The Sign of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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Over All…Death & Disease

161CDF9B-4494-44C9-8C1A-1351FB2E872BMark 5:21-43: the story of “a dead girl and a sick woman.” Most bible translations I’ve seen title it something like that. I wish that wasn’t the headline… The story, really, isn’t about the illness or the dying–it’s about a Jesus who sees, names, flips the script on the cultural norms of his day, and restores Shalom–brings wholeness and sets all things right–in every life he touches. But I don’t know how we’d make a neat, succinct title out of all that…

This story has been one of my favorites for a couple of years now. Ever since I heard a brilliant social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland tell it in a way I had never heard it before. There is so much tucked away inside this passage, so much that is easy to miss if we just read the words off the page. As I thought about how to present these things, I felt like the best way to do that is to simply tell the story in expanded form. So, what follows will be a mixture of the story straight out off the pages of scripture, the original Greek words and definitions used, the cultural nuance I have learned from Christena and others, points from Sunday’s sermon, and some of my own thoughts, too. I want you to find yourself in the midst of these people, breathing the same air, watching this beautiful story unfold. So, if you’ll allow me the creative liberty, I am going to write this in story form, without explaining or notating. The expanded definitions of words come from Strong’s Greek Lexicon. Everything else is how I’ve come to understand this passage–with the help of many others–at this point in my life. Without further ado…

News of what had just happened to Legion was spreading like wildfire throughout the region. People have been camped out near the water for days, waiting for Jesus to return. They have all heard the story, and they all have questions. Many have needs, and they are holding on to their last shred of hope… maybe he holds the keys to their miracles, too?

There he is. Jesus and his disciples just got out of the boat. The crowd is growing and pressing in. Everyone is eager to talk to him… So many voices. Suddenly, a surprised hush falls over the group. Someone just fell at Jesus’s feet. It’s Jairus, the synagogue leader! What is he doing? The crowd is appalled at what’s happening. Jairus, along with the other leaders, has been refuting every claim made about Jesus. They’ve been cautioning everyone to stay away from this “teacher”. He’s dangerous… he’s broken with tradition… his claims are heretical… They’ve told the community these things and more. So what is this highly esteemed leader up to? His very name means “whom God enlightens”–doesn’t he know he shouldn’t be doing this?

“My little girl, my daughter–she is dying! Nothing has helped… We’ve tried everything!” His voice is desperate, he’s pleading at the feet of Jesus.

“Please come! Come, touch her, lay your hands on my little girl, so she can be saved and healed–made whole again, brought back to life! Please come with me!”

He’s not the only leader in the crowd… He has to know the others just heard what he said, too. This won’t go well for him in the synagogue… It’s a bit of a surprise that none of them are saying anything to him yet. Maybe they’re waiting to see what happens–or maybe they’re simply too shocked to speak up.

Or… perhaps it’s the look on Jesus’s face that’s stopping them from questioning Jairus just yet… The compassion in his eyes–it’s unnerving. Who is really that kind? Surely he won’t go with him right now. He just returned from crossing through the waves again. He has to be hungry. Probably exhausted. Who could expect him to go anywhere right now? But there’s not even a hint of frustration on his face. 

Only compassion…

Jesus hasn’t said a thing yet. He simply helped Jairus to his feet and now they’re headed off. His followers that were in the boat with him, along with a huge part of the crowd, are following them. 

Jesus stops walking abruptly. “Who just touched me?”

What is he talking about? There’s a massive crowd around him–people are bumping into each other constantly. Everyone is touching everyone else…

“There are people all around you, friend.” It’s one of his disciples talking, giving voice to what everyone is thinking. “Why are you asking who touched you?” 

Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He’s quiet. He is looking all around, intently. But he’s doing more than looking– he’s looking to see, and not just with his eyes… He’s searching with his mind, too. He’s looking with a desire to know, to become acquainted with this person he’s searching for. He’s looking to know them experientially. He wants to care for and pay heed to whoever he’s looking for… That’s the kind of looking he’s doing.

Someone is moving toward him… 

Why is she here? 

The woman moving toward him shouldn’t be here. She knows that. She’s unclean, and according to the synagogue leaders, she has to keep her distance. It’s been twelve years since she’s moved freely among a crowd like this, twelve years since she’s been well. What is she thinking? Surely Jairus will tell her she needs to leave, that her being here puts everyone at risk of being made unclean, too. 

She looks so afraid. She’s trembling. Now she’s huddled at Jesus’s feet, and she’s talking. She’s telling him her story, starting from the beginning…

Jairus looks both annoyed and afraid… He knows his precious daughter may not have much time left. He’s not saying anything–yet. But the look on his face suggests that he might not stay quiet for long. There’s no time for delays or interruptions, especially not when it comes to this woman. She knows she’s not supposed to be here.

The look on Jesus’s face, though… Again, that compassion. What is it with this man?? He doesn’t look even the slightest bit concerned about the interruption. In fact, his eyes are glistening as he listens patiently. He’s leaning in now, getting a little closer so that he can really hear her… 

“Teacher, it’s been twelve years… I’ve lost everything, everyone,” she chokes out, between sobs. “I’ve seen all of the doctors. I’ve asked the synagogue leaders what to do. I’ve been prayed for. Nothing has made any difference at all. Nothing! I couldn’t live like that anymore… I heard about the man they lowered through the roof–how you healed him. I’ve heard other stories, too. But when I heard about the man in the tombs, I knew I had to try to get to you. I-I thought…” she pauses, looking around at all the eyes staring back at her, knowing that her admission could make her situation even worse. Her gaze lingers on Jairus–she can see the impatience on his face, his crossed arms. But he’s not saying anything. Jesus looks straight into her eyes, imploring her to continue. She takes a deep breath and continues, “I thought if I could touch you,” the gasp in the crowd is audible, “even if I just touched your clothes, I could be healed. And… as soon as I touched the hem of your cloak, I felt something change in my body. I don’t know how to explain it–but something moved from you to me and it changed everything…”

She takes a deep breath, pausing, fearing the consequences of her actions…

The enormous crowd had just heard this woman share her whole truth. Jesus was listening, so they did, too. They had never heard her whole story before. Even Jairus, the one “whom God enlightens”, appeared to be listening, surprised by parts of the story she highlighted–things he and the other leaders didn’t know. 

Jesus is smiling now. “Daughter,” he finally says.

Daughter? Jesus often uses the more generic word for “child” when he talks to people. It can mean son or daughter, and it’s the one he chose to use just a little while back when he spoke to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. This word, though, it’s the same one Jairus just used to talk about his daughter. Jesus is speaking to this unclean outcast using the same language this waiting father just used. Her face registers the shock of the moment–She had just endured more than a decade of obscurity, lived a nameless life defined by her disease. And now this teacher, this miracle-worker, was calling her “Daughter?” Who is this man who, with a word, could make her feel immediately loved and safe? Who is this one whose very presence is the embodiment of healing and power and light? 

Jesus continues, “Daughter, you are saved. You are healed and made whole.” Again, Jesus borrows the same word Jairus used when he asked Jesus to “save” his daughter… “Everything has been made right. Shalom has been restored to you–you are free.” Everything about her looks different now. Her face looks peaceful, there’s light in her eyes. The fear is gone. She stands up and is on her way.

While Jesus was talking with her, some people from Jairus’s house pulled the leader aside. “She’s gone. She died. Come home, let the teacher be,” they said.

If only they hadn’t been interrupted–maybe she wouldn’t have died before Jesus could have done something. The woman was healed as soon as she touched him. If only he would have kept walking rather than stopping to engage with her. Why did he have to let her tell her whole story? Now a twelve year old girl was dead…

Jesus must have overheard the people who came to talk to Jairus. He turns in his direction and looks straight at him, paying no attention to the presence of the others in this moment. He walks over, cups the face of the man in front of him, this father’s face that is contorted with pain, and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” Something in his eyes, in his voice, in his touch, maybe–something changed the look on the father’s face. 

Jesus pulls aside three of his friends, and they, along with him and Jairus start off again toward the home of the synagogue leader… No one else is allowed to follow any longer. The crowd disperses, pondering all that they had just seen and heard…

–Laura

Jairus was conflicted. He got to Jesus before this woman did–he was first! He had risked his reputation and fallen on his knees before this man. He knew his daughter was close to death–seeking out Jesus was his last-ditch effort to save her. Other means of medicine had not worked for his family either. It seemed for a moment as if there was a glimmer of hope when Jesus began to accompany Jairus–but then…the audacity! Jairus didn’t know whether to be angry with Jesus, the woman, or both. Who were they to make him wait?

Jairus was the synagogue leader–a man of importance. This woman was the type of person he deemed unclean and an outcast all the time according to the Torah–their holy scriptures. Surely Jesus would not tarry. Surely Jesus would hurry to heal the beloved daughter of the synagogue ruler. Surely when Jesus identified the woman who brazenly touched him, he was going to scold her for breaking the law and then hurry on. But no…Jesus gave her precious time. Jesus gave her his full attention as if Jairus wasn’t even a consideration. Jesus listened to her and let her go on and on about her story; he never cut her off, never told her he was on a different mission when she interrupted him, he acted as if she mattered–did she?

Did this audacious, unclean woman matter more than his daughter? It would appear so and it didn’t make sense!  And then the news came that his daughter had indeed died. What was he supposed to do now that his little girl was dead? His friends were telling him to leave Jesus alone, Jesus was telling him not to fear but to believe. 

Jairus recalled all the things he had heard about Jesus up to this point–the things that caused the religious leaders, including himself,  to squirm because they couldn’t explain or control them. Jesus didn’t bow to their authority.–that was one of the reasons Jairus sought him out–Jesus seemed to be able to think and act outside of their box. Is it possible that there could still be hope? 

Before they even arrived at the house it became clear that his daughter truly was dead–the ruckus of the mourners confirmed it. Now what? There had already been some talk among Jewish religious leaders that Jesus just might be out of his mind, and his next comment certainly seemed to confirm that. He said: “the child is not dead but asleep.”  Everyone knows the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Jairus’ friends laughed at Jesus–Jairus wondered if they were laughing at him too–their synagogue ruler who was desperate enough to consult the rebel who was flipping everything his people believed about God and the Torah on its head. 

But then Jesus sent all of them out. Some of the mourners protested, some of them were slow to leave, but after a few more precious moments ticked off the clock everyone was gone except for Jairus, his wife, Jesus’ three friends, and Jesus. They entered the room where this beloved child lay–Jesus, continuing his law-breaking rebellious ways touched her dead body taking her corpse by the hand. Jairus, again conflicted, wondered if law-breaking in this instance was okay? He desperately wanted it to be.

Jesus spoke to the dead daughter saying, “Talitha koum”–a term of endearment, a phrase meaning little girl or little lamb–get up. Jairus couldn’t help but think about the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Is. 40:11) . His daughter rose,  got out of bed, walked around, and Jesus asked them to get her something to eat. Jairus doesn’t understand what has just happened, he certainly can’t explain it, but all of a sudden he knows that he wants to be a lamb of Jesus too. 

Jairus begins to understand, though not yet clearly,  that everything he’s built his life on is being challenged. He’s beginning to see that all daughters are precious to Jesus, none is unclean, not the dead one, not the one who was bleeding. He remembers how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, how he healed someone on the Sabbath. Could it be that no one is untouchable? Could it be that no one is unimportant or less-than in God’s kingdom? Could it be that their entire understanding of God is skewed–the understanding that leads to people becoming outcasts and being mistreated, the understanding that the people of Israel are superior to other people groups because they are the chosen people of God? He remembers that God told Abraham that through his offspring all people of the earth would be blessed. (Gn. 22:18) What does it all mean?  His twelve-year-old daughter is alive. The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years is healed.  Jairus begins to question his interpretation of the law. What will he do from this point forward, how will he teach, how will he rule, how will he handle the previously “unclean” after what he’s experienced on this day? 

What will we do when Jesus reinterprets our traditions, our understanding? What will we do when he tarries with the oppressed, when he gives us an opportunity to join our stories with the stories of those we’ve previously dismissed or haven’t made time for? In order to receive healing from  Jesus, the woman had to summon up incredible courage and put herself at great risk, Jairus had to humble himself and put himself at great risk. Neither one cared what anyone else thought–they just knew that they needed an encounter with Jesus, and I imagine, once they experienced the authority of Jesus displayed through his healing power, his resurrection power, his compassion, his kindness, his love–the walls fell down and they wanted everyone else to experience Jesus too.

Do we?

–Luanne

 

 

Over All: Over Evil

…”deliver us from evil…”  (Mt 6:13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

Jesus also wasn’t afraid.

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

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

Fear is insidious. 

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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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

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Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

Disconnect, Discover & Dance

 In [this] freedom Christ has made us free [and completely liberated us]; stand fast then, and do not be hampered and held ensnared and submit again to a yoke of slavery [which you have once put off]. (Galatians 5:1 AMP)

Pastor John didn’t reference this verse in his message on Sunday, but I think it is so important that we establish from the start the extravagant gift we receive when we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord. He makes us free, completely liberated in Him. That’s our starting point when we enter into a relationship with Him–not as slaves, but as free people who have chosen to lay down our lives in surrender to the only One worthy of our submission. Maintaining the freedom we are given is easier said than done, but God has provided a way-if we choose to take that way…

This was Pastor John’s first Sunday back after his sabbatical, and it was his sabbatical experience that he vulnerably shared about in this week’s message. (Sidenote: I recommend watching the Facebook live recordings of every sermon we write about, but I highly encourage you to do that this week. The link to the church page is provided below…) John began this week’s service by explaining what a sabbatical is and why He took one. He explained that the word “sabbatical” comes from the concept of Sabbath.

Priscilla Shirer writes in her bible study Breathe:

“Shabbat–the Hebrew word for Sabbath–means ‘to come to an end, to cease, to stop, to pause’. Notice they are all active commands that a person needs to take responsibility for. Something they have to do. To experience Sabbath margin, you must make a decision to stop something, to push away from something, to rest from something.” 

This is what Pastor John was doing while he was away. He was taking intentional time away from all of his responsibilities. He was choosing to make space to observe one of the greatest gifts God created for His children-the gift of Sabbath rest. This gift is also a command–in the New Testament (Hebrews 4:9-11), as well as in the Old. The command, however, is one that is given for our good-because God knows how much we need it. We need it to remember-and connect with-God… as well as to connect with our own souls. That is something many of us don’t like to do-and we’ll come back to that here in a minute. But Sabbath is what reorients our hearts toward the supremacy and sovereignty of God. It serves as a reminder of Who is really in control, Who ought to be on the throne of our hearts. God gave us dominion over every created thing, with the exception of one another and ourselves… Sabbath reminds us that there is One outside of the realm of what we can control. But we so often forget that. Without intentional space, without margin, we become slaves again-we choose slavery instead of embracing the gift of our freedom. That slavery takes different forms for each of us. It could be self-imposed slavery to another person, or maybe it’s slavery to our schedules-the busyness of life. Perhaps we are enslaved to other people’s expectations or to a career or even a ministry that has taken up residence on the throne of our hearts. Whatever it is for each one of us, our slavery is always a result of denying ourselves the rest our souls require, while believing that doing more is the only way to restore the freedom we’ve somehow lost.

In his book Margin, Richard Swenson writes, “Chronic overloading is not a spiritual prerequisite for authentic Christianity. Quite the contrary, overloading is often what we do when we forget who God is.” 

And in the same study I referenced above, Priscilla Shirer writes, “God gave us the Sabbath to refocus our attention–to cause us to bring to the center stage of our minds and hearts the Person who we have placed at the periphery far too long. Margin keeps us from marginalizing God.”

And, I would offer, margin keeps us from the unhealthy practice of marginalizing ourselves, too…

Pastor John told us that his sabbatical, his Sabbath time, included these three phases:

  1. Disconnecting
  2. Discovery
  3. Dancing

The first phase is what made the other two possible, but it was the hardest part for him, as it probably is for many of us. He described disconnecting as getting alone with himself, without a plan. Unplugging. Slowing down. Giving himself room to breathe. This intentional disconnecting takes the form of solitude, not isolation. As I listened to his description of disconnecting, it reminded me of a podcast I listened to recently by Emily Freeman. The title is “Come Home to Yourself“.  In it, she said these words:

“Coming home to yourself is not an easy thing to do… If you arrive at a house and the host stands on the porch shouting criticisms, judgments and sarcasm at you, guess what you won’t want to do? Walk through the door. You will turn your back on that house every time… and vow never to return…. We don’t go home when home is unsafe.”

Emily goes on to say that we have put “No Trespassing” signs on the windows of our own souls. Disconnecting in the way that John described requires us to take down those signs, walk through the door of our souls and get alone with our real selves. If we can bravely walk through doors that we’re afraid to enter, we’ll find what John found: When we get alone with ourselves, we realize we’re never alone. It’s in that quiet space that we rediscover the withness of God. And, as John stated, we don’t know just how disconnected we are… until we make the choice to disconnect.

We cannot experience the discoveries and dances that God has ordained for us if we refuse to disconnect…

I can’t prove this assertion. But my life testifies to its truth. Avoiding the real me, keeping God on the periphery, choosing doing over being… these are soul-stifling practices. Practices that have slapped shackles on my feet and built bars around my potential. Living this way denies our souls the blessing of rest, as we’re choosing enslavement to self-imposed masters over holding fast to the freedom that was won for us.

John shared with us one of his discovery experiences and invited us to participate in a similar exercise. His experience took place in a labyrinth. As he (less than enthusiastically…) began his journey through the maze, he was asked to consider one question: What do you need to let go of, to leave in the center? And once he made it to the center, he was asked one more question: What do you need to carry out of this place, to hang onto? Though he went in with doubts about the exercise itself, John experienced God’s Presence in a powerful, mystical way. I will take the liberty of saying it was maybe even life-changing. I won’t recount his experience here–I’m not sure I could do the beauty of it justice if I tried, but what I will say is this… If John had refused to take the first step of disconnecting, the beauty of this moment would almost certainly have been lost on him. Getting still and quiet, alone with himself and his God first, he found breathing room for his soul. There was space to simply be, and to listen to what God longed to impart to him. I believe that the discoveries God desires we find along our journeys are part of the “…superabundantly, far over and above all that we [dare] ask or think [infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, hopes, or dreams]…”(AMP) that Ephesians 3:20 speaks of. How it must hurt His heart that we miss so many of them because we choose to be burdened again by the yokes of all kinds of slavery…

Just as disconnecting is what ushers in the possibility of discovery, it is walking out in the new discovery that produces dancing. In John’s case, was there literal dancing? Yes, some. And would time enjoying his wife, children and granddaughter cause h is heart to dance if he hadn’t first disconnected and discovered? I believe that yes, it would have. But not to the degree that he was able to dance after engaging in the first two phases… Because he entered this third phase refreshed, and awed by the love and grace he had just experienced in the presence of his Father. He had reentered a freedom that had  previously been elusive and his soul was singing a new song. You can’t tell me for one second that fully engaging in the process didn’t have a radical effect on this last part of his sabbatical journey.

We all want to get there… to the dancing. To the place where our souls sing and our spirits soar with our Father. But in order to get there, we have to be willing to accept our limitations as gifts. To remember the only One who should occupy the throne of our heart, and to allow Him to draw us into the rest only He can provide. We have to do the hard work of getting alone with ourselves and learning to speak to our souls differently. God has made this Sabbath rest available to each of us and He invites us to enter it far more often that we accept the invitation to do so. He knows what we truly need-He’s the One who built us. I’ll leave you with the words Pastor John read over us at the conclusion of his message. I hope it reminds you of the Father’s love for you and that you sense His invitation to enter into His rest.

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you…
…Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

-Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24

–Laura

Pastor John admitted to us that last fall he was not in a good place. We may not have known it on the outside, but inside he was burning out. He was too busy. He pushed and pushed and pushed himself trying to meet what he perceived to be the expectations of others. He admitted that when his sabbatical began, the first couple of weeks were really hard. But, as Laura highlighted above, he made intentional choices to disconnect. He turned off his cell phone. He chose not to read the news or follow any social media.

At first he struggled to be still. He had no sermons to plan, no Bible studies to prepare, no upcoming ministry projects to lead, no one to counsel–quite a departure from his “normal” routine. His normal routine that was leading him to depletion. At first he felt guilty for not doing anything, then he felt guilty for feeling guilty. He admits that he even wanted to plan his stillness. But after his detox from busyness, he was in a place where God could speak to him and he could hear the intimate message of love that God was communicating to him–the message that said, “You are loved simply because I love you.” Being loved was not contingent upon Pastor John (or us) “doing” all the right things. We are loved simply because we are.

Psalm 139 (above), which talks about the intimate ways in which God knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs,  begins by acknowledging that God is familiar with all of our ways. The psalmist is quite open about the fact that he has tried to hide from God, to run from God, yet finally discovered the beautiful truth that God never leaves. At the end of the Psalm he asks God to lead him in God’s ways–the way everlasting.

Our ways lead to darkness, death, isolation, burn out– God’s ways lead to life.

Sabbath—rest—solitude—it’s part of the way of God; the way everlasting.

I heard a sermon once that suggested the 10 Commandments are not a list of rigid do’s and don’ts, but are actually wedding language,–covenant love language. I like that interpretation, and agree with it.  When we pay attention to Jesus’ words telling us that all the law and prophets hang on the greatest commandment of loving God with every part of us and loving neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt. 22), we are able to see that love does indeed have much to do with the 10 commandments.

When God tells us to have no other gods before Him, not to worship anything else, I see that as correlating to loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength. When He tells us not to kill, covet, commit adultery, steal, and the like, I see that correlating with loving neighbor, and when He tells us to keep the Sabbath day holy, I believe that correlates with loving self, after all, the Sabbath was made for us, we were not made for the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).

We were never meant to be the gods of our own destinies. Taking a Sabbath acknowledges that we trust God. Sabbath acknowledges that we have no other gods before God, whether they be the gods of work, of reputation, of focusing on everyone else, of busy-busy-busy or any other thing that we fill our time with. Sabbath rest acknowledges that we are finite, that the revolving of the earth does not depend upon our efforts–and intentional rest restores our soul.

Jesus invites all of us who are weary, who are heavy laden to come to Him, to yoke ourselves to Him because His yoke is easy and His burden is light;  He says when we do this, He will give us rest. (Mt. 11) Peter encourages us to cast all of our cares, anxieties, and worries on Jesus because He cares for us (1st Peter 5:7). David writes that the Lord is his shepherd; therefore, he wants for nothing-the Lord leads him to green pastures, beside still waters, and restores his soul (Ps 23).

Sometimes we are more heavy laden than we know, we carry more anxiety than we care to acknowledge, and our souls need more restoring than we want to admit. We go, go, go–but if we’ll stop long enough to “feel” something real, to lean into the heartbeat of God and rest in Him, we’ll discover the beautiful gift that is there.

Sabbath rest is intentional disconnection from striving in order to connect with God. Sabbath rest leads us away from our fragmented selves. moves us toward wholeness,  and allows us to healthily and meaningfully connect  with each other.

Sabbath is not isolation. It is solitude. There is a tremendous difference between solitude and isolation. The “sol” in solitude comes from the Latin word meaning alone, as in “solo”.   “Isol” in the word isolate.  is more closely related to “isle”, an island–cut off.   Solitude gives us space and time to connect with God and recharges our souls. Isolation does not leave us feeling replenished but leaves us feeling drained, alone, and depressed.

Pastor John also highlighted the point that social media is not real connection, texting does not substitute for meaningful conversation, and the false connecting of those mediums does not leave us fulfilled. I can “scroll” through my social media accounts wasting precious moments of my one precious life, numbing out in a meaningless way that leaves me feeling “bleh” all the while trying to convince myself that I’m connecting and keeping up with people. My own gut instinct tells me that’s not true.  I am making an intentional effort to stop the mindless scrolling. Here’s what’s true- I can scroll and isolate at the same time. It’s not healthy.

And here is the deeper confession–God has me on a journey of discovering some of the “whys” behind my default behavioral “whats”.   Oftentimes when I choose scrolling over spending my time more wisely it’s because I am deflecting the inner work that God is leading me toward. The more I deflect, the more out of touch with my real self I become, the harder it is to hear His voice, and the wider the gap in my authentic relationships with others. Deflection leaves me distracted. Isolation leaves me wanting.

I love that Laura started her portion of the blog with Galatians 5:1. It truly is for freedom that Christ has set us free; however, I am painfully aware that what Richard Rohr writes is also true. He says: “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”   That phrase makes me want to laugh and cry. I know the truth of it personally-and I think we would all rather escape the “miserable” part,  but the freedom that Christ died to give is a gift worth pursuing–and that pursuit looks like resting in God and asking Him the questions that John heard in the labyrinth–What do I need to leave here?  What do I need to take with me from here?

Our  “work” will never stop. There will always be things to do. Always. That’s why choosing Sabbath has to be intentional. To choose Sabbath is to choose the deeper way. To choose Sabbath is to choose the abundant way. To choose Sabbath is to choose the transformational way. To choose Sabbath is to choose God’s way.

Jesus teaches this concept to his disciples in Mark 6:31 which says:  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” The people who were coming and going, who had great need, didn’t stop coming. Instead, Jesus pulled away with the disciples to a “solitary” place. Solitude. Restoration. Rest. 

Is your soul in need of being refreshed? Not very many of us will have the opportunity to disconnect for forty days, but can we set aside weekly time to disconnect for a day, a half day, a couple of hours, or an hour a day?

It may be uncomfortable at first, but we have to believe if God included it in His word, if Hebrews 4 talks about there still being a Sabbath rest for the people of God,  He knows what He’s talking about.  I believe if we’ll trust Him in this and intentionally choose to build this Sabbath rhythm into our routines we’ll discover richer, fuller, more whole and more abundant life.  Disconnecting for Sabbath leads to seasons of discovery and seasons of dancing.

Jesus’ invitation to you is the same as it was for the disciples:

Come with me by yourself to a quiet place and get some rest.  

Will you say yes?

–Luanne

Image result for labyrinth

A Balanced Life: Debt

Sunday, we had our third installment in the series A Balanced Life in which we are tackling difficult financial concepts and learning that how we handle our finances is intricately connected to our spiritual lives. God has much to say about money in His Word. Sunday’s sermon was an “ouch” sermon, as Pastor John talked about debt.

John told us that there are four negatives to debt:

1. Debt curses us. God chose Israel and established them as a people in order to make His name known throughout the world. He wanted them to live in total dependence upon Him, and He let them know what He wanted that dependence to look like. In the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy He says things to this like this: If you fully obey…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth…ALL these blessings will come on you…you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country…The fruit of your womb will be blessed, the crops of your land, the young of your livestock…Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed….the Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to…He will bless you in the land He is giving you…The Lord will establish you as His holy people if you walk in obedience to Him…The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of His bounty…You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.  

Being in a position to be a lender is the position of someone who is blessed. The borrower is in the opposite position. Borrowing indicates that things are going poorly, and borrowing brings more baggage than we want to acknowledge.

2. Debt enslaves us. Proverbs 22:7 states that “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”

That’s pretty clear. For the last three years, I have attended the International Justice System’s (IJM) Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D.C.  IJM works on behalf of the poor who are subjected to violence through human trafficking, land-grabbing, and bonded labor slavery throughout the world. Learning about those issues, hearing the stories of, seeing the scars of and meeting people who used to belong to someone else is sobering—life changing. In the case of bonded labor slavery, a person in need is often “loaned” an amount of money ( i.e. for a daughter’s wedding, or the children’s education, etc.) and the “generous” lender “hires” the person, promising wages to make it possible for the borrower to pay the debt and promising a paying job once the debt is paid. What the borrower doesn’t know is that the  business owner will charge them exorbitant interest on their “loan”, or high prices for the equipment that they will need for their work, or charge them for the food they eat while they work, making it impossible to pay the loan. (The unjust share-cropping system after the abolishment of slavery in the US that went on well into the 20th century followed similar heinous practices.) The borrowers work constantly under threat of violence. They don’t get to go back home. They become slaves. Some of the people we’ve met at IJM are second and third generation slaves. They were born in the brick factory, or whichever business, and have never tasted freedom. This is a very real example of the borrower becoming slave to the lender. And it is the reality of the principle of borrowing for all of us. What we borrow does not belong to us. What we borrow belongs to our lender.  We work to pay it off over time, but as long as we owe, we are indebted to the real owner of the property, and ultimately at their mercy (or lack thereof).

3. Debt controls us. Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Pr. 25:28)

For many of us, the debt that we accrue is not an issue of need or desperate circumstances. For many of us, the reason that we have debt is because we lack self-control. We live in a world of glossy advertisements, shopping at the click of a button, delivery right to our homes, making it easier than ever to give in to the temptation of “I’ve got to have that now.” “That’s just what I need to make my life better.” Out of control spending can become addictive. And again, we place ourselves in vulnerable situations—like that of an unprotected city—when we choose to spend rather than save, when we choose to buy on impulse rather than pray and wait—when we choose discontentment because we don’t have that thing and we convince ourselves that we won’t be content until we do. Our personal greed feeds the greed of the lender—and greed—lack of self control—leads us nowhere good.

4. Debt robs us. The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down. (Pr. 21:20)

Debt robs us of the ability to be generous. In order to be generous we must have enough to give. We must live with margins—not spending all we have, not borrowing what we don’t have—if we want to be able to give money away. Giving away money when we owe money to someone else, means that we give away money that really isn’t ours to give.

Ouch, right?!

As I was praying through all of this, God brought Galatians 5:1 to mind…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort, including monetary debt, becomes a yoke of slavery.  God wants us to depend upon Him, to lean into Him, to let Him be our provider, and to live with wisdom and self-control. He has given us self-control through His Holy Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Gal. 5:22). We don’t do this journey alone. We don’t do it in our own strength. He is with us.

Pastor John didn’t leave us hanging after the four negatives. He also gave us tools on how to get ourselves out of debt.

1. Get a plan. Without a plan, nothing will get better.

2. Get on your knees. Surrender your life, your spending, your debt to God. Ultimately, debt is a spiritual issue. It is the result of trying to meet our own needs, or fulfill our own desires.

3. Get connected. Bring your situation into the light. We don’t like to talk about it. That truth right there is an indication that debt creates shame (not from God), causes us to feel like we must hide, that we’re stupid, or hopeless. None of that is true. Bringing the situation into the light, facing it head on, creating accountability with another person or in a group brings freedom and community as you work together to turn your situation around. Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.

God’s word teaches us that we all fall short of the mark of His holiness. Not being able to attain our own righteousness, we become slaves to sin and owe a debt to God that we will never be able to pay. God sent Jesus to pay our debt. Jesus, the sinless perfect Son of God, took our debt upon Himself and paid it in full. That price has been paid for everyone, but in order to receive the gift of that freedom, we must acknowledge our need. We must surrender our lives to Him. He desires that we become part of a community—that we do life together. And to grow in godliness, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, we must have a plan that includes spending time with Him, and making fellowship with Him priority.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… (2 Peter 1:3)

God desires our freedom in all ways. We have a tendency to want this freedom to come automatically. We pray, “Lord, make me like Christ.”, or “Lord, help me get out of debt.”, and want an immediate transformation. However, both situations take time and require depending upon Him.  He has provided all that we need to live generous lives. He desires that we live for His kingdom and not be slaves to the systems of this world. He has graciously done His part. Will we depend on the divine power of His Spirit, line up our hearts and minds with His desires, choose to live counter-culturally and take the actions necessary to do ours?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

The freedom has been provided. The choice to live in it is ours.

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort…becomes a yoke of slavery.” 

There is one-and only one-yoke that we put on after entering into relationship with Christ-His yoke. The easy yoke and light burden that He offers. (Matthew 11:30) I emphasized the word “offers”, because He never makes us submit to His yoke. He could–He bought us at the highest price. But after He purchased us with His own life,  He did the craziest thing… he set us free. We sing words like “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, but we often live like we owe Him nothing. How quickly we forget what we used to be…

John used the words “curse”, “enslave”, “control”, and “rob” to illustrate the impact debt has on our lives, as Luanne highlighted above. Interestingly, those are the very same words I would use to describe our condition before we encountered Christ. Before our spiritual debt was paid, we were cursed-bound for death and eternal separation from God. We were slaves to sin before our chains were broken. We were completely controlled by our sinful, human nature-invaded and taken over by our flesh. Spiritual debt had robbed us, too-it robbed us of our ability to give love–we can only love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Until we knew Christ, we didn’t know love.

BUT, Jesus… When Jesus comes into our lives, when we acknowledge Him as our Lord, He changes ALL of that. When we come into relationship with Him, we surrender all that we are to all that He is. We give our whole lives back to God–our rightful owner who could have replaced our enslavement to sin with slavery to Him, but instead gives us the freedom to choose. That alone blows my mind and could be a whole other post in itself, so for now, I’ll leave that there. But when we accept the gift of life and salvation that He has provided for us, we are essentially saying, “I am yours. I belong to you. You are my Lord, my Master.” And He gives us a new name. He renames us as he takes the weight of our curse, breaks the chains of our slavery, frees us from bondage to our flesh, and enables us to love and live given. From that point on, we are known by our good name that He’s given-a name that includes words like children, co-heirs, friend, Beloved, bride, and so many more. This new name He gives us cannot be taken away.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Debt targets your good name”. And that sent my mind spinning… We have an enemy who does the same. He targets our good name. He can’t take it away, but he can sure try to cover it with blemishes. If we resist the yoke that Jesus offers, resist fully submitting to Him as our Lord (which means Master), our resistance, our desire for control over our own lives, can open a door for us to be drawn into the form of slavery named Debt. If we allow ourselves to become indebted to anything other than Jesus, we are choosing to walk back into the slavery that He freed us from–not spiritually, but in our physical lives. Our enemy cannot drag us back to our fallen spiritual condition. We are sealed in Christ.  Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22) But, if we allow him to, he can influence our physical lives, marking our outward lives with the same bondage and slavery that defined our spiritual selves prior to encountering Jesus. 

I think that the most sinister piece of being indebted-whether it be spiritual or financial-is that it robs us of our ability to live given. Living given is what most identifies us as followers of Christ. Whether it be love, forgiveness, grace, time or finances, followers of Jesus ought to be the best givers–because we are to model our lives after the Greatest Giver who has withheld from us no good thing-even His very own Son. Living given is an outpouring of all that we are in every area of life, every situation we encounter. In Ann Voskamp’s stunning book, The Broken Way, she writes these words:

Live given… Here is my brokenness… Here is my battered life, here is my bruised control, here are my fractured dreams, here is my open hand, here is all that I have, here is my fragile, surrendered heart, here I am, a living sacrifice. Broken. Given. Living given means breaking down all the thickened walls and barriers around your heart with this hammer of humility and trusting the expansiveness of the broken-wide-open spaces of grace and communion.

Could it be that our debt reveals our fear?

Perhaps our fear of losing control… or our fear of living out the broken vulnerability we are called to in Christ? Is our acquiring-all of our getting, needing, hoarding-simply our attempt to escape living broken and given? In the same book I referenced above, Ann writes this:

When I’m no longer afraid of brokenness, I don’t have to control or possess anything–dreams or plans or people or their perceptions. I can live surrendered. Cruciform. Given. This feels like freedom.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…

Our God desires that we live given lives–grateful for the freedom that was bought for us–that testify to the extravagant, generous nature of our good Father.

So how do we get there? How do we get to the place where our physical lives mirror the freedom and victory we’ve been given spiritually?

Luanne wrote about the tools John presented us with on Sunday, and I’m going to reiterate them here. We have to get a plan and we have to get on our knees. These two go hand in hand in my mind. I think the first place to go with our shortcomings is always to our gracious Father who will lead us through His Spirit. And I know that any plan I make might not line up with His–Many plans are in a man’s mind, But it is the Lord’s purpose for him that will stand (be carried out). Proverbs 19:21 AMP--so I don’t want to make any plan without first getting on my knees before Him. And after that, we get connected. Not superficially, either. Deeply, authentically connected to others. Like Luanne said, “Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.” We have to own what we owe. Even when we are in debt up to our eyeballs and don’t actually own anything we have, we can own our sin and our mistakes. And it’s great to do this with our God, but He doesn’t desire that we stop there. James 5:16 in the Amplified Bible reads like this:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power].

These are the steps to freedom, friends. The steps toward living the abundant, overflowing, generous lives God wants us to live. Can we let go of our sense of control (we’re clearly out of control anyway-our lives and bank accounts are the evidence of this), find the courage to face our fears, and take these steps toward living fully free, given lives? Jesus didn’t only die to give us eternity with Him. He died that we might live in the fullness of His life in the here and now, lives that point to His way, His kingdom.

Jesus paid it all-all to Him I owe.

–Laura

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Stories-Angela

I can’t help but smile hugely when I think back over Angela’s incredible story. As I watched her giggle with what I can only describe as a free and innocent giddyness, I marveled again at the goodness of our God… The way He redeems our stories and leads us into freedom and then shows us how to lead others to freedom through our own stories. Angela said so many profound things, full of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He moved through her today-a broken vessel willing to shine for His Glory.

She wasn’t always a broken vessel, though… She said at one point, “I had my walls and nobody was breaking in.” 

John said later on, “When we try to hide and protect ourselves, we actually build a prison around ourselves.”

When we live with fortified walls that can’t be penetrated, nothing bad gets in–but nothing, good or bad, can get out.

John referred to the story, from Mark 14, of the woman that anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. This alabaster jar of hers, full of perfume, could have been sold for more than a year’s wages. It was quite possibly the most valuable thing she had.

And she chose to break the jar and pour it all on the head of Jesus.

She was criticized by many who were present for her waste of what was so valuable. But she was accepted and affirmed by Jesus in response to her lavish and abundant gift.

Brokenness always leads to abundance… It is only through the breaking that new life is born.

The woman who (unknowingly) anointed Jesus for His burial had no idea that her gift would prepare Him for what He would soon experience. She had no idea that she would be remembered throughout the ages for her extravagant gift of love. She was simply willing to break the outer wall so that what was so valuable could pour out. 

Friends, Angela was the alabaster jar with the hard shell. And her story is the valuable contents it held inside. And the same is true for you and for me… 

Living broken-leading with our brokenness-is not popular. It is often seen as weakness. It is anything but. When Angela’s walls came tumbling down, when her outer shell was broken into pieces, the Glory of God was free to flow into and out of her. He flowed into her and healed her heart. And healing–experiencing healing–unleashes you to really live. Now, Angela can lead with her whole truth. She has been set free. In the breaking, she discovered the reality that her story, it holds so much value. It may be the most valuable thing she has, short of Jesus Himself. John said at one point, “Others need us to acknowledge and own our own stories”. He is absolutely right. It is through shared stories that we can identify with others and find the acceptance and healing we so desperately need…

But we live in a world that throws away broken things-and broken people.

So what do we do? We tend to hide, minimize and suppress our stories. We wear the masks and fortify the walls. And prevent by our fortified walls not only our own healing, but also the healing of others who Jesus wants to reach through our stories.

John shared a passage from Bryan Stevenson’s (AMAZING) book Just Mercy (seriously-go buy it!), and it speaks beautifully about our shared brokenness:

“I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

We have a choice. Angela made hers. She let her walls fall and let the priceless story that was hidden behind them flood out-onto and into the lives around her. She chose freedom from her self-imposed prison, and now she helps open the cells of others and leads them into the life she has found. The life of abundance that only comes on the other side of the breaking.

What will we choose? Will we have the courage to acknowledge our brokenness and move toward freedom together? Or will we hide what is most valuable about ourselves-the story that is unique to each one of us-behind fortified walls?

I pray we have the guts and grit-and grace-to step out and let our jars be broken in the presence of Jesus, so that we can see our brokenness be transformed into abundance and freedom, too.

–Laura

Angela—a name that means “messenger”, “one who has a message”. I love that! I remember when Angela showed up to our women’s class eight years ago, and when she says that she cried through the whole thing, she truly cried through the whole thing—for weeks. She barely spoke at all, and she left quickly when we were through. It’s hard to believe that the woman I just described is now the vibrant, joy-filled, message bearing woman who shared her story with us today. But that’s the beauty of the transforming power of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about Angela’s story. Life had been hard, she was broken. As Laura wrote above, Angela had walls of self-protection that she lived within, yet she knew she was searching for something—searching for value, self-worth, love, acceptance, healthy community, purpose…

She had tried to figure out who she was, but somewhere along the way had lost touch with herself. She had tried becoming who she thought others wanted her to be in order to earn their love, and further lost herself. She had lost her voice, was unable to speak up for herself. She tried to find her sense of worth through someone else, and it all fell flat.

And then, God used a scrapbooking friend to begin having real conversations with Angela. That friend invited her to church. At church Angela was accepted exactly as she was. She didn’t have to explain her tears, she didn’t have to say anything. She was allowed to be exactly where she was, and women began to gently reach out to her. One of the women coaxed Angela into staying for the church service and promised to sit with her. After a little while, a couple of other women became Angela’s safe people in the pew. As the mask began to come off, and the walls began to come down, Angela began to experience love and acceptance. God’s healing work had begun.

Angela decided to move out of her comfort zone a bit and signed up for the church softball team. That ended up being a great choice, since she went on to marry the coach!

The softball team provided new people to get to know. From there she signed up for a small group, she volunteered in the nursery, she helped with Awana’s, signed up for a LIFE group where God set her free from past shame, in her words she broke free. Her past no longer shapes her present, she is living in the now with Jesus. From the LIFE group she went on to lead a LIFE group, and now she leads the women’s ministry in our church.  Amazing!!!

So, what do I love about this? I love that God used scrapbooking and softball in Angela’s story of redemption. It’s a reminder that God can use whatever we love to do as a means to reach people for His kingdom.

I love that I am part of a church body that refuses to “play” church—we want to be real, and Angela experienced love and acceptance when she came in. No one asked her to clean up her act or get it together because we are a body that admits we all have a story, we all have brokenness, and we all need Jesus.  We’ve learned that when we take our masks off it gives others permission to do the same, and in that environment healing is found.

I love that Angela pushed herself beyond her comfort zone, and in pushing past that fear, she found life.

When John asked Angela to share a word with us she said: We all have a story. We may be affected by choices done by others to us or choices we made ourselves—but know that Jesus loves you no matter what. You are worthy of love, of friendship.  Come out of your comfort zone. What He’s done in me is amazing, and he can do it in you too. Let go of your pride and let the walls come down. You have to learn to feel. God has so much in store for us. God has changed me, and He can change you too. You can’t be worried about what people think about you; it’s all about your relationship with God—you have to let it all go.

John reminded us that in the midst of our hiding we create a prison for ourselves—Angela experienced that—but God sees the real us hiding behind those self-made walls. He knows who we are behind the masks. He draws us out, and when we finally take our masks off and become real, we recognize others whose masks are coming off and we run to them full of compassion. It’s one of the most exhilarating parts of being a Christ follower! We truly are the fellowship of the broken, and it’s in brokenness that communion is found.

Here’s what’s true—we know the One who loves, who restores, who heals, who forgives—the world needs to know Him, and in order for Him (Jesus) to be made known we need to be the maskless. And what Jesus can do through the maskless who aren’t afraid to share their stories of brokenness and redemption is beyond our wildest dreams.

Thanks, Angela, for being maskless and showing us the beauty of Christ in you!

—Luanne

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Two Trees

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life...            Deuteronomy 30:19 (NLT)

The Bible describes-in detail-two different trees. Our understanding of both trees and how they play out in our days literally determines the trajectory of our lives. The amount of Scripture there is around this idea is staggering. And yet… I’m betting most of us have never heard it preached about the way we heard it this weekend.

Normally, one or two points from the sermon capture my attention and provide more than enough material to write about. Not this week. The amount of material John covered is vast and I’m not sure how to condense it in a way that does it justice. So, instead, I’m going to tell you a story…

A long time ago, a baby girl was born. She was wanted and loved, but she didn’t always know it. Her family was part of a faith community that saw what they called “the spirit of Jezebel” in her and she began to pay for who she was before she could crawl. Her parents were instructed to beat that spirit out of her when she was three months old. As she grew, she began to learn that she was more lovable and acceptable when she followed the rules and met the expectations of those around her. She knew that she was never quite good enough-daily punishment was inevitable, but the harder she tried, the less severe her punishment would be. This little girl had a strong sense of God from an early age, more out of fear than anything else, but she didn’t doubt His existence. She knew that songs said He loved her, but she also knew that she was damaged and that if she didn’t meet a certain standard, He wouldn’t want her. Because the truth was, He didn’t “want” her anyway-he merely tolerated her. Fear gripped her heart from her earliest memories. She knew about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil-and she was filled with shame over how bad she knew she was.

As she grew older, the bony fingers of perfectionism tightened around her heart. Her family left that faith community when she was eight years old, but the rhetoric that defined her childhood followed her like a stalking shadow. She was well liked by teachers and other adults because she worked so very hard. She was desperate for someone-anyone-to tell her she was enough. But because she’d only ever known of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she knew she would never attain that elusive “enough”. While adults applauded her efforts, her peers attacked her intentions. The word “fake” was attributed to her early on and began to define her young existence. It became like an arrow lodged in her heart, because she didn’t understand. She didn’t know how-or who-else to be. In the midst of her approval-seeking rat race, she sensed Jesus and she wanted to know Him. She began a relationship with Him in elementary school, and she read her Bible and followed rules like never before. In spite of her growing knowledge of Jesus (her knowledge about Him), she grew more and more insecure and her lack of confidence became nothing less than paralyzing fear and desperate loneliness. Even as she excelled in school and in her extra-curricular activities, there was a growing chasm between her heart and God. She was terrified to disappoint Him–she knew Him to be an angry, terrifying Father who could dismiss her like a pesky mosquito.

She had been told that God loved her for as long as she could remember, but she didn’t feel loved. So she began to run toward other loves-anything that might offer a glimmer of hope that she could be desirable and enough for someone... anyone. She wanted to fit in, to be likable, to be anything but who she had come to understand she was. And so, the two-faced part of her story began. She was far too afraid to turn her back on God completely, and she ached at the thought of becoming even more of a disappointment to her parents (she was a disappointment simply because she existed, she had done nothing else to truly disappoint them to this point), so she had to be oh so careful. The “fake” identity that had been spoken over her began to materialize, as she tried to be everything to everyone around her. She was the straight-As in honors classes student who got drunk and slept around on the weekends. She was the attentive, loving daughter who lied to and badmouthed her parents daily. She was the church-going youth with all the right answers and a shattered, divided heart.

The only fruit she had been presented with was that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She consumed it and then it consumed her and became her. The darkness in her mind was suffocating her soul. All the while, she hungered for… something. But she didn’t know what it was that she truly desired, because she didn’t know any other way. She would “repent” and turn back to God over and over and over again–deep down she longed to please Him and experience that love that was reserved for the “good enough”–but she could never sustain her efforts to get back on the right path. Her early adulthood was marked with nights she couldn’t remember and days of striving to prove her own worth. She believed it would never change-she could never change. Her best efforts fell flat and left her reeling in all that she would never be. And it was all. her. fault. She was a dirty, bad little girl from the moment she was born and that was all she would ever be.

As you may have guessed, that baby girl was me. This story is my own. It is painful to go back and retrace the scars of my childhood. But it is necessary to go back in order to understand just how amazing our God is…

If the story ended there, it would be a terrible story. But it doesn’t. Somewhere along the way, I was given a glimpse of the tree of life-a taste of its fruit, though I didn’t yet have the language to define it as such. This angry, ominous, judgmental God I had so feared came after me Himself. Not with wrath and expectations I would have expected-He ran me down with gentle tenderness. He began to speak truth into the broken places and pierce the darkness of my depths with His all-consuming light. I began to hope, and chains I didn’t know I had began to fall away. It started slowly… I resisted. I wrestled with Him and with myself constantly. And as He began to reveal the tree of life-that life that is only found in Jesus Himself-the old familiar fruit from that other tree was more available than ever. I had to choose which fruit to eat, which voice to believe, daily. This part of my story has been the most painful. That’s the plain and simple truth. But becoming always is…

People have rejected me more as I’ve sought healing than they ever did before. I’ve experienced loss on so many levels as God has literally taken apart everything I thought I was, so that He could put me back together into who He designed me to be before the lies pierced my heart.

Until this sermon, I didn’t have the right language to describe my story. But it makes so much sense. I was presented with the tree that most of us are presented with, having no idea that another tree was available. And eating of it did in my life exactly what John said it does:

The knowledge told me I had to fight for my own worth; so comparison, striving, judgement, approval-seeking and law-keeping characterized my early life. I believed the lie that I was unlovable and not enough and was slowly dying inside. What I had consumed, in turn, consumed me. And it separated me from God, from others and from myself. I had no idea who I really was, let alone that I was actually created for a purpose.

But as God has faithfully carried me into a greater knowledge of who He is, bondage has been replaced with freedom, and shame has been replaced by the truth that I stand innocent before Him because of what Jesus has done for me. I believe in my core that God adores me as His beloved daughter, and if I start to doubt that, He is faithful to remind me again of just how far He is willing to go to have a relationship with me. As far as a third tree… the tree of the cross of Christ, where Jesus’ blood poured out and covered all my sin and shame and all that I wasn’t and all I could never be apart from Him. He did that for me. And He did that for you. And now I know which tree I want to eat from-the only tree that brings freedom and hope and healing-the tree of life.

–Laura

Laura’s painful, beautiful story highlights exactly why eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is deadly. God’s very essence is love. (1st John 4:8) He never intended for us to “behave” ourselves into a relationship with Him, or work to earn His approval, or live in constant shame because we just can’t seem to get it right. His desire from the beginning is that we would come to know Him through Jesus Christ; that we would sense His love, fall deeply in love with Him in return, and live out the purpose He designed for us, not by striving, but by being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and walking in complete dependence upon Him. I encourage you, if you missed Sunday’s service, to listen to the sermon @ fbccasper.com or on the church app (As always, you can scroll down and find the link to Sunday’s video below, on the First Baptist Church Facebook page);  and if you want to delve deeper into how to live from the tree of life rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, sign up for a LIFE group.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1

Choose life, choose freedom, choose trust, choose dependence, choose love. God loves you. God desires relationship, closeness with you. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you “get it”. Once you taste the real thing, once you learn to think in a new way, you’ll be forever changed.

–Luanne

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