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

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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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Imagine Living a New Way

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.               -Colossians 1:13-14 NIV

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.                                                                                                                      -2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

In Sunday’s sermon, John challenged us to “imagine if we lived from our hearts what we know in our heads”. He explained that the “old” that has “passed away” is the power of sin and the practices of self. I love the verse that he used to illustrate this point. This is how Romans 6:6 reads in the Message paraphrase:

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call!

We were reminded that God sees us through what Christ did for us on the cross. The blood of Jesus did not merely “cover” sin, like the blood of animal sacrifices in the Old Testament had done. Jesus’ blood shed on the cross completely removed our sin, so that when God looks at us, he sees us as “holy, without blemish and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:22).

John then outlined that the “new” that has come includes these four things:

  1. A new LIFE
  2. A new IMAGE
  3. A new SPIRIT
  4. A SECOND CHANCE    

A myriad of thoughts swirled as I listened to verses and truths that I have known in my head-but perhaps never fully realized in my heart. It would take far too many pages to discuss all of the things that came to mind, but one in particular stands out to me.

When John spoke of the new Spirit we receive in Christ, he read Ezekiel 11:19-20 (ESV):

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

As I listened to the words of this verse, three immediately grabbed my attention:

“that they may”

These words took me to another verse that I love that includes the same three words.

1 Peter 2:9 reads:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

In both verses these words serve as connecting words and it’s easy-at first glance-to miss their significance.

Imagine if “that they may” in the Ezekiel verse was replaced with “so they must”. It would change the tone of the entire verse. The same is true in the 1 Peter verse. It is the three connecting words that show us God’s heart-and his deep love-for us. The fact that God promises to give us His very own Spirit would, on its own, be sufficient to show us His goodness. Then He tells us that He removes our hearts of stone-essentially DEAD hearts, because stone isn’t alive (see Ephesians 2:4-5)-and give us the hearts we are meant to have, living hearts of flesh. Again, what a promise! But what comes next is what shocks my heart to its knees…

that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them”   

What’s the big deal? Why does this have me so hung up on the goodness of our God? Isn’t this another verse about obedience and rules?

Friends, this is GOD. The God who made us, grieved when we turned from Him, sent His very own Son to make a way for us to come back to Him. He is the Almighty, the Holy One. He holds all of time in His hands.

And still, as He did in the very beginning, He lets us choose. He gives us our freedom.

Knowing our propensity to turn to other gods and our inclination to wander, because of His great love for us, God gives us the freedom to choose to live His way, to live into His very best for us…

…or not to.

1 Peter 2:9 details our identity in Jesus. We are told we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” that we may declare His praises. Not that we “should”, “must”, “ought to”. He doesn’t demand it.

We may.

We get to choose. My mind can’t well comprehend a love that big. God is, well, GOD. He could demand our obedience, demand our allegiance, force us to do life His way. But because He desires authentic relationship with us, He instead gives us the ultimate gift of love: freedom.

God has “delivered us out of the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the Son”, but we can choose to live with the burden of our sin on us. Just as “we may” choose God’s way, “we may” also choose to continue trying to live in our own power (which really isn’t power at all), as inhabitants of the Kingdom, but still covered in the darkness we refuse to let go of.

John asked a question, and I will put it before us again here:

“Would you like to live in a whole new way?”

If your answer is yes, as mine is, there is great news for us:

We may.

–Laura                

I love what Laura pointed out…that we may… we have a choice.

John also pointed out “choice”. He reminded us of Romans 6:6 which states, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”  John highlighted that a slave has no choice.

Before we come into relationship with Christ, we are mastered by sin. After we come into a relationship with Christ, God allows us to choose whether to live in His freedom, or remain stuck with one foot in the dominion of darkness and one foot in His kingdom. Galatians 5:1 tells us that “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.”  Like Laura said,  the freedom is there, but it will not be forced upon us. God does not want to coerce us into a false love; He desires authentic relationship with us in which we choose Him because we love Him.

So, how does the freedom thing work? It’s certainly not in striving to be good. That’s just another heavy weight. Just as I can’t deal with sin on my own, I also can’t live a life worthy of Christ on my own.  In order for me to live in freedom, I have to submit myself to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, AND believe that what God says about me in His word is true.

As John was speaking, many of the scriptures he was sharing were swirling and  intertwining in my mind, forming a picture that I hope I can put into words.

Colossians 3:9-10 “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”

Ephesians 3: 17b-19 “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith  in the Son  of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Colossians 1:22 “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” 

Going backward through the verses I just typed out…The name Satan means “prosecutor”.  He is constantly throwing accusations at us. We can choose to believe him, whose other name is the father of lies (John 8:44), or choose to believe our Defender, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6)

God, our Defender sees us as holy and without blemish because Christ lives in us.  My role, your role, in all of this is to have faith to believe it’s true. To live by faith. Not faith in myself or my behaviors, but faith in the completed work of Christ on the cross. My sins, your sins paid for–once for all. His holiness, His perfection given to me, to you. He “loved me and gave himself for me” and the key to this freedom life is “to know this love that surpasses knowledge”,  to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep” is that love and to live “rooted and established”  in that love. If I am rooted and established in that love, I am putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge” (knowledge of His love)  Do you see that verb tense? Being renewed. It is an ongoing action. And what is the ongoing, renewing knowledge doing? It is causing me to become more like Him.

He has done the hard part. My part is to draw close to Him, to know His love, to love Him in return, to allow His Spirit to work in my life, to let Him challenge and change me, and to follow Him wherever He leads.

I used to try to “behave” myself into being godly. It was exhausting and ineffective. We cannot “try” ourselves into change. Only God can change us, and He does it through our relationship with Him as we draw near, as we listen to His voice and respond in obedience to the prompting of His Spirit. I don’t know how He does it, but I do know that I am not who I used to be, and I know many others who would say the same. As we abide in Him, our lives become different (John 15:4-5), and it is beautiful.

How about you? Have you tasted His freedom? Have you experienced His transforming power working in your life? Are you being renewed in the knowledge of His love? Can you look back and see that you are not who you used to be?

We have been rescued–moved from one place to another, one reality to another, death to life. We have been made new. Are we living like it’s true?

–Luanne

 

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Imagine If…So that…

The four pillars around which we build our church and around which I try to build my life are:

1. Know God

2. Find Freedom

3. Discover Purpose

4. Make a Difference

John used Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:16-19  to highlight each of these principals.

I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I KEEP ASKING that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation SO THAT you may KNOW him better. I pray also that the EYES of YOUR HEART may be ENLIGHTENED in order that  you may KNOW the hope to which HE HAS CALLED YOU, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and HIS INCOMPARABLY GREAT POWER  for us who believe. 

KNOWING: It’s interesting to think about these four pillars in my own life. I grew up in a family with parents who were deeply committed to Christ. I knew of God from an early age, and when I was nine years old I sensed him drawing me into a relationship with him. I ask him to be my savior and was baptized shortly after. I was different; something real but unexplainable happened in my inner being–truly, a new birth.  My dad used the phrase  that I was giving as much of myself as I could to as much of Jesus as I understood, and his phrase was accurate. My intent was to give all of me to all of Jesus, but I had limited understanding. Life got hard. My mother died when I was in the fifth grade, my dad married again when I was in the sixth grade and I acquired four new siblings, I struggled with anger, grief, crippling insecurity, and I did not know what to think about God. I pulled away and worked on self-destructing for 10 years. When God drew me back, I had a lot of work to do to get to know him. I got involved in a life-giving worshipping church. I attended a small group and began to learn from other people’s experiences. I was still not great at having a daily time with the Lord, but I was seeking Him. The years went by; I married, had two of my three children, and began attending another small group. We were working through Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God study. Week four of the study, I came to a crisis of faith. God revealed to me that I was trying to manage Him, I was trying to control Him by use of a barter system. “God, I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.” Things like: if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die when my children are young, if you promise me that my husband won’t die and leave me a widow with small children, if you promise me that I’ll always be okay and that life won’t be hard…etc. In His gentle but clear way, God told me that he doesn’t barter. Trusting Him means trusting Him no matter what life brings–that I live in a fallen world and that suffering is part of that world, but that He is with me through it all, and that He loves me through it all, and if I ever doubt that, I need to look at what He personally went through on the cross to prove His love. I didn’t like His answer, so I was stuck. I wrestled for days. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I confessed my wrestling match to my small group. They laid hands on me and prayed over me. A few days later, out of sheer exhaustion, I surrendered to God’s way. I was flooded with peace, I was flooded with joy, I was flooded with the assurance of His presence, and I went from my barter system to “I will serve you, I will follow you anywhere, even if it costs me my life.” That was 25 years ago and my passion to know Him continues, and my passion to want others to know Him has not changed. Knowing Him involves surrender, and it’s ongoing and it is totally worth it!! I am still striving to give as much of myself as I can to as much of Him as I understand–and I’ll never fully understand– so as long as I am on this side of heaven, this joyous pursuit continues…

FREEDOM: I found a great measure of freedom in that moment of surrender, but the eyes of my heart hadn’t been entirely enlightened. There were choices that I made during my self-destructive years that I had tremendous shame over. I tried to bury them deep within. John pointed out from Proverbs 4:23 that the issues of our lives flow out of our hearts. I was still withholding a portion of my heart, trying to keep it in the dark, which caused some things to flow out of my life that didn’t line up with Paul’s words “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”. (Gal 5:1) I was afraid if people knew the secrets hidden in the dark that I would be totally rejected and banished from serving God ever again. God,  in His perfect timing, set the stage for me to share my deepest pain, my deepest regrets with two precious friends. They cried with me, they prayed for me, and they are still my friends. And, not only was my personal condemnation obliterated, God has used my story for His glory. Freedom…what a beautiful thing! When the chains fell off, I knew it, and by the grace of God, and the power of His Spirit on whom I have to rely every single day, I am not going back to prison! Whatever He reveals to me these days, I confess immediately, AND I know my own self well enough to know that when my thoughts begin to get critical I need to ask the Spirit to search my heart and show me what’s going on, where I am out of line.

PURPOSE: One of the prison cells that I carried for years was crippling insecurity. I began every ministry role that I’ve ever had with an “I can’t” mentality. I went into each one –Every. Single. One. kicking and screaming. Other people saw in me what I could not see in myself. They still do. What I have learned is that my main purpose in life is to follow Christ, to let Him lead. When He brings opportunities my way to pay attention, when others speak things into my life to pay attention–to pray it all through and if I sense God’s “yes” to step out in obedience despite my fears. Living by faith can be very uncomfortable, but the rewards– his “well done”–nothing compares. If I could do it in my own strength, I wouldn’t need Him. I want to need Him! It’s His work, His mission, His purpose that I want to complete.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: I pray often, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, “Lord, I want my life to make a difference for Your Kingdom.” I don’t know how many days I have on planet earth–what I do know is that I want the days I have to count for something much larger than me. I want my life to make an eternal difference. I want people to know that Jesus is near, that He loves them, that freedom in this life is possible, and that abundant life is one surrendered heart away.

John asked us to imagine what it would look like if we as individuals, and together as a body were committed to these four things in ourselves and for others; to imagine what it would look like if we were committed to this vision and filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19; Eph 1:23); to imagine how our church, our community, and our world could be impacted– and he asked us over and over “are you in?” Are you? What do these four pillars look like in your life? What is your next step?

–Luanne

John said something yesterday that deeply impacted my heart. In reference to making a difference in the lives of others, he said,

“You can’t take people where you haven’t been before.”

As I read through Luanne’s story above, it’s apparent that she has been there. She has been to the place where knowledge turns into knowing. The place where prison doors swing open and the light of freedom floods the soul. The place where personal ideas of purpose surrender to God’s greater vision for a life. And now, because she has been there and experienced the extraordinary power of Jesus in that place, she is making a difference because she can take people there.

So, where is “there”?

While the physical location of each of us varies, this particular “there” is the same for everyone. It’s the place where we started at the very beginning of this series. The place where we grasp how high… wide… deep… long… the love of Jesus is. Where is that?

At the cross of Christ.

Louie Giglio spoke these words at this year’s Passion Conference,

“How do we know the love of God? When Paul described the love of God, he painted a cross.

It’s high enough to get you to a Holy God. [Know God]

It’s deep enough to go down in your mess, to the very bottom, and pull you up. [Finding Freedom]

It’s long enough that, no matter how far you’ve run from God, He’s still ahead of you, waiting for you. [to Find Your Purpose]

And it is wide enough that there is still an opportunity in this life for God to embrace you and envelop you in His love.”

In that last point is where we can connect our last point, making a difference. Do you see it? The height of the cross gets us to the knowing God piece. The depth of the cross in the ground gets to the depth of our mess, those things that bind us, and we find our freedom there. The length of its shadow shows us that God is always ahead of us, waiting for us to find our purpose in Him. But the width–that’s where we feel His enveloping embrace. The embrace of love that changes our lives forever when we get it-not in our heads-in our hearts. Because when we experience the love of God in a deep and real way, we are compelled to live out of that love and go make a difference in the lives of others. We do that by sharing the love we found when we found ourselves there, at the devastatingly beautiful cross of our Savior. And we will desire to lead others there, too. To the only place where we can truly know the height, depth, length and width of God’s love for us.

Have you been there?

–Laura

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