Lent: A Personal Rescue

I find it incredible, that a few months before our world was facing a global pandemic, God had placed on the heart of Pastor John a series of messages that would lead us to Easter Sunday; the subject of the messages–our rescuing God.  The timing of yesterday’s message was mind-boggling.  Yesterday was the second Sunday that we were unable to physically gather together as a congregation. Many of us have been home for at least a week. None of us know how long the pandemic will last. We all have questions, we all have fears, we all face this uncertainty. As we hear the pleas from our medical community to isolate ourselves, as we hear from leaders of other nations who beg us to pay attention and slow the spread of the pandemic, the reality of what we’re facing slowly begins to trickle in. It is at this time, and in this series of messages, that this particular message of rescue and hope just so happened to fall.

In the beautiful book of Ruth, we learn that a severe famine had taken place in Judah.  Elimelek and his family lived in Bethlehem. As the famine continued to wreak havoc on the land, Elimelek moved his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) to the country of Moab. While in Moab, Elimelek died. Naomi was a widow–a very difficult thing for a woman in that time to be; however, she had two sons who could care for her so her situation was not hopeless. Her sons married Moabite women (I wonder if that was hard for Naomi?), and they lived in Moab for about ten years. Scripture doesn’t tell us how, but we learn that after about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons die, leaving her with no men to provide for and protect her and her two daughters-in-law.

I’m sure this was a season of intense grief, fear, and uncertainty. I think we can place ourselves much more easily in Naomi’s shoes given our current situation.

Somehow, Naomi gets word that the famine in Judah has ended, so she makes the choice to go back. She and her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) begin to head toward Judah, when Naomi stops and encourages Orpah and Ruth not to go with her. (Is this because she never felt fully at home in Moab and didn’t want her daughters-in-law to experience the same thing in her home culture?) She had great fondness for these young ladies and said to [them}, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:8-9). 

After many tears, and much persuasion, Orpah returns back to Moab, and Ruth clings to Naomi and says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:16-18)

We learn that the people in Bethlehem are surprised when Naomi returns; I don’t think they expected to see her again. We also learn the state of Naomi’s heart. She tells the women of Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi,” … “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

Two women–no husbands, no sons, no income, no home; destitute. And this is where the story of living life according to the principles of God’s kingdom, and the effect that kind of life has on others begins to be seen.

In chapter two we learn that Elimelek had a wealthy relative named Boaz. We also learn that Ruth was willing to “go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (2:2) . This was a practice called gleaning. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out God’s purpose and plan for this practice:

“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.”

God, in God’s beautiful, extravagant, generous ways laid out a plan for taking care of the poor and the foreigner way back in the days of Moses. God doesn’t qualify this by saying, if you are rich and your field is this size then I want you to leave food for the poor and foreigner. He just says–when you reap your harvest, leave some. As I type this out, I think of all the current news reports of empty toilet paper shelves, of no food, of medical people lacking supplies, of snarky shoppers, and it grieves my heart. As of today, our supply chain is still working, truckers are still getting supplies to stores. If those who have financial means continue to overbuy leaving nothing for those who can only buy a little at a time, we are not caring for the least of these. I hope people are overbuying in order to share with others. Lord Jesus, give us your heart!

Ruth begins to glean in Boaz’s field. He arrives on the scene, notices her and asks about her and learns,  “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.  She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” (2:6-7)

Boaz (the wealthy landowner) approaches Ruth and says to her: “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” (2:8-9) . 

Boaz doesn’t send someone else with the message. He, himself, goes to her. Not only does he tell her that she is welcome to glean in his field, but he also lets her know that he has told the men to leave her alone and she is welcome to get water when she’s thirsty from the jars the men have filled. He is providing for her and protecting her.

I wish I had time to post in the rest of Chapter 2. It’s so beautiful! Basically, Ruth is astonished that Boaz has taken any time to notice her because she is a foreigner and of lesser social standing than his servants. Boaz recognizes the sacrifice that Ruth made to take care of her mother-in-law, including leaving her land, her people, and recognizes that she has chosen to make God her refuge. His kindness puts her at ease (2:13). That’s what kindness does–kindness welcomes.

Boaz continues to provide for Ruth, making sure that she is well-fed, that she has leftovers, and that she knows she is welcome to come back to his fields.

When Ruth arrives home, Naomi is shocked at the food Ruth brings home and asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs her that she was in Boaz’s fields. Naomi speaks blessing over Boaz because he is their “kinsman-redeemer”, and encourages Ruth to continue to glean in his fields because she might be harmed in another’s field. Again, we see that the character of Boaz is not the character of everyone–he is a man who has chosen God’s principles. Ruth gleans in his fields until the barley and wheat harvests were complete.

The concept “kinsman-redeemer” comes from Leviticus 25:25:If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.”  This concept is so crazy! Let’s say I have to sell my house in order to survive. I sell it to some random person. My kinsman-redeemer would buy my house back from that random person and give it back to me. If no one has the means to be my kinsman-redeemer, when the Year of Jubilee comes (every 50 years, but never actually done), all property is returned to its original owner for free. Ponder what that indicates about the principles of the Kingdom of God for a minute. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of humanity functioned like that–if even the people who follow Jesus functioned like that? In the Kingdom of heaven, there is always enough for everyone as long as we choose to live generously.

There is so much more to this beautiful story–Boaz follows every step correctly and eventually becomes Ruth’s husband. They have a son who becomes the grandfather of King David. Jesus is born out of that lineage, and Ruth, the redeemed destitute foreigner is one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.  (Mt. 1:5)

What can we take away from this beautiful story of personal rescue that is relevant to us today?

  1. Jesus is our ultimate kinsman-redeemer; he rescued us, he restores our lives, gives us purpose, loves us unconditionally, teaches us to love others with the same love we’ve received, and shows us what it means to be a citizen of, and advance his kingdom right here on planet earth.
  2. Naomi and Ruth show us that despite life’s hardships, God sees us, he is with us, he knows our sorrow, he knows our fears, he does not leave us alone.
  3. Boaz shows us that we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.
  4. The whole story reminds us that God rescues and redeems, that God loves, that God cares for all humanity and desires that we care for one another, no matter who the other is.

God is with us in this season of uncertainty and fear. There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

There is much opportunity, during this time to enter in…

–Luanne

I can think of no better place to start than by asking you to scroll up and read Luanne’s last paragraph again. She identifies in her beautiful words what sat at the forefront of my mind after listening to Sunday’s message. These stories of personal rescue encourage us to recognize that, as Luanne wrote in point number 3 above, “…we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.”

I see a few different examples of personal rescue in the captivating book of Ruth. Luanne detailed the way Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, rescued the two widowed women–how kingdom principles are evidenced in his words and actions throughout, and how he foreshadows the coming Redeemer in many ways.

There is also the personal rescue of Naomi–beyond being a beneficiary of Boaz rescuing Ruth. I believe Ruth rescued Naomi, too. What if she hadn’t clung to her and insisted on staying with her? What would her fate have been? Upon arrival back in her homeland, she would have still had the opportunity to sell her late husband’s land, but their family name would have died forever. We don’t know what life would have looked like for Naomi had Ruth gone home to her own family. What we do know paints a picture so lovely it makes me cry, and it leads me to ask some questions about how we engage with one another–especially now.

Has anyone ever “clung” to you the way Ruth clung to Naomi? Has there been someone in your life–not bound by law or obligation–who has loved you this way? Someone who has said, “I’m here. I’m staying. There is nothing you can do or say that will make me walk away from you.” And then… they actually stayed? Stood by their word no matter what? Continued to walk with you, pursue you, love you well–even when you’ve pushed them away? Has someone loved you that much? Have you loved others that way?

While I pondered the relationship between these women, lyrics from J.J. Heller’s song, “The Best Thing” came to mind. The second verse begins with these words:

If I ever show my face
Nothing left to hide behind
Would anybody stay right here with me no matter what they find...

We all want to be loved like that, don’t we? Chosen for exactly who we are. Worth enough that someone would choose to stay. Period. Ruth chose Naomi. Knowing it meant becoming a foreigner in an unfamiliar place, facing possible mistreatment, with no guarantees of provision. She said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17)

What kind of love does that? What kind of love is willing to go anywhere and adapt in whatever ways may be necessary?

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

Let me unpack what I mean by that. Upon returning Naomi told the people not to call her by her name. She says, “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

She returned bitter and empty, and she believed that the Lord was to blame for her misfortune, that he had afflicted her. I’ll interject here that there are some who are saying that COVID-19 is an affliction from the Lord, that God is angry and is punishing the wickedness of humanity. Just as that assumption was not true for Naomi, it is not true for us today. Scripture tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself says in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…” The heart of God was revealed in the person of Jesus–Jesus the healer, the redeemer, the restorer, the shepherd. He came not to condemn the world and judge humanity, he came to rescue! (John 3:17) Pain and loss, though, can lead us all to believe things that aren’t true–about ourselves, others, and about God. Naomi was grieving and as we read her raw lament, we are invited to experience and empathize with the depth of her sorrow. If Ruth had not returned with her, the story likely would have ended there. She would have gone home, bitter and alone. And she would have died there, likely still bitter, with no heir to carry on her husband’s name.

Fortunately, that is not where the story ended. Because Ruth did go with her. And she did not simply go back with her. She did what she said she would do and she stayed with her. She didn’t have to. We can see this in chapter 3, when Boaz found Ruth laying at his feet. When he heard her request, he replied, “The Lord bless you, my daughter! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor.” 

She could have gone after another. From the content in the book’s four chapters, we can gather that she was a young, desirable woman. She could have tried to catch the eye of another, in which case any children would have been the heirs of another family. But her love and commitment to Naomi remained her priority.

The end of chapter 4 reveals to us how Ruth’s love rescued Naomi from her bitterness, from herself:

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17, NIV)

Ruth clung to Naomi, refused to leave her, accompanied her as a foreigner, loved her in her bitterness and followed her instructions. She worked and provided food for the two of them and then she pursued and married the man who could carry on the family name. She had a baby that the women of their community called Naomi’s son. The text tells us that Naomi took the baby in her arms and cared for him. I don’t know what that means entirely. But I know that the community identified how much Ruth loved her mother-in-law and credited her as having more value to Naomi than seven sons. That is a huge deal, especially in their time.

Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, certainly provided a personal rescue to both women. But without Ruth, Naomi’s rescue would have been incomplete. Boaz likely would have purchased the land had Naomi come back home alone. But because of Ruth’s love and commitment, Naomi’s bitterness was turned to joy, and her family had an heir to carry on their name.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that before this virus, we all needed rescuing in one way or another. For some that need was financial, for some relational, for others it was health related. He emphasized that we were all already facing something. We already needed rescuing. And then we found ourselves in a world we no longer recognize with challenges we never imagined we would face. If we needed rescue before, we really need it now. But how do we help each other from a distance? How do we cling to each other and allow others to cling to us with the kind of love that Ruth showed Naomi?

Love that is willing to go anywhere, to adapt to any environment doesn’t necessarily look the same as it did in this week’s story. It can’t look like that–especially now. But what we saw in Ruth is what it looks like when we say yes to Jesus living through us. Through our words, our hands, our feet. Through our consideration of one another, our compassion, our faithfulness. When we feel like we can’t hang on to one other, can’t reach out again, Jesus moves through us to continue to pursue and stay with each other.

I’ve been blessed with a few who have stayed with me, who have chosen to love me and refuse to walk away. They have rescued me more times than they’ll ever know and been Jesus to me in ways that bring tears to my eyes even now. I count them among my most precious gifts and I know that they have saved me from myself–from my own bitterness and grief–like Ruth did for Naomi. And there are a few I have “clung” to who have allowed me to stay with them and love them in that same way. This gift is equally precious, to be allowed to journey alongside another so intimately.

To stay with each other–whatever that requires–that is how we continue to be agents of rescue in one another’s lives. It’s how the personal, rescuing love of Jesus looks lived out in the kingdom he established on earth. How do we do that now, during a worldwide pandemic? I’ll remind us again of what Luanne wrote above:

There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will be days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

This is how we “cling” to each other now. Is it harder to do while we’re stuck at home? Maybe… But maybe not. We have been given a gift of time in these days. Time to re-prioritize, to slow down, to let those we love know how much we love them. We have time to remember how to love Jesus’ way. We all need someone to come along and say, “I’ve got you.” God loves to say that to each of us through the love of one another. May we be open enough to both cling and be clung to, to love deeply and extravagantly however Jesus leads us in these days.

Luanne told us there is much opportunity during this time to enter in… I hope we all will lean in to each opportunity. We’ve never needed each other more. Prayers and blessings to each one of you, friends.

Until next week…

Laura

3AF2A84A-3EC8-40B7-B8AA-461ECC8B5298

Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Teach Me: Trust

Sometimes a familiar word will hit me in a new way which happened as I was beginning to formulate my thoughts for this post. The word understand popped out at me, leading me on a search for its etymology. I discovered that it’s actually a little tricky to define. If its root is Old English it could mean “stand in the midst of” or “among”, or possibly “examine, investigate, scrutinize” or even “stand under”. If its root is Germanic it most likely means “stand before”. If its root is Greek, it could mean “I know how, I know, I stand upon” (www.etymonline.com).

If I look it up in Strong’s Concordance of biblical words, the original Hebrew word biynah was translated as understanding, wisdom, knowledge, and meaning.

Why all this searching? Because in this series, Pastor John is encouraging us to ask God to teach us. This week the request is “Teach me to trust”.  As an introduction to my portion of the blog, I was going to write out the very familiar scripture Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. I wanted to dig into “understanding” and see if there was something deeper to discover. Adding in other possible definitions allows the verse to read: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…  

Many of us are familiar with this verse…yet, how many of us actually live by this verse? The words are easy to say; however, I find actually doing it to be hard.

The good news is difficulty and learning often go hand in hand, and although I like to avoid difficulty, refusing to consider something new, to be challenged in how I see the world, in how I think, in how I live, leads to living from the skewed perspective of my own narrow understanding, through my own cloudy lens.

When thinking of how we learn things, or how our life lenses are formed, we need to consider how we take in information. For some of us, our learning began with absolutes that shaped our attitudes and beliefs, and we have lived life through that lens. For others, our learning began with our life experiences and our absolutes were formed through the lens of personal experience.

I would say that the majority of us learn from life experience rather than what we’ve been taught, and therefore what we experience becomes the highest influence in our lives and shapes our view of the world.  What happens next, if we’re not willing to consider another’s lens, is that my experience and my absolutes butt up against your experience and your absolutes, leading to conflict and disunity.

For many centuries, people had to rely on God and God’s provision for every aspect of their survival. Then, for a season of time, there was a push toward absolutes becoming society’s teacher. The industrial revolution played a big role in that mindset. Singer-songwriter Jason Upton points this out in his song The Farmer and the Field. 

He sings these lyrics:

       There was a time not long ago when the sun did shine and the sowers sowed,                                                        and the rain did rain and the crops did grow.                                                       It was a time before machinery, a time before certainty, a time before we bought the lie,           it was a time before the farmer died, when we had trusting hearts and human soul,                                            it was a time not very long ago…when we trusted you.                              Lord, we want to trust you again.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding–your own certainty…

What does it look like to live like that?

It looks like Noah who had never built a boat, never saw a large body of water, was not an expert in animal science, yet he spent a number of years building an ark because God asked him to. (Genesis 5)

It looks like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and coming up to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them making it all look like a death trap. The Israelites cried out:  “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” In other words—we are leaning on our own understanding and this doesn’t look good, so we’re blaming you, Moses!!

Moses responded: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord instructed Moses to raise his staff, stretch his arm out over the sea, and the Lord delivered the Israelites. (Exodus 14)

What about Joshua and the battle plan to take Jericho? They marched around the city one time a day for six days. Seven priests blew their trumpets, the ark of the Lord was behind them, the armed men were in front of them and the rear guard was behind the ark. Six days. And then on the seventh day, when they were going to actually enter into physical battle, they marched around the wall seven times, the longest distance yet, which would make them more tired, and then when the priests played the trumpets Joshua commanded the people to shout and the walls fell. (Joshua 6)

What about Nehemiah and the plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? He was an exile in Babylon. He learned that Jerusalem, the home of his ancestors was in ruins. He had access to the king as the king’s cup-bearer. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked what was wrong. Nehemiah records: I was very much afraid,  but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

The king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Nehemiah tells us: Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” After which Nehemiah asked for three things: time off, letters from the king for safety, and the provisions needed to build the gates. Then Nehemiah wrote: And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (Neh. 2)

What about Mary, the mother of Jesus who could have been stoned to death for embracing God’s call, and who endured the public crucifixion of her son without knowing that resurrection was coming? Or what about the disciples who left everything they had, everything they knew to follow Jesus? What about Paul who was beaten, imprisoned, and constantly persecuted because God had called him to carry His Kingdom message to the Gentiles? What about Elisabeth Elliott who returned to the tribe that killed her husband to show them what God’s grace and forgiveness look like in practice? What about Corrie Ten Boom and her family who were discovered hiding Jews in their home and were sentenced to a concentration camp? She survived and her stories of love, of forgiveness, and of healing have affected many of us.

All of these people were called by God to follow him. They chose to believe. They chose to trust God and not lean on their own understanding. He calls each of us to do the same.

Are there absolutes? Yes. In the words of Beth Moore from her Bible study Believing God:

  1. God is who He says He is.
  2. God can do what He says He can do.
  3. I am who God says I am.
  4. I can do all things through Christ.
  5. I’m believing God.

As we choose to do life God’s way–to follow him into things that make no logical sense, we experience His mysterious and miraculous ways. Does following God this way come with challenges? Yes. None of the above-mentioned people had a smooth journey. Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble but to take heart, (he) has overcome the world. (John 16:33)

So, as is always the case, we get to choose which kingdom we want to live in: the kingdom of this world in which we lean on our own understanding– which typically leads to cooperating with harmful man-made systems and structures–or to live in the counter-cultural kingdom of heaven, even knowing that we will face opposition, just as Christ did.

The writer of Proverbs knew which one was better and encouraged us to:

Trust in the Lord completely,
and do not rely on your own opinions.
With all your heart rely on him to guide you,
and he will lead you in every decision you make.
 Become intimate with him in whatever you do,
                                       and he will lead you wherever you go.                                              (Proverbs 3:5-6 TPT)

Lord, teach me to trust.

–Luanne

Many of the stories Luanne highlighted above are the ones Pastor John referenced in his message on Sunday. He asked us to wrestle with some of the questions that naturally arise when we consider these stories. I would like to take some time to elaborate on some of those questions and give us all some space to connect them with what Luanne taught us about what “understanding” means in relation to trust. She expanded Proverbs 3:5 to include a more comprehensive explanation of what we are being exhorted to do in that verse. She wrote,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…“

Keep that in mind as we explore the questions Pastor John put before us on Sunday.

Before we dive into the questions, I want to highlight something John said that my experience as a human being on planet earth absolutely testifies to as truth. He said that our most challenging times often go hand-in-hand with our deepest learning. I wish this were not often always true. I wish expansive learning could happen during seasons of ease and comfortability. But as I reflect on my life, there’s no denying that the seasons of growth I’ve experienced have been inextricably connected to the hardest, most uncertain, least comfortable things I’ve walked through. It seems to be how we grow, how we learn best. But if we look to ourselves, to our own experiences, and through the lenses we’ve developed rather than through the eyes of the one we follow, we will struggle to learn anything new at all. Let’s consider these questions together as we seek to be people who are growing in our ability to trust our God, especially when our understanding fails us…

Can we trust—can we stand still—when destruction is chasing us down? It’s important as we consider this question to check where we are when we are standing still. When we are walking where God is leading and all forms of enemies are chasing after us, God sometimes asks us to be still while he fights for us. This is not to be confused with the attitude we saw in the Israelites, who basically said to Moses, “Leave us alone! We want to stay here. We don’t want to move!” (I’m paraphrasing.) This kind of “being still” is not the same as walking where God leads—even when “where” is a total mystery—and staying still in the midst of what looks like imminent destruction. I’m reminded of Psalm 23:5, where the psalmist writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (NIV) That is the kind of being still, the kind of trust, God asks of us. The kind that pulls up a chair to the table he sets for us even when it looks like we are surrounded and our own understanding tells us we should be afraid and run away.

What about when God asks us to do something that sounds absurd, illogical, and not at all strategic? When he asks us to do something in a way that it’s never been done before, what do we do? Do we trust him enough to walk out into uncharted territory, following his voice alone? Can we do that when what God says doesn’t line up with what other voices around us are saying, especially if those voices are coming from people we have journeyed with for a long time? What if those friends, leaders, family members cannot bring themselves to walk with us into the unknown that God is beckoning us toward, and we have to step out on our own, without the support of those we have trusted in the past? Can we follow the still, small voice then? When loss and grief press into the fabric of our hearts? How do we loosen our grip on our own understanding and cling to our all-knowing Guide in these painfully challenging moments when we feel vulnerable and alone?

Will we choose to trust when what God is asking seems impossible, when we are very much afraid to ask or believe for the big thing– can we trust him then? Impossible is a word that only exists when we lean on our own understanding. Nothing is impossible for God. If something seems impossible and we cannot seem to break through that wall into trust, that is a clear indication that we are standing upon or under our own thoughts. Fear is a normal response to being asked to do something we have never done before. But fear and trust are not mutually exclusive here… And we don’t have to move from fear to courage before we step out in trust. Trust moves us to take the step even while we are feeling afraid—that’s courage.

And… it’s always worth it. Yes, I said always. Not immediately, but eventually, the lessons we learn when we take a step toward God are always worth the struggles we face along the way. Being willing to trust in the midst of the hard, the confusing, the grief-stricken moments of our lives not only evidences our trust in God—these times broaden and deepen our trust as well.

Willingness is a non-negotiable on the road to trust. And true willingness doesn’t give us the option of choosing in each circumstance whether we will be willing or unwilling to agree to what God asks of us. Real willingness says yes long before God asks the question, and maintains that yes, regardless of how treacherous and tedious the road becomes. This kind of willingness—the only kind that counts as authentic—is born from hearts that trust that our God is who he says he is, as Luanne referenced earlier. If we believe that, then we believe that he IS love. He IS mercy. He IS only, always good. Knowing who he is, we can give him our yes before he asks us to move and take that first step once he does speak.

The road may be harder than we ever imagined. The losses along the way will shock us and leave us feeling gutted. And when that happens, if we try to stand upon or under our own thoughts, we won’t know how we can possibly go on. But, if we trust our God every step of the way, we will learn. We will learn about who he is, who we are in him, and how to live in the flow of his kingdom rather than the fading kingdoms of this world.

Pastor John left us with Psalm 25 at the end of his message on Sunday, and it seems like the perfect way to wrap this up here as well. May this become our prayer as we look to our God to teach us how to trust, how to love, how to walk with him his way…

Forever I will lift up my soul into your presence, Lord.
Be there for me, God, for I keep trusting in you.
Don’t allow my foes to gloat over me or
the shame of defeat to overtake me.
For how could anyone be disgraced
when he has entwined his heart with you?
But they will all be defeated and ashamed
when they harm the innocent.
Lord, direct me throughout my journey
so I can experience your plans for my life.
Reveal the life-paths that are pleasing to you.
 

Escort me along the way; take me by the hand and teach me.
For you are the God of my increasing salvation;
I have wrapped my heart into yours!

(Psalm 25:1-5, TPT)

–Laura

 

Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

Related image

 

 

This I Know: A Parent’s Priority

Any of us who have raised or are raising children figure out pretty quickly that they don’t come with an instruction manual. If we have more than one child, we figure out that each one is unique, that what works with one doesn’t necessarily work with another one, and that parenting is hard, can be confusing, and many times we are just trying to make it through the day without losing our minds. It’s hard to keep a greater goal or purpose in mind. If you are a parent, and I were to ask you what you want for your children, how would you respond? Many times I hear the response, “I just want my children to be happy.” While I don’t think any of us would say that we want our children to be unhappy, is that the best we can give them?

Pastor John shared that a parent’s priority is to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God He encouraged us to love intently and lead intentionally. He gleaned those truths from Deuteronomy 6:5-9.

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NLT)

This I know–God loves us and desires that we respond by loving Him in return. Loving God is also at the heart of transformative parenting. Loving God with all that we are, living that relationship out in front our children, and having God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times helps us in the process of transferring our children’s dependence from ourselves God. Talking about God with our kids doesn’t have to be weird or stilted. Look for opportunities that fit naturally with what is going on in the moment. There are moments in everyday life that lend themselves very easily to conversations about God. For example, spring has finally come to Wyoming; our trees have green leaves on them, as a matter of fact, between trees, grass, border plants, and my herb garden, there are multiple shades of green on display. It’s not hard to talk about God’s creativity just by pointing out the multiple shades of green. We also have lilacs and tulips in bloom. The colors are gorgeous. We are surrounded by beauty that God created for God’s glory and for our delight. Get close to a tree, study the leaves and notice that while each one is similar, no two are alike. Neither are two of us alike. Nature gives us incredible opportunity to discuss God’s love and character.  Ask God to show you how to naturally share God’s attributes and character with your children throughout the day. The ways are endless. Then as they grow, and they begin to have questions about God, listen, converse; if they ask you things that you don’t have answers for, tell them that’s a great question and seek answers together. If the questions are unanswerable because we’re human and God is God, teach about what it means to have faith. If dark seasons come, wrestle openly, let your children see that sometimes life is hard and we adults have questions too. Pray with them. Intercede for others with them. Share with them insights from your personal time with God. Let them see your dependence on God and your relationship with God lived out in real time.

You may be saying to yourself–yes, those are good tips, but the verses above don’t talk about that, they talk about God’s commands. That would be correct, so let’s look at those commands for a moment.

In our modern existence, the concrete display of the ten commandments in public places has become a thing over which people have lawsuits. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind. Others use them as a behavioral litmus test and permission to point fingers at others who “break” a commandment. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind either. I heard a sermon once that reshaped my thoughts around the commandments and made a lot of sense to me which I’ll share below. First,  I’m going to paraphrase the commandments, but feel free to look up them up in Deuteronomy 5 or Exodus 20.

First, God tells us to love Him with all we are (heart, soul and mind) and not to worship any other gods. I think we worship other gods all the time, but don’t recognize it for what it is. We live in a consumeristic society and we worship possessions, wealth, comfort, famous people, politicians, ideologies, sports teams, our own nation, our children, and ourselves.  The things that we pursue often show what we worship. What would our children say we worship based on our priorities and pursuits?

God tells us not to misuse his name. Again, that can happen in many different ways. Obviously, there is cursing which involves the name of God, but God’s name can also be misused by imposing our interpretations of God (which don’t line up with God as revealed in Christ) on others. We can misuse God’s name by misusing scripture to manipulate situations. We can misuse God’s name by portraying images of Him that aren’t accurate such as the man upstairs, the lightening bolt god who’s just waiting to punish every wrong deed, the Santa Claus god who exists to give us everything we ask for, or any other man-made portrayal. How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Near? Caring? Harsh? Authoritarian? Permissive? Uninvolved? Kind? Angry? Punitive? Forgiving? Scripture tells us that God’s nature and character is love, and that God’s boundaries and guidelines are for our good. Would our children know that based on how we parent and how we portray God to be?

God tells us to rest. We’re lousy at this. In the Deuteronomy account of the 10 commandments, God reminds the people that they used to be slaves, but they were brought into freedom; as a reminder of their freedom they can rest. We are free in Christ.  We can rest. We can take a day off. The revolution of the earth is not on our shoulders. Life will continue after we are gone. The world won’t fall apart if we take a day off. Resting, ceasing for awhile, even while there is work still to be done,  is a beautiful declaration of dependence on God. It’s also a reminder of His love for us–it’s good for us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. We are commanded to rest and spend time with those we love.

God tells us to honor our parents. None of us had perfect parents, and that’s not the point. To honor them means to value their role, to have respect toward them in our attitudes and actions, and to respect their position. We can do that even if we have difficult parents. I’m certainly not a perfect parent, and I remember telling my children that we could discuss anything as long as we did so respectfully; if they disagreed with one of my decisions, they could certainly let me know; however, they needed to approach the situation with respect. Parents, it also helps if we are willing to apologize when we need to, to change our minds when we need to, to treat our children with respect and to honor them as image bearers of God.

In the remaining commandments God tells us not to murder people, not to commit adultery, not to steal from others, not to lie about others, and not to want what others have–their spouses or their stuff.

If we take the time to reflect on the theme that runs throughout these commandments, they are all about valuing relationships. Value your relationship with God first and foremost, and then value your relationships with other people. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)

The commandments are all about relationships. So, when we are encouraged in Deuteronomy 6 to repeat them again and again to our children, to talk about them at home and on the road, to tie them on our heads and hands as reminders (could heads be a reminder about our thoughts and hands a reminder about our actions?), to have them on our doorposts and our gates (reminders at our entrances and exits into our homes and into our communities) what is it that we are to repeat again and again? Is it a list of dos and don’ts– or how to love God and others?

If we believe it’s about teaching our children how to love God and others, then we must ask ourselves how we are doing with that in our personal lives?  A long time ago, my husband and I were having a beautiful conversation with a friend, Jeff,  who shared with us, that in our flesh we are incapable of loving God the way he desires, so he prayed that God would love himself through him (Jeff) and love others through him. Try praying that, if you are struggling to love God. If you grew up in an environment where love was manipulative, or withheld, ask God to teach you about His love–Jesus, and the ways that he interacted with people, is a great place to start. If your heritage and lineage is not full of stellar parenting examples, choose to be the one who changes it for the generations that come after you. I’ve learned a lot from other parents along the way. It’s okay to seek help. We need one another. 

My children are all young adults, and John and I did the best we could, but we know that we didn’t parent perfectly. Gratefully, our kids have felt secure in our love despite the times we didn’t measure up. I’ve told all of my children that we know we didn’t do it perfectly and that if they ever need to seek counseling for wounds we may have caused, we won’t feel threatened by that at all. Our desire for them is that they be healthy and whole in all ways, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.   My prayer for each of my children is, and has been, that they fall deeply in love with Jesus and go wherever he leads them. I trust God to meet them where they are, and pray that they discover that God is their source for everything.  God is the best parent of all so teaching our children to love and depend on Him is the best priority we can have as parents–this I know.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “This I know–God loves us and desires that we love Him in return.  I also know that the heart of transformative parenting is for parents to love God with all that we are, to live that relationship out in front our children, and to have God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times.” She also asked us this question:

“How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children…?

How we see God matters. It matters in every area of our lives. The way we view ourselves hinges on how we see God. The way we view the current issues in our world is deeply connected to how we see God. Our understanding of God has been built by those who “parented” us when we were young–for better or for worse. Many of us grew up with mixed messaging about who God is and what he wants for/from us. Some of us grew up with a beautiful picture of a loving God, full of grace. Others grew up under the weight of a punitive, angry, and critical God. All of us are, at least in part, products of the various “parents” in our lives. And we are raising, or have raised, children who are products of our parenting, for better, for worse–and probably a mix of both.

We model and mirror what we believe. The way we understand God, our picture of who he is, is transferred to our kids as they watch us parent them. Our perception of God becomes their truth. Our influence, especially in their younger years, is foundational. Their belief system will, at least initially, mirror what they see in us. What we model to them about the character of God is what they will hold as true about him. Children don’t have another point of reference when they’re young. We are their introduction to authority figures, their first picture of what parents look like. Their picture of God is constructed with the material we give them–what we model and mirror.

Our influence as parents (and simply as adults who “mother” and “father” those around us) is strong. That’s why it is so important that we have an authentic relationship with the God we say we believe in. Going to church every Sunday so we can check it off of our list is not the same as having a living, breathing relationship with our God. If we go for show, we mirror to our children a God who wants our performance rather than our hearts. If we attend a service one day a week but don’t wrestle with or put into practice what we’re learning, and don’t let it make a difference in how we live day-to-day, we model to our kids a God who is uninvolved and doesn’t really care how we live. As I thought through the importance of modeling an authentic relationship with God for our kids, my mind drifted to verses I have been studying in Matthew 23. The language is strong, but the concept is important:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15, NIV)

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.” (Matthew 23:13, MSG, emphasis mine)

Throughout the chapter that these verses come from, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, and pointing out the ways in which they make it difficult for people to come to God. All of us act like Pharisees at some point. We don’t mean to, and honestly, I don’t think the Pharisees meant to most of the time, either. They had been taught the laws and missed the love. They kept the rules, but had no relationship, at least not one that was authentic and growing. And this is what Jesus is talking to them about in the verses above. In the first verse I referenced, he’s talking about the lengths to which they’ll go to win others to their side. When they do, because they model what has been mirrored to them, the new “converts” are even worse off than the Pharisee that brought them in, because they’re one layer further removed from the God they think they’re serving. In the second verse, the Message paraphrase calls these scholars “roadblocks to God’s kingdom”. Regardless of which translation you read, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re not allowed to enter the kingdom. He doesn’t say they won’t eventually enter. He talks to them about their choice not to come in, their refusal to enter, and how that prevents others from entering into the kingdom that is already present among them.

In the past, I’ve read these verses in a detached way, a little taken aback by the language Jesus used to talk to these guys. In more recent years, my understanding has grown and I have heard it differently as I’ve been overwhelmed by the heart and love of God. When the verses came to mind as I listened to this message about parenting, I was a little surprised at first, but I believe there’s much we can glean and apply to our understanding of our influence.

These Pharisees were spiritual “fathers” in their communities. They were the most educated in the ancient scriptures and they were the ones trusted to hand down to the people the truths about God and what he expected of them. What they mirrored and labeled “godly”painted a picture of who God was to those they presided over. But they weren’t living out an authentic, living relationship with God. They believed in a punitive, authoritarian God, and so that is what they showed the people. And beyond that, they performed their “faith” in showy ways that didn’t match their inner lives. They had the same access to the kingdom as everyone else, but they chose not to enter. And because they held those beneath them to the same standards they followed, they didn’t allow them to live according to kingdom ways either.

We have the capacity to live this same way… And to teach our kids to do the same.

If our church attendance is stellar, but our Monday thru Saturday lives don’t match up, if we say the right things, but don’t step into the flow of loving God and others–the kingdom way Jesus modeled, we’re modeling this way of living to our kids. And because their truths are built around what we model, if we do this, we raise kids who are one generation further removed from the truth of who God really is.

But the alternative is also true… If God is our first priority, if we love him and seek him, and continue growing in our relationship with him; if we enter into the kingdom that is here all around us and live with self-emptying love, the way Jesus did, our kids see a very different picture. And rather than being a roadblock that prevents them from entering the kingdom, we become a doorway that introduces them to the reckless, overwhelming love of God–and they get to see that he is the best parent of all.

In order for them to see God in this way, he must be our priority. Is he?

Luanne asked us above what our children would say is our priority. Far too many children grow up in homes where work, substances, media, or prominent social lives are their parents’ dominant priority. But I see another trend as well…

I wonder how many of our kids would say that they are our first priority? I see it all over right now, how so many parents build their schedules and lives around their kids and their activities and desires, how mom’s life or dad’s life-or both-revolve entirely around their kids. It’s tempting to hold on too tightly in this fast-paced world we’re living in, to cling to the moments that are gone all too soon. In these families, it’s clear that the kids come first. God, the parents’ marriage, and everything else comes after. In this model, kids tend to feel very secure in their parents love. They have their full attention. They feel connected and protected and provided for. They don’t want for anything, because they’ve never known a longing that mom or dad hasn’t satisfied. Church and God may be a part of their world, as long as that doesn’t interfere with vacations, activities, sports–and of course, that’s only if the kids want to go. These families often appear to be overflowing with love and joy. It looks like it works. It can feel like it works… Until the day comes when that child experiences a longing mom and dad can’t satisfy. And that day will come. For everyone. Because we were all created in the image of our Creator and there is a bit of the eternal, the divine, in each of our hearts that longs for our true home. There is a craving to discover our ultimate identity, and that is found in our God–not in our parents.

This is why it’s so essential that our priority is to gradually transfer our child’s dependence away from us until it rests solely on God. 

This is impossible to do if our kids are our first priority. We have to learn to let go, so that we’re able to point our kids to the One who can truly meet their every need, reveal to them their true identity, love them perfectly, and hold them securely. When we hold on too tightly and our children depend solely on us to provide for their needs, we assume the role of God–and we cannot love them the way he can, regardless of how hard we try. If we try to fill all of their holes and answer all of their questions, we rob them of the chance to experience their own flourishing as sons and daughters of God. We become roadblocks to God’s kingdom–we don’t enter and we don’t let them in either.

Perhaps we’re tempted to prioritize our kids because our dependence was never transferred to God. Maybe we haven’t experienced the flourishing I described above ourselves. Maybe what was mirrored to us was an authoritarian god who required our performance, and we hopped onto the Pharisee train without even knowing it. The good news is, the story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. God can rewrite all of our old narratives and show us what healthy love looks and feels like. There is always hope for a new day–in our parenting and in everything. May the question “What is your priority?” be the beginning of a brand new chapter for all of us.

–Laura

Related image

This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
Image result for learning to walk in the dark

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

Image result for Love God love others