When the Enemy Comes: Restoration

“Where are you, God?” 

After journeying through the first two steps of what to do when the enemy shows up in our lives–Return to Me (God), and Remember–this seems a bit of an odd question to ask. It is a question, though, that is often part of our third step: Restoration.

When the enemy comes–regardless of what form that “enemy” takes, whether as a result of our own choices or not–we experience loss. This week, we’re looking at what God says He will do in the wake of that loss. The message this week comes out of Joel 2:25-27:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.” 

What God is talking about here is the process of restoration for His people who have lost so much. Notice that I said process. There are times when it may appear that restoration happens in a moment. And when it comes to a material thing that’s been lost being returned, it can in fact be restored that quickly. The kind of restoration God is talking about here, however, is a process. Because real restoration goes much deeper than getting back the physical thing we have lost…

Here is what the word “restoration” means:

“a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

We’ll come back to this definition in a moment…

When we’ve lost something, we have a pretty clear idea of what the restoration of that thing we’ve lost should look like. We want all of the broken, lost pieces put back together again. On Sunday, Pastor John offered that our perspective of restoration is only half of the story, though. He told us that there is always something greater at stake than the loss of what we had, whatever that thing might be. There are three things that he identified that are at stake when the enemy comes into our lives:

Knowing God is here

Knowing that God is for you

Remembering that He is the One & Only

In the midst of all of our loss, in the middle of the storms, we lose sight of who God is, of His goodness. This is the greater loss. This is what really needs to be restored. It is this loss that leads us to ask the question, “Where are you, God?”  

When we forget that God is with us in the midst of our loss, we begin to feel very alone, which leads us to forget that He is for us as both our powerful Lord and our personal God. When we forget that He is for us, all we can see is who or what is against us. Our focus shifts to our enemy and then we forget that there is no other God. In our grief and desperation, we accept counterfeit gods in His place.

One of the counterfeit gods we accept is OUR picture of what restoration will look like.

Once we accept a counterfeit god, we begin to worship it, and our lives begin to revolve around it. We make decisions and form beliefs around the thing we worship, the thing that has our focus. And we can, without even being aware of it, convince ourselves and the world around us that this thing we are seeking is God’s will for us. Because He says He’ll restore what’s been taken, right? When we find ourselves in this place, the restoration we need is far greater than we know. It will have to go much deeper than receiving back what we think we have lost. And it often begins with God turning our initial question around to us. We are desperate and asking Him, “Where are you?” And from the space within us and beside us that He never actually vacated, He asks us the same thing…

 “Where are you?”

He has some follow-up questions… What are you seeking? What is it that you want? What is it that has stolen your focus? What-or who-has become your god? 

These questions are often the beginning of the restoration process. If we stop looking at restoration as getting back what was taken from us and begin to see that it is actually   “return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”, we can begin to see God’s heart in restoration. The “something” that needs to be returned to it’s former, original, unimpaired condition is not the thing we lost. It is us. Our hearts. Our perspective. In seasons of loss, when enemies wreak havoc in our lives, our perspective of everything shifts. Especially, as we’ve been looking at, our perspective of God. We lose sight of who He really is, and our belief in His goodness is often shattered, along with our discouraged, broken hearts. Both require reconstruction. Our hearts and our beliefs. This is God’s heart in the restoration process. To restore us to the place where our hearts are whole–and wholly dependent on Him. Not whatever it is we thought we lost. 

Here’s the thing… there are things we lose that we will never get back. This verse from Joel about God restoring the years the locusts have eaten has been manipulated and taken out of context over and over again to mean what we want it to mean. We want it to mean that our finances will be put back in order, that the relationship will be good as new, that we’ll get that position we lost, the job we were fired from will be ours again, the disease will be healed, the stock market will turn around, etc…

Sometimes, these things do happen. God is certainly capable of doing all of these things and more. But this is not the restoration He cares most about.

I am here. I am the Lord your God. There is no other. 

This is what He offers in the midst of our loss. And until this becomes enough for us, nothing else will be. 

When we find ourselves asking, “Where are you, God?”, will we be brave enough to let Him ask the same of us? To look around at where we are right now–not where we’ve been or where we want to be–and be honest about what has our focus? What it is that we really want? And can we then silence the desperate cries of our longing for whatever it is that we think we’ve lost long enough to hear the voice of One we can never lose?

He is here. He is for you. He is the One and Only.

This is where restoration begins…

–Laura

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. (Ps 23:4)

Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will hold me close. (Ps. 27:10)

Restoration: “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

Laura wrote above: Once we accept a counterfeit god, we begin to worship it, and our lives begin to revolve around it. We make decisions and form beliefs around the thing we worship, the thing that has our focus.

I don’t know too many people who deliberately worship idols. I certainly don’t intend to worship idols, yet God has shown me during seasons of loss how many idols I actually worship. Ugh.

Last week I wrote about a devastating season in my adult life. During that season, I truly did lean into God, and He met me and ministered to me where I was. However, during that season I also had idols stripped from me, and I lived in some tremendous fear. It became painfully aware to me during that season,  that I had placed my hope in another human being. I relied on another person to meet my needs, to provide for my sustenance, to be there for me emotionally, and to take care of me. All of that was stripped from me and my idol was exposed.  I was afraid. I lost my (false) sense of safety. For months and months I lived with tremendous anxiety over whether or not I was going to lose my house, over how the bills were going to be paid, over keeping a good credit score, over whether or not we would have enough food to eat. So. Much. Fear. And in all of that, I had also lost emotional support, I wasn’t sure who would be “safe” for me, who I could turn to with the depth of my fear. It was awful.

If anyone had asked me, I certainly would never have admitted to worshipping an idol. I wasn’t even aware of it myself. But I had solidly transferred my dependence from God to a person.

We truly were in a bad way in terms of material provision.  Many people helped us during that year. Sometimes I knew who they were, sometimes gifts came anonymously. There was never excess, but there was always enough. There were multiple times when I sat down to pay bills, knowing that we didn’t have enough to cover them, and yet there would be. It made no sense. I would sit at the table, look at the bank statement and try to figure it out–where did this money come from? I feared spending that money because I was afraid the bank would tell us it was a fluke and then we’d owe them.

One particular Saturday morning, when I was wracking my brain trying to figure it out, I heard God say to me, “Stop it. I am providing for you.”  It stopped me in my tracks. I wish I could say that I had no more fear after that point-but I still struggled. However, what I can say is that it lessened considerably, and each month, somehow we were able to cover our expenses.

We didn’t lose our house, even though logic would tell us we should have. We didn’t have our utilities shut off, even though logic tells us we should have. We didn’t go hungry, even though logic tells us we should have. (I just paused to shake my head…it still amazes me.).   Yet the ability to pay our bills and buy food, as crazy as that was, was not the restoration. The restoration began in a much deeper place as idols were exposed, idols were brought down, and God was put in his rightful place. It was not fun (at all!), but wow, was it transforming!

To this day, when we pay bills, I thank the Lord for HIS provision of our finances. When we sit at the table to eat, my gratitude is genuine. I know our food came from His hand. And even though those are material things, it is not about the material things.

There were other things in that season that died and that had to die. Things that didn’t need to be “restored”  in the way that we understand restoration. And those things were painful, excruciatingly painful–but God was using all it (I’m not saying he caused it…but that He used it) to recalibrate my being.

Psalm 23:1 begins with the phrase The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I remember pondering that verse years and years ago when the Rwandan genocide was taking place. I remember the images on the news of hordes of people trying to flee Rwanda. Many of them were massacred and/or lost their entire families. I knew that many Rwandans were Christians and I was struck with the thought-what does Psalm 23:1 mean to them in this situation? It can only mean one thing. The Lord–He alone is enough. If everything else is lost, if the enemy destroys everything, I shall not want, because the Lord alone is enough, and He is with me. Restoration.

My maternal grandmother passed away when she was 93 years old. She outlived eleven siblings; her husband (my grandad), died of cancer before I was born. My mother died of cancer at the age of forty. My uncle, her only other child, died of cancer six years later, also at the age of forty. She had every reason in the world to be a bitter, bitter woman, yet she wasn’t. I inherited her desk, which had been mostly cleaned out before I got it, but in the bottom drawer there was one typed sheet of paper on which she had written some thoughts. She wrote it while my uncle was hospitalized, and the end was near. As she processed and wrestled with yet another devastating loss, she came to the following conclusion and closed her thoughts with this phrase: I have come to understand that it is better to know God than to know why. 

Restoration.

Restoration: “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

In our original form we were made for relationship with God. From the beginning of time, we were made for relationship with God. We get pulled a million different directions. Our “form” gets impaired. We choose a million different things to worship and place our focus on (including ourselves). They all leave us wanting.

But the Lord–He speaks to us: I am here. I am the Lord your God. There is no other. Call out to me. Return to me. Remember me. 

He has provided everything we need through Christ Jesus to be restored to our original, unimpaired condition.  His love knows no bounds. He is here, He is the only true God…

Is He enough?

–Luanne

 

 

Disconnect, Discover & Dance

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

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

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

Priscilla Shirer writes in her bible study Breathe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Disconnecting
  2. Discovery
  3. Dancing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you say yes?

–Luanne

Image result for labyrinth

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a few days. Maybe for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been distracted by many things, and I can easily focus on the distractions–the areas in my life where I am discontent, the long winter season in Wyoming and how I long for spring, the distance that I live from my children and grandchild, relationships that seem difficult in this season, and a wall (self-constructed) between God and me, so Jonathan’s sermon was just what my thirsty soul needed.

On Sunday, Jonathan Schmidt shared his own journey with us beginning with his call into the ministry 32 years ago, through his seasons of running and God’s continuing pursuit, and then the season of pastoring a church and losing sight of his First Love while maintaining what he referred to as Church Incorporated. He was not blaming the church; he recognized that he had become entrenched in the “doing”. He had let other things come in and take his focus and had forgotten the call to love God first.

He reminded us that we can be in the church and lose our way, because we forget to love God first. He reminded us that it is easy to walk away from the simplicity of “Jesus loves me” and get lost in Bible Study, ministry activities, maintaining programs, and doing.

Bible study, ministry activities and the like are good things, but they are no substitute for living from the place of knowing that God loves us first, and that because of His great love we can love Him in return with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves. He reminded us that all of the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, are fulfilled by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as ourselves. ALL of the Old Testament, ALL of the message of Christ fulfilled in those two things. (1st John 4:19, Mt 22:37-40, Luke 10:30)

Why do we complicate it so much when it’s really this simple:

  1. God loves us. He proved it in Christ. Believe it, embrace it, let the Holy Spirit have access to your life.
  2. When we know that God loves us, we live from a new place, a new identity, and we can love ourselves in a healthy way because we are loved.
  3. That love spills over to those around us, they take notice, they desire to know this love, we teach them what we have learned from Christ (making disciples Mt. 28:19-20), and they come into relationship with Christ continuing the beautiful cycle.

Simple–and it all starts with love.

A number of years ago I was driving across rural Kansas trying to find something to listen to on the radio (that’s all I had access to back in the day). I came upon a sermon that sounded intriguing , and heard the pastor say that it’s not enough for Jesus to be Lord and Savior–He must also be our treasure–and then I lost the station. Some miles later I was still trying to find a radio station and I came upon the same sermon at the same moment, heard the same line and then lost the station.

All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in finding a radio station. I knew that God was speaking to me, and I asked Him to teach me what it means for Jesus to truly be my treasure.

What I treasure I love, I think about, I tend to, I enjoy.

Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. (Mt. 6:21)  Did my relationship with Jesus indicate that he is my treasure? That I love him, live for him, and enjoy him above all else? Hmmm. I had some work to do. I had been in love with Jesus before, and I recognized that I needed to return to Him again as my first love. (Rev 2:4). It took a brief moment of confession and expressing my desire to love Him deeply asking Him to meet me where I was. He did–the funk lifted and I experienced beautiful closeness with Him again.

Fast forward to my recent funk. I had begun the current “funk-lifting” process on Saturday morning, and Jonathan’s sermon led me to the next step, so confession and expression is what I did again after his message.

Jonathan shared with us that he had a mentor who asked him: Do you think people really want to spend eternity with Jesus?  We’ll be with Him for eternity–if we don’t want to be with Him now, why would we want to be with Him for eternity?  Hmmm.

That question reminded me of something I heard in another sermon a few years ago:

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—
is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there? ” (John Piper)

That’s quite a question and quickly reveals where our hearts and priorities are.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. John 17:3 tells us that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 13:35 tells us that by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 We cannot love one another if we don’t know God’s love for us and respond to His love by loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength  It feels pretty important, pretty foundational that we know those things.

There is a tremendous difference between the type of relationship described above and being religious. Jonathan’s Church Incorporated dilemma which led him to leave his church and begin the journey back to his First Love was the result of religious activity.

Religion kills. There is no joy, no life in religious activities. Religion leaves folks burned out, frustrated, and angry at the world and all the people who don’t see things the way they do.  Love, on the other hand, gives life, embraces beauty, draws people in, stays with people in their mess, learns from others, and chooses relationship.

Religion turns people into projects and Christianity into a list of dos and don’ts. Love sees the value, the image of God, in all people, and sees Christianity as being in a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus. A relationship of fellowship, enjoyment, trust, honesty, authenticity, transparency, transformation, wrestling–no rules, no boxes to check off, just Someone to love and be loved by. Someone to get to know on a deep and intimate level.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. When he was religious he had position, authority, power. He was important in the eyes of the religious community. He was outspoken, and he was mean–so much so that he was totally sold out to destroying the lives of Jesus’ followers. (His story is found in the book of Acts).

Then he met Jesus. He was humbled, blinded for a few days, (a physical manifestation of the spiritual condition he had been in) and changed forever. Changed to the degree that this man of position, authority, power, “the good life”, tells us in 2nd Corinthians 11  that he has been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…

Yet, in spite of all of those things in Chapter 4 tells us his perspective on the suffering (which we are promised as Christ followers) when he writes: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And in Philippians 3: 7-9 He tells us why: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…

Paul knew that Jesus was his treasure. He knew what Jesus meant to Him, who Jesus was to Him, and He wanted everyone else to know Jesus too.  Everything in his life, after his encounter with Jesus, flowed from the treasure of Paul’s heart, and the world was changed as a result.

Where do you find yourself today? Do you know that God loves you? It all starts there. Do you respond to His love with love? Have you wandered a bit from the simplicity of the relationship and gotten distracted by many things? Are you in a funk?

The solution? Sit in His love, let it wash over you. Talk to Him about where you’ve been and respond to His love with love for Him. You will be changed and the world will be changed. The things that matter to His heart will matter to yours, and the world will know we are His followers by our love.

–Luanne

Jonathan talked about our being “living sacrifices” in his message. He then asked us if we were trying to crawl off the altar. I immediately thought about a verse that I have on a notecard in my bathroom. I read it every day and pray it regularly. It is Psalm 5:3. I have the Message version on my notecard. It reads this way:

 “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.”

I put this verse up about a year ago. It’s not one I could have prayed honestly many years ago. Luanne mentioned above what Jonathan said so beautifully in his message. He said that we have to learn to “sit in the love of God”. I love this thought for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take the liberty to expand it a bit…

See, I think we continue to crawl off of the altar—we move away from offering ourselves daily as living sacrifices—until we’ve braved sitting in the fire of God’s love. We climb up on the altar and with faltering voices say, “He-he-here, I am God… waiting for you…”  But as He approaches with His white-hot love, the heat of His presence causes us to slink off the altar and crawl to a… safer distance. Until we brave the heat for the first time. It’s not until we let the fire of His love engulf us that we realize-like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did in the furnace-that we won’t be consumed. That Jesus meets us within the fire and it’s while we sit there with Him that we become unbound. Once we experience Him in this way, our fear of the fire is replaced by the assurance of His goodness and our hearts begin to burn white-hot in response to His blazing love for us. Only then does the altar become a place we long to go and meet with Him, offer our lives to Him, daily.

I remember when I began to get comfortable with laying every piece of my life on the altar, offering all of me as a living sacrifice…  It was during one of the most painful seasons of my life. The trouble (that Jonathan reminded us is a guarantee, part of the deal when we give our lives to following Jesus…) surrounded me. My heart was broken for so many different reasons—rejection, betrayal, problems in my marriage, family tensions, financial tension, a ridiculous amount of fear; among other things… I have never felt more alone, more unsure of who I was. I didn’t understand God’s love for me. The shame of my past was suffocating me. It was during that season that I resolved to wait. To lay my life out before God and wait for Him to come, fire and all. I was afraid. But the brokenness and the loneliness outweighed the fear. And I asked Him to come to me. To show me He loved me. To make me believe it. I told Him I would do whatever He asked—I just wanted to be free. To know who He was, really, and who I was in Him…

I didn’t have some grand vision… but I felt Him come close. I physically sensed His presence. He engineered playlists and laid open the pages of my bible as He directed me to things He wanted me to know. I felt the heat of His love surround me… and it was tempting to retreat. I couldn’t control this reckless love that ran toward me. And I knew that if I stayed there, if the fire fully surrounded me, everything would change. Everything needed to change… But I knew that change meant surrender. It meant pain. And while the storms of my heart couldn’t get much worse, I wasn’t sure I was ready for what His fire may burn away in my life. I was afraid. But I was desperate. And so I stayed put. I listened. And for a season, He called me His beautiful beloved. I doubted what I heard the first time, but it kept happening and I knew what I heard. I began to believe it…

As I sat in the fire of His love, he refined my heart. He rebuilt me. He spoke sweetly, intimately to me. I remember feeling so exposed, completely vulnerable-and completely, totally, known and loved. It was disarming, disorienting and freeing.

I couldn’t have prayed Psalm 5:3 until I experienced the love of Jesus this way. I wish I could say that every day when I see that verse on my cupboard door, I am willing and ready to pray it with all of my heart. But that wouldn’t be true. See, the reason that verse is taped up in my bathroom where I’ll see it every day is because I need the reminder. Even though I’ve experienced the white-hot love of Jesus that changed me-that changes everything-it’s still not natural to offer up every bit of me, every single day, and release my hold on control over myself and my life. Because I know what it can mean… When you offer all that you are and invite the fire of God to descend, you give up every right to yourself. It’s a daily dying. And it hurts…

Because sometimes, when He meets me on the altar of daily sacrifice, He tells me to do things I don’t want to do…

Stay… Go… Love her… Embrace him… Give… Speak… Start… Stop… Forgive… Let go…

He always invites me to remember that this world is not my home. That in this world I will have trouble-but I can take heart because He has overcome the world. He gives me an opportunity to say, every day, “Not my will, but yours be done…”, and I find that I rarely would choose on my own to do His will, His way.

Jonathan called himself a “reluctant prophet”, always running from the thing God was calling him to do. I think we all can be reluctant prophets. We can all at least identify with the “reluctant” part. And often, in our reluctance, we build barriers. Barriers between us and the altar we’re invited to offer ourselves on daily. Barriers that keep us from loving God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and from loving our neighbors with that same love. We build these barriers because we want to stay safe from the trouble Jesus told us we would have in this world. Because the trouble hurts. And we don’t like pain. We do all kinds of things to try to escape it. But we can’t. Ann Voskamp writes, in her book Be the Gift,

“There isn’t a barrier in the world that can block out pain. There isn’t a wall you can build that protects you from pain. Addiction, escapism, materialism, anger, indifference—none of these can stop pain—and each one creates a pain all its own. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid brokenness. There is absolutely no way but a broken way. Barriers that falsely advertise self-protection are guaranteed ways of self-imprisonment. Barriers that supposedly will protect your heart so it won’t break are guaranteed to break your heart anyway. Yet being brave enough to lay your heart out there to be broken, to be rejected in a thousand little ways, this may hurt like a kind of hell—but it will be holy. The only way in the whole universe to find connection… is to let your heart be broken.”

Jesus modeled this for us. He laid out His heart-knowing we would break it-that we would break Him-but it was the only way for us to be connected to Him. And He invites us to lay our hearts out, too. To follow His lead. He will never break our hearts or reject us—but He will call us to die to ourselves for the sake of others who will. And this is something we are incapable of doing if we haven’t first sat in the fire of His love. But if we know His wild, relentless, crazy love for us, if we’ve let Him break open the seed of our hearts so that we can love Him in return, it gets easier to embrace the trouble, the pain of this life. Because when we sit in His love, He becomes our treasure, as Luanne so beautifully wrote about above. And if He’s our treasure, we realize that yes, we do want to spend eternity with this Jesus that has loved us back to life and that, truly, He is what makes eternity appealing to our hearts at all. And we can exclaim with the psalmist, A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else!” (Psalm 84:10a, NLT)

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 3

In week one of this series, Pastor John encouraged us to hold on to hope. In week two, we learned about how to hold on in the waiting. In the third and final installment of this series, it was all about Who we’re holding on to.

Habakkuk, whose very name means to embrace or wrestle with, to hold on, sets the third chapter of his book to music. The whole chapter is a song, a heart cry to his God. Have you ever sung your heart out to God? As Habakkuk sings his prayer-or prays his song-however you want to look at it (I personally believe prayer and worship are synonymous…), he is also spurring his own soul to remember.  As he wrestles with the coming destruction of his people, he does two things. Luanne wrote about the first in last week”s blog. He chose wisely in the waiting. Luanne wrote:

“Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God.”

And in this week’s passage, he remembers. These are some pieces of his prayer, his song:

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy… God came… His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden… He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble… His ways are eternal… Sun and moon stood still in the heavens… You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one…” (Habakkuk 3:2-13, NIV, selected verses)

After Habakkuk recalls where and how he has seen God move in the past, he finds himself overwhelmed… and resolute.

“I trembled inside when I heard this; my lips quivered with fear. My legs gave way beneath me, and I shook in terror. I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us. Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:16-19 NLT)

Have you ever found yourself in a season so dark that you had to borrow light from the past in order to move forward? Have you ever heard a message that plunged you into the depths of despair, to a place so terrifying that you had to consult your memories in order to find any hope at all?

I’ve received messages like that… As a little girl, there was the news that my daddy was moving out-it ushered in the dark… The message that my baby might not survive did the same… The news that what I thought I was called to do was no longer an option for me-the stripping of what turned out to be a false identity-brought in an entirely different type of darkness…The relayed message that my little girl had been bitten by a rattlesnake while her dad and I were 1,100 miles away… A doctor telling me through sad eyes that my mama was terminal and our time with her was very short blocked the light, too…

These are a few of the dark-inducing messages that have come into my life. Yours might be different. Maybe you were told you couldn’t have the children you long for. Or that your precious unborn child no longer had a heartbeat… Maybe your message came in the form of an incurable illness. Or it could have been carried on papers you were served, informing you that your marriage was over. Perhaps it came in the form of a dismissal, a pink slip, a foreclosure notice. It could be that phone call that informed you of an unexpected deployment, or the one that came from the jail where your child was being held. It could be an admission, a confession, news that your child has been abused, or any number of other heart-stopping things. We receive endless messages over the course of our lives. And we can’t escape the hard ones, not one of us can.

When these messages come, they carry the terrifying tune of destruction, not at all unlike the message Habakkuk received from God. But Pastor John told us on Sunday that our passage describes both destruction AND deliverance. It’s easy to find the destruction. The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens… 

How did he get there? How can we get there?

We get there by going back. Back to where we’ve seen God move before. When the road before us is dark and foreboding and hopeless, we have to look back. We have to remember when God showed up. When we first fixed our eyes on the one who has always had His eyes on us. When we can look back and remember, we see again the extravagant length our God is willing to go to deliver us–and we can find a sliver of light to shine on our dark path, a reason to hope. Not hope for our enemy’s destruction, hope in the Deliverer who is completely for us. We are His priority. We want Him to act amidst the circumstances around us… He wants to do the work within us. Several months back, I wrote a little about the desire for deliverance versus desiring the Deliverer… Here is a bit of my own wrestling, and what Jesus showed me then…

“I have been asking Jesus to enter into the chaos around and within me. I have been praying that way-it made sense to me.

Enter into the chaos, Jesus. Come in. Come fix it. Come get me out…

But the chaos hasn’t stopped. The churning seas continue to rage. And I have found myself discouraged, afraid, confused. I have felt unsafe and even angry.

Why won’t You come into the chaos? If You would come in, You could fix it…

…The problem was, I have been surrounded by and consumed with the chaos in my life and in the lives of those around me. He has been trying to lift my face, to implore me to just look up. If I would just lift my eyes, I would see Him standing above the churning waves. I would hear His words-words that don’t enter into the trivial and chaotic, but stand altogether seperate from and above them. And I would see His hand reaching out to me, inviting me to step out of the swirling chaos and into the realm of His Shalom…

…His very Presence brings light into darkness. I wanted Him to bring the light of His Presence into the chaos of my circumstances. He wanted to give me a different perspective. The perspective that comes when I stop staring at all that is going wrong and look into the face of all that is right. All I could see were the waves surrounding me. All I could feel was the pull of the undertow dragging me down-further and further. My eyes darted frantically around, desperate for Jesus to just show up in this place. If You were here with me, things would change, the seas would calm…

All the while, He stood above the crashing waters, extending His hand, waiting for me to look up…

Look above the chaos. Look at Me. The chaos may continue… but you don’t have to stay there. You can come up here with me. The waves still rage-but you don’t have to. Come up higher and you’ll see. You’ll see it all looks different from My perspective.”

The perspective shift that occurred when I looked up is the same one we’ll encounter by looking back and remembering. When we look back and search for the marks of His Glory throughout our stories, we will come face to face with Jesus. As we gaze back into the moments He showed up before, we’ll catch a glimpse of His face, His eyes that are fixed on us. Eyes that are full of love, acceptance, grace, forgiveness, connection…

As I write, I’m aware that we’re all in different places. Maybe you’ve never encountered Jesus. Maybe when you look back, you don’t see any hope, or any light at all. If that’s your story, my prayer is that today will be the day you’ll look back on in the future, a day clearly marked by the Glory of God and His love for you, the beginning of the rest of your story. Or maybe you do know Jesus, and you can recall times when He’s shown up in your life. But when you picture His face, His eyes don’t look at all like what I’ve described. Maybe the eyes you see flash with anger, disappointment, condemnation… If that’s what you see, I pray for a divine interruption to come your way–that the God who made you and loves you and delivers you will reveal the truth of who He is and His affection toward you. I pray that today will be a defining moment for you as well-a day marked with a deeper connection and the beginning of the most beautiful love story.

And for all of us, I pray that we’ll make the choice to wait in hope, and to remember. That at the end of the day, regardless of the messages each of our stories contain, we can stand resolutely and declare, as Habakkuk did,

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!”

–Laura

Laura wrote: The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens…

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, YET I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!” (Hab. 3:17-18)

That little word yet… Habakkuk’s use of that little, powerful, three letter word leads us to the greatest lesson the book— Habakkuk does not put his head in the sand and pretend like calamity is not coming. He knows that it is. He doesn’t try to pretend like  he’s devoid of fear—he acknowledges my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.(3:16) YET… 

And, as Laura highlighted above, it’s remembering who God is and what He’s done in the past that gives Habakkuk the assurance that God is strong, that God is sovereign, that God is at work, that God can be trusted, that God is still worthy of praise, and that deliverance will come.  Hindsight is huge.

Do we remember that the pivotal point of our faith, our deliverance, happened through devastation and destruction? We have the benefit of hindsight, but for a moment, try to put yourself in the midst of Jesus’ closest friends and followers during the twenty four hours of Jesus’ life that ended with his crucifixion. Turn on your imagination for a moment, and set yourself in the scene.

Picture yourself at the Passover meal with your closest friends. Imagine settling into the familiar and beloved Passover script, remembering God’s powerful deliverance in the days of Moses. Imagine your interest being piqued when Jesus took a detour from the normal script and began talking about the bread being His body broken for them, and the wine His blood poured out establishing the new covenant between God and His people.

In this setting, you have no idea what is coming in a few short hours, yet Jesus says to you: do this in remembrance of me. Are you confused? Are you intrigued? Are you thinking this is another parable that’s difficult to understand?

Imagine going to the garden and watching Jesus pull away. If you manage to stay awake, what are you thinking as He wrestles with the Father–as He implores the Father to let the cup pass from Him– as He feels all the emotions of the coming calamity?  What goes through your mind as He ultimately surrenders to the Father’s will?

What do you feel when Judas comes with the religious leaders and Roman soldiers? What is going through your head at the unjust , crazy, false accusation trials that take place under the cover of night? How do you feel when Pilate declares that Jesus is to be crucified? Are you still around, or have you run away because you are afraid? What are you feeling at the horrors of the beating, and the cruelty of the crucifixion? Can you imagine what that felt like to His followers?  Would you have lost your hope? Would you have forgotten in that moment God’s miraculous past deliverance that you had been celebrating a few hours before? Would your “yet” have been–I know that God will still deliver and I will praise Him–or would you have run and hidden thinking that this was the end?

It wasn’t the end, and on the third day, everything for all time changed. Jesus rose again—fellowshipped again with His friends. A short while later He ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, just like He said He would. (Acts 1&2). His followers were changed, empowered, fearless and lived in the hope of future deliverance, so much so that they very literally gave their lives for the Kingdom of God.

Hebrews chapter 11 ends by highlighting some of the nameless martyrs by saying: Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and goat skins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us…  These followers lived in the yet. They held on, knowing that God was worthy and deliverance was coming.

These were all commended for their faith—As. Is. Habakkuk. Calamity was coming. It was going to be awful, YET he chose to remember who God is, what He’d done in the past, and gain hope for the future. 

We can make the same choice. We can remember the day that appeared like total disaster to Jesus’ closest friends was God’s sovereign plan for our ultimate deliverance.  Jesus says to us—remember. He tells us in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

We don’t have to deny the feelings when these hard seasons come. We don’t have to pretend like we’re not wrestling when these hard seasons come. AND we don’t have to be hopeless when these hard seasons come.

 …you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again… (1 Thess. 4:13b-14a)

We have a good Father who is for us. Have you resolutely chosen to trust Him no matter what? Do you have your yet firmly in place? Are you determined to remember all that He has done and hold on to Him? Ultimate deliverance is certain for those who know Jesus. Do you know Him?

—Luanne

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Romans 15:13)

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1:12-2:20

Last week we looked at Habakkuk crying out to God about the violence and injustice taking place in his own nation—he wondered how long God was going to let it go on. God responded by saying Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. (1:5) And then God goes on to tell Habakkuk that the utterly amazing thing He is going to do is let their enemy, the Babylonians, wipe them out. I don’t know about you, but that’s a hard thing for me to wrestle with. I want God to just fix things and make it easy on us. However, even my own life experience demonstrates that hard things come—sometimes as a consequence of my own choices, sometimes as a result of the choices of others, and sometimes just because we live in a fallen world. It’s never pleasant. It’s never what we hope for. It’s never part of our plan. However, God allows hard things. How we respond to those things shows us a great deal about our relationship with God.

How does Habakkuk respond to this revelation that God is going to allow them to be totally destroyed by their enemy?

He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. In verse 12 he says LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgement; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.

He acknowledges that God is eternal, that God is Holy, that God is judge, that God is his Rock, that God is pure, that God has a plan—and then he, Habakkuk, asks more questions. I love that about Habakkuk. He is not afraid to ask.  He is not asking out of faithlessness, he is asking the God that he trusts to help him understand—he is asking his “why” questions—but again, not out of faithlessness. This is is such an important point for us to think about.

I imagine that all of us have had seasons in our lives when we don’t understand, (or like) what God is allowing. I believe that scripture shows us that it’s absolutely okay to take our very honest questions to God. What’s true is that He knows our thoughts, He knows our hearts, so trying to pretend like we don’t have questions when we do, is an exercise in futility. The most alive, real relationships are honest and authentic. That includes our relationship with God. However, there is a huge difference between asking from a place of faith, and asking  from a place of faithlessness. Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6)…even in our questions. How do we see God? Are we willing to let Him be God and trust that He is working out His plan, even in the devastating moments of life?

I had a long season when I didn’t do this well. My mother died when I was 11. I was raised in a very godly home, and had been taught that God is love (which is true); however, in my mind, a loving God would not have allowed my mother to die, so I spent the next 10 years of my life wrestling against God. I was going to show Him—make Him pay for doing that to me—but all I did was make self destructive and others destructive choices which led me absolutely nowhere good.

God continued to pursue me throughout those years, and at times I would move toward Him, but because I had an inaccurate view of Him, and still harbored resentment toward Him,  I returned over and over to distancing myself from Him. When I was in my early twenties I got held up at gunpoint. I’m going to rewrite that sentence—when I was in my early twenties, God allowed me to be held up at gunpoint. It was a strangely wrapped gift.

The young man who held me up was quickly apprehended. My friend who was with me and I went to night court, identified the young man, and then I headed home. I called my parents (my dad remarried when I was 12), and got into bed replaying the events of the night— remembering the gun against my belly and the fear. All of the “what could have beens” began going through my mind.

In that moment, God spoke to me very clearly.

He asked, “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”

 What a question—and what an easy answer. No. Absolutely not. Self destructive party girl was not the legacy I would have wanted to leave. The following morning I began making different choices—new friends, new place to live, and new pursuit to get to know God.

An accurate view of God is crucial in hard seasons.  My choices, because of my inaccurate view of God, led me to some very dark places.

How do you see Him? When life gets hard do you lean into Him, or push Him away? Do you ask questions or give Him the silent treatment?

Habakkuk asked his questions, and then climbed up on a high place to look and to see what God would say to him. (2:1)

God responded. Not only did he respond, but he asked Habakkuk to write down what He said so that others could also see it. God told Habakkuk that the revelation has an appointed time, that it will happen, and that even though it lingers, Habakkuk is to wait for it because it will come and not delay. (2:2-3)

And then God talks about the enemy—that his desires are not upright, that he is arrogant and never at rest, that he is greedy and never satisfied, that he takes people captive—but the day will come when the enemy will reap the consequences of what he has sown—he will become the prey, he will be plundered, he will come to ruin because of his violence, injustice, bloodshed, exploitation of the vulnerable—the violence he has done will overwhelm him because he has shed human blood and destroyed lands, cities and everyone in them. (2:6-14)

Then God seems to shift gears and asks Habakkuk, Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. (18-19)

And Habakkuk responds: The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.

Pastor John took us to 2nd Thessalonians 1:6 which says, God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you. In this instance, the English word “trouble” doesn’t quite capture the Greek word which means to be totally overwhelmed, under a situation that is so hard to bear that you can’t breathe and aren’t sure that you will survive. So Paul, who lives in a time when Christ’s followers are being burned alive, killed by lions in arenas for sport, imprisoned, beaten, tells the Thessalonians to persevere in Christ—that the day will come when God will trouble the persecutors. Our human response to this is “Yes!” And oftentimes we want to help God trouble those who have troubled us, so much so that those thoughts consume our minds and become destructive idols that we give our hearts and attention to. However, God never gives us permission to hold a grudge, to withhold forgiveness, or to get our own revenge. He wants us free. He wants us to trust Him to be just. He wants us see things His way.

Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God. Wow!

In my own story, I am now able to see that a wiping out is what led to new life. I’ve had more than one wiping out season. I don’t like them, but in retrospect, I can see how God has used them for my good and His glory.

I think part of life on this planet is knowing that hard, sometimes devastating seasons will come. What is our mindset about those seasons? Are we willing to wrestle with, not against, God. Are we willing to represent Christ during those times? Are we willing to handle conflict God’s way? Are we willing to recognize that ultimately our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)   Are we willing to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (Mt. 5:44) 

This is hard stuff…nothing about our human nature will lead us to respond to those who’ve hurt us, or who will hurt us in these ways. It’s a Spirit thing. Are we willing to wrestle honestly with God, climb to a high place to see what He will say to us, and acknowledge that the LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.

He knows what He’s doing and it’s ultimately all about His glory.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Hab. 2:14)

Do we trust Him?

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (Ps. 46:10)

—Luanne

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

We began a series through the book of Habakkuk on Sunday. What an incredibly relevant book it is for our day and time. The entire book is a prayer-a dialogue- between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to ask God hard questions. He is not afraid to wrestle, but he wrestles with God and not against.

Habakkuk reveals some things about himself in this prayer;

*He reveals that he is deeply connected to God and seeks intimate connection with Him.

*He reveals that God speaks to him as a result of this intimate connection and that he listens to God.

*He reveals that he cares about and feels responsibility for his community.

*He reveals that no matter what happens in this life, he trusts God, and knows that God is in control.

When Habakkuk writes his prayer, the world around him is in chaos. Israel has divided into two nations; the larger northern kingdom called Israel, and the smaller southern kingdom called Judah. Habakkuk lives in Judah. Not only do Israel and Judah fight against one another, not only do they each have their own king, they also have infighting in their own kingdoms. All of this fighting, all of their quarreling, all of their divisiveness weakens them and makes them susceptible to attack from powerful enemies. They live in constant fear and unrest. It is into this reality that Habakkuk cries out to God.  This is how he begins:

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me, there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. (1: 1-3)

Doesn’t that sound like today?

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  there are 65.6 million displaced people people who have had to flee their homes because of violence.   Breaking that down into a number that is easier for us to understand—nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. 20 people per minute.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have plenty of violence in the United States: School shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, concert shootings, civilians shooting police, police shooting civilians, men violating women, child abuse,  and thousands of  other violences that don’t make headlines.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have laws that favor some and are oppressive to others. Gary Haugen of The International Justice Mission taught me that historically, law systems, police and governing systems were put in place to protect the privileged class.  During the days when Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, and other countries were colonizing other nations, their law systems were set up to protect them- the colonizers, the conquerors-  from the people whose country they were taking over.   Even though that happened a few hundred years ago, many justice systems never evolved into serving and protecting all people equally. Habakkuk cries out… the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have division—deep division in our nation. It feels as if we have made certain political ideologies our gods; we are an angry people, we attack one another viciously, we quarrel constantly, our favored media sources “disciple” us and have created mob mentality—an inability to think as individuals, only to think as a group, and we defend our groups and fight for our groups no matter what. We refuse to see anything amiss in our own groups. Habakkuk cries out…there is strife, and conflict abounds. It bother him. Does it bother us?

As I write this, like Habakkuk, my heart is deeply troubled. I sense, like he did, that we are headed for disaster.  Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:25 Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  Not only are we a divided nation, we are divided as Christians. We are in trouble. We are holding on to the wrong things.

God responds to Habakkuk’s concerns about the state of their kingdom, and His response is a hard one to fathom. It begins with what sounds like an amazingly  powerful word:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

And then God lays out how the Babylonians are going to come and totally wipe them out.  Yikes! What are we supposed to do with that? In the theology of many of us, there is no space for a response like this from God. So what does Habakkuk do?

He responds with: Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. (v12) 

We’ll pick up at this point in the text next week, but wow! What a response! Pastor John pointed out that Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He still has questions, but at the end of the day, he trusts God. He is holding on.

Many of us do not have a theology that includes suffering and hardship. Many of us only have a theology of prosperity and blessing. That leads us to being very shallow, and in danger of abandoning our faith, of letting go rather than holding on when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We forget that Jesus was crucified, we forget that most of his disciples were martyred. We forget that all across the face of the globe there are Jesus followers being put to death for their faith today.

We forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 24: 4-12

“See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

We forget that Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy:

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.….Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.  (2nd Timothy 3: 1-5, 12-14)

We forget that Jesus said

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives-in exile- and God had just let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. (Jer. 29:4-5)

We forget that God tells us For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)

We forget the faith of Joseph who said: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20)

The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who said: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18)

The faith of Job who said: Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

We forget that we’ve been challenged to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…(Pr 3:5)

So what do we do, how do we hold on?  We  throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And… run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Heb. 12:1-2)

We hold on by surrendering our lives to Jesus, to His ways, to the principles of His kingdom, and no matter what this earthly kingdom has going on, we represent Him, we love Him, we love others, we leverage our lives for His kingdom, we join Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit in His call which He laid out when He said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18)

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

May we live like the born again who see the kingdom of God. May we hold on to who we are as His ambassadors, His ministers of reconciliation,  and may we hold on to the King of the Kingdom who matters for eternity, trusting that God is sovereign, that He is at work, that He has a plan, and that we can reflect His love and glory in this fallen world no matter what is going on.

–Luanne

As we embark on this journey into Habakkuk, we see a justice theme permeating almost every verse of the first chapter. It’s clear that this book has a lot to do with justice. I love that it does, because God’s heart for justice beats strong in my own heart, too. Luanne articulated this theme beautifully above. I would love to tag on to what she wrote because justice, equity, seeing the image of God in all people-it is something I am passionate about. But He is leading me a different direction this time…

Pastor John said on Sunday that contained within God’s seemingly harsh, confusing words is a simple message of hope: Hold on…

Luanne wrote:

“We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives and God let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time.”

In captivity, with no sign of their situation changing anytime soon, God told His people that He saw the big picture, that He had plans-good plans-for them, and that He would give them hope and a future. We read that verse, share it, put it on bookmarks and graduation cards… and forget the context.

Habakkuk knew the context of the story he was in. He remembered even as he heard hard words from God that there was a larger story being written. The current circumstances that he and his people found themselves in was one chapter in the larger narrative of the story of God. He heard the “Hold on” cut through the message of impending destruction and the noise of the violence around him.

Pastor John explained the charge to “hold on” as an exhortation to embrace the gray area in the meantime. We, as people, have a natural tendency to think we know best. And we have an almost desperate desire to know what’s coming up ahead of us. Embracing the gray area is not fun. It can be terrifying, because we feel completely out of control. And we are. 

We can see from the way Habakkuk related to God that he got this. He understood that God was the One in control. He had, at some point, settled in his heart the matter of God’s sovereignty. And he chose to trust him. We can see this in the way he questioned and prayed-honestly, pouring his heart out, and also in the way that he listened–not with the ultimate goal of understanding, but rather with a heart that remembered who was speaking.

Luanne wrote above, “Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words.” 

That is the challenge to all of us as we move into this series… Do we come to God with our questions and chaotic circumstances, in a time when our world is in what appears to be a terminal tailspin, and choose to hold on to Him no matter what He might say-or might not say-about it all? Or will we let go of Him and get swept away by the craziness of our situations?

I think that sometimes we want to stay where we are until we can see clearly what’s up ahead. When what we can see looks like a gray area, it’s easy to feel stuck and grasp at control. But what if God is actually calling us to take a step into the gray before we can see what’s on the other side? What if what we are seeing with our eyes looks like clouds and fog and impending doom, but God is calling us to take a step through it, because the light-the hope-is seen only when we step into the storm? He wants us to fix our eyes on Him and take a step-even when our natural eyes can’t see Him through everything that’s swirling around us.

I can’t help but think of the story from Matthew 14, when Jesus walked out onto the sea while his fearful disciples rowed futilely against a storm. When Jesus told them it was He who was coming toward them, Peter requested that He tell him to come to Him on the water, so he would know it was Him. Jesus obliged Peter’s request and said, “Come”. Peter stepped out and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. All was well until, as the NIV words verse 30, “he saw the wind”. I’m not even going to go into how one sees the wind-that’s a different conversation entirely. But when Peter noticed the wind–however that happened–the Word tells us that he became afraid and began to sink. Peter had Jesus in the flesh, right in front him, but his eyes weren’t fixed on Him in this moment. He knew who Jesus was, he believed, he was experiencing the miracle of walking on water-and the swirling storm around him was enough to divert his attention and change his situation.

We can do the very same thing. We don’t have the physical embodiment of Jesus in front of us, as Peter did. No, we who know Jesus have the Holy Spirit living within us, teaching and guiding us in the way of the Kingdom, moment by moment… and we still get caught up in the storm rather than holding onto the hope that we have that there is a bigger story being written than what our eyes can see. Even with Kingdom vision, with spiritual eyes that see the Imago Dei in all people, with hearts that beat in rhythm with God’s own heart, our circumstances can loom large and cast doubt into our hope–if our eyes aren’t fixed on Him. What does that mean, “fixing our eyes”? In the Hebrews 12:2 verse that Luanne previously referenced, “fixing our eyes” literally means in the original Greek, “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something”. It also means “to turn one’s mind to” something. The definition necessitates a choice. We have to choose what we’re going to look at. Habakkuk chose to see the God who reigned above the chaos, outside of and apart from the storms around him. He chose to acknowledge His control and His higher thoughts and ways. He set his mind on what he knew to be true in the midst of a situation that could have imparted terror and panic into his head and heart.

We have the same choice. Luanne explained in her portion just how crazy the world around us has become. She identified the parallels between what Habakkuk and his people faced and what we are currently facing in our world today. We can’t not see what is happening. And we should feel bothered by and sense a responsibility toward the violence, the injustice, the chaos that’s all around us. But we get to choose what we fix our eyes on. And if we listen, we’ll hear God whispering the same message of hope to us that comes through in the story of Habakkuk: “Hold on. I’m at work. I know you see this… but I want you to fix your eyes on Me. I am here. I’m involved. And I’ll never walk away…”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Extra

In last week’s message, Pastor John tackled the hard-hitting subject of debt. This week, he talked about our extra. Whew…a lighter subject, right? Wrong. This may have been one of the most convicting messages I’ve ever heard. And I am grateful for it.

We all have extra. We may not have as much extra as someone else, but we all have it. We all have things that go beyond our basic needs–oftentimes, way beyond. John illustrated this through a series of questions, like:

Do you go out to eat even when you have food at home? Do you have a car? More than one? Cell phone? Seasonal wardrobes? More than one closet full of clothes? Extra freezers? Have you ever traded something in for an upgraded version, even if it wasn’t broken?

Our answers to these questions reveal that what we have goes way beyond “our daily bread” that we ask for in The Lord’s Prayer… And our extra is not limited to the “stuff” we possess-but we’ll get into that a little bit later…

John asserted that the answer to the question, “Why do I have so much?” is found in one word: Greed. The constant quest for more. We want more so that we can be more. He also said that when that “more” comes into our lives, we assume it’s for us. We feel entitled, like we deserve what we get…

The word deserve grabbed my attention… It’s a word we use all the time, but in this context, what does it mean? To feel like we deserve the extra we receive? Initially, my mind went to the prefix de-, indicating negation or separation. “Decompose” or “dethrone” are examples of using the prefix in this way. This was a compelling thought as I considered the implications of using de- in front of the word “serve”… If this application of the prefix is correct, then “deserve” would mean “to not serve”. It would imply that if we think we are “deserving” of something, we are actually choosing to not serve. But in this instance, “de” is not used as a prefix… and its actual meaning may be even more indicting…

“De” is a Latin word meaning down to the bottom, or completely. So the word “deserve” means to serve oneself completely. It doesn’t negate serving altogether, it just means that the only one we’re serving is ourselves.

Ouch.

We looked at the parable Jesus told about the rich fool in Luke 12. The ground of the rich man had produced a massive crop. There was so much extra, he had no place to store it all. He mistakenly assumed that the surplus was because of him and for him and he intended to hoard it all and spend the rest of his life eating, drinking and being merry (vs. 19). He took the posture of one who believed he deserved all that he had-and he aimed to serve himself completely with his extra for the remainder of his days. There was just one problem with his plan-he died that very night. And he went down in history as a fool. That became his legacy.

In the case of the rich fool, his surplus was given to someone else after he died. He just wasn’t around to be part of it–but it wasn’t because of his generosity that others benefited from his extra. This is the case with possessions-we only have them until we’re gone. Then someone else becomes the beneficiary of all of it. But what about everything else? What about all of the extra we’ve been given that isn’t stuff? What about our time, gifts, position, privilege, status? What about our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Is all of this not also extra? Do our hearts hoard these things? Do we serve ourselves completely with all that God has given us? These things don’t remain once we take our last breath, like our possessions do. When we die, if we’ve chosen to hoard this kind of extra, it all dies with us. That is a tragedy. We have to begin to see these things as part of our “extra” so that we don’t waste all that we have been given.

We wrongly assume that if we have more, we can do more for God. John reminded us on Sunday that it’s not what we have, but who we have that allows us to “do” anything for God.

He who did not spare [even] His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? ( Romans 8:32 Amplified Bible)

God has withheld no good thing from those who love Him. He gave us Jesus-He gave Himself. And He didn’t stop there. he also gave us His Kingdom. In the same chapter that we read about the rich fool, Jesus also speaks these words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32 NASB)

God has given Himself fully to us. He gave us life-twice; He gave us physical life-the breath in our lungs-and He gave us eternal life through the gift of His Son. He put His Spirit within us, providing fruit in our lives as well as gifts and talents and strengths that are unique to each one of His followers. He provides for our daily needs and exceeds them, giving us more than we know what to do with. And He has chosen gladly to give us the kingdom.

Pastor John said to us, “If the kingdom matters to you, you’ll leverage everything in your life for the kingdom”. 

Jesus said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT)

Above all else… As John asserted in his message, we don’t have the capability to “balance” multiple priorities. Balance only comes when we have only one priority. The right priority. His Kingdom. If we want to find balance, we must prioritize His Kingdom. And just as He has given Himself fully to us, we must give ourselves fully to Him in return, knowing that our lives are not about what we have, but who we have.

What has God given you? What has He given you in abundance? What gifts and abilities are being hoarded in your heart with no outlet, no place to go? God gives us more than we need, more than we can hold, so that we will open our hearts and our hands and share our abundance. So we can serve-because we actually don’t deserve any of what we’ve been given. If we are willing to give ourselves fully back to Him, then all the good that we have, everything we have been given, becomes a vehicle for spreading Kingdom seed. Will we choose to surrender everything into the hands that have so graciously given everything to us? Will we leave a legacy that resembles that of the rich fool or one  of someone willing to be scattered throughout the world as seed that will grow and impact the Kingdom of God for generations to come?

–Laura

I echo Laura’s “ouch!” Like Laura, I was deeply convicted during Pastor John’s message. Given the silence in the sanctuary, I think many of us were. Our cultural mindset, and our flesh nature lead us to believe that our lives are all about us, and that we have to look out for “#1”. The definition that Laura shared with us about “deserve” is sobering. Our self-serving gets us no-where good, and it is absolutely contrary to the heart of God, yet we try to make our greed work for us somehow.

In 1992, Christian singer Babbie Mason recorded a tongue in cheek song entitled “Shopping List”. The chorus went like this:

Gimme this, I want that,
Bless me Lord I pray.
Grant me what I think I need to make another day.
Make me wealthy. Keep me healthy.
Fill in what I miss
On my never-ending shopping list.

It’s a funny song, and it’s not. It’s not, because it is the Christianity of many of us. “Me, me, me, me, me.”  Yet God says, lift up your eyes, look outward with a heart of love– live for my Kingdom and I will supply all you need.  He makes it clear what we are to do with our “extra”.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19: 9-10)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”  (Dt 24:19-21)

That’s a pretty clear directive from God.

Ruth, the Moabite benefitted from this practice. It’s how she provided food for her mother in law, Naomi, and herself. In Ruth 2:2 she asks Naomi “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”  The last phrase of her request is interesting. It indicates that some of the land owners followed God’s directive, and some did not. Boaz did. Boaz’s generosity toward this foreigner led to their marriage, and led to Ruth being one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ.

In the New Testament we see a beautiful example of generosity in the life of Tabitha.

There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha (which in Greek is Dorcas). She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor.  About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room.  But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”  So Peter returned with them; and as soon as he arrived, they took him to the upstairs room. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and other clothes Dorcas had made for them.  But Peter asked them all to leave the room; then he knelt and prayed. Turning to the body he said, “Get up, Tabitha.” And she opened her eyes! When she saw Peter, she sat up! He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then he called in the widows and all the believers, and he presented her to them alive. (Acts 9:36-43 NLT)

Tabitha was a woman who used her “extra” to bless the poor and the widows, and God esteemed her ministry so much that he used Peter to raise her from the dead!

God’s word has much to tell us about living with a generous heart:

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (Dt 15:7-8)

Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; (Ps. 41:1-3)

Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. (Pr. 22:9)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share… (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

I could go on and on. There are also scriptures that are pretty clear about  greed.

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6: 9-10)

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

The greedy bring ruin to their households. (Pr. 15:27a)

The greedy stir up conflict, but those who trust in the Lord will prosper. (Pr 28:25)

Again, I could go on and on.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves rich and don’t want to give what we have, God’s word speaks to that as well. In Mark 12:41-44 we read this account:

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.

Jesus loves generosity. Generosity is a beautiful reflection of God’s heart, God who gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Everything we have comes from Him. Not only our material possessions, but all the food we eat, because he supplies dirt, sun, water, and causes things to grow–all of our modern conveniences because He supplies wind, sun rays, electric currents, etc. He has provided our personalities, our gifts, our brains. He provides the air that we breathe, the hearts that pump life blood through our bodies. It is all His.

Are we willing to acknowledge all that we have is His?  Are we willing to pray this prayer with King Solomon  “..don’t make me either rich or poor; just give me enough food for each day.  If I have too much, I might reject you and say, ‘I don’t know the Lord…(Pr 30:8-9)  Or like the Apostle Paul say… I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.  For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Ph 4:12-13)  Can we choose to give sacrificially like the widow, or even have the mindset of wealthy King David who said: I will not take what is yours and give it to the Lord. I will not present burnt offerings that have cost me nothing!” (1 Chron. 21:24)

True God-like generosity is something that we will all wrestle with. I look at my possessions, some of which stay in closets, and think about the money that was spent on those things. It would be easy for me to beat myself up over how many “extras” I have, but the better idea is to acknowledge my greed as sin, confess it, embrace God’s forgiveness, and move forward making different choices from this point on. Holy Spirit, help me to remember!

The heart and actions of the early church show us how a community of believers can truly leverage their lives for the Kingdom of heaven: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

People were more important than things. Community was more important than individualism. God was praised. People came to know Jesus as Savior and were reconciled back to God. Can we, the capital “C” church get back to this?  Only if we choose to leverage our lives for the Kingdom of God, seek His Kingdom first, and live generously.

Lord, help us to recognize our idols for what they are, help us to have the courage to destroy them, help us to have the courage to fully submit to You, and help us not to wait for someone else to go first. May we be a people who love You well by loving others well–in action and deed.

–Luanne

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Coming Together

1st Peter 5:8-11 “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers through the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To Him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

We have an enemy. He is real. He is mean. He hates God. He hates us. And His entire goal is our destruction.  Sometimes he’s subtle, sometimes he’s overt. He’s good at what he does.

So what does he do?  When we look at Isaiah 14: 12-14 we see that Satan wants to exalt himself, he wants to be like God, he wants to be worshiped. He even tried to tempt Jesus by promising to fast track Jesus to greatness if Jesus would bow down and worship him. (Mt. 4: 8-9) Basically, he wants us to worship anything but God. If he can’t get us to worship him, he wants us to worship ourselves, to make self the center of our universe. He’s fine if we worship other people, sports teams, food, created things, cars, clothes, political parties, political figures, ideologies, etc. And his main methodology is to lie.

Jesus tells us in John 8 that Satan is a liar, he’s been a liar since the beginning, and he’s the father of lies. I have fallen for his lies more than once. Some of the lies I’ve believed are that I’m invisible, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’ll never amount to anything, I’m friendless, I’m alone, I’m unlovable, I’m a bad mom, I’m a bad wife, I have to take care of myself, I’m unforgivable, God can’t use me because of my past— my list could go on and on. Many of the lies in this list have plagued me for years and can rear their ugly heads at any time.   So, I must be sober and alert and recognize them as the attacks they are when they come. And here’s the subtle thing, if I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship. Ugh!

John told us in his sermon that the word devour means to consume in order to replenish strength. That caught my attention. So if Satan is seeking someone to devour, he is looking for someone to consume so that he can replenish his strength. Put in those terms, I am absolutely certain that I do not want to feed him or participate in strengthening his destructive mission.

Satan, the liar, has also convinced many that he is the “good guy” the “fun one”, and God is the stern mean one. How many cartoon drawings have we seen where Satan is portrayed as mischievous, but not evil, and God is portrayed as ready to throw lightning bolts?  I’ve heard people blame God for all of the world’s evils and decide they’d rather spend eternity in hell with Satan than in heaven with a God who, in their minds, sends people to hell. They have believed a lie- a dangerous distortion- rather than embracing the truth that God loves us so much that He provided the only solution to hell in the death of His son.

So, how do we overcome? Or, as the title of this sermon in the “Coming Apart” series is, how do we “come together” after things have fallen apart?

We focus on the One who came to set us free. In Revelation 1:17, the apostle John has just described the image of Jesus that he is seeing, the one where Jesus has on a priestly robe, blazing eyes, white hair, and a sword coming out of  his mouth. When John sees him like this, he falls down as if dead. He faints. Think about how interesting that is. This is John, the beloved disciple, the dear friend of Jesus. John who writes prolifically about the love of God, the grace of God, the nearness of God. But in this scene, John sees his friend in an entirely new way. He sees Him as majestic in power, as mighty, and even as scary—enough so that he ended up unconscious on the ground. And this resurrected, ascended, scary Jesus reached out his right hand, touched John and told him not to be afraid.

I love that.  The resurrected, ascended, all-powerful Jesus is still gentle and kind.

Going back to 1st Peter 5, Peter tells us to resist the enemy who wants to destroy us by standing firm in the faith. He tells us that believers all over the world are suffering, and that we too will suffer.  But in the middle of all of that he says that the God of all grace—stop for a moment and think about that phrase—the God of all grace. (Doesn’t sound like a lightning bolt God to me.)— this God of all grace has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Stop. Think about that phrase too. He has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Peter continues by telling us that God himself will restore us, and make us strong, firm, and steadfast.

Pastor John taught us this morning that restore means to mend—completely and thoroughly mend us—put us back together, full restoration. He reminded us that healed broken bones become stronger at the point of the break once they are healed. God will heal our broken places and make us strong, he will establish us by setting a new direction for us that realigns us to him. He joins us where we are and takes us someplace new. He will make us firm and steadfast meaning that he will hold us up, he will shore us up, he will put all of our broken pieces back together. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, to walk with Him, to spend time with Him, to believe Him, to trust Him, to follow His lead, and he will mend us along the way.

The apostle John saw the glorified, all powerful Jesus, and it was so awesomely terrifying that he fainted. There is no doubt that scripture teaches about the almighty power of God. But guess what. His power is not against us, it is for us because He is for us. We must recognize the lies of the enemy that seek to destroy us and distance us from God, and replace them with God’s truth backed up by His word and the life of His son, and live from that place.

One more thought—1st Peter 5 tells us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray (Rev 12:9); the real Lion leads us into relationship with the God of all grace. Be sober, be alert, know that there is one who wants to devour you, but never forget that he has been defeated by the One who came to save you. Hold on to Truth. He is holding on to you.

To him be the power forever and ever. Amen!”

—Luanne

Luanne wrote that “Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray…”                     The counterfeit nature of our enemy is not creative. Ingenuity is not his strength. He comes after us the same way every time: as a fake, a fraud, an imitation of the real thing. He is desperately grasping at what he once had-what he can never have again. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, we’re told that he “masquerades as an angel of light”. Oftentimes, he comes to us not in all his evil, hateful nastiness, but as something that looks almost good. He is not a creator-but he is masterful in the art of imitating. If we’re not careful, if we’re not deeply connected to Jesus and focused on Him, we can mistake Satan’s lies as the voice of our Savior. He’s that good at lying, friends.

And he’s not only a liar-he is hateful and he is mean. So mean. If we begin to listen to his voice, we can begin to believe awful things about ourselves, about others and even about God. It made me cry to read my beautiful friend’s list of the lies she’s believed about herself. And I know Luanne’s list is not unique to her. I have a similar list-I’m fairly certain you do, too. The details of our lists are different, but the devil’s purpose is the same: To steal our God-given identities; to kill our purpose, our dreams, our hope, our faith; and to completely and utterly destroy us from the inside out.

So what do we do? How do we defend ourselves against a liar who has perfected his craft? I thought a lot about the first words of the first verse John read to us in his sermon, out of 1 Peter 5:8. The translation Luanne used above tells us to “be alert and of sober mind”. The translation John read used the words “self-controlled and alert”. I rolled the words around in my mind several times as I listened.

To defend against our very real enemy, we must be self-controlled and alert…so how do we do that?

WE don’t. Thankfully, our gracious, loving God didn’t leave us to figure it out on our own. Not only is the incomparably great power that raised Jesus from the dead for us (Ephesians 1:19-20); that very power lives in us (Romans 8:11) in the person of the Holy Spirit. And the self-control we need to have to combat the devils’s scheming in our lives? It is a fruit of that Spirit living within us. We cannot muster up the self-control on our own. Our humanity will fail us if we try to beat our enemy in the flesh. But as vessels that carry the very Spirit of God Himself, we have all of the power of our Risen Savior to draw on, to lean into, to rely on.

Luanne wrote these words above: “If I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship.” 

Absorption with self can also show itself in our attempts to fight our enemy on our own. Choosing not to draw from the endless well of power that we have access to through the Holy Spirit alive in us, choosing to wage war on our own, is not strength or courage. It is pride and foolishness and a win for our enemy as our focus is, once again, on ourselves.

It is only when we are connected to Jesus through His Spirit that we can even discern the object of our worship. Because it can be disguised so well… We can truly believe we are worshiping God, serving Him, loving Him-but in reality we are worshiping ourselves, serving ourselves and loving ourselves. The evidence that proves the real object of our worship is found on the inside, in the depths of our hearts. Sometimes, we can’t even discern the truth on our own. And so we have to regularly check ourselves. We have to not only stay alert to our enemy’s tactics, but also to the rhythms of our own hearts. How do we do that? We admit that we can’t do it alone and we ask, as the psalmist did:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.                     (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Spirit will reveal truth to our hearts-if we let Him. I am so grateful that we aren’t left alone to defend ourselves against our enemy. I’m grateful that baby Jesus grew up and that the Jesus I worship today is so powerful that His name alone makes demons scatter and flee. I love the tender, kind, gentle Savior He is to me–and–I love being reminded that His power is unmatchable, and totally FOR me and you.

I want to leave you with some words that speak beautifully to the power of our Jesus. We sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on Sunday. The words to this hymn were penned sometime before 800 AD by an unknown monk. Somewhere in a monastery, during what we refer to as “The Dark Ages”-a time when Scripture was inaccessible to most-someone got it. Someone understood the light, the power, the supremacy of our Jesus and the words had a profound impact on me today:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds and bring us light.

O come, Desire of nations, bind                                                                                                        All peoples in one heart and mind.                                                                                                 Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease                                                                                                      Fill all the world with heaven’s peace.
I pray that Jesus, who ransoms captives, who frees us from Satan’s tyranny and saves us from the depths of hell; Jesus, who gives us victory over the grave, who cheers our spirits, who drives away the dark of night; Jesus, who binds his people as one and destroys the quarreling and chaos and fills us with the peace of His heavenly kingdom–I pray that this Jesus will leave you in awe as you marvel at His power that is for you and alive in you. He is mighty to save us from the schemes of our enemy. Will we give Him the worship He is so worthy of? Will we lift our eyes from the chaos of our enemy and gaze into the face of the conquering lion? Our enemy has already been defeated. Let’s start living like we believe that’s true!

-Laura

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What About Me?

“The gospel isn’t just for abortionists, prostitutes, homosexuals; but for porn-addicted pastors, unconverted elders and self-righteous churchgoers.” -Burk Parsons

“Grace is not just ridiculous, it’s unfair–but somehow the Righteous Judge makes it work. Like the Bible says, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people‘ (Titus 2:11). For you. For me. For them. So (beautifully) unfair.”                                                   -Carlos Rodriguez, Drop the Stones

Michael reminded us this Sunday that the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is actually the story of two sons. Two very different sons who needed the very same grace. They were both consumed with self, as Michael pointed out. The younger with self-discovery, the older with self-salvation.

Michael spent the majority of the message on the older, less talked about son, and how resentment actually kept him from sharing in the heart of the father and the joy of the celebration.

What we don’t often talk about when we discuss this story is how the father had, in essence, lost both sons. One took his inheritance (which the father was under no obligation to give him, by the way, but gave him anyway…) and physically left. The other stayed, but relied upon his own obedience and righteousness, and served from a place of obligation rather than love.

And yet… the heart of the father runs after both sons. He breaks all cultural standards by literally running out to embrace his unclean, broken younger son; and again when he leaves his own party to go out and plead with his angry, entitled older son to come join the celebration. He chooses to go against the acceptable standards of his time and culture in order to display the wild, ridiculousness of grace and the extravagant love of a father toward all of his kids.

Michael said, “We can identify with both brothers at certain points, but we can develop the heart of the father. I think for many of us, we come to Jesus understanding our own “prodigalness”. We come hoping to be accepted-at least accepted enough to be saved-but what we receive is more than simply acceptance-it’s exactly what the younger brother received: sonship. We find ourselves welcomed into the family, as honored, beloved sons and daughters. Sometimes, we are met with the cold shoulder of older brothers among us. And sometimes, once we’re part of the family, we become the older brother. We can become defenders of fairness and righteousness, forgetting that it was the perfect justice–the setting-things-right heart–of our Father, not our own righteousness, that saved us in the first place. We grab onto self-righteousness and forget the extravagant grace that drew us into our Father’s arms. We begin to scream for fairness, forgetting that the grace that bought our salvation was anything but fair. That it was the ultimate unfairness that our perfect, sinless Jesus was murdered so that his murderers could have life.

I think maybe we waffle between identifying with the younger and older sons because we don’t quite understand what we’ve been invited into…

Once we’ve been given sonship, once extravagant grace has drawn us into the family, we no longer have to identify with either brother. Once we’re part of the family, the Father invites us to help Him host the party. To become vessels that carry the same love and grace we’ve received to the lost ones around us and among us. Our identity no longer has to come from which brother we most see ourselves in-it can now be rooted in the Father Himself.

So we get to choose. We get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace. We can choose to celebrate, to enter into Kingdom-minded, grateful, humble service-in the way of Jesus. Or, we can choose to hoard what we’ve received, to buy the deception that we’ve somehow earned our “place”. That we’re somehow entitled to grace. The decision we make matters more than we know. What are we modeling to those who feel unworthy of sonship? To those who have wasted time and money on wild, sinful living? To those who have been deceived by the lie that they can be good enough on their own and have no need for grace? The Father’s heart runs after ALL of His lost sons and daughters. Will we?

–Laura

Laura wrote, we get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace.

I think we all want to respond well, but it doesn’t take too much scrolling through comments on social media or news articles to realize that as a corporate society, we have real problems with grace, and a good bit of that comes from the Christian community.

I love that Michael pointed out that the biblical heading “The Prodigal Son” was a manmade construct. Jesus doesn’t use the word prodigal in the parable, and like Laura pointed out, Jesus begins the story by saying in Luke 15:11 “There was a man who had two sons…”  Going back to the beginning of chapter 15, we see that Jesus is speaking to tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2) It is in response to their muttering that Jesus begins to tell the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two sons.

The tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus. They sense his acceptance of them, his embrace, his love.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law are annoyed with Jesus. They can’t stand the fact that he fellowships with tax collectors and sinners, and they constantly criticize him. So in the context of these two groups, Jesus tells the story.

I have been both sons. I was the child who wandered far away, made self-destructive choices, knew that I deserved absolutely nothing, came crawling back to Jesus and he offered me his unfair grace. Where would I be without it! I’m so grateful!

However, knowing that I didn’t deserve that grace, I became performance driven. I was trying to make up for all the years that I’d messed up; therefore,  I wanted to be the perfect Christian.  Things got out of whack on the other end of the spectrum. I was doing a lot of comparing and was judging myself quite harshly. I couldn’t live up to my own standards, was upset with others who couldn’t live up to my standards, and I was pretty darn miserable.

God met me there as well. I was doing a Bible study called “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby, and came to a point in that study where God revealed to me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him on a barter system. “God, I’ll do such and such for you if you’ll guarantee me some things…”. Some of those things  were not dying while my children were young (like my mom did), not getting cancer, always having John to take care of me, that nothing bad would happen to my kids, financial security, and the like. God was very gentle, but very direct and said to me, “Suffering is part of living in a fallen world, but I am with you, I will always be with you, and I love you. You have to surrender and trust me if you’re not going to stay stuck.”

Can I just say, ugh!!  I knew He was right, and I didn’t like it. Michael said in his sermon that the older brother tried to control the father through his obedience and righteousness. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to control God. I wouldn’t have worded it that way, but that was it exactly.  I wish I could tell you that I surrendered in that moment, but it took about ten days of wrestling, not sleeping, not eating, and not wanting to do life God’s way with no guarantees other than He loves me, and He is with me. I really wanted Him to do it my way, but was finally exhausted and gave in. And when I gave in, the peace that flooded my life and the joy were indescribable. The burden of obligation was lifted and my relationship with Him has been real, and relevant, and growing, and powerful since that time. Some life crushing events have happened since that Bible study 25 years ago, and He has shown me over and over that He is God and He is enough.

Like the older son, I learned that obedience out of obligation and moral conformity leads to resentment. I feel like that’s where a lot of society lands right now, and resentment makes us mean.  So while we’re refusing to join the celebration, the Father comes to us and says, “will you surrender wanting to do this your way?”  He invites us to the feast.

When we live in the mindset of the older brother, our relationship with the Father becomes about us. He says to his father in verse 29…”all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” The emphasis is all on himself, what he thinks he deserves, what he thinks he’s entitled to,  and what he thinks his brother is not entitled to.

And the father gently reminds him that he has always been with him, that everything he owns is shared with his son, and then says, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” (31)

In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that He has come to give us life to the full. And in Luke 19:10, Jesus tells us that He has come to seek and save the lost.

Both sons have lived on the thief side of John 10:10. The youngest son has returned and is experiencing the Jesus side of that verse.  And the Father has demonstrated Luke 19:10 to both sons. He ran to the youngest, and has gone out to the oldest.

He is offering his oldest son grace. Grace to come in, to participate in the celebration, to be part of the rejoicing in heaven because a sinner has repented and come home.  He is offering his oldest the chance to also repent and come home. Jesus leaves us hanging at the end of the story. We don’t know what the oldest son decides. The Pharisees and teachers of the law have heard the story with their ears. Have they heard it with their hearts? Have we?

The Father stands in the middle between both sides, the broken, fallen, destitute son, and the self-righteous son and says “come”.  May we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as He works to develop  the heart of the Father in us, so that we can set aside “fair” and fully embrace the world with His unfair grace and love.

—Luanne

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Stories: Ashley & Allyson

Ashley, Allyson, their birth children, and Jase—it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story, the only one that matters.

Ashley shared that he was raised in a Jewish home, his parents divorced right around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, and he spiraled down, down, down. After a few years of living in the pit, an African American family invited him to a prayer service. They explained through the scriptures about God’s love and who Jesus is. Ashley met Jesus that night, and his life was forever changed. Then, the African American family took Ashley under their wing. They discipled him for six months and he became part of their family. I love that so much! The picture of the Kingdom of God, the reaching out across ethnic groups, the spiritual adoption of Ashley by God, and the spiritual adoption of Ashley by a beautiful family that loved God and loved Ashley is what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.

Allyson shared that she was raised in an atheist home with 14 kids, 11 of whom were adopted. There was a lot of dysfunction in her home, and much pain. She did not think too highly of the whole adoption thing. She came into a relationship with Christ when she was 18, shortly after she met Ashley.

Fast forward a few years, Ashley and Allyson have three daughters and a son. Life is good. They are happy. And boom! At a high school soccer game, a friend of one of their daughters asks the daughters if their family would be interested in hosting a little boy from China for a few weeks. She gives them the information she has, they take it home and show it to their parents. Because the little boy’s initial paperwork had been lost, it was crunch time, so a decision needed to be made in about 24 hours. Can you imagine?  Well, Ashley and Allyson and the kids prayed about it, and decided to say yes to hosting Li.

Six year old Li arrives, he speaks no English, he has no idea what is going on, and he’s a little wild. They keep calling him Li but he doesn’t answer.  Eventually they discover that he’s not answering because that’s not his name. His Chinese name is difficult to pronounce, and thus the hosting begins.

While they are hosting Li, Ashley sends a letter to some of their friends asking them to pray about a forever family for Li; they are praying at home too. Each evening after they put Li to bed, they ask their kids what God is saying to them and showing them in scripture. The two girls who still live at home are absolutely sure that Li needs to be part of their family, the 13 year old son, who is sharing his bedroom with Li, wants to send him back to China.

Ashley begins to get confirmation through scripture that God wants them to adopt Li. He is pondering verses like Psalm 68:5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”  Psalm 146: 9 “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow…”. Luke 14: 21b “…go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”  And James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. “  He is beginning to believe that they are the “forever family” that they are praying for.

Allyson is in her own wrestling match. Her family of origin adoption story left her feeling less than warm and fuzzy about it all, and as she wrestled through her reasons, she realized that any reason she had for saying no was basically selfish. God reminded her that adoption is his idea and asked her if she’d be willing to let him do a new thing, but she didn’t get to her “yes” until they were on a trip to Yellowstone and Li jumped out of the car and almost got hit by another car. The whole family was shaken up. Allyson said that she was struck by the fact that if he’d been hit by a car, he could have died, or been hospitalized and would not have been able to return to China at the expected time. Then it dawned on her…no one cared if he returned. There was no one in China wondering about him, no one who cared if he was getting enough to eat, or getting enough sleep, or if he was learning anything. There was no one for him to return to in China. She realized that she loved him, she cared about all of those things, and she was ready to say yes.

There was still the hurdle of the youngest son. He and Li struggled. Li broke his toys, blamed him for everything, and had changed his world. One particularly difficult day, the son accidentally shut Li’s fingers in the door while trying to get away from him. He felt horrible. That night, as the family convened to see where they were, both Ashley and Allyson were convinced that their son would again say “send him back”, especially after the difficult day. But instead, with tears streaming down his face, he said, “We need to adopt him. He needs a daddy to love him, he needs a family, we need to bring him home.”

Fourteen months later, they went to China and brought him home. They changed his name to Jase (which means healing) Jackson (God is gracious).  And anyone who has come into contact with Jase, knows what a special young man he is.

Ashley and Allyson each have their own story of past brokenness. They came into relationship with Christ because other people reached across perceived barriers and loved them into the Kingdom. As they walk closely with their Heavenly Father, they listen to Him, seek Him, and step out in faith to follow in obedience, without having to know all of the details. Through this relationship, they became the physical manifestation of the love of God to Jase. The friend of their daughters who spoke up about the need reminds me of something that Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission says. He says that raising awareness is doing the work of justice. She shared a need that she knew of, and God used her sharing that need to change a little boy’s life, and a family’s life. The daughters were enthusiastically ready to embrace Jase from the moment they knew that he existed. They joyfully embraced the idea, and welcomed Jase with open arms. The youngest son, who wasn’t  too excited about the idea, who  resisted the change and closed his heart for a season, let God do a work in him, and finally opened his heart to receive and embrace his younger brother.

This is a living illustration of the church. We have a loving Father who wants everyone to come into His family. His arms are open wide. Are ours?  The entire Bright family had to make adjustments when Jase joined them. Allyson says that he was wild when he first came. Ashley says that he resisted being touched, but would allow Ashley to carry him because he was weak and couldn’t walk well. Allyson said he wasn’t wanted in China because of a birth defect, so he was considered damaged goods, and she reminded us that we are all damaged goods.  Allyson also learned that in the orphanages, often times the names they were called  were merely descriptions for their physical disablilties or identified what orphanage they were in…labels, not names.  And now? Jase has a beautiful new name with a new meaning, he has a family who loves him, siblings who love him, and God is using his story to reach many many others.

If we think about Jase as the representative of the lost people around us, are we willing to make room at the table for them? Are we willing to love them as they are in all their “wildness”? Are we willing to carry them until they gain health and strength? Are we willing to patiently teach them a new language, the language of grace, of love? Are we willing to look past their labels, see them as beloved, chosen, children of God and call them by that new name? Are we willing to embrace them with joy? If we are still honestly struggling with reluctance because embracing someone new will change the “family” dynamics, are we willing to wrestle it through because we know that the world needs a Daddy who loves them? Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?

—Luanne

I will start where Luanne finished:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Adoption stories, redemption stories, they stir our hearts. They make us feel. The sniffles and tears were not isolated to a few of us as the Brights shared their story. Many boxes of tissues were depleted as we listened. I think part of the reason for the emotion is exactly what Luanne shared above, “…it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story…”. We see ourselves in these stories-because it’s our story, too.

I am concerned, though, that many of us stop there. We hear the beautiful story, shed a few tears, and go on about our lives. We stop short of embracing our call-the call that God has given ALL of us…

Ashley identified that throughout his spiritual journey, the Word of God built the foundation for his eventual willingness to adopt Jase into his family. He learned that God is a Father to the fatherless and that He calls us to take care of widows and orphans, that how we treat “the least of these” and the “lasts” among us matters to Him. That caring for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized is actually the “pure and faultless religion” that our God requires.

This call that Ashley sensed through Scripture is not unique to him. It is the call for all of us as the family of God. It won’t look the same for each one of us, but it does apply to all of us.

This is where it gets hard, friends. Here is Luanne’s question again:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Making sacrifices is difficult, because, well, they’re sacrifices. One of the definitions of the word is “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else“. 

Ashley said that bringing Jase into their family required learning new steps in the dance that they were accustomed to. Taylor, Jase’s big sister, added, “We didn’t just have to learn new steps-we received a whole new sheet of music”. Not only did the natural rhythm of the Bright family have to adapt to include another member–their entire soundtrack was replaced with songs that were completely new to them. Their taste in music had to change in order to fully embrace this precious, newest member of the family. They had to surrender their old soundtrack, for the sake of someone else.

Are we, as a family of believers, willing to let go of our old familiar steps and learn a new dance in order to welcome in those who need a family? Are we willing to be flexible with our song sheets and make adjustments when necessary? Is bringing someone home more important to us than clinging to what has become routine, normal, “just the way it’s always been”?

If we desire to see the family grow, we have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of those we long to bring home. What those sacrifices are will vary person to person, but here are some things that we can apply from the Bright’s story…

We will have to be willing to sacrifice our time and our energy on behalf of others. Allyson shared that the first month that Jase was with them, family members had to physically hang onto him to keep him alive. He wasn’t aware of all the ways he could be in danger, and when he was aware, he wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way. He needed their physical presence to protect him, to teach him how to stay out of dangerous situations. The same can be true for new believers. If we are going to embrace the broken, addicted, damaged sinner (…this is all of us at different points in our journeys…), we have to be willing to be proximate. To commit to the process, the long-haul, the discipling that we are all called to do when bringing others into the family.

But what if they push us away? We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Jase stayed “an arm’s length away” for a while. He wouldn’t allow himself to be embraced. He had never before known what being chosen felt like and he needed time to learn to trust his new family. Can we give new family members the grace and time they need to learn to trust us? Can we love them well from as close as they’ll allow us to get to them and be patient with their broken hearts? Or do we have an agenda that we will demand adherence to before we will accept someone new?

Ashley said that they asked their kids, “Are you willing to give up the house if we have to?”. That question hit me pretty hard. A family’s home is their sacred space, a reflection of who they are, a refuge. But the Bright’s house isn’t what gives their family its identity. Rather, its their family that differentiates their house from any other grouping of walls and rooms. If they had to, they would have left their house and made a new home elsewhere in order to bring Jase home. He was the priority. He needed a family, not a house. They were willing to do whatever they had to do, to surrender whatever they had to for the sake of one. For their son, their brother, the missing piece of their family.

So how far are we willing to go? Is our goal to bring more people into the house? Or to set the lonely in families, to provide a home for widows and orphans? Will we sacrifice everything for the one? Will we have the courage to set aside the “house rules” and welcome the foreigner, the brother or sister that doesn’t look like us, talk like us or dance like us? And could we not only welcome them into our family, but allow them to change us for the better? To learn new notes and new steps from them and their experiences and add them to our own? If we are willing to do whatever it takes to bring our family home, we will find ourselves dancing to a song that sounds a whole lot like what Revelation 7:9-10 describes:

“I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!” (MSG)

So I’ll ask what Luanne asked, one last time:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

 

–Laura

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