Fan the Flame #3: Fear of Love

A few years ago, my 89 year old father showed me a “run-away” note that I wrote when I was 8 years old. We laughed. I wrote: I am running away. Nobody loves me. Luanne.  P.S. I might be hiding in the house.  

I remember that moment. While I don’t remember what led to feeling unloved, I do remember hiding in the house, waiting for someone to search for me. I wanted to know that I mattered. My dad did search for me. I could hear him talking to my mom in the kitchen. I could hear his footsteps as he went to different rooms in the house. When he finally entered the laundry room where I was hiding, I could hardly wait for him to discover my spot. Unfortunately, I was good at hiding, and he didn’t locate me, so I had to reveal myself.

I can still be good at hiding. I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire. It’s a desire for all of us, but we’re afraid to show up. We’re afraid to reveal our true selves. And we’re afraid to love and be loved.

Two weeks ago in our Fan into Flame series,  we talked about the fear of rejection, last week we talked about the fear of failure, and this week we’re talking about the fear of love.

In our American culture, our fear of love, of intimacy is epidemic. Pastor John shared with us statistics from some recent studies that he came across:

*22% of Americans feel lonely and feel a lack companionship.

*1 in 4 Americans never feel like people understand them.

*American men ages 45-55 feel disconnected from their families and feel more alone than during any other time period historically.

*American women ages 45-55 feel significant disconnect in their marriages.

*Generation Z (those 22 and younger) feel significant loneliness and may be the loneliest generation ever.

Look at that list. It doesn’t leave any of us out. I’m afraid that disconnect is our normal. The sad fact is that not only does this disconnect have emotional consequences, it has very physical consequences as well. Loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues, anxiety, and depression. Even the US National Library of Medicine discusses the danger of loneliness:  “Isolation is a serious health risk…. It contributes to everything from depression to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

And it all boils down to a fear of love.

I was deeply blessed with the opportunity to live in Brazil for ten years. A group of folks from our church just returned from a trip there. Many of them commented about the culture, the heart of the people, the emphasis on relationships. It’s one of the things that I miss the most. My 29 year old daughter, who left Brazil when she was 16, served as a translator for this team. I was able to watch one of their church services through Facebook live and she translated from English to Portuguese and back again. She did a fabulous job, but every once in a while she wouldn’t know a word. The Brazilians around her offered assistance and she moved on. When she came home, we were talking about the trip and I told her what a good job she had done translating. As we were having that conversation, she said that she had no fear of messing up, that she felt safe in that environment.

No country is perfect, but one thing that Brazilians, for the most part, get right is that people are always more important than things. Relationships are valued. People are valued. Connection is valued. And people feel safe to be who they are, even to mess up in that environment. My heart aches for that here. Our individualism, our competitive nature, our constant comparisons, our labels, our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” or “don’t let anyone see you cry”, mentalities all hinder connection and community, and it is slowly killing us.

During this series we’ve been looking at 2nd Timothy 1:6-7… For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.  For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

The Spirit God gave us gives us…love. The gift of God, which is in us, includes love. Agape love. The kind of love that is unconditional, undeserved, not earned, just given. The kind of love we’ve received from God. The kind of love that is listed first in the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of love that changes lives. The kind of love that Jesus references when He tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22). The kind of love with which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. (Mt 5: 44). The kind of love that Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians chapter 13–the love that is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered…

So how do we fan into flame this gift of love?

Pastor John pointed out two things that we do in order to isolate; I think it’s important to recognize these tendencies in order to push through them and get on to fanning love into flame.

  1. We distance ourselves from others. We hide behind masks. We refuse to get close.
  2. We get defensive. We blame others for our disconnect. All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were hiding from God, God went to them in order to restore the relationship. When God asked Adam what he had done, Adam blamed Eve, then Eve blamed the serpent. Neither one was willing to take responsibility for their own choices, which leads to further disconnect.

I wish I could say that I have no idea what that feels like, but I would be totally lying. Pride gets in my way. What I think I deserve gets in my way. My desire to self-protect gets in my way. And it never leads anywhere good. It leads to further disconnect and isolation. Ugh! Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.

Pastor John pointed out that our defensiveness keeps us stuck. Our “they did it”, “it’s their fault”, “I’m fine by myself” attitude keeps us from moving forward. And, it is totally opposite of the Spirit that God has given to us. God is relational and He created us for relationships.

So what do we do? How do we push past the fear and connect with others?

We choose to take a prayerful relational risk for an intimate relational return.

We choose to take the first step to love others well. We acknowledge that we can’t do this well and ask the Lord to help us. We acknowledge what God has done for us. Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.

He came to us first and said “This is who I am”;

therefore, my mindset is:

Jesus loves me, I’m going to love you.

Jesus forgives me, I’m going to forgive you.

Jesus accepts me, I’m going to accept you.

We’ve been given the Spirit that allows us to testify about who God is by how we love others. We’ve been given the invitation to let others see the real us, to show up, because we each bear the image of God.  God fully knows us, He fully loves us, we are totally secure in His love, and He wants us to offer His love to others.

Being connected with Jesus gives us the ability to connect with others. We can come out of hiding, take off our masks, take the time to listen, to engage, to know, trusting that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome our fear of intimacy and love others well. I think we’ll discover that it leads to a much more fulfilling life.

Begin with prayer, and then pay attention. If you are distancing yourself, explore why. If you are defensive, explore why. And then, as He empowers you, push through the fear and fan this gift of love into flame.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote: “Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.”

We cannot love others until we get this. It’s impossible to move out in authentic love for others until we can embrace our own belovedness in Christ. But how do we really know that we are fully loved by Him?

There’s a song by Steffany Gretzinger that played through my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and the words keep cycling through my consciousness. The song is called “Out of Hiding”. These are the words:

Come out of hiding, you’re safe here with Me. There’s no need to cover what I already see.

You’ve got your reasons, but I hold your peace. You’ve been on lock-down and I hold the key…

‘Cause I loved you before you knew it was love, and I saw it all, still I chose the cross.
And you were the one that I was thinking of when I rose from the grave…

Now rid of the shackles, My victory’s yours. I tore the veil for you to come close.
There’s no reason to stand at a distance anymore–you’re not far from home.

And now I’ll be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea, and I will illuminate everything.

No need to be frightened by intimacy–No, just throw off your fear and come running to Me.

And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…

How can we know that we are fully seen and fully loved by Christ? He sees all of us, our whole selves, the parts we put on display and those we attempt to hide… He knew us before we came to be. And he chose to give His life to show us the depths of His love. He overcame fear, death, and the grave so we could be free from all of our fear, too. There is no more veil, no more separation. We can be confident that we are always in His Presence. Always. There’s no distance–even when we try to create it ourselves… Intimacy is the natural result of a relationship with Jesus–walls or not, He sees us. You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… you are familiar with all my ways… I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in! (Psalm 139:1, 3b NIV, 5-6 MSG)

We can’t get away from His love. James Bryan Smith said this recently about God’s love:

“God loves us first and loves us always and in every moment – with a passionate love because God is for us, God longs to be with us, and God wants what is best for us. And in every moment of every day, He finds us delightful.” (James Bryan Smith, Things Above Podcast, Episode 9: “God’s Love”)

I love that… God is always loving us first. Jesus proved the depths of that love when he bore the cross and, through His death and resurrection, tore the veil so that we could have access to the Presence of God. There’s nowhere we can go where He hasn’t already been there waiting for us. There is nothing we can hide from His sight–and yet, no matter what He sees, He keeps coming. Keeps loving. We are fully known and fully loved. We can hang onto that as the Truth that it is.

Okay… Jesus knows me fully and loves me completely. I can go there. I can believe that, and I can let it wash over me. I can enter into the intimacy of communion with my Lord and feel His embrace and His delight transform my heart…

But… to be fully known and fully loved by people? And to extend that kind of love to those around me? That’s a whole different story. Right? Just me? I don’t think so…

Luanne highlighted the statistics that Pastor John presented to us on Sunday. I don’t have to wonder if I’m alone in my fear of intimacy with people. The numbers tell the story. We’re all afraid. We’re all hiding.

I came across this quote this morning:

“…love is the most characteristic and comprehensive act of the human being. We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” (Eugene Peterson, “Introduction to the Books of Moses,” in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language)

We are most ourselves when we love… yet, it appears we’re all afraid to give it and to receive it.

Why is it so difficult to give love to others? What is it that makes us afraid to step out and offer the real Love that we’ve been given by our God? Luanne wrote about the distance we keep and the defensive posture our hearts hide behind, but why are we afraid? Why don’t we reach out? Why do we hold back our words for another time–only to find that time ran out and we never said what we meant to say? I think that our fear of loving, of putting ourselves in a position to risk intimacy with another, is integrally connected with the other fears that have been highlighted in this series: fear of rejection and fear of failure. I think that when we stop short of reaching out in love, it’s the “what ifs” that stop us.

What if we take the risk and love big, open ourselves up and pour out—open ourselves up to also receive what we’re given in return—and we’re met with rejection?

Loving big is never a mistake—what may feel like rejection of our attempts to love might instead be the clang of the reinforced walls that are keeping the one we’re trying to love imprisoned. Maybe they will only be able to feel our love after what feels like a hundred failed attempts on our part, because it takes that many attempts to crack the wall…

But what about when we’re on the receiving end, when it’s our walls that need to be cracked and broken down? Ann Voskamp writes in The Broken Way:

“Letting yourself be loved is an act of terrifying vulnerability and surrender. Letting yourself be loved is its own kind of givenness. Letting yourself be loved gives you over to someone’s mercy and leaves you trusting that they will keep loving you, that they will love you the way you want to be loved, that they won’t break your given heart… And to let yourself be loved means breaking down your walls of self-sufficiency and letting yourself need and opening your hands to receive. Letting yourself receive love means trusting you will be loved in your vulnerable need; it means believing you are worthy of being loved. Why can that be so heartbreakingly hard?”

It is so heartbreakingly hard. This is where my throat tightens up and I want to stop writing and walk away… Luanne wrote:

“I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire…”

Her words resonate deep within me. I can hide in plain sight, too. But, like her, I also deeply desire to be seen and known and loved…

I’ve felt the pangs of loneliness, of need, in a sharper way the further I’ve gotten from the day I said goodbye to my mom. I didn’t have a perfect mom, but I did have a very loving one. She was great at sensing when I needed to be hugged and held a little longer, when I needed to sit with her and cry. I didn’t have to ask her for those moments. Most of the time, she just knew. I don’t think I realized until last week how deep this particular hole in my heart has become…

I received a phone call that shook the floors I stood on. It ripped open not-so-old wounds and traumatic memories, because it took me straight back to my mom’s last days. Fear gripped my throat, my heart, my balance… The call itself wouldn’t have been so difficult if it weren’t for having lost her four years ago, but it hit me hard. All I wanted was to curl up next to Mom and cry, but I couldn’t do that. She’s not here anymore. And as I sat alone and sobbed–both over the call and the reminder of my loss–I realized that I’m terrified to need. I’m much more comfortable being there for those I love when they’re in crisis. But when it’s me, I feel needy. I feel like I’m a burden. I feel like I’m too much. I have people in my life who I know love me deeply… but I don’t know how to ask them to love me in these broken places. I longed for a friend to sit with me a week ago, not to fill the void my mom left behind–that’s not something anyone can do–but simply so I wouldn’t be crying alone. I had no idea how to ask for that. I could hardly speak the words I’d just heard out loud, let alone articulate the ache of my heart. I’m a grown woman, not a little girl. How do I ask someone to come into the ache and let me lay my head on her shoulder and just cry? I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do it. Why?

Because… what if it’s too much to ask? What if I muster up the courage and pick up the phone, and the answer is, “No. I can’t be there for you.” Or worse, “I won’t be there for you. It’s too much. You’re too much.” 

It’s the fear of being rejected. Andit’s not knowing how to ask. My mom intuitively knew when I needed to just simply be me. Not tough or brave or anything other than exactly who I was in that moment. She had no problem with personal space, with “bubbles” (even when I did…). And, usually, she knew that I needed the comfort of her presence, her arms, her shoulder to cry on, well before I knew I needed those things. I didn’t have to ask for it. But like Luanne mentioned above, we live isolated lives here. Individualism is a badge of honor, personal space is expected, toughness is part of the deal. We’re not taught well about vulnerability, if we’re taught anything about it at all. So we move through life unable to identify our own needs, and that can make it very challenging to notice and respond to the needs of others…

Luanne identified, “Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.” Being disconnected IS harder. Staying disconnected, isolated, it’s not worth the risk to our bodies, our hearts, our minds. Love, however, is always worth the risk. Because, like the late Eugene Peterson wrote, “We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” We were made by love, to love, and for love. We were not created for fear. So we have to push through the walls of fear. We have to run toward vulnerability rather than away from it. And we never have to do it alone. We get to choose which spirit leads us. We were given the Spirit of love, and the power to live it out. If we let our hearts rest in the truth that we are fully loved by Christ, we can take the risk to love and let ourselves be loved in return. We can come out of hiding, and we can keep loving, even when the walls are formidable. Because you never know which pebble of love will be the one that finally cracks the wall. And even if the wall never does break, our attempts at love are never failures. They just become part of the story…

“And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…” 

Who is writing your story? Love? Or fear? What will you leave behind? My mom left a legacy of love that drove out her fear. I want to learn to live a life like that, too. Let’s risk it friends. Prayerfully, yes. But boldly, too. Let’s help one another fan the flame of love, starting today.

–Laura

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Stories: Michael

Distress…sorrow…grief…anguish…groaning…affliction…weak…forgotten…

King David wrote the above words in Psalm 31; Pastor John read a portion that Psalm as he talked with Michael, and as Michael bravely shared his story with us.

Michael was born into a Christian family. He went to church every Sunday; however there was little freedom in his home. His grandparents were very strict German Baptists. They punished with a rod. Mike’s dad had learned from his parents. Mike said that his dad was less severe, and Mike acknowledged that his parents were doing the best they knew how; even so, it was a strict rule-based environment. In spite of all of that Mike believed in God and believed that Jesus died for his sins.

During Mike’s later childhood, his family vacationed in Montana. His parents felt like Montana would be a safer place to raise their children and keep them out of trouble, so when Mike was nine, they moved from California to Montana.

In Montana, Mike did not make friends easily. He was not allowed to attend social events like basketball games and dances, so friendships were hard to come by.  All of us desire to be accepted, so when Mike went to high school at the age of 15, he began to smoke cigarettes in order to find acceptance. That led to smoking pot, drinking alcohol, and addiction.

As Mike went through his teen years and his twenties, he added cocaine and meth to the mix. He began every day with drugs. He held a decent job for awhile, but eventually quit his job in order to become a drug dealer to support his own habit. He told us that he became a “tweaker”. When Pastor John asked him what that was, he said tweakers are like rats in a hole, they hide out and do meth all the time.

The acceptance that Mike was looking for, and that contributed to the start of his addiction, failed him. He told us that he became a criminal, and as a result was not trustworthy, so he went through friends pretty quickly.

He shared that addiction grows–you don’t see it taking hold of you until you’re addicted. He also shared with us that he had numbed all of his emotions but two. He was either happy and laughing, or angry–nothing in between. He didn’t cry, he wouldn’t let himself feel. People were afraid of him, and he liked it that way.

Because of his inability to maintain friends, and because he didn’t want to “party” alone, he began partying with a younger generation of kids, one of whom was a 16 year old girl. They partied together, they also slept together. One night, when they were doing meth, she stopped breathing. He took her to the hospital, then he went and got her sister and her parents. The medical staff was able to get the young lady’s heart started, but her lungs were not working on their own. Mike said her parents and sister did not blame him, and told him this wasn’t his fault. But then the police came.

Mike was very forthcoming with what had happened, and told the police everything. What he didn’t know was that the young lady was sixteen. He was arrested for distribution of drugs, for indecent liberties with a minor, and a few days later, when the breathing machine was turned off, for manslaughter.

While Mike was in jail and awaiting sentencing, his mom called her pastor. Her pastor called a pastor in the town where Mike was incarcerated, and that pastor went to visit Mike. They didn’t have to talk through a glass partition,  or through a jail cell door–they were able to sit face to face.

That pastor told Mike “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or will ever do–Jesus loves you.” 

Mike said that in that moment, it felt like someone put his arms around him. He could feel God’s embrace. When he went back to his cell, he fell to his knees, confessed everything he could remember, and asked God not to get him out of his situation (because he knew he deserved it), but to get him through it.

Mike began to pray regularly and to reconnect with God. He said God answered prayer after prayer–even things that might seem insignificant in jail, like a better toothbrush.

Originally, Mike was looking at a possible sentence of 35-65 years. He was willing to plead guilty to two of the charges, but not the manslaughter charge. He was offered a 15-25 year deal in exchange for pleading guilty to the first two charges, and he accepted that deal. When he showed up for his sentencing, the judge agreed to accept his guilty plea, but stated that he did not agree with the terms of the deal. Mike’s heart sank, thinking that the judge was going to impose the 35-65 year sentence; however, the judge said that he did detect any malice or intent in Michael, so he sentenced him to 8-15 years. Mike served 7.

Mike acknowledges that God rescued him while he was incarcerated. God rescued him from addiction, God rescued him from a criminal lifestyle, and God rescued him from the grip that satan had on his life. Incarceration was a strangely wrapped gift.

He was able to share his faith with other inmates. He attended Bible studies, and was even allowed to leave the facility to attend church. Jesus met him right where he was, in the middle of the darkness and chaos, and changed his life.

Mike’s been in  our church for eleven years. I can’t even fathom the old, angry, addicted Mike. When Pastor John asked Mike how Jesus had changed him, Mike responded that instead of living full of anger and wanting others to fear him, he is now full of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. His desire is to be gentle and kind, to love. He desires to serve in the church.  That’s the Mike I know. His softness, his gentleness, his tender heart are a testimony of the change Jesus makes when He is invited to have His way with us.

And, Mike is not afraid to feel or to cry.

As a matter of fact, he cried while he was sharing his story. He cried as he recalled the pastor’s words: “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or will ever do–Jesus loves you.”   That’s the message that changed him. That’s the message that will change the world. Words spoken without condemnation. Just the simple truth–Jesus loves you.

The Japanese have a centuries old method of restoring broken pottery called Kintsugi–beautiful brokenness. Instead of trying to fix broken pottery, they put the pieces together with gold, silver, or another precious metal, leaving the cracks visible–not just visible, but precious, adding beauty to the restored piece that wasn’t there before.

That’s Mike’s story. His restored life shines with the beauty of Christ. His life is a living picture of one who has been forgiven much, so he loves much.  Sometimes he still battles the darts of the enemy who would like for him to believe that he is not worthy of love or acceptance–but he doesn’t live in that place of doubt.

When John asked him what he believes about himself now, with many tears he said  “I am worthy of being loved and accepted, and of loving others.” And we who know him do love him.   Psalm 31: 9-16 describes his before and after:

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;  my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction,  and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,  I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me.  I am forgotten as though I were dead;  I have become like broken pottery…

 But I trust in you, LordI say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies,  from those who pursue me.
 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.

 

God has saved Mike in his unfailing love. Mike lives in freedom. His broken life has been restored with the beauty of Jesus, and Jesus brilliantly shines in the cracks.

The words Jesus loves you saved his life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes him shall not perish but have eternal 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)

Have you experienced His love? I hope so. It’s available to you right now.

If you already have experienced his great love, are you making it known to those around you?  The world needs to know that no matter what they’ve done or ever will do that Jesus loves them. No one’s life is too big of a mess for it to be transformed by Jesus, and lives transformed one precious person at a time will change the world. Military might won’t change the world. Political power won’t change the world. Only Jesus, living through us, has that power, and He uses our own stories of restoration to show His beauty.

–Luanne

 

 

Stories: Carolyn

For the last few years, Pastor John has interviewed various members of our local body on October Sunday mornings, giving us the opportunity to learn each others stories of faith. It has become one of my favorite things we do. This year our first “story sharer” was Carolyn.

Carolyn grew up in a protective, moral home in Southern California. Even though they were moral people, they were not people of faith, so Carolyn grew up with no knowledge of Jesus at all.  When Carolyn met John, who would become her husband, she was drawn to his adventurous spirit. She was ready to escape the confines of her protective home environment, so she and John married and within the first year they moved to the Pacific Northwest and had their daughter, their only child.

At first the carefree life was fun, but carefree eventually became hard. Carolyn realized that her husband was restless and couldn’t settle. She went through tumultuous seasons, fearful seasons, uncertain seasons, unsettling seasons. She was a long way from her extended family. There were many moves, many “adventures”.  She lived in a teepee for a season, lived in an A-Frame in the woods with no water or electricity–lots of adventure, no doubt, but also lots of hard. She and John separated off and on during these years. There was a lot of pain.

During one of their difficult seasons, Carolyn, who is an avid reader, found the Bible that her grandmother had given to her and sat down with it. She didn’t know anything about the Bible, had never read it, and this particular one was the King James Version which can be hard to understand. Carolyn was crying so hard that she couldn’t read through her tears anyway, so she just cried over the Bible. And God–He met her there. Carolyn had never heard about Jesus, had no idea that He could be her Savior, but she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that God met her as she cried over her Bible. She said that she didn’t know to look for God, but God saw her broken heart crying out to Him even though she didn’t know that’s what she was doing. She sensed his presence and knew He was real.

Some time after that encounter, her family moved closer to their little town in Washington State. There was a little church within walking distance of their home. Carolyn thought it would be fun to walk with her daughter to that little church on Sundays, so she began to do that. In that Little Brown Chapel, Carolyn began to hear about Jesus. She said that a light came on and she began to see things differently than she had before. She acknowledged again that she wasn’t really looking for God, but that He found her.  God began transforming her life from the inside out.

Her husband didn’t want anything to do with Carolyn’s new journey. He could see the difference in her and rejected it outright. He left her for about six months, yet God used that season as a season of tremendous growth in Carolyn’s life. She said that the Holy Spirit began to reveal things to her, and gave her understanding as she read her King James Bible. She shared with us that her faith grew under the teaching of the Lord, not any man. There is something truly beautiful about that.

The Apostle John wrote in his first letter: As for you, 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–just as it has taught you, remain in him. (1st John 2:27) 

Jesus taught us that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide (us) into all truth. (John 16:13).

This is what Carolyn experienced, and I can personally attest that she draws from a deep well.

She prayed during that season of separation, asking God if she was to get a divorce. God spoke many promises to her during that season, and one of those was that her husband would come to know Jesus. She thought that meant it would happen soon, but God’s timing wasn’t Carolyn’s timing. He told her to bloom where she was planted. She knew that God could have revealed Himself to her at anytime during her life, and He chose to reveal Himself to her while she was married, so she trusted that there was purpose in that. She remained faithful to God, and to her husband, and acknowledges that it is God who gave her the strength to stay the course.

Many years later, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. He fought it courageously for three years. He had previously shared with Carolyn that he believed in God, but didn’t need a middle man to believe in “the man upstairs”; however, during his cancer journey he began to have different thoughts. Carolyn says that he began to share some things that allowed her to see that he was contemplating new things.  She did not push, she knew that God alone changes hearts and she didn’t want to mess it up, so she allowed the Holy Spirit to work in John’s life. Ten days before he passed away, he gave himself to Jesus. The joy on Carolyn’s face when she relayed this part of her story was contagious.

Once Carolyn was widowed, she had some choices to make. She knew that she couldn’t remain on the land that they had shared together, so she chose to move here,  to Casper, Wyoming, where her daughter and grandson live.  She and her daughter have experienced much healing in their relationship. Carolyn is able to acknowledge that she chose to stay in a painful home environment, but her daughter had no choice. They don’t shy away from hard conversations about those years, and they have grown very close as a result.

Carolyn has always been drawn to encouraging and helping other women, so in our church and community she has led small groups, Bible studies, and shared with women over coffee dates and dinners. I’ve been blessed to sit under her teaching. She’s the real deal.

Some of the nuggets that she shared during her time on Sunday include:

“God was good, even though the time was painful.”

“Adventure with God is better than anything we can plan.”

“Letting Him (God) love me was all I needed for Him to be real to me.”

“When God gives you a promise and plants it deep, hold onto it.”

“It’s never over. We ask too little and forget to hold on to faith.”

“There is a beauty about God when He works in our lives.”

“He is a God who is trustworthy and faithful in everything.”

Pastor John, in his closing remarks reminded us of Abraham’s call in the book of Genesis. God asked him to leave his country, his family, and go. Abraham had no understanding of where or how. He had nothing figured out. Abraham wasn’t focused on his destination, he was going because God called him, and he was following that call. Carolyn was following God’s call, and through many transitions, she still is.

Transitions are part of our stories. Transition means the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. Synonyms: Change, passage, move, transformation, conversion, metamorphosis…

Doesn’t that describe God’s desire for us? When I think of transition in terms of my relationship with Christ, I don’t see that there is a point when I’ll  be able to say “I’ve arrived! I’ve transitioned fully!” I believe that’s part of the journey. Part of the beauty.

The Apostle Paul wrote and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

To contemplate the Lord’s glory, His beauty–to sit in His presence–is where transformation– transition– happens.

The Message version of 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 reads like this:

Whenever, though, (we) turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there (we) are–face -to-face! (We) suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free for it!  All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured, much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

This is Carolyn’s story. She encountered the living, personal presence– a living Spirit, and she is free. Her face shines with the brightness of God. She is a reflection of the Savior and her life continues to grow more and more beautiful as she continues to seek God’s face.

That invitation to sit in His presence is available to all of us. And as we sit, as we seek, as we allow Him to be our teacher, He changes our beings and we become vessels that reflect His glory to a world who needs to see it. Carolyn’s transformation was the seed God used to soften the soil of her husband’s heart. After almost 30 years of marriage, and “blooming where she was planted”,  her husband reached for, and felt the embrace of His Savior.

The video that played before the beginning of our service concluded with the phrase Faith begins when we can’t imagine what the next chapter holds.” 

None of us knows what the next chapter holds, but we know Who will be with us always. Let’s spend our days in His presence, seeking His face, experiencing His love and reflecting His glory. He is–and will be–faithful and trustworthy in everything.

–Luanne

Interestingly, I jotted down the same line that Luanne did from the video that preceded Carolyn’s story:

Faith begins when we can’t imagine what the next chapter holds.” 

Carolyn’s story held many unknowns before she met Jesus. Married to a man with a bit of a gypsy spirit, I imagine there were many days early on when she couldn’t imagine what the next chapter would hold. But the word Carolyn used more than once when she spoke of those earlier days was not faith. It was fear. The uncertainty in her life made her feel fearful.

In a way, though… her faith did begin in those fearful moments when she couldn’t imagine where they might live next or when they would move again. Eventually, it was the fear and pain that colored her days that led her to cry over her King James Bible–an act of faith, though she didn’t regard it as such then. As Luanne also wrote about above, Carolyn says of that moment, “God saw my heart crying out. I didn’t know how to cry out.” 

I think there is something so irresistibly beautiful about Carolyn having zero theological constructs when God, in her words, “found her”. She wasn’t looking for Him. She didn’t know there was a “Him” to look for. When she found herself fearful and in pain, she, for whatever reason, pulled out a little Bible and cried her eyes out over it. She didn’t read a word. And then she put it back.

This isn’t the “right way” many of us were taught to come to faith in Jesus–

But it was good enough for God. 

He met Carolyn as her tears fell, each one seen and collected by His daddy-heart. She didn’t know what the next chapter would hold–and this is where her faith began. The gorgeous simplicity of this small beginning grips my heart. It reminds me that, “the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you…” is a verse that is written in our Bibles, one that is often overlooked. I remember the day I read it for the first time–partially because it was only two years ago. At that point, I had spent three decades surrounded by theological structures and saturated with Scripture–but somehow, this one hadn’t penetrated my consciousness. When I read it again in Luanne’s portion, it thrilled my heart the same way it did that first time. Jesus teaches us. His Holy Spirit leads us. God finds us where we are. Our faith has never been about a formula, a “sinner’s prayer”, a certain theological structure. Because Carolyn wasn’t trapped in any of these man-made confines, she was able to experience her Savior as the God He truly is: One who sees, who comes down to us and finds us where we are, and the One who is mighty to save us from ourselves and everything else that has a hold on us. 

She said, “Church, and even Scripture, can get in the way of Who it’s all about.” There is a depth, a richness about Carolyn’s faith that was formed by encounters with the Real Thing. When you watch her face as she talks about her Savior, when you listen as she shares pearls of wisdom, you can’t help but notice something… different. Something refreshing. Something real. Her real encounters with the real Jesus have marked her with a realness, a believability, that can be found nowhere else. She reflects the realness of Him who saw her, who continues to teach and guide her.

Luanne wrote above, regarding when Carolyn’s husband was beginning to show signs of being open to Jesus, “She did not push, she knew that God alone changes hearts and she didn’t want to mess it up, so she allowed the Holy Spirit to work in John’s life.” Why was she so able to rest in this truth? Perhaps it was because she had been blessed to encounter the God that found her where she was, so she trusted that that same Good God would do the same for her husband. She hadn’t been “evangelized” by any human being, her transformation was the result of encountering the only One capable of changing a heart. It is no small thing to stake everything on Jesus, to let go of everything and everyone we love the most, and trust Him to do the rest. Most of us aren’t good at this. The temptation is often to do all that we can, to say the right thing, to “teach” those we love how to find Jesus. Our motives are good–we want those we love to know Jesus, to find their peace in Him. But we could learn much from the way Carolyn “witnessed” to John…

Her lack of words, her faithful love, her solid trust in the promise God made to her heart-these are the things that spoke the loudest. She innately understood–maybe because of her own experience with God–that sometimes, people can’t see Jesus because we are standing in the way. So she got out of the way and let God be God. And, as Luanne wrote,

“Ten days before he passed away, he gave himself to Jesus.”

Beautiful.

Carolyn’s realness, her depth, allows her to connect with people–specifically, women–from all kinds of backgrounds and in different stages of life. I, like Luanne, have been blessed to learn from her teaching, and Jesus has loved me through her. As my own mama was slipping from this world into the next, Carolyn was one of her faithful friends. There were many who loved my mom, and our family, well during that season. When Carolyn spent time with my mom, though, their time was marked with the contagious joy that both of them exuded-that still pours from Carolyn-and it was a thing to behold… Carolyn may not be aware of this, but she taught me much during that time. She and my mom didn’t spend a ton of time together. But the way she loved her as she was dying is something I won’t forget… She stayed present in the moments they shared. They laughed–a lot. There was a sharing of memories of time gone by, and a knowing that the end was near. But when Mom and I would talk about their time, it was clear that spending time with Carolyn left her feeling more at peace with her circumstances and more ready to see the face of the Savior they both loved so deeply. What a gift…

Carolyn’s story is far from over, and her influence goes beyond what she will ever see or know this side of heaven–I’m sure of that. There are chapters yet to be written, as there are in all of our stories. And, really, none of us has any idea what the chapters will hold… What do we do with that? With the transitions we would never have imagined? If we can fix our eyes on the One who knows the end from the beginning, and take steps to follow His lead, He will teach us how to walk in the dark, how to follow the light that finds each of us in our darkness. And we will find, as Carolyn’s story displays, that ours is a God who is trustworthy and faithful–in everything.

–Laura

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When the Enemy Comes…Rise Up

Return to Me. Remember. Restoration. Revelation. 

These are the themes we have explored as we’ve journeyed through the book of Joel. Our fifth and final point of exploration in this final message of our series is “Rise Up”.

I imagine that when you read those words, it conjures an image in your mind. Let that image develop for a minute. What does it mean to you to rise up? What picture do you see?

Undoubtedly, the pictures we see have been formed by what we’ve been taught, what we understand of both our God and the world around us, and our own personal beliefs. Our cultural understanding informs the images we see. Our theological understanding does as well. What we have to discuss today–whether you agree or disagree–is vital to our understanding of God, to the way we follow Jesus within our faith communities, and to our own personal journeys with Christ.

These are the passages Pastor John highlighted in Sunday’s message:

Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swordsand your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say,“I am strong!”Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, Lord! (Joel 3:9-11, NIV)

The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the Lord will be a refuge for his people,a stronghold for the people of Israel.“Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. (Joel 3:15-17, NIV)

When we read these verses and think about the phrase “Rise up!”, it immediately appears that the exhortation is one of standing strong as warriors against our enemy.

And it is… as long as we know who that enemy is…and as long as the weapon we carry is the one He has sanctioned.

It would also appear that God is calling for and advocating violence as a means of protection from our enemy.

This is where it gets messy, friends… As Pastor John explained in his message, we can take many different passages of scripture–these verses included–to make a case for retributive righteousness: a moral vindication for all that’s been done wrong, a “getting even” and beyond. Many within the Church, especially here in the United States, buy into this understanding, teach it, and proclaim it as biblical truth. If you’ve any doubt of the truth of that statement, take a quick peek at the social media accounts of many prominent voices who identify as Christian. It’s impossible to miss the connection between many of these voices and the anthem of retribution–this perceived “right” of Christians to treat others the way we’ve been treated, and the subsequent rejoicing in the failings and eventual demise of our “enemies”.

But wait… If I’m remembering correctly…

…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)

Our “enemies” aren’t other people… We don’t fight against fellow flesh and blood. But somehow, we have come to understand that there are those who are “enemies” of us and of our God. And we assume that God does, in fact, enact retributive righteousness–or justice–upon them.

How did we come to this understanding? Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we forget to connect individual verses to the rest of the story. We cannot grasp at certain verses and build a case without first looking at those verses through the lens of all of scripture, and through the filter of the character of our invisible God revealed in the person of Jesus. We have discussed this here before, the importance of seeing, thinking, and understanding through a “Jesus filter”. Verses are taken out of context all the time, and perhaps the most grotesque misapplications of scripture are those that would distort the image of God into an angry, vengeful warrior that looks a lot like the “enemy” we want for Him to conquer on our behalf…

But, thankfully, our God doesn’t look like that. And He doesn’t act like us. He sees judgement and justice differently than we do… How do I know? Because,

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)

When it comes to Jesus’ beliefs regarding violence, His position is clear. He believed in–and taught his followers the way of–nonviolence. Somehow, His church has moved away from this understanding, but His early followers got it, and lived it.

And it led many of them to their death.

Which is why, I believe, we’ve adapted a new belief system about violence. One that advocates, at the very least, self-defense; and one that–at it’s most heinous–has been used to enact “sanctioned” genocide.

We forget that our real enemy is actually a liar–and the father of lies–and he would love nothing more than for us to buy into a distortion of the heart of our God. A distortion that whispers to our hurting, offended hearts that while God goes to great lengths to rescue and pour out His love on us, He will not do the same for them. No, they will get what they deserve. And we love this lie. Because it makes us feel justified in our anger and disdain, in our thirst for revenge… We don’t like the thought of turning the other cheek, of following in the footsteps of our Savior–because, unlike the saints referenced in Revelation 12:11 who, “…did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die...”, we do love our lives. And our comfort. And our power. And our sense of control. And our “rights”.

I stated above that Jesus believed in nonviolence. I don’t want to make that kind of assertion without telling you how I got there… I have not investigated every verse recorded in the gospels that could be (mis)used to show Jesus as an advocate of violence. I did look at several of them today, though, in the context in which they were recorded. And I have read commentary from people much smarter than me who have put hours and hours of study into this subject.

One of the most compelling articulations I’ve come across is from pastor & author Brian Zahnd, who spoke on Jesus’ stance on violence at the Simply Jesus gathering that I attended in July. Brian spoke about the encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with the mob and the soldiers that came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (You can read his full message here.) Brain asserts that the Bible is a violent book, not because God is violent, but because we are. He reminded us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, should we fight?”, immediately followed by Peter cutting off the high priest’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!”, immediately followed by Jesus healing (we could use the word “restoring”) the man’s ear.

Tertullian (160-220 AD), a second century church father, said:

“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.” 

Zahnd also spoke about the most quoted verses by early church fathers during the first three centuries. From the Hebrew scriptures, it was Isaiah 2:4,

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

And from the New Testament, the most quoted verse of the early church was Matthew 5:44, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”

The verse that directly precedes this one is, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” (Matt. 5:43)

“But I say…”

What is our faith built upon? What is your final authority? My answer? Jesus. He has the final authority. He fulfills and extends the Law. His way of love, so often made to look like an easy way out of religious requirements, is actually much more difficult than the old way of the law. At one point, “an eye for an eye” was law.

But Jesus says… “love your enemies.”

He knew we would get caught up in the constraints of religion and self-serving theology. He tried to make the truth clear to those who looked at scripture as the final authority when he said, in John 5:39,

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (NLT)

Brian said in his message, “Violence belongs to the old age that [passed] away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom. It’s the radical alternative to the violence that lives within us. It is the answer to the broken systems that are based in retributive justice. Because the Kingdom of Jesus, the way of love, is all about restorative justice. This is the kind of justice that makes all things right. This is–and always has been–the heart of God for every person He has ever created… To reconcile each heart to Himself.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “God will make all things right consistent with how He has treated me.” And, “The heart of God beats for you… and that heart is the same for each of His children.”

Even those we would like to regard as our enemies.

You see, there is one kind of violence advocated by Jesus under His new covenant… It is that of our putting to death our old selves, with our self-serving, vengeful desires, that we might live as children of light in His Kingdom–here and now–to show others the self-sacrificial way of love. This altogether “other” way that was evidenced by Paul and the disciples and the early church–those who never fought back, but willingly gave their lives to show the world the way of the One who modeled for us what it really means to “Rise up”. Which is to take up the weapon of God’s love, and live for the sake of His Kingdom, as Image Bearers, by the power of His Spirit… Rising up God’s way looks an awful lot like laying down… His is an upside-down Kingdom. And we’re invited to participate in His story–the whole story–not of retribution, but of restoration.

–Laura

Whenever we find ourselves thinking in binary ways that pit us against other image bearers, it’s wise for us to pause and remember all that Laura wrote above. As both she and Pastor John pointed out, we must take the context of all of scripture rather than picking and choosing verses to meet our own mindsets. We can justify a lot of ungodly behaviors by using scripture to back up our own meanness–but it’s hard to read His word through the lens of Jesus–the image of the invisible God– and treat other people poorly.

All the way back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose themselves and their desires over God’s desire for them, God–in His goodness– clothed them with garments and covered their nakedness. There were consequences to their actions, but God still cared for them.  They didn’t deserve God’s kindness, yet he gave it to them anyway.

The first act of violence recorded in scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel. When God speaks with Cain, he tells him that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground. In an “eye for an eye” kind of world, Cain deserves to be killed, yet God places a protective mark on Cain so that he won’t be killed.  Cain didn’t deserve God’s kindness, but God gave it to him anyway.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references Abel’s blood crying out from the grave, and says that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, speaks a better word. (12:24) The blood of Jesus speaks “It is finished.” the blood of Jesus speaks “Behold, I am making all things new.” The blood of Jesus speaks life and love and peace and reconciliation. It is new wine in a new wine skin–a whole new way of doing things.

We are called to be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for (you), an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:1-2)

We’ve been called to a new way of life: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)

Romans 2:4 Tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance meaning that if Christ is in us, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, our kindness may lead people to God.

Yet, as Laura wrote above, many people only know of Christians as mean spirited therefore they want nothing to do with God. The anger that is spewed in His name these days is alarming, and heartbreaking. I’m afraid we’re advancing the wrong kingdom.

Jesus was pretty forthright about anger and contempt in his sermon on the mount when he said 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.  (Mt. 5:22)

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy writes that anger is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.  Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it. Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. The constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us (are) the natural outcome of choice of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil. There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.

The Jesus way is absolutely contrary to the way of our flesh. That’s why He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit. The only way to live the Kingdom life on earth is to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. The Spirit can help us to not fly off the handle, to not be reactionary people, but to be people who live by a different standard.

Haim Ginott, a twentieth century teacher and child psychologist wrote:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

I believe Ginott’s thoughts go well beyond that of a classroom. We have tremendous power to affect the world by the way we handle ourselves, and the way we treat others. As a matter of fact–us treating others the way God has treated us is the plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth–but it’s not about our moral behavior. It’s about the transformation of our very beings into the likeness of Christ.

And you know what? The world still takes notice of those who live differently.  Last week the Coptic Christians of Egypt were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to retaliate in violence against their persecutors. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are under constant threat. You may remember a few years ago when ISIS beheaded some of them. They refuse to fight back, and the world is noticing–just like centuries ago when Christians were led into arenas in Rome. They did not fight back. They created curiosity by singing songs of worship and/or praying as lions were sent into the arena to kill them for sport. The way they chose to honor Jesus and his ways as they died pointed people to Him.

The world still doesn’t understand this. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his followers (us included) that we’ll be hated by the world, but not hated because we’re mean, hated because we do not belong to the world’s systems. (John 15:18) We don’t choose the weapons of this world. We don’t choose flesh and blood enemies. We refuse to take sides. We are for all people because God is for all people. We choose the third way, the way of reconciliation.

In Matthew 24, when Jesus is talking about the signs of the end he says that things are going to get tough for his followers, that many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other–and then the phrase that haunts me the love of most will grow cold (v. 12).  I pray often that my love will not grow cold. I see it happening all around–may it not be true of us. May we remember that:

Kindness is powerful. Grace is powerful. Love is powerful.

I’ve eluded before to the fact that my late childhood and early adolescent years were chaotic. During that time, my grief and confusion sometimes spilled over in rage. One particular evening, I was raging at my dad and ended my tirade by yelling that I hated him and wanted him to put me in foster care. I did not want to be part of our family any longer. He did not yell back. He stood there as I stormed off. A few moments later he came to find me and asked me to get my sweater. I got my sweater and got into the car. I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He took me to play miniature golf, and then to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait. We barely spoke–I didn’t need words. I needed presence, and that’s what he gave me. While we were at DQ, he finally used words. He said, “I know that life is tough right now and that you’re hurting.  I want you to know that I love you, and that I will always love you.”  No lecture, no removal of privileges, no harsh words–just presence and love. My self-destructive season lasted for another 9 years or so, but there were no more fits of rage and I never doubted the love of my father–and when I was finally ready to come home– my earthly father’s example helped me to embrace the fact that my loving Heavenly Father was not mad at me, but was rejoicing that I was coming home. Neither father gave me what I deserved, and my life is forever changed as a result.

Psalm 103:10 says God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  

Aren’t you grateful?

Let’s choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and treat others the way God has treated us. Doing life His way, the counter cultural way,  is the only thing that has the power to change the world.

Lord, may Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth…

-Luanne

 

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When the enemy comes: Remember Me

Last week, in the first message of our Joel series, we were reminded to return to the Lord when the enemy comes. The enemy had come upon the land of Judah in the form of wave upon wave of locusts, then drought, then fire. The people, the animals, and the land itself were devastated. The Lord encouraged the people to return to Him in the midst of the devastation-to turn to Him with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and to call out to Him.

I really appreciate the fact that in the returning there is not only permission, but there is encouragement to weep and mourn. I get frustrated with people who throw out spiritual platitudes during hard seasons–you know, the folks who say flippantly God works all things together for good, or similar things that feel dismissive and really aren’t helpful in the moment. God Himself was telling His people to weep and mourn. Feel it all. Acknowledge it all. It’s the only way to be truly authentic in any relationship, including our relationship with the Lord.

But after the weeping, the mourning, the lamenting, sometimes in the midst of the weeping, the mourning, and the lamenting,  we move to remembering who God is and what He has done. In verses 2:19-20 God promises to send grain, new wine, and olive oil–enough to satisfy them fully, and to drive the horde of locusts far away from them.

Then, in verses 21-23 of chapter two, Joel interjects his own thoughts for a few verses-it’s as though he can’t contain himself and has to give his people a word of encouragement and hope, as he writes:

Surely He has done great things! Do not be afraid, land of Judah; be glad and rejoice. Surely the Lord has done great things!  Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures and the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for He has given you the autumn rains because He is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.

Personally, when I read those verses, I think Joel is having an outburst of rejoicing. To rejoice means to have a sudden physical reaction–to spin, to circle, to dance. I love that in the middle of God’s narrative, all of a sudden Joel exclaims He has done great things!-and he’s exclaiming it, not only to people, but to animals and land. I think he’s really excited, even jubilant as he remembers God’s faithfulness. Maybe he hopped up and did a little dance. It makes me smile to picture it.

One morning, a few years ago, I was taking a walk and pondering things. One of the things I was pondering was the opposite of the word remember–is it really forget?. (Weird, I know, but it’s what I do.) I had an aha!  moment when I realized that the opposite of remember is not forget, it’s dismember. When we remember something, we connect ourselves to it again. Joel is connecting himself to God’s faithfulness, to the history of all that God has done in the past. He is no longer focused on the current devastation, he has instead reconnected with who God is and all that God has done, and it has led him to rejoice.

Last week I wrote about my season of “dismembering” myself from God for about ten years, which did not take me to good places. I don’t recommend that method in a storm. Re-membering leads to much better places.

In November of 2011 my world exploded and I was faced with a decision. How would I handle this devastation?  Would I dis-member or re-member?

Four months prior to that explosion, I was sitting in my backyard praying over the unrest that I was feeling but couldn’t put my finger on, when a yellow swallowtail butterfly flew over my backyard fence and made a beeline straight toward me. As it came my way, in the depth of my being I heard the words, I see you. You are not aloneI had no idea in that moment how those words would become my lifeline.

There were a few more God sent encounters with yellow butterflies that summer. One landed on a potted plant right next to me in my sister in law’s back yard,  one was in a large downtown area–not a plant in sight. We stepped out of our hotel onto a sidewalk, and the butterfly led us along. Each one reminded me of God’s words, I see you. You are not alone. Each time, I was in a place where I needed the reminder, still unaware of the explosion to come.

When November came, and I was thrust into the darkest season of my adult life, I spent many nights in a crumbled heap. However, this time I did not dismember myself from God. I remembered Him and He met me in my fasting, and weeping and mourning. I would come home from work, go to my bedroom and lie on the floor in the dark. I had no words, but as my “random” worship playlists would move from song to song, God, Himself sang over me. He saw me. I was not alone. I heard some songs for the very first time, such as Kari Jobe’s I Know You are For Me.  I heard songs that I hadn’t heard for a very long time such as Paul Wilbur’s Dance With Me. (And I did–I stood up from the floor and danced with Jesus.)  And I heard songs that met me right where I was and offered hope, like Bebo Norman’s We Fall Apart. Over and over, God met me in song lyrics.

And then, in His amazing way, in the throes of our Wyoming winter, God sent me a yellow butterfly. It was January. My dark season was still very dark. I could not determine my future and I desperately wanted out. I was praying for God to release me, to kill me to get me out of the pain, begging Him to take me home.  In the middle of that dark place, I got a sweet letter from one of the children I sponsor through World Vision. Of course, she had no idea what was going on in my life-but she had drawn me a card and on it was a yellow butterfly. I laughed when I opened it–probably the first time I had laughed in two months. I am smiling even now as I tell you about it. I see you. You are not alone. It can still leave me speechless.

Rejoicing in the midst of devastation. Is it possible? Yes. It is possible. It doesn’t mean that you ignore your circumstances, it doesn’t mean that the pain will go away or that it won’t still be hard. It does mean that your focus shifts from your circumstances to your God. It does mean that you look for Him everywhere. It does mean that you connect to Him; remember Him. He is the God who meets us where we are. He is the God who lifts us out of the slimy pit. He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way. He is, after all…

The Lord your God who is with you, the Mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love; He will exult over You with loud singing…(Zeph 3:17)

He is rejoicing over you. Rejoice in Him and remember….

-Luanne

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

Tears sting my eyes as I read Luanne’s portion and prepare to write my own… how deeply her story resonates within the chambers of my heart. Not because our stories are at all alike–but because we both have experienced the same fancy, gift-giving, loving God in the middle of our darkest days.

This morning–without warning–I was thrust into a few moments of remembering… I was going through a bag of paperwork that had been thrown together during our recent move. I was sorting school papers, coupons, lease information, etc… In the middle of all of the paper, I was surprised to find one of my gratitude journals. I have several, but this one is a special one–every line is filled. I opened it to a “random” page and found myself pulled back in time–into one of the most devastating seasons of my life. I’m so glad I kept naming gifts, that I continued to write them down during the darkest days, because the remembering now offers unexpected beauty. I want to share my remembering with you, the gifts I was grateful for during a heartbreaking season…

#562: Mom was able to come to church

#570: Realizing that “Holy Week” doesn’t come with any guarantees of holy days or holy moments–and it’s okay if days are hard

#595: Being able to walk and move freely–I’ll  never take it for granted again

#625: The hard eucharisteo–Mom’s re-diagnosis. Nothing could’ve prepared me for today, but He is still here with me…

#627: Wonderful friends and family, support that is so needed

#630: She got her own hospital room–answered prayer!

#633: She’s not in pain for the first time in a while

#641: Worshiping hard in a hard time, soul connection to my Father

#658: So many friends who want to celebrate Mom

#667: So much love for Mom on her birthday–everyone showed up

#670: Great concert–Mom was there, and beaming

#694: Beautiful waterfall–first time this year. She got to come and hear the water–even if all she could do was sit at the bottom of the trail

#729: A God who always knows what will be as we sit in the foggy now

#737: Friends that cry with me AND cheer me on

#772: Laughs with Mom before bed, all of us smiling

#778: Sweet husband taking care of Mom’s coffee before I wake up

#780: Mom’s going fishing with us…making memories

#782: Time to love well…as long as God gives us

#783: Looking at old photos on Mom’s bed with her

#784: Sean and Dani made it in time

#785: Laughing with Mom, the 4 of us kids, late into the night

#787: We were with her at the end, loving her, peaceful

#788: She’s with Jesus, free and full of life…and BREATH…

#789: Waking, and smiling at memories through the tears

#792: Long, sad embraces and the hope of all of our future homecomings

#801: Waking up and feeling okay…the sense of loss isn’t as crushing today

#816: Blue jay out my window this morning

#818: Long, tearful, healing talks with a friend of my heart

#847: Memories so vivid my heart aches

#848: The time I did have…so grateful that mine and Mom’s days intertwined for the time we had

#870: A huge heart-shaped leaf placed in my path

#875: A dream–cuddled up with Mom, talking with her, hearing her voice again

All of these “gifts” were recorded over a few short months. There are many in between the ones I listed that aren’t connected to my mom, her illness, or her death. But all of these were gifts I was given in the midst of the season that was breaking my heart. As I read through these this morning, I wept. Loudly. My eyes are full again now… Reading any one of the gifts I shared with you takes me back to that day, that moment. I didn’t mean to jump back into these days today. It wasn’t part of my plan at all. I hadn’t yet read any of Luanne’s words. But I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I found that journal today. Or that Luanne chose to share about her yellow butterfly gifts…

God gave me gifts during my hard season, too. I didn’t get butterflies–I got blue jays, a heart-shaped leaf, and writing in the clouds. The clouds and the leaf were one time gifts. But the blue jays… they came over and over again. They still come, over 4 years later. And always when I need them most. They are God’s little whisper to my soul. His answer to the silent, hidden cries of my heart that no one else hears. And there’s nothing you could say that would convince me otherwise…

I am so grateful for the gift of remembering. So grateful that I can reconnect to all of the yesterdays and all of the joy and grief that they contain. The remembering can trigger deep wells of grief. Hard questions can resurface as memories flood your consciousness. But remembering is also where I can most clearly see the evidence of God’s hand, of His Presence with me in the dark. It’s often hard to sense Him in the moment, when the chaos is swirling and the clamor of life drowns out His voice. But He is easy to see in the looking back. Joel obviously knew that. He and his people may not have seen God in the middle of the circumstances they found themselves in, in the face of crushing loss and utter devastation. So Joel reminds them of who their God is. He encourages them to remember. And as He does, joy floods his soul and it spills out of him.

Rejoicing… dancing… these are the unexpected gifts of remembering. The dance is often one of grief AND gratitude, joy AND pain, because these things are not mutually exclusive. They exist together. Like Perfect God AND imperfect me, or imperfect you… What is essential is staying connected to the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, looking for Him everywhere and taking the time to look back when our hope is running out. Because…

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

-Laura

When the Enemy Comes: Return to Me

Have you ever experienced a season of devastation? A season so seemingly hopeless that you wonder if God is even there–and if He is, why won’t He intervene?

My guess is that most of us have been there. Times when our lives have felt attacked and invaded… Times of loss and crisis…

Our new series comes out of the book of Joel, when the people of God were facing such a time. Locusts had invaded their land, and they didn’t only come once. Swarms of them came upon the land, over and over again, until absolutely everything was devastated. All of the crops were gone. They had nothing. And then, after all seemed lost, a fire and a drought came…

I can’t relate to this on an agricultural level. I’ve never farmed or relied on my own land to provide for myself and my family. But I know what devastation and loss feel like. I have experienced attacks and invasions in my own life–and it’s probably safe to assume that you have, too.

In this new series, Pastor John will give us five things we can do when the enemy shows up on our doorsteps, adapted from the book of Joel. We’ll look at how God, through the prophet Joel, invited His people to respond to the calamities they faced. And we will see that His invitation to them is the same one He extends to us today.

It’s important to note that the “enemy” can show up in a few different ways… It can be in the form of Satan, who is always aiming to steal, kill and destroy. But we can’t blame every storm we face on Satan. Our enemy can also be seen in the things that have been done to us, people coming against us in one way or another. It could be circumstances outside of our control, devastation that–like the locusts–appears and invades every corner of our lives. And sometimes, what is wreaking havoc in our lives is ourselves, our own choices. All of these are “enemies” that can land us in seasons of crisis.

Before I write any further, I want to acknowledge that this is hard. Devastation, hopelessness, loss–these aren’t easy or fun things to think about, much less talk about. If you, like me, have experienced seasons of trauma and loss, I know that the last thing you may want to do is remember and relive those times. You may be in a season like what I’m describing right now. Your world may be in a state of utter chaos and despair. Wherever you find yourself as you read our words, I hope that you’ll hang on. Keep reading–there is hope to be found. I don’t say that lightly. I know that when we’re in the midst of the pain and the struggle, the last thing we want to hear is a sunny platitude that seems beyond our reach. This is not that. What Joel offered to his people–what Pastor John presented to us, and what we’re now presenting to you–is a lifeline that will keep us above water even as it churns and slams against us.

So…what do we do? When our lives are invaded and devastated, whether by our own choices or not, where do we turn?

Chapter one in Joel details what the people were experiencing. And then in the beginning of verse 19, Joel cries, “To you, Lord, I call…”  Step one: Cry out to God. Even if you’re not sure He’s listening. Even when you’re doubting His goodness. Even when it’s your own choices that have led you to a place of devastation and you feel too ashamed and unworthy to even speak His name…. Cry out to Him.

In Joel 2:12, God responds: “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now… no matter whose fault it is, no matter how far away you might be… return. The word return is an interesting one. It means to turn back, like we assume it does. But there is an undercurrent to the word in this context that I find so beautiful–and so telling of the heart of our God. It carries an implied meaning of being brought back, or being restored. Those aren’t things we do for ourselves. This changes the way I understand the call to return. Because sometimes, crying out takes all I have left. The energy required to turn back and move toward God is more than I can muster. And He knows that. He knows that He’s the one that does the moving. We see it throughout the whole of scripture–this God that runs. This father that gets to where we’re going before we do and meets us there–wherever “there” might be. We see it in the stories of Gomer & Hosea and the prodigal son & his father that John referenced on Sunday. Both Hosea and the father went after–ran toward–the one they loved that had wandered from them. Both represent the heart of our God, though He goes even further. These stories paint a picture of love, forgiveness and restoration. A love that says “Return to me”, and doesn’t wait until they find their way back, but goes after them and actually brings them back home. 

God does the same for us… and more. I can’t help but think of the psalmist, David, and the words he penned that we find in Psalm 139…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

(Psalm 139:7-10)

There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run to, where God isn’t already there waiting. There is a song that was penned recently, based on the words from this Psalm. This is part of it:

“You meet me there, Spirit you meet me there. You go before me, Your love surrounds me, Spirit you meet me there…

You don’t give up, even when I do. You don’t walk out when I threaten to. You are steady when I can’t be still, Your love finds me, and it always will.”

Returning to God is not an intimidating, tedious process. It doesn’t begin with a long, lonely walk of shame. it begins with simply realizing that He is already there–wherever our “there” is. He’s there, and He’s waiting for us to open our eyes and look up and find His love staring back at us. His face doesn’t hold judgement or condemnation. He’s not ready to scold our lack of faith or belittle our weakness. He is, as Joel 2:13 describes,

“…kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” (Joel 2:13b, Message) 

Kind. Merciful. Patient. Extravagant in His love… The God described in Joel is the same God David wrote about in the Psalms. The same God whose character and heart were made visible in the person of Jesus when He came and walked the earth as the exact physical manifestation of God the Father. (Colossians 1:15) That’s who we see when we open our eyes and find Him already there looking back at us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a long road to walk–but it does mean that we never have to walk it alone.

But what about the “…always ready to cancel catastrophe…” part? This line slammed into my heart like a wrecking ball on Sunday. I found myself asking, “Then why didn’t you, God? If you’re always ready to cancel catastrophe, why haven’t you done that? Why have so many of my pleas for you to do exactly that gone unanswered?”

The very next line of Joel goes on to say this: Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. (Joel 2:14a, NLT)

Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t like this part. We have a God who is always ready and able to “cancel catastrophe”… but sometimes He doesn’t. Why?

I don’t know.

I hate typing those words. For myself and for you. Because I told you to hang on, that there was hope coming. And I want to be able to say that your reprieve is coming. That circumstances are about to change and it’s all going to get better. You and I both know I can’t say that, though.

But here is what I can say… The “enemy” has come and taken a lot from my life. I wouldn’t choose to relive the storms that left me devastated and barely hanging onto hope–except for the part where I discovered the truth that I wrote about above…

God, my good, gracious Father, was with me in every moment. He met me in every hell I found myself in. There was nowhere too far, nowhere too dark, that He wasn’t already there waiting for me. I used to say that all of my life, Jesus has pursued me and gone after me when I’ve run from Him. But it’s even better than that… As I’ve grown and changed and looked back, I’ve realized that yes, He’s always pursued me. But not from behind me, like an animal chasing it’s prey. No. He’s pursued me from the places I’ve run into-He was there waiting, loving me back to Him, before I could even get there… In the deep darkness of the cult I was born into, in the fear of my very heavy-handed earthly father… In the rooms of my teenage promiscuity, and the hangovers from nights of being used… In the real possibility of burying my baby-more than once… In the weeks my marriage felt hopeless and in the loss of my presumed identity… In the room where my mama took her last breath, and in the terror at the thought that maybe her death was my fault… In unemployment and moves that knocked the wind out of me and in callings that seem far beyond my reach… In betrayal and accusation… In my own webs of lies and unforgiveness… He has been there. There is nowhere I’ve been that I haven’t been in His presence. No choice I’ve made that is so ugly He’s turned his face away. No moment that I’ve ever been alone.

Would I have loved for God to cancel some (or all…) of these catastrophes? Of course. Some of them left me reeling and believing I would never recover. I wouldn’t choose to walk these roads. But it’s been on these roads that I encountered the power of the love that didn’t look away. Didn’t walk away. Didn’t accuse me. Didn’t use me. But brought me back home to the arms that have never stopped holding me…

These seasons have taught me to cry out, and to turn my eyes to the One who can restore everything. The One who can re-story my story–and has, in so many ways. He’s the same One who can re-story yours… fix your eyes on the eyes that have never looked away from you, cry out to Him, and let His love bring you home…

–Laura

 

I looked out my window early today

I saw a big gray blanket

When I walked into it, it opened so that I could pass through

Then closed again behind me

Leaving me surrounded

In a cold, gray world

I wrote those words in my 8th grade English class. It was a poetry assignment that unbeknownst to me would be entered in a city wide poetry contest. I won the contest. My poem was published in the newspaper, my dad used it in one of his sermons, but I didn’t care. I didn’t make the poem up out of thin air– I was describing my life at the time. I was three years into ongoing “locust” devastation and could not see an end in sight. My mother had died from cancer when I was in the fifth grade-eleven years old. In the midst of that storm, just a year later, sixth grade, my dad married a widow with four children of her own. I finished out my sixth grade year with all of the kids I’d been in school with since first grade, but we had moved to a larger house to accommodate our larger family, so seventh grade I began junior high in a school with no friends. I was sharing a bedroom with a step-sister who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I never felt safe at home. I discovered the hard truth in my new school that “good” kids who’ve been together for a long time don’t embrace new kids very well. I was accepted into the group of other hurting kids; we were all trying to numb our pain without knowing that’s what we were doing–we called it “partying” but there was no joy. I would continue making increasingly self destructive and others destructive choices until I was in my early twenties. Many times during those years, I would sense the voice of God drawing me back, and sometimes I would come, but I’d never stay long.

Laura wrote above that sometimes our “locust” seasons are the result of a direct attack from Satan, sometimes they are because of something done to us by someone else, sometimes they are the consequence of our own choices. In my above season, I felt like God had done something to me. I was so, so, so angry with Him. In my understanding, a God of love would not have allowed my mother to die, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed life to have stayed so hard for so long afterward. In my anger, I turned my back on Him with an “I’ll show you that I don’t need you” attitude, and then reaped the consequences of my own poor choices. It brings up a great deal of emotion just writing about it.

How did I get back?  Joel 2:12– “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now. Right now. Today.

I was twenty-two years old and was with a friend leaving a night club at closing. We were held up at gunpoint as we headed to her car. She managed to get in the car–I didn’t. The gun was held to my stomach. In the end, my purse was taken and I was not physically harmed. There were police close by who caught the young man with my purse. My friend and I went to night court to positively identify him, and then I went home and got in bed. While lying in bed, I heard God ask me “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”  His voice wasn’t angry or scary, but it was very direct. My answer was “No. This is not the legacy I want to leave.”

Even now, return to me…Like Joel, I cried out and asked God what I needed to do. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, it was summer so I wasn’t in school. I asked my manager at work if I could take a leave of absence, and he said yes, so I moved home to Missouri for a couple of months. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing Joel 2:12–fasting, weeping, mourning…

I was welcomed home with love and given lots of space and time to process what I needed to.

I was “fasting” without knowing that’s what I was doing. Pastor John defines fasting as giving something up so that our focus can be on God–not trying to get His attention, but giving Him ours.  I sought Him for those two months. I didn’t do anything with friends. I stayed home, spent a lot of time on the back patio with my Bible and a study on how to forgive yourself (I’d made some horrific choices), and dug in with God.

There was a great deal of “weeping”, which Pastor John defined as the outward evidence that something is going on inwardly.

And mourning…acknowledging loss. There were so many things lost that needed to be acknowledged, brought into the light and mourned.

The hard thing for me to grasp, is that God’s embrace happened instantaneously. I kept acknowledging that I didn’t deserve anything from Him, and felt as though I should be  “lesser than” in His kingdom work. I felt that way for a long time.

Grace is powerful, and so difficult for us to understand, but what’s true, is just like Hosea’s wife, just like the prodigal son, God met me when I chose to rend my heart and not my garments”and I  returned to the Lord my God and found Him to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13). I was fully restored, even though I didn’t “feel” it.  Over time (years) I began to “believe” it.

I won’t say that I was completely healed in my two months home, but I was deeply in love with God and knew that my life was much better in His hands. When I returned to college, I moved out of the house I’d been living in, moved back into the dorm, began attending a small group Bible study and was fully embraced there, which  led to attending a church where I learned how to worship in a new way. I left my old “friend” group behind and found new friends, one of whom became my husband.

I don’t know what season of life you are in. If locusts have come to devastate you, even now,  in this very moment, God is with you. His grace, His compassion, His love will meet you right where you are. Cry out, return to Him with all your heart–He will meet you there.

The “locust” season may not come to an immediate end, it might still be really hard-but you won’t face it alone, and in the words of an old Steven Curtis Chapman song:

His strength is perfect when our strength is gone.                                                                           He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on.                                                                                         Raised in His power, the weak become strong.                                                                                His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect. 

He is a good God. Life on a fallen planet is not always good, but God is always good–always full of love, always for us. Turn your attention to Him, take your questions, your mourning, your weeping to Him,  and let Him meet you where you are.

–Luanne

 

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Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

There are some messages that I believe are of such dire importance that my heart burns within me and I want to burst into tears over the gravity and importance of us–the people who belong to Jesus and His Kingdom– really getting it. This is one of those messages.

Jesus prayed in John 17:14 …I have given them your word and the world has hated them…,

and in John 15:18 he tells his disciples …if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…

Paul wrote the book of Philippians while he was in prison. Prisons were not unfamiliar territory to Paul. Beatings, floggings, stoning–these were not unfamiliar to Paul. They were not unfamiliar to Jesus and many of Jesus’ early followers, including the apostles who walked with Him. The world and its system hated them.

Why?

Paul himself hated them before he came to know Jesus.  The followers of Jesus threatened the status quo of the religious community, and they threatened the status quo of the Roman government. Their message of love, of inclusion, of grace, of dignity for all people, of Jesus as Lord was threatening to those who held power–they might have to relinquish some of that power to do life Jesus’ way.

Paul, after his encounter with Jesus, was radically transformed. Once he met  Jesus his life became all about other people meeting  Jesus, and as a result, he became one of the hated. But he didn’t hate in return. Instead he used every opportunity given him to share Jesus. In Philippians 1:12 he writes: …what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

Speaking of the modern American, primarily white evangelical church…what are we known for? What does the world hate us for?  Is it because we look too much like Jesus? Or is it because we look too little like Jesus? Are we hated for the right reasons?

I once read that today’s Christians are discipled more by Fox News, CNN, or other media outlets than by Jesus. It’s important for each of us to ask ourselves who we are giving permission to shape our minds, our thought processes, our hearts, our “fors” and “againsts”.

Each of us needs to know who Jesus is and what the whole context of the word of God says. In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Let’s choose to be of noble character, ask the Holy Spirit to teach us,  and each take responsibility for searching the scriptures, beginning with the four gospels and then reading and studying the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus and the new covenant established in His blood.

John wrote in John 3:16 that…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Many of us know this verse by heart and it is precious to us. But how many of us know the verse that comes directly after? John 3:17 says…for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  We personalize verse 16- thank you God for loving me and giving Jesus for me and giving me eternal life–and ignore verse 17. We go about condemning and “othering” those different from us forgetting that God so loved the world means everyone.

Author Anne Lamott writes: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Ouch!

Let’s do some holy squirming and look more closely at who God loves and who He wants to have a relationship with. (Just know–I’m squirming too.)

God loves every tribe, nation, and people group across the face of the globe.

God loves men. God loves women.

God loves Muslims. God loves Buddhists. God loves Atheists.

God loves Fundamentalists. God loves Conservatives. God loves Liberals.

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

God loves Donald Trump, God loves Barack Obama, God loves Hilary Clinton, God loves Bernie Sanders, God loves Vladimir Putin, God loves Kim Jong Un and every other government leader past, present, future.

God loves unborn babies, God loves doctors who perform abortions, God loves women who have had abortions. (14 or so years ago, the Focus on the Family statistic of Christian women who have had abortions was one out of three. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves victims of human trafficking. God loves human traffickers.

God loves porn actors and actresses. God loves the people who exploit them, God loves the people who support the industry by watching, spending their money, and gratifying the flesh.  (According to Barna research 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves those who have been betrayed. God loves those who have committed adultery.

God loves those who have been divorced. (Before and including the 1970’s, divorced people were excluded from many churches, barred from being in church leadership including lay leadership, and could not serve as pastors. Some churches still hold to this today. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, + person. (Many churches exclude and send messages of hate to the LGBTQ+ community. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every person who adamantly opposes the LGBTQ+ community. God loves every person who wholly affirms the LGBTQ+ community.

God loves every unarmed black man/boy/woman shot by a police officer. God loves every police officer who shot an unarmed black man/boy/woman.

God loves every police officer shot by an angry anti-police protester. God loves every angry anti-police protester who shot a police officer.

God loves every person who peacefully protests inequality and police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem. God loves every person who believes kneeling is disrespectful to the military and the flag.

God loves every immigrant–documented or not. God loves every refugee seeking asylum at the border.

God loves each member of every family being separated by the government at the border. God loves every ICE officer, every border patrol officer, every policy maker whether those policies are good or harmful.

God loves those who believe the right to bear arms includes all arms. God loves those who believe gun control needs to be legislated.

God loves all those on death row. God loves the professional executioners.

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

No matter who you come across, or what story you read or hear–God loves all parties involved and He is for each of them.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal 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)   

And Jesus says to us: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  “As” means in the same way.

We have some things to wrestle with, don’t we? Here’s further food for thought:

Do we agree that “Jesus wasn’t rejected by the hurting, he was rejected by the religious.” (Pastor John Marshall)

Do we agree that “those who follow Jesus should attract the same people Jesus attracted and frustrate the same people Jesus frustrated.”? (Shane Claiborne)

Do we agree that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”? (Thomas Merton)

Do we agree to, “Be like Jesus: Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”? (Josh Harris)

And do we agree that, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”? (C. S. Lewis)

Do we sit in judgment like Simon the Pharisee who didn’t understand Jesus and judged Jesus by saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)?

Would we allow Jesus to teach us about love through the sinner as Jesus wanted to do with Simon when he said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears an wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little…(44-48)?

Have we been forgiven much? Do we love much? Does our love reflect our gratitude? Does our love reflect God’s heart for the world? Does our love recognize God’s image in everyone? Does our love compel us to love others well, no matter who they are?

Some of you may be thinking that Paul reminds us in Ephesians and Colossians to speak the truth in love, and you are correct. The love he is talking about is agape–the undeserved, all encompassing, unconditional love of God that we wrote about last week. The love that Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9 would grow and grow and grow in us. The love we give others that then opens the door for the truth to be spoken in a non-threatening manner. The love that continues, no matter what choices are made. The love that continues no matter what consequences result. The love that agrees to disagree for the sake of relationship. The love that unifies around the person of Jesus, not side issues.

Jesus came full of grace and truth. We are sent in the same way–full of grace and truth remembering that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  We don’t have the power to transform any life, including our own. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to share our own stories of how Jesus loves us, how we love Him, how He has made a difference in our lives, and how He loves them. So like the early church leaders concluded in Acts…“we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are…it is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (or anyone) who are turning to God.” (Acts 15: 11 & 19) 

Our lives have to be bathed in agape. Jesus modeled sharing God’s love through personal relationships. I believe it still works best that way. Who does God have in your life? Who do you see on a regular basis?

Paul, who was hated enough for the sake of Jesus to be in prison, used that opportunity to share Christ with those he was in relationship with–the Palace Guard and his fellow prisoners. Paul continues his letter to the Philippians by acknowledging that his imprisonment for the cause of Christ has resulted in others being more bold in sharing Jesus fearlessly. He goes on to say, it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Ph. 1: 15-18)

Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all? Do we rejoice, even when those we don’t agree with are sharing Him, because the ultimate desire of our hearts is that Jesus be made known? Do we need to spend some time in the presence of God recognizing who we “other”,  repenting and allowing God to reorder our lives and priorities?

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

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