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

Image result for i will not leave you as orphans

Stories—Dave H.

Around two months ago I was praying over the state of the church in America (which I do often), I was lamenting  the fact that the Jesus portrayed by many doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the Bible; I was asking God how on earth we got so sidetracked—so mean, and asking Him to open our eyes, open our hearts, lead us to corporate repentance, and draw us back to the simplicity of the gospel message.

As I was praying, God led me to ponder one of the verses that is often used to “lead people to the Lord”—Romans 10:9  “…If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” As I thought about that verse, it dawned on me that we typically emphasize confess with your mouth  and believe in your heart, but the heart of that verse is Jesus is LORD. I believe some of us have missed that  along the way.

The word “Lord” is Kyrios in the Greek. and according to Strong’s Concordance, Lord means: He to whom a person or thing belongs…the owner; one who has control of the person; the master. 

When we surrender our lives to the lordship of Christ—we are saying, You own me. You are my master. You get to decide what my life is going to be about. I choose to obey you. That’s a concept that sounds scary and unpleasant, and would be if another human were our Lord—but belonging to Jesus and letting him lead us is where real life is found.

So, Sunday morning in our stories series, as Dave shared his story, my mind went right to this place. Dave shared with us that he was raised in church. When he was 7 or 8 years old he decided that he probably ought to be baptized, because he knew it was the right thing to do. So he went forward, said all the right things, got baptized, and left the church that morning unchanged. In his words, he went in dry and came out wet.

I can relate to that part of Dave’s story; When I was a child, our church showed a Billy Graham film during the Sunday evening service and many of my eight year old friends and I went forward at the end of that film. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I was not going to be left out! Many of my friends went on to be baptized shortly after that, but my pastor—who just so happened to be my dad—said that he wanted me to wait. I was really frustrated with him. I thought it was unfair that my friends were being baptized, but not me. In retrospect,  I am deeply grateful for my dad’s wisdom and discernment. He knew that I hadn’t had a real encounter with Jesus—I was just doing the right thing so I could be part of the group. The following summer, the real Jesus made His presence known to me in my bedroom. Can’t explain that, but He was there. I felt His love and I knew I would never be the same. I made my decision to follow Him public in my church, and was baptized a short time later. (Interestingly, even though I had a very real encounter with Jesus, when life got hard a few years later, I chose to try to be Lord of my own life (which was disastrous), but the Holy Spirit never left me alone and even though there were very real consequences to my choices, God never left me; he wooed me constantly.)

Dave confessed that he had been a pretender for a lot of years. He went to church, he even went to Bible College, but he knew that He didn’t have a relationship with God. He also knew that God was pursuing him, but he ignored God’s pursuit, tried to push it to the back of his mind. (I love that God pursues us when we don’t know Him, and he pursues us when we’ve wandered away from Him.) In Dave’s story, it took his life falling apart, bringing him to the end of himself and his perceived self-sufficiency to finally realize that his only hope was Jesus alone. He cried out—he says he literally cried, bawled his eyes out, and cried out to God. He knew, just like I did in my bedroom, that Jesus saved him in that moment and the Holy Spirit entered his life. He immediately felt peace, joy, relief, loved—all the beautiful inexplicable things that come with surrender. His life has never been the same.

That’s what happens when we come into a real relationship with Jesus. We know that something beautiful and supernatural has taken place in our lives, and we know that we will never be the same. We want Him to be Lord, to be our Master, to take control of our lives and lead us. We want to do life His way. It’s not a burden, it’s a joy.

Dave closed first service by saying these words: Some of you may be able to relate to my story. Some of you may be pretenders, running from God. If you are in that place, I would beg and urge you to get out of that place and give your life to Jesus Christ. It matters not what anyone else thinks—the only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Christ. What matters most at the end of the day is a personal relationship with Jesus. 

Dave is no longer a pretender. He says that when God became real to him, he himself became real. Many of us, who have known Dave for the last six or so years have been honored to watch him transform from the inside out. He was gruff, argumentative, and a little scary when he first came around. Now, it’s hard to describe what a gentle man he is. Joy flows out of him. His worship is uninhibited, he is full of generosity and encouragement… I love that. Nothing is better than submitting to the only true Lord, becoming the real people we were made to be, living out the purpose for which we were created. When we live that way, the fruit of that relationship spills out and over onto those around us, and it’s that love, and the kindness of the Lord that draws people to Him.

It used to be that church was part of Dave’s life, but Christ wasn’t. That is no longer the truth in Dave’s life, and the evidence of Christ in his life is real.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that ˆnot everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 

Dave admits that in the past he went through the Christian motions, he looked okay on the outside, but his life was filled with inner turmoil, until he came into a real relationship with a very real, very loving God through Jesus. Now when he calls Jesus his Lord, it’s not just a phrase, it’s his life.

What about you? Do you really know Him? Has your life been changed because of Him? Have you done more than said words with your mouth, have you surrendered your life to Him as your Lord in the truest sense of that word? I hope so. Everything in your life hinges on this one choice. He is so worth it! Nothing compares to His love.

—Luanne

Dave said he was a “pretender” most of his life. So was I. Our stories are different, but that word and its synonyms still prick my heart a little when I hear them. Maybe that’s because a little bit of the old me still fights for life deep down in my heart. Occasionally, she surfaces. And as much as I would rather hide, God is nudging me to share a little more about my own story here. The tears welling up as I write are evidence of the resistance in my heart. This is a vulnerable, tender space… But I know that to grow, we have to be willing to risk. To risk vulnerability, to risk being misunderstood-the way Dave risked this weekend.

Like Dave, I gave my life to Jesus as a young child. I was eight years old. Soon after, I was baptized. Also like Dave, I looked like a “Christian” on the outside. But this is where our stories begin to look different. I bought my own act…

Did you know that you can get so good at pretending that you eventually believe it yourself?

I didn’t know that. I didn’t know I was pretending. I didn’t know that having a relationship with Jesus actually meant freedom from pretending and permission to be real. That wasn’t my experience. As I understood it, living for Jesus-doing it “right”-took work. A lot of work. So I waded deeper and deeper into the pool of perfectionism. I was great at it. So great at it, in fact, that it would take years before I began to see it for what it was.

I will say right here that I believe my relationship with Jesus began the day my eight-year-old little girl heart chose to accept His gift of salvation. I sensed Him, and in ways I couldn’t understand, I loved Him and longed for Him. And He accepted me right where I was, with whatever faith I had then. He pursued me throughout my childhood, He pursued me through all of my pretending, and He pursues me today. I don’t believe my salvation was in question. But I had no idea what it meant to live real.

I was in elementary school the first time someone called me “fake”. My feelings were hurt for reasons I couldn’t yet articulate. But mostly, I just didn’t understand. I was a model student, teacher’s pet, obedient daughter, nice to everyone. I read my bible and I told my friends about Jesus. I was exactly who I was expected to be. If those expectations changed, so did I. I thought that’s what good girls did

That wouldn’t be the last time the word “fake” was used to describe me. It kept happening as I grew up. I still didn’t understand, and I grew more and more defensive at the accusation. It felt mean, like an attack on my very identity. It would still be years before I began to discover what my real identity is…

Fast forward to my early twenties… As an adult, married woman with children, things looked good on the outside. I had made awful decisions as a teenager, when the perfectionism couldn’t be maintained and rebellion took over. But now, I was faithful in church, serving in multiple areas, growing in my relationship with God.

And I was exhausted. So tired of the upkeep this inner perfectionist demanded. But by now, the “fake” was so much a part of me, it was the realest thing I knew. The verse “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became my favorite in that season of my life-I wanted that so badly. But I had no idea how to be still. There was too much to be done, too many people to perform for.

We started attending FBC in May 2010. And God, in His goodness, began to deconstruct everything I believed about Him-and about myself.

The journey has been unbelievably painful. And unexpectedly beautiful…

As I entered into life and serving at FBC, I began to hear familiar things from people who didn’t know me well. They wanted me to be real, authentic, to stop performing. And I took offense. I got defensive. The little girl who always felt like a victim was hyper-aware of how unsafe this felt. But something was different this time… These people called me out for the fraud I was-AND, they were willing to help me out of the pit. I hadn’t experienced this before. I had been accused of much in the past. I had gotten used to hearing hurtful things. But I wasn’t used to people coming alongside me in my pain and offering me the help I didn’t know I needed. The journey to becoming real-there aren’t really words to adequately capture how painful it can be. But like Dave, I found myself tired of running and desperate for Jesus. And God, in His constant, perfect pursuit of me, used people who were real to teach me what I was missing in my relationship with Him. I was never going to live into the purpose and calling He had for me until I learned who “me” really was. You know what? I found out that I actually like me. And other people do, too. God loved me at every stage of my growth, in His perfect way. But He wanted me to love me, too. To find myself within His love, as His Beloved. He knew of course, that everything flows out of the knowledge that I am fully known and fully loved by Him. And freedom would come when I was willing to be fully known and fully loved by others. And, it was only then that I was truly free to love my neighbor. All of my neighbors.

I wish I could tell you that one day I woke up and the “pretender” I’d been was completely gone, never to be seen again. But that wouldn’t be true…

I still struggle. There are times I find myself performing as I sing, rather than worshiping. Other times I gauge my gift as a writer by how many likes a blog post gets. Sometimes, I hide my hurt feelings from my friends, and ignore my own convictions in order to keep the peace. I say I’m fine when I need to reach out. I hide behind others because I’m afraid of my own calling. I don’t step out for fear that I’m still a fraud. There’s so much more to this story, so many reasons for the pretending, so many examples of how that played (and sometimes still plays) out in my life… I’ll save that for another day. For now, what’s important is what Dave said at the end of what he shared. Luanne wrote it above, and I’m writing it again because it’s just that important:

“It matters not what anybody else thinks. The only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. We can say the prayer, get dunked in the water, and still not submit our lives to the Lordship of Jesus. We can even think we’re doing it right, and so deceive ourselves. But when things get hard, when we find ourselves in pits of our own digging, that’s where the truth comes out. Is Jesus really ALL to us? Have we become who He knit us to be in our mother’s wombs before one of our days came to be? (Psalm 139:13-16) Or have we chosen a counterfeit version of His original creation? Have we become pretenders even in our pursuit of Him? I lived so much of my life as a pretender. I hated myself and other people weren’t too fond of me either… But what matters now is what mattered then-Jesus thought I was worth pursuing. He had more for me, like He had more for Dave. Like He has more for you. I never want to go backwards-and I pray that by His grace and constant pursuit of me, I won’t. Freedom, realness, knowing the real God-there’s nothing on earth that compares. Are you pretending? Will you let Him love you past all the striving and bravely lay down the masks so you can experience living real, too?

–Laura

brennan manning

God’s Guidance

I had a delightful friend in college who was born blind. She was very independent, lived in the dorm, used a cane, and got around remarkably well. One evening I was looking out the window of my dorm room and saw her heading toward the normal sidewalk that would take her to the commons; however, this particular evening someone had parked their car on the striped “no parking” lines and had blocked the sidewalk. Jana tapped her way along her normal route, but the car in that spot threw her off and she became disoriented. I didn’t even take the time to put on shoes, and ran as quickly as I could down the stairs and out of the dorm to offer her assistance. I explained to her what had happened, offered her my arm, and we headed to the commons together, having great conversation as we went.

It has been a long time since I’ve thought about that incident, but it popped right into my head when John read Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them: I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”

God’s guidance–what a gift!

I don’t know if we post-resurrection Jesus followers truly understand the incredible gift we have. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God wasn’t in common people. Some people were anointed by the Spirit and they gave God’s message to others. Sometimes God sent angelic beings to speak to people, but the majority of the people had no intimate connection with God, so seeking His guidance was difficult. If there was no “anointed” person around, the people floundered. In the book of Judges, verses 17:6 and 21:25  tell us that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”,  which led them into bondage and misery.

But God had a plan. Through the prophet Ezekiel God told us, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (36:26-27) 

Jesus reiterates the same promise in John 14:16-17 when he tells his disciples “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Back to my story with Jana–I could have watched Jana in her confusion hoping that she’d get it figured out on her own, or I could have opened the window and hollered instructions to her, but indifference or instruction from a distance wouldn’t have sufficed. Presence, proximity, and physical contact were what was needed, and it was a joy to be able to assist her in that way.

If we look closely at the Ezekiel and John verses, they imply incredible intimacy. The word “put” implies a hands on action, and His Spirit in us…it’s mind blowing–deeply personal, deeply intimate. Words will never be able to express the awe-inspiring greatness of that reality.

Guidance implies proximity and movement. I went to Jana, got near her.  She took my arm, and I led her to her destination. It would have been silly for us to just stand there. The same is true in our relationship with Christ.

The Holy Spirit is in those who have submitted their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and one of His roles is to guide us, not from afar, but in “within us” nearness. The Holy Spirit is very much alive, very much active; He knows where we are headed and He knows how to get us there.  He works in tandem with the word of God to lead us where He wants us to go. Hunting guides, fishing guides, trail guides etc. are all present in their guiding. They teach, they lead, they guide. The role of the follower is to listen, to imitate, to follow. Independence will not serve the follower well.

The Holy Spirit is present and longing to be our guide. Do we take time to seek Him? Do we make time to be still and listen?  Independence will not serve us well. God has a mission for us. Will we take His arm and let Him lead?

–Luanne

Luanne articulated that it would have been silly for her and Jana to just stand there, not moving, and that the same is true in our relationships with Christ. And yet… is that not exactly what we do much of the time? John took it one step further Sunday when he said that not moving when God is trying to lead us is actually disobedience. I don’t think we are often deliberately disobedient in our walks with Christ, (although, admittedly, there are times I have told Him no when I knew he required my yes–so grateful for grace!) but it’s easier than we may readily realize to find ourselves in a stance of disobedience.

John articulated one of the reasons we can find ourselves standing still as fear of doing it wrong. This is a huge part of my story. I spent most of my life drowning in seas of insecurity, feeling incapable and worthless and just plain not enough. So when God began to ask me to step out and let Him lead me deeper into the waves, my first instinct was to dig in my heels and rattle off all of the reasons why I couldn’t. Honestly? Sometimes that’s still my first instinct. The fear of doing it wrong–whatever “it” is in any given season–is a formidable obstacle. If we don’t understand the heart of our God.

I was there. I was living out of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life. The tree of striving and performing even while knowing it’s never going to be good enough, instead of the tree that reminds us that Jesus is the good enough we can never be. He offers His more than enough through the power of His Spirit to equip us to follow where He leads. But if we don’t understand the tender heart of the Shepherd toward His sheep, it’s easy to stand still out of fear rather than respond to His voice. So what is His heart toward us as He leads us? Here are just a few examples…

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:11

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soulHe guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Psalm 23:2-3

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frameYou will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26

In these four verses, we read that God tends to us, gathers and carries and gently leads us, makes us lie down and refreshes our souls. He satisfies our needs and strengthens our frames. And His Spirit helps us in our weakness and even intercedes for us when we can’t find the words to pray. This is Who we follow. And when we see Him, when we begin to grasp the extravagant gift of His Spirit residing IN us, fear of doing it wrong fades as we realize that we never had the ability to do it right on our own and we never will. It is only through the power of His Spirit and the living guidance of His word that we can follow where He leads. And that frees us up to take the next step. Because it was never meant to be done in our own power. In fact, “taking the next step” isn’t all our own doing either…

If Jesus is truly our Lord, if we have submitted our lives to Him, then His Spirit lives within us. In the Ezekiel 36 passage Luanne included, God says “…I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow…”. There are two actions mentioned here–“put” and “move”. God puts His Spirit in us in a holy transaction that brings our dead souls to life. AND, He moves us to follow. So our “next step” is never taken in our own strength. God moves us to follow Him, “For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 Amplified).

What a good Father He is… He sent Jesus to die so we could live. He gave us His Spirit so we will never walk alone. He gives us the longing and the ability to do what He is calling us to do so we never have to muster up the “want to” or strive beyond our capabilities… He works within us and moves us–even when we feel paralyzed by fear. And even when we try to run the other way, far from Him, He never leaves us. Because we serve a God who is with us. A God who makes His home inside of us. This is the God who leads us. Will we surrender our fearful hearts to the One who is already holding them in His tender, loving hands?

–Laura

spirit lead me

Colossians Week 2: Do you know what you’re doing?

What are your priorities? Your passions? Do you know what your purpose is?

These are a few of the questions John put before us as he led us further into our study of Colossians. This weekend, we covered verses 9-14. This is how The Message translates this part of Paul’s prayer:

Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us. God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.

“Juggling more than one priority is exhausting–and it’s actually impossible. We were never meant to have a divided heart.”

When John spoke these words, he was highlighting a truth that we don’t often acknowledge, a thought that is counter-cultural in a world that tells us to list our priorities in an attempt to better organize our lives. His point was simply that it doesn’t matter what occupies space #2, 3, 4, 5, etc… The only thing that matters is what sits in the #1 slot. Whatever is first in our lives is what drives our passion, what dictates our purpose. Everything else is wrapped up in priority #1.

What sits at #1 on your list? Ultimately, it comes down to one of two answers–it’s God or it’s ourselves. Friends, this is a huge deal. If God is first, if He is our priority, then our passion is wrapped up in Him. And if He is our priority and passion, we will know our purpose. If He’s first in our lives, we will be willing to do whatever He asks us to do–and we have the potential to change the world. The whole world can change from one undivided heart that is fully sold out to Jesus.

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19 NIV)

God wants us to have an undivided heart. He says He will give it to us. Are we willing to receive it? An undivided, surrendered heart in one individual is powerful. A group of these sold-out individuals can move a church and a community out of apathy and complacency (the kind of indifference and lack of momentum that causes 1,750 churches per month in the United States to close their doors!) and into a future marked by passion and momentum. And the body of Christ living this way, united under one name, the highest name, the name of Jesus Christ? This is what ushers in the Kingdom of God-this is what causes the world to believe!! In  John 17:21, Jesus says these words:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me [this is us, friends] through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Paul’s letter encourages readers to walk well, be strong & endure and to be thankful. I want to share with you a couple of letters in closing. In case you have any doubt that one undivided heart can change the world…

Letter #1:

“I want to be remembered for how I enjoyed life and loved the Lord… The journey has not been easy… The Lord was with me every step. He held my hand through it all. As I surrendered my heart to Him, I was able to know Him in a way I always wanted. I never thought it would be possible to know Him so deeply. The Lord became everything to me during this time. Every day I chose to live for Him… To bring Him glory… I can actually say, ‘I would do it all again’, knowing how close I was able to get to my Father in Heaven. The intimacy I found cannot be obtained anywhere but with the Father. It is so beautiful. I pray that all of you would find the Lord in an intimate, deep way. I was able to thank God for my illnesses. I found a place in the pain to turn and surrender everything in my life to my Lord… I pray the Lord will bless you with showers of blessings… I hope the Holy Spirit will bring you joy and peace. I love you all so dearly. Keep fighting-and endure.”

Letter #2:

“You are a very special woman. You changed many people’s lives-including mine. You are so close to God and have taught me to be, too. I love you so much…You are so great… I will never forget you. I will endure on God always.”

The first letter was written by a woman on her death bed. She wrote it to be read at her memorial service. The second was written by the woman’s nine year old granddaughter the day before the woman went to be with the Lord.

My mom wrote the first one. My daughter wrote the second. Every day I see my mom’s influence in my girl. I watch in awe as the honest wrestling and the willing surrender plays out in the life of my now twelve year old. My mom didn’t know how far reaching her purpose would be. It outlived her. But make no mistake, one undivided heart–one life fully surrendered, a life whose one priority is God & His Kingdom–will impact other lives. One life has the potential to change the world.

Do you believe that? Are you willing to live a life like that?

–Laura

I love that Laura included the excerpt from her precious mother’s letter, and the response of her daughter.  One life lived “all in” for Christ has a ripple effect that can’t be measured. Laura’s mom is a perfect example of that.

John said, “We think gospel expansion happens because of super stars like Paul”, or we think it’s the pastor’s job, and then he reminded us of all the regular people  that Paul mentions in his letters–women, men, slaves, soldiers, fellow prisoners, free people–people like you, people like me–we are God’s plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  And then he shared this sobering thought, “The Kingdom of God either grows or doesn’t based on our passions and our priorities. What we do as individuals and as a church body either advances the Kingdom or hinders the Kingdom.” Even as I type those words, I feel the increase in the beat of my heart. I so desperately want to see every Christ follower fully sold out to God’s mission–it is the only way to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises. It’s the only way to experience intimacy with God. It’s the only way to experience true freedom. And it’s the only way to change the world.

How does it happen? We can’t be motivated by the “should”. That will never be sustainable. It has to be motivated by love and by gratitude. John pointed out that we talk about what we are grateful for. If a stranger buys our coffee, we tell people. If someone lets us get in front of them in line, we tell people. If we see something wonderful, we tell people. We talk about the gifts we receive, the kindnesses extended to us, the beauty all around that captures our attention–the things that we are grateful for.

Verses 12-14 of Colossians 1 say “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 

We all used to live in the dominion of darkness.  Pause and think about that for a second. The dominion of darkness was our home, and we had no way to escape it on our own. We were prisoners. But God the Father, who loves us so much, qualified us (made us sufficient, rendered us fit) to become citizens of the kingdom of light, the kingdom of His Son, Jesus. And how did God qualify us? He took all of our darkness, all of our personal failures, every moment of our lives that we have fallen short of living for God’s glory and put it all on Jesus–2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that Jesus didn’t just carry our sin–He became our sin. I can’t even fathom the weight of that. Then our sin offering, Jesus, was sacrificed in brutal fashion, and when He died He cried out “tetelestai” (it is finished), which literally means PAID IN FULL.  Pause and think about that for a second.

And what we received out of that sacrifice is redemption (we can be restored to the full purpose for which we were created) and forgiveness for all of it–past, present, future.  We can live in glorious freedom. And because Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again and then sent us the Holy Spirit, we can live powerful, godly, meaningful, abundant, kingdom advancing lives.   Who else loves us like that? Have we become so familiar with the story, with our own salvation,  that we’ve lost our awe, lost our gratitude, and lost the desire to help rescue others from the dominion of darkness? Pause and think about that for a second.

Backing up to verse 10, Paul writes, “We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” 

John said “Paul abandoned everything, gave up everything, and God did everything else.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 to “Seek FIRST the Kingdom of God” and assures us that God will take care of the rest.

We sang in our service “May the glory of Your name be the passion of the church”. (All To Us, Tomlin)  I am the church, you are the church. This is our call, our purpose, our life, why we are here.  Is it time to recalibrate? To reorder priorities? To surrender more fully? To go in more deeply?

-Luanne

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What is God Really Like?

God is really big. God can be really scary. God can be really confusing. God is in control. 

I am thankful that this week’s sermon didn’t end there. There was a fifth point that is both the foundation of and the umbrella over these attributes.

God is a loving God.

John used Zephaniah 3:17 to illustrate this point:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

I love that this is the verse he used. There are many others that come quickly to mind when I hear the words “God is love”. But this one paints a beautiful picture that struck me when I thought it through…

When life and circumstances loom large and we feel so small, when fears assault our hearts and confusion clouds our minds, when everything feels out of control…

Shh… listen…

Our God–who is bigger than our biggest struggles, who understands all things infinitely, who holds all of time-and all of us-in His very capable hands–comes to quiet us with His love.

Not with judgement or thundering condemnation, though it would be within His rights to come and quiet us in these ways. No, this very big, sometimes scary and confusing God who controls all things comes to quiet us with His love. The fact that He comes to us at all is evidence of His great love for us. It blows my mind that He comes to me… I’ve experienced His presence so many times, and every time I’m left feeling a little more undone… in awe of His greatness, His big-ness that chooses to come into the small space of my life. He doesn’t have to come. He could leave us as we are–small, afraid, confused and out of control. But He doesn’t. Because God is love.

The verse doesn’t only tell us that God quiets us with His love, it also tells us how. He quiets what is loud around and inside of us by the sound of His own voice. He quiets us with singing. He rejoices over us with gladness. And he exults over us with loud singing. This is the definition of “exult”:

“to show or feel a lively or triumphant joy; rejoice exceedingly; be highly elated or jubilant”

Truthfully, I can’t wrap my mind around this concept. That His singing over me is triumphant, joyful, jubilant, elated… It’s more than I can fully comprehend. I’m still working it through. But I know it to be true. While I have never audibly heard God sing over me, I have experienced being quieted by His love…

There are times I have been left speechless, in awe of His big-ness. I have been afraid to speak, reverent in His presence. I have given Him the silent treatment in my confusion and lack of understanding. And I have run from Him, refusing to speak or listen when I wanted to control my own life. I have been quiet in these ways. But there is only one thing that can quiet my heart, my innermost thoughts and fears, my wonderings and wanderings. Only one thing that can cause the inner clamor to cease. That one thing is His love. There’s nothing like it.

I am thankful for the enormity of my God. I am grateful that there are things I don’t understand, even if it leaves me feeling confused sometimes. I am so, so glad that He is in control-because I know my own lack, and I don’t want that responsibility… even when I do. And I’m glad my God can be scary, because so is my enemy. So are many of the things I face on this earth. But if I didn’t know that He defines Himself as love, these attributes wouldn’t produce worship in my heart. Because I know Him, because I’ve experienced His love that quiets what wars inside of me, I can praise Him in all of His big, scary, confusing, controlling Glory. Even if I don’t always like it. Even if I don’t understand. Because no one loves me like He does. No one ever will. So I trust Him with the rest.

How about you? How do you see God? How does it make you feel to know that our big, scary, confusing, in control of everything God sings over you with love?

–Laura

Laura wrote,

“There is a fifth point that is both the foundation of and the umbrella over these attributes: God is a loving God.”

We have to know that. We have to trust that it is true. John reminded us of the Charles Spurgeon quote that encourages us to trust God’s heart when we can’t trace God’s hand. In other words, when we don’t understand what God is doing, what God is allowing, we still trust that He is good, that He is for us, that He knows what He is doing, and that we are completely surrounded by and filled with His love for us. Those moments when He seems scary, when He seems confusing, when He seems controlling, we have to know that He is a loving God and that we can trust His heart.

I had not experienced the “scary” part of God until a few years ago. I was a chaperone on a youth mission trip to Costa Rica. We were staying in a remote location—our “home” for the week was across a dirt street and through a small swath of rain forest from a thin strip of beach–very remote.

One morning before heading to the worksite, we had a few minutes to go to the beach. I was already dressed and chose not to get in the water, but most of the rest of the group did. The water was a little rough, so the group went in about thigh deep, held onto each other in one long line and jumped together as the waves came in. All of a sudden, it was as if someone had thrown a bowling ball at the group and our youth and adults were scattered in all directions. I counted heads and we were missing one. I shouted in a panic to our youth leader that we were missing one, and then  saw the head of that young man so far out in the water that I feared we would not get him back.

Even the kids and adults close to the shore were having difficulty getting to the beach. I ran for help. I came upon a Costa Rican lady and communicated with her that we needed help. She told me that there was no help. I ran back to our group and told the two youth leaders, who were still struggling in the water, that there was no help. A few kids were making it to shore and I screamed at them, “PRAY, PRAY, PRAY!!”  They dropped to their knees and prayed. One of the other leaders who, like me, had chosen not to enter the water was a Marine. He swam out to the young man who had been carried the farthest, but knew he would not be able to bring him in. He chose to stay with him until he went under. The situation was terrifying, life threatening, and impossible.

As we were crying out, God provided us an angel. She came out of the rain forest dressed in a red bathing suit, walked to me, told me her name was Bridget (which I looked up later and it means, “power, strength, vigor, virtue, or exalted one”), had me point out the young man in the water and then entered the water. Not one of us can explain what happened next, but all of a sudden every person in our group, including our marine and the young man who was close to drowning at that point, were on the shore, and Bridget was gone. There is no explanation for any of this except God’s intervention.

The previous morning, in my time with the Lord, he had led me to Psalm 18. I didn’t know why until the following morning, and I read this passage to the group:

… I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies.  The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
 In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears… The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded… He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me…. 

For the next 24 hours the sea was angry. It was churning and there was a moaning, creaking, groaning sound that I had never heard the ocean make. It was very eerie, and it left me frightened. The whole experience had left me frightened.  We had experienced a terrifying event that we had absolutely no control over. We were up against a power too great for us.  And even our relief, our incredible gratitude at God’s intervention was tinged with the thought of “Who are You, God?”. Mark 4:41 tells us that  The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!”  (NLT)  I get that, and truthfully, I needed to get that.

The following morning, I took my Bible and walked over to that strip of beach by myself. The sea was still churning and wild. I sat on a log and said to God, “I feel afraid of You. I have never seen You in this way, and I am frightened.  I don’t want to be afraid of You, but that’s how I feel.”  Then I looked to my right, and just a few feet from me was a puppy trying to pounce on insects. It made me laugh. In that moment God spoke to my heart. He confirmed that He is big, powerful, scary AND that He is also the God who created puppies for my delight. My heart calmed as I began to wrap my mind around this new revelation of God.

I learned later, that the young man whose life was in danger had asked God to show him if He was real. May I say–God left no doubt. God, in answer to a young man’s prayer, allowed all of us to experience a situation that not one of us was powerful enough to do anything about. We could not control one teeny piece of what happened that morning, and God blew our minds with His provision, His power, and His greatness, and gave us an entirely new vision of who He is. I needed to be reminded, even though I have a close, precious, intimate relationship with God, that He is still a God to be revered, He is still an awe-inspiring sometimes fear-inducing God, He is huge, AND I can trust His heart because I know that He IS love

So when the waves are churning, when the sea is angry, when the storms are raging, when life is hard and you feel like you are going under, do you trust His heart? Do you know that you know that you know that He IS love? That He is ALWAYS love? We will never fully understand all of God. If we could, He would not be God. But we can know that He is love and that we are loved. I’d love to hear how He has blown your mind with His greatness and His love.

-Luanne

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