for others—or for God—if we aren’t connected to and dependent upon his love alive in us. We only love because he loved us first. And it is his love that leads us. What does this love look like? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us:

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (verses 4-7, TPT)

”[Love] never stops believing the best for others…” Love God’s way values others, and never gives up. Which others? All of them, I’m pretty sure… I have some work to do here. Sometimes–often really–giving up can feel easier. Walking away from what feels like conflict, drama, and moving away from the pain can feel like self-protection, and often feels necessary. Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are toxic, abusive relationships that we really do need to physically move away from. In those cases, we still need to do the inner work with Jesus, asking him to search us and heal us and help us to forgive when we’ve been wounded. We are still called to forgive—regardless of the nature of the offense. And that is still moving toward, not walking away. We’re moving toward that person as we pray for the willingness to forgive them, as we pray that God would bless them and as we ask him to show them his love for them. Our spirits—the Christ-in-us part of us–can still move toward others even when we physically have to move away. Because, as we saw throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always pursues. Always moves toward. Always. Because love is what drives him. And if he lives within us, then his love is what drives us, too—if we don’t stand let fear stand in the way. 1 John 4 exhorts us:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (verses 7-12, NLT) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (verses 18-21, NIV)

If we are living from a place of love—not some appearance of love that we are trying to manufacture on our own but the love that comes from “…God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT)—then we will be led to both forgive and to give. Fear will prevent us from giving and forgiving. Love will lead us to do both, generously and extravagantly. This is what Jesus came to teach us all. He came to show us what the love of God looks like with skin on. He came to show us—in dramatic fashion—just how far real love will go, and how it really is at the core of every other commandment.

It will demand our all to live this way, to live as kingdom-minded disciples who choose to see and value and honor the image of God in every single one who comes from a womb. But we never have to do it alone. Learning how to forgive and how to give from a place of love isn’t easy. But because God loved and forgave and gave to us first, we can lean into all that he is for all that we’re not and he will enable us to do what we could never do on our own. We need only to come to him with our willing yes, with a heart open to receive his great love, and surrender to the changes his love will make within us. The rest will come as a result of being completely overcome and captivated by this extravagant love that wins our hearts. Are we willing to say yes to his love? Are we willing to let that love search us and change us, and lead us to forgive and to give without fear?

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

Last week, we talked about a parent’s priority: to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God. Part of that conversation included acknowledging our own shortcomings as parents. Our parents made mistakes, and we make mistakes, too.

This week, Pastor John talked to us about what it looks like to love well when our children have made mistakes. It is a message that absolutely speaks to how we love our kids–but, beyond that, it is a message about how everyone needs to be loved.

Pastor John began by simply stating:

“Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

The self-emptying love of God is illustrated in many places throughout scripture. It is most clearly seen in Jesus’ death on the cross, as he proved there was no length he, the perfect image of our invisible God, wouldn’t go to in order to show his love for us. It is also captured beautifully in the story of the prodigal son. It is this story that Pastor John opened with on Sunday. I’m including the whole story, out of the J.B. Phillips translation:

Then he continued, “Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property that will come to me.’ So he divided up his property between the two of them. Before very long, the younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a foreign land, where he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance. And when he had run through all his money, a terrible famine arose in that country, and he began to feel the pinch. Then he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. He got to the point of longing to stuff himself with the food the pigs were eating and not a soul gave him anything. Then he came to his senses and cried aloud, ‘Why, dozens of my father’s hired men have got more food than they can eat and here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But his son said, ‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more…’ ‘Hurry!’ called out his father to the servants, ‘fetch the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and get that calf we’ve fattened and kill it, and we will have a feast and a celebration! For this is my son—I thought he was dead, and he’s alive again. I thought I had lost him, and he’s found!’ And they began to get the festivities going. “But his elder son was out in the fields, and as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants across to him and enquired what was the meaning of it all. ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has killed the calf we fattened because he has got him home again safe and sound,’ was the reply. But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him. Then he burst out, ‘Look, how many years have I slaved for you and never disobeyed a single order of yours, and yet you have never given me so much as a young goat, so that I could give my friends a dinner? But when that son of yours arrives, who has spent all your money on prostitutes, for him you kill the calf we’ve fattened!’ But the father replied, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32, emphasis mine)

There are so many layers within this restorative story. We won’t fully plumb its depths here, but let’s dig in and see what we find…

The first point worth noting is found in the opening line of the story:

Once there was a man who had two sons…

Often, this story is taught with an emphasis on the younger son, the prodigal. But the story is about both sons and their relationship with their father (and, I think, with one another, but I don’t have time to get into that part today…). The opening line of any story emphasizes who or what the story is about–this story is about two sons. Two sons, deeply loved by their father, who had a home with him, wherever he was.

When we read the part where the younger son asks for his inheritance, we tend to be so appalled by his audacity and disrespect that we miss a very important detail, one that keeps big brother in the center of the story:

So he divided up his property between the two of them

Little brother’s payday was a fraction of what big brother inherited that day. In ancient Jewish culture, the oldest heir was to receive double the inheritance of any other heir. Big brother may not have asked for it, but he received his father’s overwhelming generosity that day, too. This is highlighted later in the story, when the father says to his oldest son, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours.’ Indeed, everything the father had was his. He divided up everything he owned between his boys, living as though dead while he was still alive. When the younger son squandered his portion, everything else that had once belonged to the father, now belonged to his oldest son. Everything he had was his.

The self-emptying love of the father was displayed as he withheld nothing from his children. He gave all he had. He had nothing left, and as far as we can infer from the text, that part didn’t bother him one bit. But he also didn’t have his boys’ hearts. This is what grieved him. It’s all he wanted. Emptying himself of all of his material possessions wasn’t enough to win their affection, to woo them into relationship. I don’t think he was trying to earn their love at all–he was showing them that there was nothing he would withhold from them. He was willing to give them everything because of his great love for them. They didn’t reciprocate his love…

He gave them his material wealth, which included laying down a measure of his power and authority, though he still ran his estate. What did he have left to give?

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He would have lost some respect within his community when he chose to give his possessions to his sons while he was still living. But this, to lift his cloak and run to his son–to move toward him and go to where he was–and then to embrace and kiss this boy who would have been “unclean” according to their laws and customs? This was a disgrace to the man’s dignity. This boy had slept with prostitutes, he had lived among and fed dirty pigs. What was the father doing?

He was, once again, modeling self-emptying love to his son. He couldn’t wait for his boy to get to him. He wasn’t hard at work, anger etched into his face, rehearsing the admonishment he would give him if he ever saw his face again. He didn’t “stand his ground.” No. He was watching for him, waiting with hope that, against all odds, his son would come home. Home… This young man had no expectation that the home he had known as a child would still be there waiting for him. In fact, he had a speech prepared to give his father, to ask him for a place as a servant on the property. But as he’s in the middle of his groveling, his father interrupts him. I love the way the Message phrases verse 22: “But the father wasn’t listening.” Instead, he called to the servants to bring a robe and the family ring, to kill the fattened calf and prepare a celebration feast in his son’s honor. No mention of the many offenses the son had committed. The boy had already endured the consequences of his choices–his father had no intention of further punishing his son. In fact, he doesn’t even make mention of any of it. He chooses instead to remind his son with his actions that he has a home. A secure home, a forever home. He acknowledges his presence and his place in the family, and doesn’t admonish him even once for all he had done. He emptied himself of the right to be right, displaying self-emptying love once again. 

What about our other main character, the older son?

The father went to him, too. While big brother hung around and displayed the “right” behavior, the father knew he didn’t have his heart, either. He gave to this son in the same ways he did to the younger, always sacrificing himself to love them both. When big brother refuses to come in and celebrate his little brother’s return, his father once again breaks custom to leave the party he is hosting so he can go to where his son is. And again, what we see is not admonishment. He says to him only,

‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’

He could have said so many things… Change your attitude. Get inside. What is wrong with you? Don’t you love your brother? Why do I still have to chase you down like a toddler and listen to your tantrums? You’re keeping me from our guests, I don’t have time for your whining! I’ve given you everything, and still it’s not enough for you! You’re selfish… Arrogant… Immature…

I’m sure there’s so much more he could have said. But he says none of these things.

When I picture this scene in my mind, I imagine the father speaking softly, tears glistening in his kind eyes, the tenderness in his voice imploring his son to turn around and look at him so he could see all the love he has for him. I imagine the son with his back to his father, arms crossed, years of entitlement, anger, and pride held in his stone-cold gaze over the property that all belongs to him. I imagine the father reaching his weathered hand out toward his son’s shoulder, but pulling it back, knowing that this boy’s heart was still not inclined to receive his love, but hoping one day that would change. I can see the hope flash bright in his glistening eyes, because he had never given up hope for his younger son, and today, his hope was rewarded with a homecoming so sweet, he’d remember the moment forever. With that moment fresh in his heart, I see dad straighten, stand a little taller, as he resolves to hold onto hope that this big brother will come home to him one day, too…

We don’t get to know how this particular story ends. What we do know is that the father loved both of his boys with the same, steadfast, self-emptying love. We know that home was wherever the father was, and that home was secure. No matter how long it took, he would be there waiting, hoping, actively moving toward his kids, acknowledging their presence, knowing there were chapters yet to be written in their stories.

We all might need this story for different reasons today. Some of us may need it to show us an example of how to love our children well in the day-to-day. Some of us may need to be reminded of how we can have hope for children who have wandered. Some of us only received admonishment as children, and never felt seen or acknowledged, and we need to find healing. Some of us just need to be reminded that we have a home in God, and he is always pursuing us, regardless of where we’ve wandered. Regardless of where it lands for each of us, I pray that we’ll all see that everyone needs to be loved like this. Everyone is aching for Shalom, for wholeness, for a stable home. Everyone needs to be pursued and sought out. Everyone longs to be acknowledged. We get to do that for our children, for each other, for the world around us. We have the opportunity to love like Jesus by drawing near to others, closing the gap, being present, listening. We get to go to all of them, see them, value them, love them exactly where they are. In the midst of their failures. And in the midst of our own…

–Laura

I want to reiterate what Laura reminded us of above–Pastor John began by simply stating: “Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

Pastor John also said “How we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice our children made.”  I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I have seen adults struggle with their self-worth because their parents tore them down rather than built them up.  Gratefully, that is not my story.  I am the daughter of a dad who loves me like Jesus loves.

I was an at-risk kid, and in a recent blog post we reiterated that children in pain don’t know how to articulate their pain, which was true of me. One September evening when I was 12 or 13, I was having a particularly tough time, and I unleashed my anger on my dad. I said hateful, mean things, and ended my tirade by telling him I no longer wanted to be part of our family; I wanted to live elsewhere and asked him to put me in the foster system.

My dad didn’t say a word while I screamed at him. When I was finished, I went downstairs and sat in front of the TV. My dad came down a few minutes later and asked me to get my sweater. Fear kicked in. I thought he really might be taking me to a foster home, but I wasn’t going to let on that I was afraid. I got my sweater and got in the car. We rode in silence. He took me to the miniature golf course and we played a round of golf. After golf,  he took me to Dairy Queen and let me get a Peanut Buster Parfait (it’s important to note that being one of seven children, we didn’t get treats like Peanut Buster Parfaits. If we went to Dairy Queen, we got a soft serve cone. My treat was extravagant and it was undeserved.)

I didn’t say a word the entire evening. My dad said very few words, and most of them came while we were at Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was having a hard time, that I was hurting deeply, and he told me that he loved me and would always love me. He did not address my behavior at all.

I’d love to say that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him, but I didn’t. I still did not speak, and when we got back to the house I went straight to my room. Yet, the assurance that my dad loved me, even after I had been so horrible to him began to change me. So, when Pastor John says the way we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice the children made–that can be a positive thing too.

For those of you with children who have wandered away like the prodigal son–I was that child. It was another ten years before my dad saw lasting fruit in my life. I’ve apologized to him multiple times for the pain that I caused him during those years, and he assures me that what’s important today is who I am now. My past is never thrown in my face. My dad showed me what grace in action looks like. I often say that grace is the most powerful force on earth. The reason I know is because I have been a recipient of extravagant grace, and over time, I have been transformed by grace. God’s grace offered to me through my dad–and through my Savior.

Just in case I’ve left the impression that I was never disciplined– I was. Discipline in my house involved a one on one conversation with my dad. He sat in one green chair, and whichever child was “in trouble” sat in the other green chair. He was not shy about telling us that we had disappointed him, and would let us know why, but there were no raised voices, no yelling–just conversation.  Sometimes I was grounded, sometimes I lost other privileges, but all discipline in my house was carried out through relationship. I hated that! It killed my heart to know I had disappointed my dad. Why? Because I knew he loved me, and I loved him. Relationship. Love. My dad loves us like Jesus loves.

I tried to love my children and raise them the way my dad raised me. I hope they know, that as imperfect as I am, they have always been loved and nothing could ever change that. My husband and I have decided more than once that we choose relationship over being “right”, and we’ve never once regretted that choice.

Bradley Jersak in his book “A More Christlike God” writes, Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith….He was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy…the repentance that he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. 

So–the answer to how we parent when our children fail? We love them. We pursue them. We draw near to them. We build relationship. We maintain relationship. We hold on to hope. We try to love like Jesus. Jesus came to us–He didn’t tell us to “come here”.  He closed the gap. He died for us while we were still all kinds of messed up. (Romans 5:8) He is our model for what it looks like to love.

Therefore; love your children as if Jesus was loving them through you–because He is.

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day started on Saturday for me this year. I went to the store to buy flowers. Some for my kids, to congratulate them at their upcoming last concert of the year, and some to take to the cemetery. It’s my fifth year of saying “Happy Mother’s Day” while kneeling in green grass beside a small headstone. I was tender, but not overwhelmed.

I realized my kids needed thank you cards for their section leaders, so I made my way through masses of last minute shoppers to the card aisle. I perused the section marked “Thank You”, and was on my way out of the aisle when my eyes landed on a beautiful card. Almost instinctually, I picked it up and began to read it. It was a Mother’s Day card for a daughter from her mother. And the words could have been written by my mama, to me. Each phrase read like words from her heart to mine, and by the end, I could hardly breathe. Tears spilled as I made my way to a check stand, avoiding eye contact with everyone on the way. I held it together long enough to pay and get out of the store, but I unraveled as I got into my car. I drove to the cemetery through tears, keenly aware of how lonely I felt… I stood in the quiet sunshine after I laid the rose on the black granite, whispering through tears to the woman who gave me life, how much I love and miss her.

Two days prior, I had learned that a good portion of my family, the one I was born into, would be together over the weekend, celebrating my nephew’s first birthday as well as my Dad’s. Over Mother’s Day weekend. There was no conspiracy to leave me out–we live far away and logistics prevent us from being together as much as we’d like to be. But, nonetheless, I hadn’t known about this plan. This feels a little too vulnerable (and selfish…and ugly…) to admit here, but one of my initial response (internally) went something like this: “Oh, wonderful. You all enjoy celebrating together–I’ll be here taking flowers to our dead Mom by myself.” The ache of loneliness settled deep into my heart.

Sunday morning brought a flood of conflicting thoughts and emotions. I’ve come to expect that on this particular day. My sweet husband and kids showered me with the gifts of heartfelt words written inside beautiful cards, gorgeous roses, and other thoughtful gifts. The tears started early…

As I got ready for church, my mind drifted to a daddy in Tennessee and his two precious babies–ages 1 & 3–who lost their beloved mama at age 37 just one week ago. I thought of another mom who is in the hospital now, recovering from extensive injuries, and of her children–and how, once she recovers, she will begin a new chapter of her life as a widow. I thought of a mother in the faith, and the firestorm she has been in lately, how she is modeling Christlike love in the midst of hateful attacks and criticism. I thought of those who long to be moms, and aren’t yet. Those who have buried children. Other children, like me, who have buried their mamas. I thought of broken families, of kids who don’t see this day as a celebration because their moms failed them in catastrophic ways. I thought of tense family situations–the ones that look okay from the outside but are wrought with strife behind closed doors and closed hearts. I thought of mothers who are estranged from their children through no fault of their own, and how they ache to hold their babies–even if they’re grown–in their arms once more…

To say that Mother’s Day is a day of mixed emotions is an understatement. 

That is how I walked into church on Sunday–full of mixed emotions. I had some idea of what to expect. I knew Pastor John would be interviewing Carolyn Smolij and Sumer Hansen about their experience as mothers and with their mothers. I had no idea what they would be sharing about, specifically.

If I had known, I may have stayed home–and missed all that my broken heart needed to hear…

A book could be written about the many wise, grace-filled things these two beautiful sisters shared–I definitely don’t have the space to cover all of it here. Instead, I invite you to join me on the journey their words brought me into.

Sumer began by sharing that, “My mom gave me Jesus.” I nodded, as the first teardrop formed. Me too… She shared that It was her grandma that gave Jesus to her mom, and then her mom passed him along to her. We sang a song before the message that contains this line, “The father’s love came pouring down for us…” I thought of those words as Sumer began to share about her mom. I think sometimes we most feel the love of God pour down to us through the vessel of our mothers. Our first experience of God often comes through the selfless, tender nurturing of women who love us well. More on that in a bit…

Sumer went on to say, “My mom is my champion.” Without my permission, my body slumped into the shoulder of my husband next to me as the first tear multiplied. He didn’t have to ask why. He’s heard me use that exact phrase to describe my mom–the only difference is the verb. I’ve said many times over the past almost five years, “My mom was my champion.” My biggest fan. My encourager. My cheerleader. The one who believed in me more than anyone–and told me so, often.

Then she said, “I see Jesus in the way she champions me.” Did I? Did I recognize Jesus in Mom’s big love for me? Did I see that it was his life in her that spoke life into me? I want to say yes… but if I’m honest, I think I have to say that often, I just see her. The beautiful woman with the larger-than-life ability to love. And I miss her voice, her texts, her cards full of encouragement. She believed in me when I couldn’t dream of believing in myself…

Our final song on Sunday was “Breathe”. It was my grandma’s favorite song, the one we played at her funeral, and my mom loved it, too. I couldn’t sing a word of it during the first service. But as the music swelled and the words washed over my hurting heart, the chorus stood out to me…

“And I…I’m desperate for you. And I…I’m lost without you…”

I tried to push away the question knocking at the door of my heart; tried to will myself into a different frame of mind. But it wouldn’t leave. As I listened to those words of longing, who was I longing for? Jesus? That’s who we were singing to, who I’m “supposed” to long for. And part of me could say yes, it’s Jesus I long for–any moment of any given day, this wouldn’t be a lie. I love him, need him, long for him.

But… in this particular moment, that wouldn’t have been the whole truth. Because, while I always want Jesus, the one I longed for as I wept was the woman who first showed me Jesus. I was desperate for my Mom. And in so many ways since her death, I’ve felt lost without her.

I knew what was coming as I settled in to take notes through the second service. And by the time we got to the last song, I was able to sing along a little bit. At the end of the song, the worship team added this tag:

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

I sat down on the pew, and wrote these words in my notebook:

“You’re the only thing we can hang onto that will remain…”

I was reminded of John 20:17, after the resurrection, when Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t cling to me…” He was telling her she couldn’t hold onto the Jesus she had known, for his physical form was about to leave them. But the risen Christ, present all around us, among us, within us? We can hold onto that reality. When we face loss, pain, rejection, heartbreak, loneliness–there is One we can be sure will never leave. One who sees us in the moments that are hidden from even those who are closest to us. One who delights in us and champions us in a million little ways.

I’ve held up the way my Mom loved me as the gold standard of how to love well. But what I’m seeing now, in new ways, is that she was mirroring to me the supreme love of God. She was my first experience of the unconditional love of God. I love that, because it reminds me that God created both male and female in his image. He is both father and mother. Scripture speaks of him in maternal language many times. One of my favorite instances of this is found in Isaiah 66:13,

“As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:13a, AMPC)

Just as our “Good Father” God can fill the gaps left by earthly fathers who may have been absent, abusive, or taken from us too soon, so can he fill our mama gaps. Whether we have never felt the love of a mother, or we’ve been loved by the best of moms; whether we have time left to grow our relationships, or we’ve had to say goodbye too soon–God loves us with a love that is as matriarchal as it is patriarchal. He is big enough to be both. 

This is really good news, friends… It means that, whether we are mothers or fathers or children–wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God, as Sumer shared with us. Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet. As Carolyn bravely shared about, there is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but that as we commit these things to God, “he will bring life to it.” Carolyn also reminded us that we are “a people of hope”, and that God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” She encouraged us to create the space so that healing can take place.

What space might you need to create? This conversation will land differently with each of us, depending on our experiences. For me? After Sunday’s message, I am realizing that I need to create space by letting go… It hurts to write those words. When you’ve experienced loss, the words “letting go” can feel insensitive, harsh, and like an unnecessary blow. I am wrestling with all of that… But I believe that Jesus is trying to impress upon my heart that he has been my champion all along. That the love I felt from my mom was a beautiful expression of his love that poured out through her. I think he wants me to really know that, just as he is “Papa God” in the moments when I need him to be, he is also “Mama God” when my heart aches to be held by the nurturing love of my mom. I’ve believed this about him for a while, but I’m not sure it made it beneath my surface level understanding until now…

I’ve been “clinging” to my mom, and her absence has left me feeling alone, living with the belief that no one could love me like she did. In human terms, that’s probably true. No one will ever take her place in my heart. No human being will love me with that same mama love that formed me into who I am today. But the God that birthed all of creation and continues to bring new life into being every day wants to birth new life in me. My “This I Know” has included that feeling alone is just part of my story now. It doesn’t have to be. I can miss my mom, honor her beautiful life and legacy, and be grateful for everything she taught me. Mother’s Day will never be easy or uncomplicated for me, and it’s okay and good if I cry when grief visits again. But I can choose to focus on the greatest gift that she gave me rather than on the loneliness that has been a constant companion.

Just as Sumer shared about her mom, my mom gave me Jesus. She wasn’t perfect, but she pointed me to the one who is perfect love. And I get to offer my kids that same gift, knowing that the gaps in my love will be filled by a greater Love, and that my weakness is good, because God’s power can shine through. The story isn’t finished yet.

What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?

–Laura

Laura asks What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?  This is a good question to sit with. Pastor John reminded us at the beginning of his message of the song “Jesus loves me, this I know”, and then he asked us what has clouded our “this”.   Maybe, God wants us to know (or to remember) that we are loved and that His love is enough.

Mother’s Day can be so hard. Some of us have lost our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our children, some of us have not been able to be moms for whatever reason, some of us have just become moms and are filled with excitement and insecurity–we carry all of this with us. We carry our incomplete dreams, our grief, our self blame, our comparison, our longing, our love, our happiness, our joy right into church with us on Mother’s day and there we are–a mixed bag of everything coming together in that place. It’s hard on Mother’s Day to keep our eyes on Jesus and not on our own lack. So there we are.

As Laura mentioned, we heard from two beautiful mothers on Sunday morning, and both of them were honest about their own weaknesses and pointed us to God. One comes from a line of Jesus following women, one did not become a Jesus follower until her daughter was two.  Both recognize that we can’t do this perfectly, and that we must trust our Savior with ourselves and with our children.

Carolyn, who admitted that she had no idea how to be a mother and acknowledged that we’re all just thrown into it, knew enough to pray “God, protect her” over her daughter,  because she knew that God is faithful and trustworthy, and that God is in our midst even when it feels to us “like it’s all going off the rails.” She went on to say, “It’s all about trusting God. We don’t have to worry about the final outcome or try to control it.” She reminded us to offer grace to ourselves because we don’t know what we don’t know. She reminded us not to have regrets, because regrets will kill us, but to make space for one another today with lots of grace.  She reminded us to learn to walk in forgiveness because life is all about relationships. She reminded us to own the things that we need to own–and again, to offer grace to ourselves and to others.  And she reminded us that the story is not over, and not to ever give up hope.

Sumer showed us a clip of a video from when she was a beginning violin student and was playing for her mom. The music wasn’t beautiful, Sumer was still just learning, but her mother’s voice of encouragement, of absolute delight, of edification would make one think that Sumer had just played like a virtuoso. Sumer wanted us to remember that this is how God sees us. He delights in us. He encourages us on.  He is not pointing out our flaws or how we don’t measure up. He is loving us into becoming our real selves.

Maybe what God wants us to know, whether or not we fall into the motherhood category, is that in all of our relationships, in all of our life situations, His grace is sufficient, that forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and that He delights in us.

No matter what your  “this”  has become, the absolute truth is that Jesus loves. Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves all of us, this I know–and that’s a great place to start.  The love we receive from others, the love we offer to others is a gift and a reflection of who Jesus is. None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.

–Luanne

Image result for psalm 73:26

Like Never Before: Forgiveness

As we continue our series through the Gospel of Mark and discover how Jesus did things like never before, we get to experience his encounters with real people who were seen and touched and loved by him while he was here in the flesh. These are beautiful encounters that are packed with more nuance than we will ever be able to grasp. Our encounter in Mark 2:1-12 is one of these.

Last week, we looked at Jesus’ compassion in his encounter with the leper. We saw how in that encounter, Jesus actually exchanged places with the leper. The leper went away healed. Jesus, because he had touched the leper, stayed in solitary and lonely places.

This week’s encounter finds Jesus heading back home to Capernaum.  He no longer goes to the synagogue to teach like he had done before. Instead, he goes to a house, and as was the case when he was in solitary and lonely places-the people came to him, so the house was full and the space outside the house was full. As Jesus was sharing his message with those gathered in the house, four friends of a paralyzed man tried to get their friend to Jesus. They realized that they were not going to be able to carry him through the crowd, so they came up with a plan. They climbed the stairs to the roof, dismantled the roof, and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about this moment. One, the faith and determination that the friends demonstrated; Jesus was in town and they were not going to miss this opportunity. Two, they dismantled the roof of the house and made a hole large enough to lower their friend and his mat through the roof. Picture in your mind the crowded house, Jesus teaching, and all of a sudden debris begins to fall on them as the hole in the roof appears. I wonder if Jesus laughed. I imagine that he was delighted with this demonstration of friendship and of faith. I imagine the homeowner wasn’t quite as thrilled.

And then, the like never before happens…

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s look at three biblical mindsets.

Romans 12:2 addresses a fixed mindset–it’s our default mindset. Scripture challenges us  to get rid of that mindset and replace it with a new one. I like the way that J.B. Phillips words it, he says, Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within…, the NIV says Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…the NLT states it this way, Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  

We are getting ready to encounter some fixed mindsets in our story, and fixed mindsets have a tendency to be reactive. We can probably all think of someone, or maybe even ourselves, who have reactive tendencies. Is it because our mindsets are fixed?

The second mindset is one that “leans toward” that bends toward a certain direction. Philippians 2:5 demonstrates this one when it says,  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (NIV). Pastor John put it this way, he said let the leanings of your mind lean in the same direction as the mind of Jesus. As long as we know Jesus well enough to see how he treated people, we can know that his mind is not self-serving, that it always leans in the direction of love.

The third mindset is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 14:20 which states do not be children in your thinking… in your thinking be mature. (ESV)  In this verse, the word for thinking comes from the word “diaphragm” which is the membrane in the body that helps us breathe. Breathing is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal. Thinking is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal, yet our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.

Back to Mark 2.  The friends of the paralyzed man lower him down and he lands in front of Jesus. It would have been impossible for the people in the house to ignore this moment. Do you wonder how they were responding? Were they talking about it, or has this moment rendered them silent? Were they laughing or were they mad? We know that there are “teachers of the law” in close proximity. (How did they get the front seats in this crowded house?)

Before the paralyzed man has said a word, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Hmmm. What must the paralytic have been thinking in that moment? Is that why his friends went to such great lengths to get him to Jesus?  What is going on here?

Jesus knows our greatest need, and Jesus often times acts in unpredictable ways. In just a moment we are going to get to the part of the story where we know that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law. Did he know the thoughts of the paralytic man? Was the man thinking to himself, “I’m not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus?” “I’m not worthy to be the center of attention?”  “I shouldn’t be here?”  We don’t know. But what if that was the case, and Jesus was addressing that mindset by letting the man know that nothing in his life was being held against him, that he could let go of guilt and shame, and that Jesus deemed him forgiven and worthy to be exactly where he was in that moment. If, as was the religious custom of the day, the man was being blamed for being a paralytic because of his sins, Jesus was taking care of that mindset as well.

However, the fixed mindset of the teachers of the law couldn’t see the beauty of the moment. Some of them were thinking to themselves  “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

So Jesus in his brilliance, but I also think in his love for the teachers of the law, addresses them in their own language.

They thought, “Why does this fellow talk like that?”  Jesus responds “Why are you thinking like that?”  Question for question.

They thought “He’s blaspheming!” (For a charge of blasphemy to be brought against someone, the blasphemous words had to be spoken.) Jesus responded, Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?

They thought, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus responded, 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.”

There is so much packed in these verses. When Jesus spoke forgiveness to the paralytic man, he was breathing out what is natural for him. His nature is love, His nature is forgiveness. His ministry is reconciliation. The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him–because Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins. All of them. And He has offered this gift to all of us. No one is excluded. And then he demonstrated his authority over the things of earth by physically healing the man. The man became the living parable that the authority of Jesus to forgive us changes our lives.

Jesus has the unique ability to be fully present with the people he encounters. He was fully present with the paralytic man–but he was also fully present with the teachers of the law. He was for all of them. He met the paralytic man where he was. He also met the teachers of the law where they were. He used questions, reasoning, and logic–their language– to address their thoughts.

Before the man was lowered, Jesus had been sharing his message with those gathered in the house. Earlier in the book of Mark, we learn that the message of Jesus was “Repent”–which literally means ” change your mind…get a new mind”, “because the kingdom of heaven is here.”  So to the group in the house, including the religious authorities of the day–the men who interpreted the religious law for the common people–Jesus is saying there is a new way to think about God. He is full of love, He is ready to forgive, He is here, and He is changing things.

The new covenant that Jesus introduced fulfilled all the requirements of the law in Him. Jesus forgave the paralytic man before he ever went to the cross–he has the authority to forgive- period–and he does not withhold his forgiveness from anyone. He demonstrated his authority to the teachers of the law, to the crowd in the house, to the friends of the paralytic man who were watching from the roof, to the man who was forgiven and healed, and to you. You can know, beyond a shadow of any doubt,  that God is for you. You can be free from legalism and rules. You can be free from the fixed mindset of this world, including the fixed mindset of religious systems. Every single moment in your life that has not measured up to the perfection of God is forgiven, so that, you can have an organic, real, personal relationship with a God who loves you more than you will ever comprehend. You don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Will you allow your mind to think the way Jesus thinks? Will you allow the Spirit to so totally change your mind, mold your mind, transform your mind,  that Christ’s way of thinking becomes as natural to you as breathing? Will you embrace God’s for-give-ness that He demonstrated in His give-for you?  And will you join him in giving for others?

The beautiful result of the rest of our encounter with the paralytic man was, He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this before!”

May we be such pure reflections of the heart, the mind, the sensitivity, feelings, intellect and actions of Jesus that the world sees the beauty of God through us and draws close to Him in praise, because they’ve never encountered anything like Him before…

–Luanne

Last week when we looked at the story of Jesus healing the leper, we remarked that as Jesus touched him, the kingdom came and invaded the life of the leper. In that story, it was a touch from Jesus that caused a collision of the heavens and earth. This week, it was Jesus’ words that carried the weight of the kingdom. His words, unprovoked, gushed out into the paralytic’s reality–and changed his life forever. Luanne wrote:

“The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him…”

Pastor John told us on Sunday that Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyzed man says nothing about the heart of the man (we have no idea where his heart was) but that it says everything about the heart of Jesus. Luanne wrote about the heart of Jesus being for everyone who was present. His awareness and his focus were on the paralytic AND on everyone else in the room… the owners of the home, the friends on the roof, the teachers of the law in the front row, the others among them who needed healing. He was aware of all of them, and He chose his words accordingly.

I wonder what he was teaching about, what stories he might have been telling, before the roof began to open above them… Surely Jesus knew the thoughts of those around him before the paralytic entered the room. Perhaps his words to the man carried even more impact than we can know based on the record of the story that we have in our Bibles. We know that his thoughts are higher than ours, as are His ways, which, like Luanne said above, are often unpredictable. Regardless of what he’d been talking about, he chose to respond to this interruption by breathing out forgiveness. Forgiveness that was not asked for, earned, merited in any way, or sacrificed for… He washed away this man’s shortcomings not with blood, but with his breath. The same mouth that spoke creation spoke forgiveness. And he had (as he has now) full authority to do so. This is a big deal, and worthy of further study, but I’ll leave you to ponder and pursue that further on your own, if you so desire.

This kingdom collision moment stirred up the crowd. Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness set the minds of the teachers of the law (and probably the minds of everyone else, too) ablaze with questions. What we see in this story from these religious men is the picture of where their minds were fixed.

Luanne wrote about the three different definitions of “mind” that Pastor John spoke to us about on Sunday. The first one referenced is the fixed mindset, the one that is our default. This one is a fortified structure–it’s solid and largely unmoving, as the word “fixed” would infer. Both John and Luanne explained that this is the mindset that needs to be changed, renewed, transformed.

As I thought about this fixed, rigid, frame of mind, I found myself thinking about Ezekiel 36:26:

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

When I looked into this verse a little more deeply, I found that the Hebrew word that is translated “heart” in this verse is the word “leb.” This little word is used over 500 times in the Hebrew scriptures. It is translated “heart” in most cases, but it is translated “mind” or “understanding” a combined 22 times. The definition of the word is interesting… It means “inner person: mind, will, heart, understanding, soul, thinking, knowledge, inclination, determination of will”, and is also used widely to mean “the center” of anything. The Greek English Lexicon of the NT based on Semantic Domains states that the “Hebrew term ‘leb’, though literally meaning ‘heart’, refers primarily to the mind.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty captivating… especially if we replace the word heart in Ezekiel 36:26 with our understanding of what the original word referenced, the idea of the mind.

It gets better. The Hebrew word “leb” has a Greek equivalent that we see all over the New Testament. This word is “kardia”. It is one of many words that is translated “heart” in the NT, and it shows up twice in this week’s passage–both in reference to the teachers of the law:

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts (kardia)…    (Mark 2:6)

Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your            hearts (kardia)?” (Mark 2:8)

I am using the NASB because it is a more direct translation, but it is very interesting if you read through different translations of these verses how interchangeably the words “heart” and “thinking” are used.

Though we know Jesus was able to speak Greek (evidenced by His exchanges with the woman with the demon-possessed child in Matthew 14, as well as His conversations with Pontius Pilate), it is generally agreed upon by historians and theologians that he most likely spoke Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew. More than likely, given his audience in this week’s passage, he was speaking Aramaic. So we don’t know exactly what words he used. What we know is that whatever words he used, the Greek word that translators chose in these two passages for “heart” is the one that is the equivalent to the Hebrew “leb”. I apologize if I’m being too much of a word-nerd here, but I find this fascinating…

These teachers of the law were working from a fixed, rigid framework–let’s say, a mindset that was set in stone. We know that it is this frame of mind that needs to be changed to become like the mind of Jesus. And when Jesus addresses these men, he uses a word that they would have recognized as interchangeable with the word from the scripture in Ezekiel. Could it be that he was offering to remove their hearts/minds/centers of being that were set in stone and replace them with hearts/minds/centers of being that were instead made of flesh? Able to bend, move, lean toward him rather than away? Is this part of how Jesus was loving these teachers of the law in his midst whilst loving the paralytic into the freedom of forgiveness? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that, like Luanne expressed above, Jesus is always FOR everyone. All of us. Period. So I don’t find it a stretch to imagine that in this moment, Jesus himself was offering to replace their fixed mindsets, inviting them to adopt his way of thinking in place of  their own rigid ones.

This is such an important thing for all of us to understand, to grasp, to see in ourselves. Luanne wrote, “…our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.” If we are to be vessels that carry the kingdom of Jesus to the world around us, we have to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him constantly, being made more like him every step of the way. This is what the renewing of our minds, and being transformed is all about. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, says it this way:

“And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means, we recall, how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did… I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.” 

I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I… 

Since I read that passage a couple of weeks ago, that one line won’t leave my consciousness. How would Jesus live my life–in every moment–if he were me? It changes my responses. It refocuses my mind and priorities. It helps me let go and forgive when I don’t want to. It makes me take notice of others who do this well, those around me that I can learn from.

And it reminds me to simply pay attention. How did Jesus live? What did he do and say? How did he love? In this week’s story, we read of how forgiveness is as natural as breathing to Jesus. And we know that we are to be transformed more and more into his likeness. But forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily to us… How are we to get there?

We have to breathe in what Jesus breathes out so that it can then live within us and grow within our hearts and minds. It’s like CPR for our souls. When we inhale the life-giving love and forgiveness of Jesus, we inhale the kingdom. As the kingdom lives and breathes within us, we become more like Jesus, so that we can grow into people to whom forgiveness is as natural as breathing. And then we can exhale this life, love, forgiveness–the ways of the kingdom–to those around us.

As we move forward, I pray that we learn to ask ourselves how Jesus would live our lives if he were us. And I hope that we’ll learn to let our minds lean toward him, to bend toward his way of thinking. Let’s ask him to replace our hearts/minds/centers of being that are fixed and stony with hearts and minds of flesh that are able to love and forgive the way he does. Let’s ask him. His response to us is as natural as breathing for him. We can trust him to exhale love and forgiveness–the kingdom life–into our lives just like he did for those he encountered in our story this week. And as we breathe him in, we’ll grow into people who can love and forgive like never before.

–Laura

23D2936D-C066-4607-A84F-6985F15F4849

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

 

Image result for gift at the cross