Giving: Forgive Before You Give

“Giving” is the theme of our new series. It’s a risky endeavor…when a church begins to talk about giving, there can be some strong reactions from those hearing the message. Some take on an “I knew all they wanted was my money” mindset, some take on the mindset of “It’s my money and no one can tell me what to do with it”. For some, it reveals priorities, the things we’re willing to spend on or give to generally are things that matter to us, and some of us find safety and security in holding on to our money because, despite the fact that on it is written “In God We Trust” when it comes down to it, we ultimately trust money to take care of us.

If it’s so risky, why talk about it? And when we talk about giving, are we referring only to money–or is the subject of giving a reminder that we give our lives to God, every bit of them–our talents, our gifts, our time, our resources, our minds, our beings?  And what is the heart that God desires in our giving?

One thing is for sure, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:21-24 that he wants our hearts toward others to be in the right place before we give at the altar.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. He is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. When he gets to this portion he says:

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

There is much to glean from these few verses. One is that Jesus is shaking up a traditional understanding of what it means to be godly. He affirms that it was said long ago and passed through the generations that people should not murder other people. I think that we would all agree with that statement; however, in kingdom living, refraining from murder is not enough. There are plenty of other ways to devalue a life.

Jesus goes on to say anyone who is angry with a brother, or anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca”, or anyone who calls someone “fool” is in danger of judgment. Pastor John took us deeper into this, pointing out that even if we don’t physically murder someone, we can murder them in our minds and demean them in our treatment.  To call someone “Raca” or  “fool” or anything else derogatory demeans that person’s value. To harbor anger against another is to set an internal fire ablaze which spills out in unkind or demeaning words and sometimes in violent actions.

So Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others, and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.

It’s interesting to consider that the word translated “brothers” in this passage means someone “from out of the womb”; therefore, Jesus is asking us to consider how we think of and how we treat all humankind.

This is a challenge. Being human, we classify, divide, label, separate, and draw lines between us. Many of the ways we divide are generational, so Jesus says to us, you’ve heard it said… , but I say to you don’t demean anyone, don’t think negatively about anyone, don’t talk negatively about anyone, don’t call others derogatory names, don’t place human beings in categories.

Jesus reminds us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 & Luke 6:45). Are we asking God regularly to search us, and know our hearts: try us, and know our thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting? (Psalm 138:23-24 KJV) If not, it’s a good practice to put into place.

Jesus tells us in his sermon that to treat others with contempt is on par with murder. This is where it gets hard. We treat others in our family, our communities, our workplaces, our churches with contempt if they don’t see things like we do.  We live in a great nation, and many here believe God loves us more than he loves people in other nations; therefore, we can treat other nations with contempt. Do we look down on others who don’t share our same citizenship? Do we stereotype? Do we lump entire people groups into “less than” categories? Do we ever see Jesus teaching that people of one nation are his favorites or are superior to those of another? If Jesus favored anyone, it was the poor, the sick, the oppressed.

And here, inside our borders, how are we treating one another? Are we labeling people? We’ve got the liberal left, the radical right, the Fox followers, the CNN followers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the rich, the poor, the white-collar, the blue-collar,  the African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, and white, there are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.,  those who are for war, those who are against, and many, many other ideologies that have strong proponents on each side. To top it off, we are headed into an election year that’s going to be brutal as far as name-calling and divisive language go.  What are we, the followers of Jesus, to do?

Jesus says to us: “You have heard it said…but I say…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow. That’s a tall order. What does it even look like?

Paul, in Colossians 3:12-14 urges us toward this when he writes: As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues. (J.B. Phillips)

We are representatives of the new humanity–those who have God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13 NLT)

We are loved by God and are to share that love with every other image-bearer of God on the planet. It looks like merciful actions, kindness, humility (not thinking of oneself as superior in any way), tolerance, patience, and living with an attitude of forgiveness.

We are asked to forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven us. And here’s an important thought…God forgave us freely, but it cost him greatly. To forgive doesn’t mean to stuff emotion and pretend as though conflict doesn’t exist. To forgive means to wrestle it through, it means to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, it means to have hard conversations, bathed in love, with hope for reconciliation. In my own life, I’ve had to ask for God’s help, confess when I’m not ready to forgive, express the desire that I want to do this His way and offer my willingness to Him.  He then leads me through the process. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours, sometimes it’s months, sometimes years. It helps a great deal to pray blessing for those with whom I’m in conflict. Praying good things for them helps to get my heart and thoughts in a better place. And, yes, sometimes I’m praying blessing while at the same time acknowledging that my heart isn’t completely there yet, again, asking God to help me get there. 

Paul goes on to say, and Jesus would agree, that above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.

So, before we give to God, we are asked to give our “for” to others, and seek reconciliation. It’s not always possible to reconcile. There are times when the other party does not want to, or the situation is so toxic that to converse with that person would not be wise. In those instances, Paul tells us if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18). If physical reconciliation does not happen, strive for peace in your heart and thoughts toward others, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to reconcile.

So giving the way God wants us to begins with recognizing that God is for us, and he wants us to be for others.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

Pastor John combined and paraphrased the Matthew and Colossians scriptures to help us see it more clearly:

“Do not reduce the value of the life of another, but raise the value and worth of all others. If you have not done that and you are coming to give your gift to the Lord, your gift that declares you are for the Lord, go to the one that you are against; go to that one and establish your “for”. Reconcile with them, then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Give your “for” as freely as the Lord has given his “for you”. 

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.” It is vitally important that we pay attention as we read scripture. Context matters. Audience matters. The culture of the day matters. It matters that our passage is but a few verses connected to three entire chapters of teaching from Jesus. These aren’t standalone verses in a sermon focused solely on money, or even just about forgiveness. They are part of the whole that, as Luanne identified, is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and what it looks like to live as kingdom-minded people here on earth. The sermon in its entirety establishes the ways of the kingdom and emphasizes kingdom values, namely the value of people over religion. The context is so important, because this is one “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” among several others, set within a teaching given to show the people that religiosity will only take us so far—it’s love that takes us all the way.

Jesus is editing the script on religion. He’s not discarding what they’ve previously been taught, he’s reminding them—and us—about God’s original intention, and then expanding their understanding. The laws God gave through Moses were designed to teach the people how to live lives of love, focused on Him, following his lead. The laws describe how love acts, what it does and doesn’t do. They outline the basics of how to treat all others, how to live in such a way that love for God and love for others would direct their entire lives, everything they did and did not do. The laws had become something else, though, in the hands of humans who may have started out with good intentions, but who eventually overcomplicated God’s words, added rules and requirements designed to maintain control, and to box God in, to make him small enough to control by checking boxes. In the hands of those who stood to benefit from systems, what was intended to lead us into love for God and one another became something that did the opposite. It became a hierarchical system built on impossible expectations that divided the people rather than connect them.

Jesus comes onto the scene to press the reset button. But he doesn’t simply reset the system—he takes it several steps further. He connects everything to love of God and one another and tells his hearers more than once that everything hinges on this one command. The command to love. Sometimes this can be interpreted as watering down our faith, this emphasis on love. But there is nothing more demanding than following Jesus’ example of self-emptying love. He’s not lowering any standards by refocusing the people in this way. As Luanne wrote,

“Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.”

Jesus places a high value on giving. He instructs us many times in scripture to give generously, to give to the poor, and to give our lives to follow him. He modeled this value by giving everything, even his very life. Giving was not the greatest commandment, though. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. Giving without loving is meaningless. The giving must flow out of the loving. Giving every material belonging, and even our very lives matters not if not done from a place of love, as 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us:

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (MSG)

Bankrupt.

We are bankrupt without love. Our English word “bankrupt” comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means “a broken bench”. The root of the Italian is from the Latin rupta, which is “to break or be defeated.” Without love, we are completely broken, and we can offer nothing—not even a safe place to sit—to another. The good news is that recognizing our brokenness–seeing how empty, how bankrupt we are when we’re not connected to and operating from a place of love—can reconnect us to the One who creates beauty from brokenness, the one who scatters the fears that break us down with his perfect love that restores and rebuilds. Before we can be put back together his way, though, we have to acknowledge how we’ve been operating, where we’ve been rule-following and calling it love, where we’ve been “letting it go” by hiding our hurts deep inside and shutting the door rather than moving toward honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness.

Pastor John said, “Before you come to God, stop pretending.” Offering anything from a loveless place is just playing church and practicing religion. It’s pretending. It’s what the people Jesus was speaking to were used to seeing and practicing. Ritualized giving. Giving because the rules said what and how and how often giving was required. Giving because of the fear of the consequences of not giving. They didn’t understand God’s heart, his love, until he came to them in the form of Jesus. He came to set all things right, to restore what had been so broken by religion. And what had been most broken by the religious systems and structures of that day were their hearts. They weren’t connected to a God of love. They were going through the motions of following rules and avoiding negative consequences. Jesus came to reclaim their hearts, just as he comes to us to reclaim ours.

Our motivation to give and forgive has to be love. We can’t be truly for others—or for God—if we aren’t connected to and dependent upon his love alive in us. We only love because he loved us first. And it is his love that leads us. What does this love look like? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us:

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (verses 4-7, TPT)

”[Love] never stops believing the best for others…” Love God’s way values others, and never gives up. Which others? All of them, I’m pretty sure… I have some work to do here. Sometimes–often really–giving up can feel easier. Walking away from what feels like conflict, drama, and moving away from the pain can feel like self-protection, and often feels necessary. Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are toxic, abusive relationships that we really do need to physically move away from. In those cases, we still need to do the inner work with Jesus, asking him to search us and heal us and help us to forgive when we’ve been wounded. We are still called to forgive—regardless of the nature of the offense. And that is still moving toward, not walking away. We’re moving toward that person as we pray for the willingness to forgive them, as we pray that God would bless them and as we ask him to show them his love for them. Our spirits—the Christ-in-us part of us–can still move toward others even when we physically have to move away. Because, as we saw throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always pursues. Always moves toward. Always. Because love is what drives him. And if he lives within us, then his love is what drives us, too—if we don’t stand let fear stand in the way. 1 John 4 exhorts us:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (verses 7-12, NLT) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (verses 18-21, NIV)

If we are living from a place of love—not some appearance of love that we are trying to manufacture on our own but the love that comes from “…God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT)—then we will be led to both forgive and to give. Fear will prevent us from giving and forgiving. Love will lead us to do both, generously and extravagantly. This is what Jesus came to teach us all. He came to show us what the love of God looks like with skin on. He came to show us—in dramatic fashion—just how far real love will go, and how it really is at the core of every other commandment.

It will demand our all to live this way, to live as kingdom-minded disciples who choose to see and value and honor the image of God in every single one who comes from a womb. But we never have to do it alone. Learning how to forgive and how to give from a place of love isn’t easy. But because God loved and forgave and gave to us first, we can lean into all that he is for all that we’re not and he will enable us to do what we could never do on our own. We need only to come to him with our willing yes, with a heart open to receive his great love, and surrender to the changes his love will make within us. The rest will come as a result of being completely overcome and captivated by this extravagant love that wins our hearts. Are we willing to say yes to his love? Are we willing to let that love search us and change us, and lead us to forgive and to give without fear?

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

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

See the Signs: The Sign of Sight

Since Laura and I took last week off, I’m going to touch briefly on last week’s scripture passage because it is relevant to this week’s message. Pastor John’s passage was Mark 8: 13-21. To sum it up, the disciples were concerned because, with the exception of one loaf, they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey. While they were thinking about their lack of bread Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was mad because they hadn’t brought bread. Jesus, who knew what they were thinking said:“Why all this fussing over forgetting to bring bread? Do you still not see or understand what I say to you? Are your hearts still hard? You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” (Mark 8:17-18 TPT) Jesus asked them to remember when he fed the crowds of 5000+ and 4000+, asked them to remember how many leftovers there were and then asked them “…how is it that you still don’t get it?” (8:21) . 

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus mentions represent two oppressive systems. Yeast changes the composition of whatever it is introduced to. In the fermentation process, whether it be the making of bread or the making of beer, once yeast is introduced it works its way through the entire substance and changes its chemical structure. The disciples and Jesus had experienced quite a few unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees who continued to question Jesus’ authority and sow seeds of doubt, believing (and teaching) that their oppressive behavior-based system was the way of God. Their yeast represents man-made religious systems that have detoured from God’s loving heart and desire that his followers join him in his mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Man-made religious systems create hierarchies where some are in power and lord it over everyone else. Man-made religious systems oppress people. Man-made religious systems forget that God desires that we each use our gifts to introduce His ways and work toward the restoration and flourishing of all. Man-made religious systems portray a mean God. Man-made religious systems lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, judgment and “othering”.

The yeast of Herod represents the political realm and worldly power. One needs only to read the headlines to see how divisive, destructive and polarizing it can be when we align our hearts with political structures. The hate, the “othering”, the inability to see human beings without attaching labels and preconceived notions in regards to them, the mistreatment of some for the benefit of others…it’s toxic yeast changing our very nature.  Both religion and politics can have a tremendous influence on us. We are steeped in these systems and many times don’t recognize it, so we must be wise, allow the Holy Spirit to show us what we need to see, and separate ourselves from man-made systems that seek to oppress. The ways of the Kingdom of Heaven run counter to the kingdoms of this world. It is very easy to be infected by the yeast of the systems we grew up in. Do we see that? Are we willing to let Jesus open things up and show us something new–or–like the disciples, are we too hard-hearted to get it?

This week our passages are Mark 7:31-37, and Mark 8:22-26.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man. The way Mark lays out the timeline, Jesus heals the deaf man, feeds the crowd of 4000+, has an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees which leads to the above conversation in the boat, and then he heals the blind man. There are interesting parallels in these two healings that bookend this segment of scripture,

  1. Both men were brought to Jesus by others.
  2. Both men were brought to Jesus because they had physical limitations.
  3. Both men were brought to be touched and blessed by Jesus.
  4. Jesus pulls both men aside, away from the crowd, and gets one on one with each of them.
  5. Jesus uses his own saliva in both of these healings.

One man was deaf/mute, the other was blind. Isaiah prophesied centuries before that blind eyes will be open and deaf ears will hear… (35:5). These healings were more than just healings…

After Jesus healed the deaf/mute man, and right before he healed the blind man, he said to his disciples  “You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” 

Would Jesus say the same to us? Everything that Jesus does is nuanced and multi-layered. Yes, two men were miraculously healed by Jesus, but is that all there is to the story? Could it be that as Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, he is using these men as signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here and that he is the Messiah? He is giving his followers the opportunity to recognize that his ways are different from the ways of the Pharisees and of Herod; his ways are the ways of the Kingdom of God. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I find it beautiful that in both of these accounts Jesus pulls the men away from the crowd to be with them one on one.  If we look at Jesus’ miracles, they were never for the purpose of showing off–they were always on behalf of people who were in need–and he responded with compassion to the situation at hand. When the Pharisees wanted Jesus to show off for them to “prove” that he had authority to perform miracles, Jesus sighed deeply and walked away (Mark 8:12). Yes, his power was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his demonstrations of power were driven by his compassion, his love, his concern for all of us who are like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion, kindness, unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, all the fruit of the Holy Spirit are signs of His Kingdom on earth. Our Savior is powerful and pointed and gentle and kind. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I wonder, in the case of the deaf/mute man, if the voice of Jesus was the first voice he ever heard?  Mark 7:34 tells us that Jesus “gazed into heaven, sighed deeply, and spoke to the man’s ears and tongue, “Ethpathakh,” which is Aramaic for “Open up, now!

In The Passion Translation of the Bible, the footnote from Mark 7:34 says: “The phrase “open up” is the same wording used in the Hebrew of Isa. 61:1 “Open the prison doors.” It furthermore refers to the opening of the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  

Hmmm. Does this remind anyone else of Luke 4:18 when Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”  Jesus opens prison doors, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind… He opens things up. He changes things. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

In the healing of the blind man, “Jesus led him, as his sighted guide, outside the village. He placed his saliva on the man’s eyes and covered them with his hands”  (Mark 8:23 TPT). Again, the footnotes from The Passion Translation give us deeper insight into what is happening here. It says of verse 23, that the word “eyes’is not the common word for “eyes.” The Greek word omma can refer to both physical and spiritual sight”. And of the actual healing process itself “The Aramaic can be translated “Jesus placed his hands over his eyes and brought light.”

This healing account is different from any other in scripture because it happened in phases. The first time Jesus touched the man’s eyes, he only received partial sight. Jesus touched him a second time and he was able to see clearly, which according to Strong’s concordance literally means he could see “at a distance, and clearly”. Sometimes we get partial sight; the Apostle Paul said that’ “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (1st Cor. 13:12 The Voice) Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers? Are we willing to examine the lenses we grew up with and test them to see if they hold up to Truth? Are we willing to see through another’s eyes, and wrestle with his/her understanding of God, of salvation, of Jesus–removing our lenses and studying the gospels to see what is gold and what is stubble–recognizing traditions taught by man, versus what is actually there? Are we willing to soften our hard hearts and see, hear, remember? Jesus, the light of the world, is willing to touch us as many times as we allow so that we can see his light and his ways clearly.

In both of these healing encounters, Jesus opened things up. In putting these three accounts together, Jesus warns us to be careful about being influenced by human power structures, whether they are religious systems or political. He desires to pull us aside, to open our ears to hear his voice, open our eyes (both physical and spiritual) to see what he sees. He is our sighted guide. He brings us light. He leads us gently. He shows us who he is and what his Kingdom is about. He desires that we be like him, setting the oppressed free, and serving the people of the world with a heart of love, of compassion, of humility (“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:35).

Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

–Luanne

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I chose these words as my Senior quote. This line sits beside my picture in the yearbook that marked both an ending and a new beginning. The words came to my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and again this morning as I prayed through what direction to go in my writing. I don’t remember exactly why I chose this quote as a conflicted yet wide-eyed-with-wonder 17-year-old; I just know that it resonated deeply with my heart. I didn’t know that I would come back to it again and again as I grew from childhood into adulthood. It has reminded me that things are often not what they appear to be on the surface, that there are depths and nuance and mystery undetectable with our physical eyes. In moments where I’ve been tempted to pass judgment based on what is visible, these words have challenged me to consult the eyes of my heart first–the view is often different from there.

As I ponder the quote now, I find myself adding a few words that spring from what I’ve found to be true as I’ve grown in my own ability to see. I would say something like, “It is only with a heart whose eyes have been enlightened by the Spirit that one can see rightly; what is essential can be seen no other way.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit… If we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible.

The eyes of our hearts… It would be great if, when we each meet Jesus for the first time, a one-and-done opening of our heart-eyes was part of the deal. Can you imagine being able to see clearly and completely from that point forward? It would change everything!

But that’s not how it works. This seeing, this opening, it’s a gradual process. That’s what makes the two-part healing of the blind man at Betheseda so relatable. Luanne reminded us of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (The Voice)

What we know and see is only a sliver of the whole. In light of this truth, Luanne asked us some questions:

Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers?

Are we willing? Willing to, first, come to Jesus? Even if we have to be brought to him in the arms of someone else? And then, are we willing to let him touch our blind spots? Those places where we haven’t yet been enlightened by the Spirit? Luanne also asked if we are humble. Humility and willingness go hand in hand. It takes humility to admit that we have a limited field of sight and that our understanding is incomplete. And in that place of humility, we can choose to be willing to be led by “our sighted guide”, as Luanne called him.

Willingness and humility are not difficult–if our motivation is the same thing that moved Jesus. That motivator is love. If love is what drives us, being humble and willing are natural fruits of our endeavors. Luanne and I have both referenced 1 Corinthians 13:12. I was drawn to go back and read all of chapter 13, the chapter often called the “love chapter”. I’ve included it in its entirety below, to remind us what love actually looks like. Pastor John said on Sunday that to be “godly”, to be like God, is to be loving. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). No other attribute more fully captures his nature. And Jesus says the world will know us by this same love…

If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value. Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.

 (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

This kind of love is what motivated Jesus. If it’s what motivates us, we will have to continue to go to Jesus, to ask him to touch our blind spots and teach us to see the way that he sees. We’ll have to let him open us up–our eyes, our ears, our hearts. Luanne and I both used variations of the words “open up” many times in this post. We both know how hard it can be to open up. It can feel so much easier to live closed off, withdrawn, with eyes and ears closed to the world around us. It can feel safer. To open up is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable feels scary. But there is no way to embody the kind of love we just read about above if we’re not willing to be opened up by Jesus. Because love can’t be poured out of a closed vessel.

May we each have the courage to ask Jesus to heal our vision–layer by layer–so that we can see the world through his eyes–eyes that see what could be and what will be when wholeness and restoration come to set all things right. May we embrace the humble willingness that leads to a love that spills from our open hearts. And may we remember that for now, we only see in part, but our sighted guide sees the whole–and he’ll be faithful to keep bringing sight to us until the day we also see in full.

–Laura

His Kindness for the Hurting

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus.  They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.              (Mark 6: 53-56)

Picking up where we left off last week– Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat by themselves while he stayed behind and prayed. A mighty wind arose and the disciples fought it for hours. Finally, Jesus came to them.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida, but they landed in Gennesaret.  If you look at a map of the region, Gennesaret is nowhere near their original destination; the storm had taken them way off course. It’s also interesting to note that when Jesus walked out to them on the water, he went to where they were, not to where he had sent them. In his kindness, he will always meet us where we are, no matter how far off course we may find ourselves.

Once Jesus climbed into the boat with them and calmed the storm, they didn’t head for Bethsaida; they anchored in Gennesaret. Gennesaret is the region where Jesus freed the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. That man, after he was freed, wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus had him stay in Gennesaret  and said to him: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19-20) The man was faithful to what Jesus had asked him to do, so when Jesus and the disciples anchored in that region, they were recognized, and people came to Jesus; they knew he could do miraculous things–one of their own had experienced it and shared his story. 

I wish we could have a timeline–it would appear that Jesus stayed in this region for awhile–he went to villages, to towns, and the countryside and people brought their sick to the marketplaces, the “hub” of town so they could get near Jesus.

Pastor John highlighted three words as he shared this story: all; touched; healed.

All:  It’s important to note that Gennesaret was primarily a Gentile region, so once again, Jesus is breaking proper protocol and ministering to people who aren’t Jewish. Jesus is making himself available to “all”–to those who were “other”.  There is no one who is excluded from the love of God–no one. No person on planet earth who has ever lived, who lives now, or who will ever live is “other” in God’s eyes. We have got to understand this. Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?  Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness leads people to change their minds (repent) and come into a relationship with him, so it would make sense that the kindness of his followers would draw people to God’s unconditional love. ALL. All includes me. All includes you. All includes all.

Touched: It’s interesting in this passage that those in need of healing reached out to touch Jesus. I don’t know how many people were in these marketplaces, but the way Mark relays the story makes it sound like there were a lot. There are a couple of really interesting details to note: One, people who weren’t sick brought people who were sick to Jesus. Those who were well weren’t off doing their own thing. They were concerned about getting those who weren’t well close to Jesus. Two, those who were sick, once they were close to Jesus, had the opportunity to reach out and touch him. The well couldn’t take that step for the sick, but they could get the sick close to Jesus. Three, this is all happening in the center of town. Our relationship with Jesus is not a private matter or a church matter. Are we living in such a way that those around us can sense the nearness of Jesus? Do they know that he is close enough to touch?

Healed: Sometimes our English translations of scripture don’t do us any favors, and this is one of those times. In the book of Luke, chapter 17, there is a story of ten lepers who drew near to Jesus and asked him to heal them. Jesus “cleansed” them all. One of the 10–a Samaritan “other” — saw that he was “healed” and came back to thank Jesus. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well”.  Why the difference between cleansed, healed, and well? What do you think of when you think of the word “well”? You were sick, diseased, and now you are “well”? All the lepers were healed from leprosy–were they not all “well”? In this passage, the word “well” is the Greek word “sozo”.

In the passage in Mark we are looking at today,  healed is the word “sozo”–a verb; it means “to make whole, to keep safe and sound, to rescue from destruction, to save, to heal, to deliver or protect…”

We have a tendency to think of “healing” as only about the physical body. Jesus is concerned with our entire beings, and his “sozo” is about restoring us to wholeness, restoring us to flourishing…

It’s used 118 times in the New Testament:

In Matthew 1:21 we learn that Jesus shall “sozo” people from their sins.

When Peter was walking on the water and began to sink, he cried out for Jesus to “sozo” him.

The Son of Man came to “sozo” that which was lost.

And in John 3:17 we learn that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be “sozo”.

October is the anniversary month of my mother’s death. I was only a child when I lost her, so when I became an adult I asked a close friend of hers to share what my mom was like as a friend. Marie shared many things with me but one story, in particular, stood out. Many people were praying for my mom to be healed from cancer. Marie went to visit my mom in the hospital right as an awkward fellow from our church was wrapping up his visit. Marie asked my mom if it had been hard for her to be trapped and not able to get away from what could have been an uncomfortable visit. My mom shared with Marie–I don’t believe that God is going to cure me, but he is healing me…healing me to see people the way he sees them and love them the way he loves them; today he gave me love for G.

That’s “sozo”. My mother was not cured of her cancer, but she was healed to love well even while she was sick, even while the awkward difficult to be around person was in her room. She experienced, in the “marketplace” of her hospital room, a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.  As her daughter, I will always lament that she wasn’t physically healed. As her sister in Christ, I can rejoice that she experienced Jesus in such a beautiful way even when she was sick. In “sozo” our earthly focus shifts from the things that matter to us, to the things that matter to the heart of God.

In some Christian traditions, the primary focus of faith is getting “saved”. Getting “saved” is often defined as a one-time transaction that gives people a ticket to heaven. Once they have their “ticket”, they can live any way they want to, because their after-life is secure. Sozo does not mean that. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.

I read an account a few months ago that challenged the static definition of salvation. The account used the illustration of the sinking Titanic–lifeboats were available for some, and the people who got into the lifeboats were “saved”.  What would the story have been like if the rescued stayed in the lifeboats and bobbed around in the ocean until they died? They weren’t “saved” to bob around in the ocean. Their salvation led them to new life. They were “saved” from something for something.  So are we.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of his global family. You can be made whole;  you can carry others into his presence so they can be made whole. This is what it means to advance God’s kingdom on earth. We are The Church–the gates of hell will not prevail against us–if we understand our mission. 

We are to experience God’s love and respond by loving God–heart, soul, mind, and strength (entire being). We are to love others. We are to share our stories with those around us–like the man who was set free from demons did. We are to be inclusive, (Samaritans, Romans, lepers, demon-possessed, women, sinners, tax collectors, Jews, Pharisees, poor, rich…everyone). We are to be Spirit-filled vessels who are bringing God’s kingdom to earth (the way Jesus modeled it), so that God’s will, will be done on earth as in heaven. And what is that will?

God wants everyone to know:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, would be “sozo”, made whole, healed.

God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit whose fruit is evident in our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He has asked us to go everywhere and share that God is love and God is near. The ripple effect of God’s sozo can transform the world.

Our challenge: Experience God’s kindness. Reach out, touch him, let him mess in our business and make us whole, then, even while we’re still in process, carry others into his presence so that they too can reach out, touch him and be made whole…this is how it works. Are you in?

–Luanne

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around, no matter the outcome.”

I wonder if Rachel and Luanne’s mom are now friends on the other side… It seems the two of them held very similar beliefs about healing—what it is, and what it’s not. Luanne wrote that her mom experienced “…a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.” I witnessed this kind of phenomenon as my own mom bravely fought a battle that ultimately led her, too, out of our physical world and into the arms of Jesus. I watched as she made peace inwardly with her failing flesh and bones; I stood baffled by her overriding concern for the rest of us, even as she struggled for her own breath. She wanted nothing more than to live for God’s glory—whether here on earth, or with him. She repeated that like a mantra, and she meant it. She knew she’d be healed—one way or the other. But her heart was never more whole than when the rest of her was falling into a million broken pieces. She understood “sozo”, though I doubt she was familiar with the word.

Maybe it’s not until we face our own mortality that we can fully embrace and adapt Jesus’ vision for healing. But I have to believe—because Jesus said over and over again that the Kingdom is here, now—that we can move toward a deeper understanding of this healing, this wholeness now. I love what Luanne wrote about “sozo.” She said, “It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.” We can grow in our ability to experience and extend healing and wholeness right now.

Sarah Bessey, in her gorgeous book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, writes:

“I believe with all of my being that Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s heart is for our wholeness and our healing, for our belovedness and for our salvation, for goodness and mercy to chase after us and shape us. So I pray in that direction and trust that it is enough, that we will be shaped into Christ’s own, that our feet will find the path of peace, that our hearts will be tuned to cocreation and abundance and joy and love.”

But sometimes we get a picture in our minds of what our healing will look like. We tell ourselves, “When God fixes this, then ____________” We fill in that blank with our ideas of what the outcome will look like and why it will happen just that way—all to the glory of God, of course. To that, our friend Sarah adds,

“When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine.”

There’s something else that happens when we try to script our own resurrections… We become so focused on our own brokenness, our own pain, that we shut ourselves off from being those who extend wholeness and healing to others.

And sometimes we prefer it that way…

I heard someone say recently that we avoid the grief of others so that we’re not infected with it. It’s hard to enter into the pain of others in a real, present way. Compassion hurts. When we hear throughout the New Testament that Jesus was “moved with compassion”, it literally means that he felt it in his bowels. His insides lurched at the sight of those in need of healing. He suffered with them, so much that he felt it deep within his body. Is this how we respond when we see people in need of healing? Broken people desperate for wholeness? Maybe we need to back up and ask ourselves, Is this how we respond to our own desperate need for healing and wholeness? Do we regard ourselves with compassion? Shauna Niequist said recently, on The Eternal Current podcast, “I wanted to be part of building his kingdom on earth. But at a certain point I started realizing, I’m a part of that kingdom, too. So, if one little corner of the kingdom is suffering… take care of the whole kingdom, right? In a garden, you would never expect one plant to starve for all the rest. It’s not the right way to think about who we are and what we’ve been created for.”

Maybe we’ve never opened up our whole hearts to the “sozo” we need from Jesus. At a conference I attended recently, one speaker said that we have a God who makes “…redemption out of remnants; wholeness out of scraps.” But we have to choose to open up our broken hearts, to hold with our trembling hand our remnants and scraps, our fears and our scripts of how it’s supposed to be, and trust Jesus to bring the “sozo” we’re most in need of.

Then, as we are in the process of becoming whole, we bring others in. All others. Everyone.

I looked up the definition to “everyone”, just to make extra sure we understand. It does, in fact, mean, “every person.” Period. As Pastor John and Luanne both said, Jesus came for ALL. He made himself available to everyone. No one is excluded from encountering the love of God. No one is denied the experience of being made whole. Jesus’ healing is truly for all. Luanne asked us some probing questions, regarding this, that might make us squirm a little. And they should. She asked,

“Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?”

Can we answer these questions honestly? Whose presence in our sanctuaries would make us feel uncomfortable? Until we can truly answer, “No one would make us uncomfortable—there is no one who is seen as ‘other’ among us,” there is healing to be done within us. As we allow Jesus to save us his way, to cultivate his heart and his eyes within each of us and in all of us collectively, we will find that there is no need for our barriers, our rules, our exclusionary practices. Because seeing with his eyes destroys the dividing walls between “us” and “them”. And we are saved from ourselves and healed into wholeness, for the sake of the kingdom coming in all of its fullness. Here. Now. How beautiful is that picture?

Jesus’ kindness, his compassion for the hurting, the broken—all of us—is extravagant. It’s life-changing. He longs that we all experience it, and then extend it to everyone. Kindness… it’s so much bigger than a nice word we talk about with our toddlers. His kindness changes the world.

–Laura

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Limits: Freedom to Choose

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

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

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

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

So. Let’s talk about sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Over All: Jesus Said

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been writing about Jesus and the authority that he has over nature, over evil, over sickness, over death–truly over everything. We’ve looked at beautiful encounters in the gospel of Mark between Jesus and people and have focused on what he did. In this post, we are going to go back and focus on what he said.

In Mark 4  Jesus said to the storm “Hush, be still.” (NASB) and to the disciples “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (NASB)

In Mark 5 Jesus told the formerly demon-possessed, but now set free gentleman to  “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”  (NASB)

He said to the courageous woman who secretly reached out and touched his garment in the hope of being healed: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

To Jairus whose daughter died while he was waiting on the sidelines for Jesus to finish giving attention to the woman–Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (NIV)

To the dead body of Jairus’ daughter who Jesus took by the hand, he said: “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”  (ESV) We learned last week that phrase can also mean “Little lamb”.  Either way, we see Jesus gentleness as he exercises great authority.

Pastor John encouraged us to look at these words of Jesus through two lenses–a theological lens, and a personal lens. Both are extremely important.

Theology is the intellectual study of God. Theology leads to many theories about God. There are scholars who believe they’ve got God all figured out. Personally, I don’t believe that’s possible–God is too great. However, I do believe that God has shown us himself and his character–and I believe he has done that most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4, he opened the scroll in the synagogue and read the words of the prophet Isaiah which said:

“The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, Because He did anoint me; To proclaim good news to the poor, Sent me to heal the broken of heart, To proclaim to captives deliverance, And to blind receiving of sight, To send away the bruised with deliverance,  To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Young’s Literal Translation)

If we pay attention to the accounts in Mark, we see Jesus living out his anointing. If we pay attention to the words of Luke 4:18-19 we see the entire Trinity working together. The Spirit of Yahweh is on the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. The mission of the Trinity is to lift up, restore, heal, set free, give sight, deliver, accept–and it’s all about grace bathed in love. He is making all things new.

I don’t know what your theology is–I don’t know how you view God. What I do know is that in a lot of western theology, God the Father is the “mean one”, and Jesus the Christ is the “nice one”.   God is pictured over and over as ready to smite “sinners” with a lightning bolt, he apparently has a pretty out of control temper and Jesus is supposed to pacify that anger by stepping in between. I remember thinking this way myself. It made God distant, caused me to be afraid, and truthfully was not a healthy perspective.

God, in the garden at the beginning, sought out Adam and Eve when they had made a poor choice. He reinitiated a relationship that they thought was broken. Yes, he removed them from the garden, but he went with them. All throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. He let people reap the consequences of their choices, but never abandoned them. His mercy, his loving-kindness, his everlasting love is spoken of even in the Old Testament. He didn’t “punish” them. Their own choices punished them, and he came to them over and over again, and then he came to all of us in the form of Jesus and left us with the gift of his presence through the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that in the Old Testament only a few select people were given the Holy Spirit. They became the prophets. Since most people did not have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as we do now, the revelation of God was incomplete. In the absence of complete information, all of us fill in the blanks with our own thoughts and perceptions. During the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, when God was fairly silent, the religious leaders kept adding law upon law upon law–they were filling in the gaps of silence with attempts to reach God–who was there all along–and creating heavy, joyless weight for the people to bear.

And so Jesus comes to show us what God is like. When he is asked about the greatest commandment–the greatest law, he says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Mt. 22: 37-40). Mic drop. All the man-made attempts to please God, to relate with God, to be acceptable to God come down to one thing–LOVE.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love(1st John 4:8) . God’s very nature and character is love–and Jesus is God. Jesus shows us who God is, how God is, the nature and character of God, the way that God relates with humanity, the way God desires that we relate with humanity–including everyone.

Jesus says:

“The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.” (John 12:45)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”  (John 14:9)

“The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)

Paul says:

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,”  (Col. 1:15 NLT)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  (Col. 1:19)

And the writer of Hebrews tells us:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:3)

Jesus is the EXACT representation of God’s nature, God’s character, God’s heart, God’s being.  Jesus is God, Jesus is Yahweh, Jesus is the full expression of who God is.

In every encounter in Mark that we’ve looked at–God the Trinity was acting to calm the sea, to tell the disciples and Jairus not to be afraid, to set the demon-possessed man free and give him a life of purpose, to commend the woman for her faith and call her “daughter” indicating that she was cherished and belonged to him, to take a dead girl by the hand and speak to her–“little girl, little lamb, rise up”.

In the Trinity, there is no mean one and no nice one. The Trinity, the full expression of God, is love. His way of drawing us into a relationship with him is kindness. His desire is that we be like him, loving everyone and showing them what he is really like.

That’s the theological lens in a nutshell.

The personal lens we each get to wrestle with individually.  Each encounter with God recorded in Mark, each word spoken by God can be spoken to you. Maybe some of them have been.

What storm are you in? Where are you placing your faith in that storm? Jesus asks you (resist the urge to insert an angry tone) “why are you afraid…where is your faith?” He is with us in the storm, and he can calm that storm in a moment.

What is oppressing you? Jesus can/has set you free, and then sends you back to your people to tell them what he’s done for you, to tell them of his mercy, in the hopes that they will be drawn to him. People can debate scripture all day long; however, they can not dispute your personal encounter with God.

Have you lived through years of hardship and then courageously acted in faith? Jesus has time to listen to you tell your whole story, he cares about–and he is delighted with your faith. He calls you daughter (or son), and heals you.

Are you in an impossible situation? Jesus says to you “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”

Are there dead places in you? Jesus takes you by the hand and says to you, “Little lamb, rise up.”  The dead places come back to life, you find nourishment, and you rise up.

I have lived all of these. God has been so merciful and gracious to me over the years–in my grief, in my self-destruction, in my oppression, in storms that were out of my control, in my dead places that needed life breathed back into them, in my courageous “faith” moments–he has been there. He has taken me by the hand and said “rise up”. He has looked at me and called me daughter and said: “you are healed”. He has set me free from too much to go into in this blog post, and, I imagine that as long as I’m on planet earth we will continue the healing and freedom journey together. He has encouraged me to believe, to let go of my fear, and he has given me beautiful opportunity to share with others how merciful he’s been with me.  When fear rears its ugly head, which it does more often than I care to admit, he reminds me to ponder why I’m afraid, and to place myself again into his trustworthy hands. He is better than any of us can begin to fathom, kinder than we can comprehend, and beautiful in every way.

The God of love, the Trinity of love, invites us to enter in…

Luanne

As I read through what Luanne wrote, I am moved to tears over the kindness, the beauty of Jesus that she captured so well in her words. She wrapped up this series so comprehensively, I’m not sure what else I want to add… I think we’ll just linger where she left us, marveling at the wonder of the one who has authority to settle storms with a whisper, the one whose very presence causes evil to fall at his feet, but who is at the same time the most kind, the most tender, the most gentle expression of pure love that there is…

These stories that we’ve lingered in for a while, out of Mark, are some of my favorites because they present to us a picture of Jesus that seems nearly unbelievable–Is he really that powerful, that big, that kind, that near?--and at the same time, so familiar–I know he is, because he has come to me in the very same ways, with the very same kindness, the very same huge smallness.

My lenses have undergone radical adjustments, especially over the last five to ten years. Both the theological and personal lenses I was handed early in my life acted more like blindfolds to the truth of Jesus than anything that could help me see him more clearly. And yet, he was there, with me in my blindness, in my clawing around through what felt like darkness…

I thought about writing more about my experiences with these lenses–I have shared some about my childhood experiences here before–but what feels most important in this moment is to emphasize the with-ness of Jesus, to linger a little longer in the wonder of his perfect goodness.

As I typed those last two words, I felt my heart catch in my throat. Perfect goodness… How can I write that when it doesn’t always go the way it went in these stories we’ve been reading? How can I write that as a devastating hurricane ravages thousands of homes and lives with no end yet in sight? How can I talk about his perfect goodness when so many storms go un-stilled? When so many who are not in their right mind are not freed from the bondage of their suffering, and live their lives terrorizing those closest to them? How can I talk about the perfect goodness of Jesus when I lived with a woman who really believed that one touch from him would heal her, but her healing never came? When children suffer and die from cancer and stay dead, leaving their parents crying in agony, begging for a resurrection that doesn’t come? How can I say Jesus is perfectly good, kind, loving, real… when he doesn’t seem to show up like he did in these stories from long ago?

I hoped that by the time I reached the end of the last paragraph, I would have something profound to write, some encouragement that would resolve the dissonance in the often tragic soundtrack of our lives.

I don’t have anything profound to offer.

All I can offer is what I know to be true from my own experience…

When I was a tiny and vulnerable, and the hands that should have held me hurt me instead, there were other hands holding me, feeling the pain with me, never leaving me alone…

When fear visited and evil was all around, there were hands of comfort and peace that I couldn’t see, but I could feel the safety they offered, and they promised I wasn’t alone…

When I ran from all my pain and tried to find the love and safety I desired in the arms of those who would only further betray and use me, there was another set of arms waiting there to catch me, an embrace that held me with honor and grace, as I crashed over and over again…

In my deepest grief, my most paralyzing fear, my worst choices; in the midst of tragedy and despair, I have never faced any of it alone. There have been hands that have never left me, hands that have held me and rescued me, hands that offered affection that didn’t hurt, and hope in the midst of suffering. These hands are the same hands that endured the twin spikes of violence and pain, that absorbed the full weight of every hurt I’ve ever felt and every hurt I’ve ever caused. Sometimes these hands are a sensed presence–I can feel them even when my eyes can’t see. And sometimes these hands appear through the very real, tangible experience of another person. Arms that have held me tightly and securely until the sobbing subsided, hands that have tenderly held my face as memories of pain moved through my consciousness. Hands that have held mine in prayer, promising presence in the waiting, and arms that have literally held me upright as the crushing weight of loss and grief pressed down into me.

All of these experiences connect my lived reality to the stories we’ve been reading. Jesus, as he walked the earth, loved people through touch. His touch brought comfort, peace, presence, and often healing. His touch was an expression of his love, his with-ness. His touch–whether it comes supernaturally, or through the hands of another who’s willing to be his vessel–is a promise of his perfect goodness today, to us, also. He is perfectly good even when our circumstances are anything but. There’s no way to explain the why questions around who gets “healed” and who doesn’t. There’s no neat and tidy way for me to tell you that he really is all that I’m claiming he is, a way to prove that he is with you right now–no matter where you are–in the very same way.

All I can offer is my own experience with the one who’s never left me alone, the one whose hands are never far from my reach. All I can offer is what the disciples in the boat offered–my story of being saved in the midst of crashing waves; what the man in the tombs offered–my own story of mercy that freed me; what the woman who touched him offered–my story of hearing him call me “daughter” and make space for the story of my life; what the little girl offered–my story of being brought back to life, of finding freedom from the grave clothes that threatened to end me. I can’t prove the presence of Jesus to you–but I can tell you my story.

I hope you can share similar stories, stories of his with-ness during the seasons of your life. Maybe you don’t yet recognize his touch, his presence, but I promise you he’s there. He always has been and he always will be. What if you risked? What if you reached out and found that there’s a hand already reaching back, waiting to draw you into his kindness, his love, his perfect goodness? As Luanne wrote above, this perfect Love is inviting all of us to enter in–may we all have the courage to say yes to his invitation.

–Laura

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A Matter of Principle–Kingdom Growth

What we hear over and over again, we ingest. What we ingest becomes part of us and shapes our understanding. We cling to our understanding as it becomes intertwined with our identities, and so our understanding forms our convictions. We then build arguments around our convictions, and this affects our ability to hear.

The paragraph above is a rough paraphrase of a couple of statements Pastor John made in Sunday’s sermon. It is especially applicable to the passage we looked at this week:

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:21-25)

Have you heard these words of Jesus before? If you have, what is your understanding of what they mean? What formed that understanding? Did you hear them together, in the context of the whole chapter, or have you heard them as standalone phrases, used to illustrate concepts unrelated to one another?

Pastor John offered some common interpretations of the text. A few of those are:

-The lamp symbolizes Jesus; he is talking about himself in verse 21. 

-What is hidden and concealed will be disclosed is in reference to our sin. God, who is keeping a list and checking it twice like some kind of righteous Santa Claus, will expose every last thing we’ve done wrong.

-“The measure you use” from verse 24 is talking about our financial offerings and the use of our spiritual gifts.

Have you heard explanations like these? I know I have. Over and over and over again. My understanding of these verses was shaped by how I heard them taught. After ingesting that teaching time and time again, it became easy to gloss over them as odd, standalone phrases sandwiched between otherwise connected passages. My understanding affected my ability to hear.

I can’t help but think about the proverb that exhorts us to lean not on our own understanding, but instead, acknowledge God in everything, including the truth that his ways and his thoughts are so much higher than ours. Remembering these truths reminds us that part of what makes God so beautiful is that we cannot possibly, within the limits of our humanity, grasp or understand the enormity and vastness of the mystery of all that he is. We are continually growing and learning more about his heart and his ways as he reveals himself to us. If we have ears to hear what he is saying.

Pastor John offered a different explanation of these five verses, an explanation that not only keeps them within the context of the passages surrounding them but also keeps them connected to the central message of Jesus throughout the gospels: the kingdom.

Jesus was always talking about the kingdom. Theologians disagree on many things, but one point they tend to agree on is that the central theme of Jesus’ ministry was the Kingdom. He continually talked to his followers about what the kingdom is like, and then he showed them what the kingdom looks like in action. Luanne and I are convinced that kingdom living–living our lives as Jesus would live them if he were us–is our highest priority as Jesus-followers. He was always all about the kingdom. He taught that it is here, now, and that living according to the ways of his upside-down kingdom could actually change the world. We agree. We agree so much that the tag “kingdom living” is our second highest used tag on this blog–second only to the tag “Jesus”.

Our verses this week are sandwiched between passages in which Jesus tells stories about seeds and sowing as illustrations of what the kingdom is like. Pastor John offered a new take on what they might mean, considering their context. He offered that these five verses actually teach about kingdom growth and that the shame-based way many of us have heard them taught stands contrary to the point Jesus was actually trying to make.

What if…

Jesus talked about the lamp because it was familiar to his hearers. He asked them if they would hide what illuminated their homes, the thing that transformed the darkness around them into livable space. Obviously, their answer would have been no. Who would do that? Likewise, why would we hide what is illuminating our lives, what has transformed us? Who would do that? Well…we would. We do. The seeds of Jesus’ kingdom grow within us and change us, but oftentimes we hide the changes…

So, Jesus moves on to say that what is hidden and concealed is meant to be brought into the open, to be seen. The fruit of the seeds that have been sown into our lives is meant to be shared and sown into other lives…

Because what we harvest depends on what we sow. With the measure we use, it will be measured back. Pastor John said, “Sow generously so you can reap bountifully. Throw seeds everywhere. Stop judging and calculating where it would be best to sow.” If we want to see the kingdom grow, we have to be people who sow generously.

Jesus finishes these statements by talking about those who have been given more, and how those who don’t have will lose even what they do have. John explained this last statement by contrasting the principle of consumption with the principle of conception. This is where I’ll linger a while…

The principle of consumption teaches that as we consume, we deplete the resource. We use it and lose it. The principle of conception is all about creating something new, birthing something that grows. As is grows, as we use it, it isn’t depleted–it is multiplied. It expands. John 12:24-25 explains it this way:

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (MSG)

The way of the kingdom as Jesus taught it and lived it is the way of self-giving love. In Philippians, Paul uses the word “kenosis” to describe this kind of love. Bradley Jersak, in his stunning book, A More Christlike God, defines kenosis as:

“Greek for emptying, used by Paul in Philippians 2 to describe Christ’s self-emptying power, self-giving love, and radical servanthood, revealed in the Word becoming flesh and particularly seen in the Passion of Christ.”

Love, in the kingdom of God, is meant to look like this. It is meant to expand and to grow without condition. It gives, over and over, and is never depleted. “Wherever God, wherever Christ, wherever we risk emptying ourselves of self-will and self-rule to make space for the other, that is where the supernatural kingdom-love of God rules and reigns… He rules and reigns through our consent, our yieldedness, our surrender–through our willingness to mediate his self-giving love into the world. That’s a different kind of kingdom! A strange kind of King!” (Jersak, A More Christlike God)

When we pair the concept of self-giving, self-emptying love with the principle of sowing seeds of love generously, we must confront our tendency to control where we sow. I think this might be what Jesus wanted to show us through this particular teaching. His exhortation to sow generously with our lives, to empty ourselves in love, trusting that the seeds in us will be continually reproduced by the grower acts as a mirror to show us ourselves. To show us where we’re unwilling and unyielding, where we have a tendency to hold on and calculate the love we give rather than throwing it out vulnerably and generously. The mirror shows us which image-bearers we find worthy of our seeds–and which ones we find unworthy.

In Dallas Willard’s book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, he wrote:

“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christians” will become disciples–students, apprentices, practitioners–of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.” 

Every corner. 

Every corner leaves no one out. Every corner includes the cages our brown-skinned brothers and sisters are living in on our nation’s border. The offices of the politicians we find easy to hate, regardless of which “side” they represent. The megachurches preaching nationalism as gospel. The prisons that hold those who have committed the vilest acts against fellow human beings. The precincts that protect officers who have misused their power. The brothels where pimps profit from the rape of women and children. The homes that hold family members who have torn our own hearts to shreds. The alley where the addicted find their next high. The bars that make space for those whose lifestyle we don’t agree with. The clinics that provide abortions to women and girls. The orphanages overflowing with children no one wanted. And endless other places full of faces that bear the image of our God.

Are we sowing generously into all of these corners? Are we living the life of the kingdom and loving into every image-bearer, without exception? Do we have ears to hear Jesus’ words and apply them his way, for the sake of the growth of his kingdom here and now?

–Laura

I could not agree more with what Laura wrote above, and I could not agree more with what Pastor John shared with us on Sunday morning. I believe the message of sowing the seeds of the Kingdom of God is the heart of our partnership with God in reconciling the world to God and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Not one of us can transform anyone else’s life or save them. What we can do is sow seeds of the Kingdom by seeing everyone as an image-bearer of God, and by choosing to treat every image-bearer with dignity, love, and kindness so that they can discover their incredible worth and be drawn to the One who loves unconditionally, saves, transforms, heals, and empowers so that they too can be part of God’s ministry of reconciliation and Kingdom growth.

I love the way Jesus, in his teaching,  takes common, everyday items and uses them to teach deep principles. I find it interesting that he chose to talk about lamps in the middle of his teaching about sowing seeds…but both fruit and light are principles in the Kingdom and they are intricately connected.

Seeds, when sown, are hidden in the ground. Every hidden seed has potential. My three-year-old granddaughter and I planted some seeds together in a contained environment a few months ago. They weren’t put into the dirt to be forgotten, but to grow something. As the first two tiny leaves pushed through the soil after a week or so, excitement ensued (mine more than hers if I’m being honest). Evidence that the seeds would bear fruit had begun. What had been hidden, was now seen.   If I had chosen to deprive that little plant of light, of water–if I had chosen to cover the plant and let it be consumed by darkness–it would have died, but by continuing to provide what was needed for growth, it finally outgrew it’s container and was ready to be transferred to a new environment.  If the fruit matures, the seeds inside can be salvaged for an even greater harvest next year. I don’t know how many seeds each fruit holds, but I know that it’s more than one.

Like fruit, light is meant to be seen. Light actually is the fruit of fuel and spark.  Jesus–in thinking of oil lamps asked who would take their lamp and hide it. It’s a good question. It’s hard to contain light. Light, by its very nature, is generous. It’s impossible to turn on a light and have it just shine on the one who lit it. Anyone else in the vicinity will see the light as well–unless it’s hidden under something, and then, what’s the point?

A  year or so ago, I led a devotion about anointing and light and took some time to learn about the oil lamps of Jesus day. This is what I learned:

 For an oil lamp to function, it needs a containeroil, a wick, and fire. The container holds the fuel and the wick. The wick must absorb the oil…keeping the wick wet is what allows it to draw fuel up to the top where it can be burned. The purpose of the wick is not to burn, but to carry fuel up to the top edge of the lamp where it (the fuel) can burn. It is the fuel that is creating the ability for light

Wicks that carry the fuel to the light have to be saturated in the fuel source. Wicks are not striving to get that fuel to the light, they are immersed in the fuel and soaking it up.  The farther out of the lamp the wick is, the more light it produces.  The fuel must be lit by an outside source. As the fuel burns, it will need to be replenished with fresh fuel.

John the Baptist, when speaking of Jesus, said He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Mt. 3:11)  The Holy Spirit within us is the fuel that burns providing the light of Jesus to those around us.

The Apostle John tells us that in Jesus was life and that life was the light of all mankind. (Jn 1:4) No one is excluded.

Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill can’t be hidden (Mt. 5:14).  Do we try to contain our light, control where it shines, just like we sometimes try to control where we should sow seeds? Sow generously, shine generously.

1st John 2:20 and 27 tell us  You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth…, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–remain in Him.”  In order to shine the light of Christ, we must remain immersed in the fuel source of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit’s presence will permeate our lives like wicks absorbing oil, providing light through us. 

 The fuel source for God’s light is within us; however, we have choices about what we’ll do with that fuel source. 

1st Thessalonians tells us not to quench the Spirit…meaning that we can put out the fire. 

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about some foolish young ladies who let their fuel supply get too low so their fires were going out meaning that without refueling by remaining in the Spirit’s presence we can become inefficient light-bearers.   

Unlit oil makes a lamp useless– the lamp’s container might look pretty sitting on a shelf or in a pew, but that’s not what it was designed for; it was designed to bear light, and light is not meant to be hidden.

Ephesians 5:18 tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, 

Luke 11:13 says HOW MUCH MORE  will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.  A constant supply is available as long as we remain in Him.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:16 to let our lights shine before men, so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. That verse could almost make it seem as if Jesus is encouraging behavior-based goodness until we remember that our light source is the Holy Spirit. We can’t manufacture our own light, just like we can’t germinate sown seeds. Our part is to remain in the Spirit allowing ourselves to be filled with the Spirit’s fuel,  giving God access to use our lives as wicks that allow His light to burn and shine on those around us; therefore sowing seeds everywhere we go.   

Scripture says that the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, of his fuel burning in us,  will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal 5:22)–none of which is meant to be hidden, all of which is meant to be sown wildly, generously, everywhere to everyone. 

Pastor John concluded his message by reminding us that condemnation doesn’t lead to Kingdom growth and change, condemnation leads to conformity. It’s kindness that leads to change. It’s the kindness of the Lord, expressed through us,  that draws people to him (Romans 2:4). His kindness is without limits, without exclusion, it is to be extended to everyone, including all those that Laura reminded us of in her powerful second-to-last paragraph.

Kindness, love, gentleness, patience, goodness–evidence that the seeds of the Holy Spirit that were sown in us have grown and are bearing the fruit of the Spirit whose light burns in us, through us, and around us, so that the world can be changed and the Kingdom of God, his expansive upside-down Kingdom of love, inclusivity, unity,  equality, and grace can expand and grow right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom that is right here, right now, more than any other subject. The Kingdom and its ways are the priority of His heart. We are His followers, His apprentices–are we bearing light that looks like Jesus, and sowing the seeds of His Kingdom–or ours? Our fruit will let us know.

 “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

–Luanne

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This I Know: Father’s Day

On Sunday, we had the privilege of hearing from a panel of dads. Pastor John Marshall, along with two of our elders, Trevor Schenk and Jim Fuhrer, shared with us about their experiences with each of their fathers as well as their experiences parenting their own children.

These three men all had really good dads. Dads who weren’t perfect, but still modeled God’s love to them. Dads who lived out their faith. All three identified that their dads didn’t really talk about their faith with their kids–they shared their faith in their actions. Whether it was the way they respected others and spoke encouragement, their consistency and strength of character, or their hospitality to anyone who needed a place to stay, all three lived out their faith in front of their kids. And these sons that we heard from–they noticed.

Jim said, “What you know is articulated through what you do.” He went on to say that kids are quick to spot the inconsistencies. They see hypocrisy. He encouraged us to notice the way that God demonstrates pursuing his kids–and to pursue our kids in that same way–in words as well as in action. He talked about the importance of dads telling their daughters, “You’re beautiful” and telling their sons, “I”m proud of you.” I think the exact words may differ for each child–every person is wired uniquely and may need to hear something different. Regardless of the wording, what Jim was encouraging dads to do was to speak to the places of longing in their children’s hearts. To speak truth into those holes we all have that, if not countered with truth, become a breeding ground for insecurity, shame, fear, and all forms of hidden pain. For me, the best thing my dad could say to me–whether in words or through action–is, “You matter. You’re significant to my life, and I have space for you.” What is it that your heart would most love to hear from your father?

John vulnerably shared that, while his dad lived out what he believed, he can’t recall hearing the words “I love you” from him very many times in his life. He wasn’t sure his dad loved him. He identified one time that he did hear these words. They were the last words his dad spoke to him before he died nearly two years ago. The impact of those three words on John’s heart was felt throughout the room as he shared about that moment through tears. John needed to hear his dad say, “I love you.” 

Up to this point, we’ve looked at the importance of both words and actions when it comes to being a dad. We’ve heard about three really wonderful fathers from three men who are also wonderful dads (and granddads) to their own children and grandchildren. None of these men are/were perfect, none have/had all the answers. But they all love God, and they’ve all done–and are doing–their best to reflect the heart of God to their children.

As I type these words, I am so aware that what our panel presented is, unfortunately, not the norm. It is not common to hear about so many dads who parent well and lead their children this way. There are many of us who can’t quite identify with this experience, many of us whose dads created chaos rather than stability, and left us doubting God rather than trusting him. Rather than modeling the love of God to their children, many dads instill in them the fear of God by painting a picture of anger, judgement, and criticism, or maybe one of apathy and abandonment.

If your experience with your father–or as a father–was (or is) more like what you just read than what our panel shared about, please keep reading…

While our panel of dads shared many wise and honest points, there was one line that hit me harder than everything else they said. It was a response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge as a dad?” The answer we heard from Trevor, the youngest of the three dads, is one that I know I’ll be wrestling through for a while. Trevor has two young sons, currently one and four years old. He answered the question with these words:

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

His words hit me hard. They led me to a trail head for a path I was (and am still, honestly…) resistant to travel. The path is rocky and steep. It’s dark and shadowy and a bit mysterious. It’s full of memories that could cause me to slip and fall and bleed. It’s a path I don’t want to take–and I don’t have to. I could walk right past the entrance and move on. I could find another trail–one full of butterflies and wildflowers, one well-marked and well-lit.

I don’t want to take the rocky path. Because it might cultivate compassion that I don’t want to have for a person that has wounded me deeply, and continues to do so…

The Holy Spirit delivered Trevor’s words into the core of me. It felt a bit like a sucker punch, the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you a little panicky as you gasp for air. I resisted immediately, because, well, self-pity feels better than self-emptying love. And anger can feel like power and control in situations that otherwise leave you feeling small and insignificant. 

I wanted to stay in the anger. I told God that.

But even as I wrestled, I knew that this would be the next page in my story. God was inviting me deeper, into a place of compassion, grace, and forgiveness through Trevor’s words. Would I take his hand and let him lead me onto this rocky trail in front of me, the one called “Ian”?

Ian is my dad. Our relationship is complicated, and to catch you all up to where we are today would require far too many words. What you need to know, for now, is that I came into church on Sunday hurting and guarded and wanting to go back home. Because once again, my dad had broken my heart and left me feeling disappointed and invisible. I’m learning that anger is my go-to emotion when I feel unseen, because, as I said before, anger can feel like power and control. So that’s where I was as I listened to our panel.

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

Trevor’s words led me to a trail head called “Ian”, not “Dad”. A trail called “Dad” would lead me through the winding, treacherous journey back through our story as father and daughter. God was inviting me, instead, to traverse the trail of Ian’s story. That realization alone was enough to cause stress fractures in the walls around my heart. I know his story, and it’s tragic. One chapter from the story of his early years would be enough to soften the hardest heart… but, somehow, I’d forgotten that. I  had locked all of that in a box and hid it behind the file cabinet of my own pain.

I couldn’t go there yesterday. I thanked Trevor for sharing and let him know that I was pretty sure I’d end up writing about how God had used his words. And then I left with my family to celebrate my husband and his dad.

I couldn’t run away from it today, though…

What if I applied Trevor’s answer to my Dad? What if I took the first step onto the perilous path of his life story with eyes to see and ears to hear what it was like for him? What if I opened that locked box and let the stories I’ve put away come into view?

My dad endured a childhood no little boy should ever have to face. The stories aren’t mine to share, so I will speak in generalities, but I assure you that the details would rip your heart in two. He faced abuse and abandonment. When he courageously stood up to protect his mother at the tender age of eight, the cost was his father, whom he never saw again. He endured poverty and a fractured, blended family. He endured spiritual warfare terrifying enough to break box office records in the horror category. The man who eventually ended up sticking around in his life was a good man, but he was a hard man who only softened in his later years. Despite the odds against him, my dad excelled in school and in sports. He found a love for God through the faith of his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have survived all that life threw at her–but somehow she did.

He wanted to be a pastor…

But then he found himself entangled in a “church” that preached patriarchy and a vengeful, angry God. It was a place that stripped young, hopeful Jesus-followers of their identities and manipulated them in a grotesque show of power and control that took the forms of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse. This place broke him. And his brokenness broke his family.

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

It’s still breaking my heart, and now the hearts of my own kids.

And I want to be angry…

But as I recall all he’s been through, all that’s made him who he is; as I think about what was modeled to him from every father figure he’s ever known, I have to acknowledge it:

My dad’s biggest challenge as a father is himself, too. 

His shame, his broken little-boy heart, his fragmented history… How do you learn to be a father when that is the story of you?

As I exhale, my narrative shifts… Considering all he’s been through, he hasn’t done too badly. My saying that doesn’t mean he’s “off the hook” for all the pain he’s caused me and those I love. It does mean, however, that I can cultivate compassion for this man, named Ian. This man who, if I didn’t know him as my father, I would be devastated for. A man whose story is heartbreaking and woven into the person he is–the good and the bad. A man who, against all odds, has held onto hope and to God, and who brings a lot of good into the world. Acknowledging his story allows me to focus on his strengths and to see the good in him. And there truly is good in him–and in all of us. I get to choose what I focus on–we all do.

Maybe the biggest challenge we all face as human beings is ourselves. Maybe Trevor’s answer applies to all of us… Maybe it’s our own shortcomings, each of our file cabinets filled with our pain and disappointment, that get in the way of our loving each other well.

And maybe that’s why we all need the reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us. We wrote these words in our Mother’s Day post:

“…Wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God… Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet…  There is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but as we commit these things to God,“he will bring life to it.” We are “a people of hope”, and God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” 

None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. (And stories we may have forgotten about…) His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.”

These words are worth repeating, because we have to be reminded that our weakness is not something to be afraid of… and the weakness of someone else–even if that someone else is our dad or our mom–isn’t something we have to be angry about. We can choose compassion when everything within us would rather run the other way. Because the story doesn’t hinge on our parents, on our children, or on us. The story hinges on the father who is also mother. The father who is perfect and shows up brightest in our imperfections.

My dad isn’t perfect. There are wounds in my heart that aren’t healed, and may never be. But my Father is perfect. He is perfect in his love for me as his daughter, and he is perfect in his love for my dad, who is just as much his child. He alone can come into the broken and cultivate compassion rather than anger, if we let him. These words from a song we sang on Sunday keep running through my head:

My weakness is hidden within Your glory
Jesus, my strength is in You
The odds are against me, but You are for me
Jesus, my strength is in You

(Power, Elevation Worship)

The odds are against all of us. But we all have One who is for us. And his perfect parental love is enough to carry us from where we are to where we could be, if we trust him enough to take his hand and let him lead us.

–Laura

As I read what Laura wrote above, my heart hurts for my friend, my heart hurts for Ian, and my heart hurts for all those who’ve struggled in their relationships with their dads. That is not my story. My dad is not perfect, but he’s fantastic. He was very free with loving words and loving actions.

I have no idea how many of my childhood hours were spent traipsing through the woods, catching tadpoles and crawdads in creeks, floating in a canoe down a river, walking together on trails, sitting in his lap while he read me books, even sliding down his cast when he broke his leg. He taught me, with words and actions, about God’s love, about prayer being listening to God as well as speaking to God-and we practiced that together. We memorized the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm together. When my mother died, he gave us permission to be angry and grieved honestly in front of and with us. When my life exploded in 2011, he was my confidant, my safe person, and gave wise and beautiful support and counsel without degrading anyone else. He will be ninety on his next birthday, and though his physical body is causing him a good bit of trouble, his brilliant mind, his gentle ways, and his love are still pillars in my life. I recognize that my story is a rare one. I am grateful.

Pastor John reminded us as he shared,  that we weren’t comparing fathers and mothers and which parent is most important or has greater influence because both reflect the image of God and both are incredibly influential; however, he did point out that there is a weightiness that goes with the role of being a dad. Many times, the view we have of God comes from the view we have of our earthly dads. In my case, that’s a great thing. In the case of others, it’s not so great, which is why what Laura does above is so powerful. She began to remember her dad’s own story, his own holes, his brokenness, his story, and it led her to compassion for her dad. Again, not excusing or dismissing her pain, but adding another element to the story.

When I was in counseling a few years ago, the counselor’s office had ampersands (&) in various locations. One of the concepts that they reminded us of over and over is that life happens in the tension of the “and”. I’ve found that to be very helpful, and have an ampersand in my own house to help me remember. What does it mean to live in the tension of the “and”? Two seemingly opposing truths can be true without one canceling out the other. It’s both/and rather than either/or. I am a generous person and I am a selfish person.  Both are true. I live in the tension between the two truths.

What Laura was doing in remembering Ian’s story, was adding the tension that comes with the ampersand. The ampersand helps us to cultivate compassion, even as we grapple with very real wounds.

Life might seem easier if everything was black and white. It’s not. We live in the gray. We live in the tension. One of my son’s friends, who has the authority in his job to hire and fire people, allows situations to go on for a while as he learns the story behind the story. He shared that he prefers to offer grace in the gray before determining whether to let someone go or not. I’ve adopted his phrase. Grace in the gray–not an easy place to be, not without wrestling, but maybe the best place to be in the many situations over which we have no control, which includes the parents we have, and the choices our children make.

So, as the child of a parent, as the parent of a child, as the “stand-in” parent for children and young adults to whom we didn’t give birth, as a success and as a failure, can we offer grace to ourselves and to others in the gray? That doesn’t mean that we stuff our pain. We have to acknowledge it. We have to deal with it. But it does mean that we see a fuller picture with a wide-scope lens acknowledging that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2a). There is always more to the story. Can we offer grace in the gray? If so, I think we may just be surprised to find healing in that place.

–Luanne

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This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

Last week, we talked about a parent’s priority: to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God. Part of that conversation included acknowledging our own shortcomings as parents. Our parents made mistakes, and we make mistakes, too.

This week, Pastor John talked to us about what it looks like to love well when our children have made mistakes. It is a message that absolutely speaks to how we love our kids–but, beyond that, it is a message about how everyone needs to be loved.

Pastor John began by simply stating:

“Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

The self-emptying love of God is illustrated in many places throughout scripture. It is most clearly seen in Jesus’ death on the cross, as he proved there was no length he, the perfect image of our invisible God, wouldn’t go to in order to show his love for us. It is also captured beautifully in the story of the prodigal son. It is this story that Pastor John opened with on Sunday. I’m including the whole story, out of the J.B. Phillips translation:

Then he continued, “Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property that will come to me.’ So he divided up his property between the two of them. Before very long, the younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a foreign land, where he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance. And when he had run through all his money, a terrible famine arose in that country, and he began to feel the pinch. Then he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. He got to the point of longing to stuff himself with the food the pigs were eating and not a soul gave him anything. Then he came to his senses and cried aloud, ‘Why, dozens of my father’s hired men have got more food than they can eat and here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But his son said, ‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more…’ ‘Hurry!’ called out his father to the servants, ‘fetch the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and get that calf we’ve fattened and kill it, and we will have a feast and a celebration! For this is my son—I thought he was dead, and he’s alive again. I thought I had lost him, and he’s found!’ And they began to get the festivities going. “But his elder son was out in the fields, and as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants across to him and enquired what was the meaning of it all. ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has killed the calf we fattened because he has got him home again safe and sound,’ was the reply. But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him. Then he burst out, ‘Look, how many years have I slaved for you and never disobeyed a single order of yours, and yet you have never given me so much as a young goat, so that I could give my friends a dinner? But when that son of yours arrives, who has spent all your money on prostitutes, for him you kill the calf we’ve fattened!’ But the father replied, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32, emphasis mine)

There are so many layers within this restorative story. We won’t fully plumb its depths here, but let’s dig in and see what we find…

The first point worth noting is found in the opening line of the story:

Once there was a man who had two sons…

Often, this story is taught with an emphasis on the younger son, the prodigal. But the story is about both sons and their relationship with their father (and, I think, with one another, but I don’t have time to get into that part today…). The opening line of any story emphasizes who or what the story is about–this story is about two sons. Two sons, deeply loved by their father, who had a home with him, wherever he was.

When we read the part where the younger son asks for his inheritance, we tend to be so appalled by his audacity and disrespect that we miss a very important detail, one that keeps big brother in the center of the story:

So he divided up his property between the two of them

Little brother’s payday was a fraction of what big brother inherited that day. In ancient Jewish culture, the oldest heir was to receive double the inheritance of any other heir. Big brother may not have asked for it, but he received his father’s overwhelming generosity that day, too. This is highlighted later in the story, when the father says to his oldest son, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours.’ Indeed, everything the father had was his. He divided up everything he owned between his boys, living as though dead while he was still alive. When the younger son squandered his portion, everything else that had once belonged to the father, now belonged to his oldest son. Everything he had was his.

The self-emptying love of the father was displayed as he withheld nothing from his children. He gave all he had. He had nothing left, and as far as we can infer from the text, that part didn’t bother him one bit. But he also didn’t have his boys’ hearts. This is what grieved him. It’s all he wanted. Emptying himself of all of his material possessions wasn’t enough to win their affection, to woo them into relationship. I don’t think he was trying to earn their love at all–he was showing them that there was nothing he would withhold from them. He was willing to give them everything because of his great love for them. They didn’t reciprocate his love…

He gave them his material wealth, which included laying down a measure of his power and authority, though he still ran his estate. What did he have left to give?

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He would have lost some respect within his community when he chose to give his possessions to his sons while he was still living. But this, to lift his cloak and run to his son–to move toward him and go to where he was–and then to embrace and kiss this boy who would have been “unclean” according to their laws and customs? This was a disgrace to the man’s dignity. This boy had slept with prostitutes, he had lived among and fed dirty pigs. What was the father doing?

He was, once again, modeling self-emptying love to his son. He couldn’t wait for his boy to get to him. He wasn’t hard at work, anger etched into his face, rehearsing the admonishment he would give him if he ever saw his face again. He didn’t “stand his ground.” No. He was watching for him, waiting with hope that, against all odds, his son would come home. Home… This young man had no expectation that the home he had known as a child would still be there waiting for him. In fact, he had a speech prepared to give his father, to ask him for a place as a servant on the property. But as he’s in the middle of his groveling, his father interrupts him. I love the way the Message phrases verse 22: “But the father wasn’t listening.” Instead, he called to the servants to bring a robe and the family ring, to kill the fattened calf and prepare a celebration feast in his son’s honor. No mention of the many offenses the son had committed. The boy had already endured the consequences of his choices–his father had no intention of further punishing his son. In fact, he doesn’t even make mention of any of it. He chooses instead to remind his son with his actions that he has a home. A secure home, a forever home. He acknowledges his presence and his place in the family, and doesn’t admonish him even once for all he had done. He emptied himself of the right to be right, displaying self-emptying love once again. 

What about our other main character, the older son?

The father went to him, too. While big brother hung around and displayed the “right” behavior, the father knew he didn’t have his heart, either. He gave to this son in the same ways he did to the younger, always sacrificing himself to love them both. When big brother refuses to come in and celebrate his little brother’s return, his father once again breaks custom to leave the party he is hosting so he can go to where his son is. And again, what we see is not admonishment. He says to him only,

‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’

He could have said so many things… Change your attitude. Get inside. What is wrong with you? Don’t you love your brother? Why do I still have to chase you down like a toddler and listen to your tantrums? You’re keeping me from our guests, I don’t have time for your whining! I’ve given you everything, and still it’s not enough for you! You’re selfish… Arrogant… Immature…

I’m sure there’s so much more he could have said. But he says none of these things.

When I picture this scene in my mind, I imagine the father speaking softly, tears glistening in his kind eyes, the tenderness in his voice imploring his son to turn around and look at him so he could see all the love he has for him. I imagine the son with his back to his father, arms crossed, years of entitlement, anger, and pride held in his stone-cold gaze over the property that all belongs to him. I imagine the father reaching his weathered hand out toward his son’s shoulder, but pulling it back, knowing that this boy’s heart was still not inclined to receive his love, but hoping one day that would change. I can see the hope flash bright in his glistening eyes, because he had never given up hope for his younger son, and today, his hope was rewarded with a homecoming so sweet, he’d remember the moment forever. With that moment fresh in his heart, I see dad straighten, stand a little taller, as he resolves to hold onto hope that this big brother will come home to him one day, too…

We don’t get to know how this particular story ends. What we do know is that the father loved both of his boys with the same, steadfast, self-emptying love. We know that home was wherever the father was, and that home was secure. No matter how long it took, he would be there waiting, hoping, actively moving toward his kids, acknowledging their presence, knowing there were chapters yet to be written in their stories.

We all might need this story for different reasons today. Some of us may need it to show us an example of how to love our children well in the day-to-day. Some of us may need to be reminded of how we can have hope for children who have wandered. Some of us only received admonishment as children, and never felt seen or acknowledged, and we need to find healing. Some of us just need to be reminded that we have a home in God, and he is always pursuing us, regardless of where we’ve wandered. Regardless of where it lands for each of us, I pray that we’ll all see that everyone needs to be loved like this. Everyone is aching for Shalom, for wholeness, for a stable home. Everyone needs to be pursued and sought out. Everyone longs to be acknowledged. We get to do that for our children, for each other, for the world around us. We have the opportunity to love like Jesus by drawing near to others, closing the gap, being present, listening. We get to go to all of them, see them, value them, love them exactly where they are. In the midst of their failures. And in the midst of our own…

–Laura

I want to reiterate what Laura reminded us of above–Pastor John began by simply stating: “Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

Pastor John also said “How we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice our children made.”  I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I have seen adults struggle with their self-worth because their parents tore them down rather than built them up.  Gratefully, that is not my story.  I am the daughter of a dad who loves me like Jesus loves.

I was an at-risk kid, and in a recent blog post we reiterated that children in pain don’t know how to articulate their pain, which was true of me. One September evening when I was 12 or 13, I was having a particularly tough time, and I unleashed my anger on my dad. I said hateful, mean things, and ended my tirade by telling him I no longer wanted to be part of our family; I wanted to live elsewhere and asked him to put me in the foster system.

My dad didn’t say a word while I screamed at him. When I was finished, I went downstairs and sat in front of the TV. My dad came down a few minutes later and asked me to get my sweater. Fear kicked in. I thought he really might be taking me to a foster home, but I wasn’t going to let on that I was afraid. I got my sweater and got in the car. We rode in silence. He took me to the miniature golf course and we played a round of golf. After golf,  he took me to Dairy Queen and let me get a Peanut Buster Parfait (it’s important to note that being one of seven children, we didn’t get treats like Peanut Buster Parfaits. If we went to Dairy Queen, we got a soft serve cone. My treat was extravagant and it was undeserved.)

I didn’t say a word the entire evening. My dad said very few words, and most of them came while we were at Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was having a hard time, that I was hurting deeply, and he told me that he loved me and would always love me. He did not address my behavior at all.

I’d love to say that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him, but I didn’t. I still did not speak, and when we got back to the house I went straight to my room. Yet, the assurance that my dad loved me, even after I had been so horrible to him began to change me. So, when Pastor John says the way we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice the children made–that can be a positive thing too.

For those of you with children who have wandered away like the prodigal son–I was that child. It was another ten years before my dad saw lasting fruit in my life. I’ve apologized to him multiple times for the pain that I caused him during those years, and he assures me that what’s important today is who I am now. My past is never thrown in my face. My dad showed me what grace in action looks like. I often say that grace is the most powerful force on earth. The reason I know is because I have been a recipient of extravagant grace, and over time, I have been transformed by grace. God’s grace offered to me through my dad–and through my Savior.

Just in case I’ve left the impression that I was never disciplined– I was. Discipline in my house involved a one on one conversation with my dad. He sat in one green chair, and whichever child was “in trouble” sat in the other green chair. He was not shy about telling us that we had disappointed him, and would let us know why, but there were no raised voices, no yelling–just conversation.  Sometimes I was grounded, sometimes I lost other privileges, but all discipline in my house was carried out through relationship. I hated that! It killed my heart to know I had disappointed my dad. Why? Because I knew he loved me, and I loved him. Relationship. Love. My dad loves us like Jesus loves.

I tried to love my children and raise them the way my dad raised me. I hope they know, that as imperfect as I am, they have always been loved and nothing could ever change that. My husband and I have decided more than once that we choose relationship over being “right”, and we’ve never once regretted that choice.

Bradley Jersak in his book “A More Christlike God” writes, Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith….He was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy…the repentance that he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. 

So–the answer to how we parent when our children fail? We love them. We pursue them. We draw near to them. We build relationship. We maintain relationship. We hold on to hope. We try to love like Jesus. Jesus came to us–He didn’t tell us to “come here”.  He closed the gap. He died for us while we were still all kinds of messed up. (Romans 5:8) He is our model for what it looks like to love.

Therefore; love your children as if Jesus was loving them through you–because He is.

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

I had this realization as my pen flew across the page of my notebook moments ago, furiously trying to get the thoughts out of my easily distracted mind and into real words on real paper. As I turned an ink-filled page and continued to fill empty lines, my breath caught in my chest. The lump that had formed in my throat as this post came to life in my heart grew a couple sizes larger when I noticed it–the messy mix of cursive and print that I would recognize anywhere. It is my Mom’s handwriting. If I hadn’t watched myself move my pen across the page, you couldn’t convince me that it was I who wrote it…

Why right now? As I scratched down notes like my life depended on it because I knew if I didn’t, I’d lose them?

Because, I think , it connects beautifully to where this post is headed…

I want to walk you through my Easter Sunday, and–if all goes as planned–when I get to the end, we’ll circle back around to my Mom’s handwriting.

My Sunday began with church… Pastor John preached on the resurrection of Jesus, from Mark 16:1-20. He concluded our “This is Love” series by expounding upon what we may regard as familiar stories, but he did so with a freshness that led me to a new sense of wonder over the events. Many of his words will make an appearance in this post, but I won’t spend any more time on it right here…

Between church and a meal with family, I was devastated to read about the horror of  what our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka experienced. Nearly 300 families on Easter Sunday mourned the senseless deaths of loved ones, killed by explosions in churches and hotels while much of the world celebrated Jesus’ victory over death. The words, “O death, where is your sting?”, reverberated throughout sanctuaries everywhere, while hundreds felt the very real sting of death.

At home, after sharing a meal with family, I watched the movie “I Can Only Imagine” for the first time. Hot, salty tears ran down my face several times as I took in this story of pain and redemption, grief and joy, love and loss… It hit me on many different levels, but it pierced my heart deeply for one specific reason: My mom loved that song... From the day it debuted on Christian radio until the day she told me which songs she’d like on the playlist at her funeral. It gave her hope and breathed life into her dying lungs on her worst days. I haven’t listened to it much since we lost her. It’s not sad, necessarily. The song is gorgeous in its simultaneous simplicity and depth. It speaks of hope beyond the pain of today. But it stirs memories. And memories can rarely be classified in either/or categories. Most happy memories aren’t solely happy, but rather contain traces of other emotions, feelings we don’t always want to access. This song is like that for me. I can’t hear it without thinking of her… The moment the first few piano notes grace my ears, I’m transported to another place and time… And I don’t always want to remember. It was this week in April, five years ago now, that she was re-diagnosed with the disease that would take her from this world. Every year around this time, my subconscious reminds me of the pain–hers and mine both. Sixty days after that diagnosis, she breathed her last. Her death still stings…

After the movie, I opened my Twitter app to find the hashtag #prayforRHE all over my feed. Following the hashtag, I found out that author and faith leader to many, wife and mommy to two littles, Rachel Held Evans, is in the ICU in a coma due to constant seizures in her brain that were discovered as she was being treated for an infection. Rachel, while controversial in some circles, is a woman whose voice I have come to deeply respect, and whose authenticity encourages so many others to bravely explore the questions that can, left suppressed, terrorize our souls. I read posts from her friends, from people whose lives she has impacted greatly, as they shared prayers and thoughts about all Rachel means to them. For those closest to Rachel–and for anyone else in a battle for life and wellness–the fear of death stings…

O, death, where is your sting?

Everywhere. When death–or the fear of death–comes, it stings. It hurts like hell. It aches with a ferocity I didn’t know I could live through.

But there is another line that accompanies this one… A companion question that sits beside it in scripture (1 Corinthians 15:55) and in every song we’ve written about it since:

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

It’s why I call Jesus my Lord. My King. Why I identify as one of his followers.

Jesus transforms lives. Period. I, admittedly, don’t have exhaustive knowledge of other faith traditions. I know the basics about some, and I respect the heart and intentions of them all. One of the most beautiful, insightful conversations I’ve ever had was with a devout Muslim brother who shared with me about what loving one’s neighbor, and forgiveness, mean to him. I have a lot to learn from other traditions that differ from the framework I was raised in and identify with today. But this is what I know…

One God came down into human history, suffered in solidarity with the suffering of humanity while enduring our brutality and our violence. One walked in skin he created and modeled self-emptying love unto death, at the hands of his own creations. One rose again to lead us on in his ways.

His name is Jesus, and this is why I follow him–and why I always will. Because no other story rewrites my story. No other story ignites hope that outlives death. Because only one defeated death itself. Pastor Brian Zahnd said, in his Good Friday sermon, “Death swallowed Christ, but death cannot digest divinity. Christ did not descend to the dead to be dead, but to do something else!” 

The story we celebrate every Easter is the story of resurrection, of the ultimate Life, the ultimate Love, defeating death. We rejoice over the account of the stone being rolled away, and Jesus’ absence from the tomb. But, as Pastor John preached on Sunday, “The stone wasn’t removed to let Jesus out, but to let us in!” For us to believe, to be filled with awe and wonder over the miracle of resurrection, we had to see that Jesus wasn’t in there. The tomb was empty–but if the stone hadn’t been rolled away to reveal that truth to watching eyes, it would have stood between us and the risen Jesus. Doubt, fear, conspiracy theories–these arguments would have won… but a few women saw the empty tomb. They looked up and saw inside, and there the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection began…

Death, where is your victory? It’s gone. Forever. Because Life has the final word.

So on a Resurrection Sunday when the families of Sri Lanka, and many around the world, weep and mourn; when a faith leader fights for her life as doctors work round the clock to find answers; when we are reminded of, and grieve, our own many losses and heartaches–all of the stories where the sting of death is very real–we can know that death won’t have the last word. Fear no longer rules the day. We don’t have to live in the miry, regret-filled pits of the past.

Because Hope LIVES. Joy LIVES. Forgiveness LIVES. Love–a Love like no other–LIVES. Because Jesus LIVES! This. Is. Love. That our God came down and entered into our stories to show us that there is another way. That our ways of law-making and rule-keeping could never lead us into love, but would only ever lead to more rivalry and competition and violence. But his way? He showed us that his way can handle the both/and of a grief-filled Easter Sunday. His way can hold the tension of life and death, suffering and hope, joy and grief. He came into our suffering and suffered with us, not promising a life of ease without struggle–quite the opposite–but bringing tangible hope to the realities of pain and death.

I experienced the tension of the “both/and” a few times on Easter Sunday. I saw it expressed in the authenticity of a precious worshiper who praised with fervor and enthusiasm–undoubtedly moved by his deep love for Jesus–and then wrestled, pacing near the altar, after the service concluded. Real joy and real suffering graced his face. He expressed both, and didn’t attempt to stifle one or the other. I saw the presence of real worship and real wrestling. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it in the prayers that many have posted for Sri Lanka. Many of these posts, written on Easter Sunday, contained words of grief and sorrow for the ache of our world and words of hope, solidarity, and life–in the face of so much death. As days pass, I believe we’ll see what we always see when tragedy strikes–we’ll see helpers and stories of beauty and hope that rise up from the ashes of death and destruction. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it as I read a twitter thread between prominent Christian women who find themselves sometimes at odds theologically, but who love one another and who came together with love and prayers for Rachel, despite the many differences between the three of them. I cried as I read their exchange. It was beautiful, because it was the way of Jesus. The way of self-emptying love. These three women may not have a lot in common–and their respective followers may find even less to agree upon–but they modeled the love that binds them to the One they follow, the same love that binds them also to one another. They have different beliefs–and…love supersedes their differences.

And I felt the tension as I saw my own handwriting… The bitter with the sweet. The memory–both happy and sad. The awareness of how much of her lives on in me, even though she is physically gone. The ache over my mama’s death, and the pulsing Hope that lives to tell me I’ll see her again.

Easter Sunday isn’t only a celebration, though it is one, certainly. It isn’t only life, though life will conquer all death in the end. It is a collision of the tension of living in the now and the not quite yet. It is the kingdom of God absorbing the kingdoms of this world–but absorption can take time. We live with the presence of both at the same time. We live with the sting of death, and with the guarantee of victory.

As long as we can look up at Jesus and see that the stone has been removed, as long as we can peer into the grave and find it empty, we can hold the tension of life and death until we, too, enter into the victory Love won for us all. But all of us, at certain points, find ourselves face to face with a stone that obscures our view. We can’t see into the empty tomb. It may be partially blocking our view, or it may be covering the opening entirely, but we all have things that keep us from seeing the truth. The sting of death–or even just the fear of it–can be a major culprit that keeps us from the truth that death holds no claims to victory. There are other things, many things, that can keep us from seeing.

Throughout this series, Pastor John has asked us questions each week, to get us to think a little more deeply, to get us involved in the story in a more intimate way. This week, the question is:

What’s your stone? 

Whatever it is, it isn’t keeping Jesus away from you. He keeps coming, keeps moving toward us all. But it may be preventing you from seeing the truth, from recognizing that no matter how hopeless you feel, no matter how dire your circumstances might be, the suffering Savior fought death–and won. Death and the pain that comes with it does sting–but Jesus holds the victory. And that is a truth worth celebrating, even as our lives and our world groan in pain. Death has died–and Jesus lives.

–Laura

I almost hesitate to write this week; Laura’s post has so much beauty, so much truth, so much real and raw that I find myself wanting to sit with it for awhile before moving on. Death has a very real sting. Grief for those we’ve loved and lost to physical death cycles in and out of our lives and it never waits for a “good” time. All of a sudden we find ourselves in that place–a song, a smell, even our own handwriting–and there we are remembering and feeling the sting of death. And yet…death never has the final word. The final word belongs to God alone–always.

The resurrection is what sets the Christian faith apart from all other faiths. Like Laura, I have learned and continue to learn much from people of other faith traditions; they are not my enemy. However, also like Laura, I have met a very alive Jesus and He is still transforming my life. Everything about the version of Christianity–of Christ following that was lived out in the early days was about transformation– love breaking down barriers,  and hope–incredible hope.

Before I continue, I want you to think about where “your” Jesus is. Is he the Christmas Jesus born in a manger? Is He the crucified Jesus still hanging on the cross? Or is He the risen Jesus who Peter, in his first bold sermon after the resurrection declared God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36).  Some versions translate the word Messiah as Christ. Both are powerful words, hard for those of us who’ve never lived under a king to grasp well. Both mean The anointed One. 

How we see Him matters.

All of Jesus’ earthly life He was shaking things up. His conception was announced to a single woman. His birth was announced to “unclean” shepherds by angels. King Herod wanted to find him and kill him because he was a threat to earthly power. Magi of a different faith tradition and from a different country traveled a long distance to see him, bring him gifts, and worship him.

As a child we learn that he grew in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52), and when he was twelve he stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover listening and asking questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2: 47). 

When it was time for his public ministry to begin, he was baptized by his cousin who supernaturally knew that Jesus was the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29).

And then Jesus really started to shake things up. He called normal, regular, guys to be his followers. His group was an eclectic mix–fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, etc. And his followers included women. He touched lepers, he ministered to people who weren’t Jews, worked on the sabbath, reinterpreted the law,  he valued and “saw” the unimportant, the invisible, and he confronted the religious leaders of the day, which eventually led to his crucifixion and death. And everyone thought it was over. The religious leaders, his followers, his mom.

Mark tells us in Chapter 15 that at the crucifixion 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. (40,41).  Don’t you wonder how many women were there? We picture in our minds three; however, Mark tells us that there were “some” women from Galilee and some from Jerusalem who were present with Jesus in his suffering. It had to have been excruciating to their hearts, but they loved him and weren’t going to leave him alone. Presence—what a huge gift. 

I cannot begin to imagine how frustrated the women must have been to leave the body of Jesus and rush home to begin Sabbath. But when Sabbath was over, and the sun began to appear in the sky–a daily reminder of resurrection–the three women who were mentioned by name at the foot of the cross bought spices and took them to the tomb.

They were not expecting resurrection. They were prepared to encounter a dead body. They were women on a mission. I love the fact that they were just going…they didn’t have all the details worked out, which is indicated by the fact that they wondered who was going to remove the stone for them. (16:3). It was the mission that mattered, not the details.

But when they looked up they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb… (I love their boldness) they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side (little details) and they were alarmed.

From this point on, the white-robed young man fills them in on what happened. He tells them not to be alarmed because Jesus is no longer dead but has risen. He asks them to go tell his disciples, and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 14:28). 

So many things are happening in this moment. One, the most important message of all time was being entrusted to women during a time when the testimony of women was not to be trusted and when religious leaders thanked God in their prayers for not making them women.

Two, they were entrusted with a message that was a reminder of a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples just a few days before at the last supper before his arrest.

Three, during that same conversation in Mark 14, Jesus told the disciples that they would all run away, but Peter declared that he never would, that he would die with Jesus if it came to that, and Jesus told Peter that no, in fact Peter would deny him, which is exactly what happened.  So the young man in the tomb tells the women–go tell the disciples, and Peter…

The beautiful grace of Jesus blows my mind every time. He wants Peter to know that he hasn’t blown it, that he is still loved, still chosen, still has a place in the Kingdom.  (And so do you–no matter your story).

The resurrection is not an event. It is a paradigm shift that changed everything; it still changes everything. Christianity didn’t begin before the resurrection, it began after. The second chapter of the book of Acts describes what happened. Christianity didn’t start as a religion of rules, it started as a transformation of lives by the power of the Holy Spirit that would spill out to every tribe, tongue and nation as the followers of The Christ shared the message of God’s love, God’s nearness, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and invited people to live in a new kingdom under the reign of a loving God right here on earth.

Christianity is not about death, it’s about life–and it’s about life that is full of hope.

When did the ways of the world begin to change? After the resurrection.

When were there no longer hierarchical structures and sub-groups such as slave, free, male, female, Jew, Gentile (or any other opposing categories you can think of) for all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28)?   After the resurrection.

When were the followers of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit? After the resurrection.

When did the previously afraid Peter preach a powerful message of hope that led to 3000 people coming into relationship with God? After the resurrection.

When did the disciples fall so deeply in love with Jesus that they no longer ran and hid, but gave their lives for him?  After the resurrection.

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

We are post resurrection people.  The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us (Romans 8:11).

This is the Spirit who, when we lean in and listen, transforms us. We are all at different places on the journey, but there are ways that we can tell if we are living in the Kingdom of the resurrected Christ. Is our heart position becoming more “we” than “me”, and is that “we” expanding more and more as we grow in the ways of Christ? Do the people that mattered to Jesus matter to us? Do we find empathy growing in us? Are we using our voices for good and not evil, to unite and not to divide, to lift up and not to tear down? Do we love people, whether or not they ever see the world like we do, or do we make people our projects? Do we embrace everyone, no matter their lifestyle, because God is love—always, and His kindness, shown through us, is what leads people to Him? Is the fruit of the Spirit becoming evident in our lives?

Resurrection living is not a “to do” list. Resurrection living is not based on a set of theological statements. Resurrection living is Spirit living which only happens when we fall deeply in love with Jesus, spend time with Him, get to know Him, and allow Him to live His life in us and through us–and as He does His work in us, as we become more fully alive in who He has made us to be, hope, love, mercy, co-suffering, joy, and grace become contagious, leading to resurrection all around us.

Are we people of death or people of life–pre-resurrection or post resurrection?

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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