This I Know: Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to be a pastor…

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

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

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

And I want to be angry…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Power, Elevation Worship)

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

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

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

Pastor John began by simply stating:

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

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

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

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

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

Once there was a man who had two sons…

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

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

So he divided up his property between the two of them

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

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

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

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

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

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

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

What about our other main character, the older son?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O, death, where is your sting?

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

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

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your stone? 

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

–Laura

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

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

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

How we see Him matters.

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

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

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

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

Mark tells us in Chapter 15 that at the crucifixion Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (40,41).  Don’t you wonder how many women were there? We picture in our minds three; however, Mark tells us that there were “some” women from Galilee and some from Jerusalem who were present with Jesus in his suffering. It had to have been excruciating to their hearts, but they loved him and weren’t going to leave him alone. Presence—what a huge gift. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

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

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

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

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

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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Advent #4: Peace

It is Christmas time,  and as I sit to write this my house is still and quiet. My heart is filled with gratitude over the significance and beauty of this day that we celebrate. My gratitude to God for coming to us overwhelms me. Where would we be without the gift of God in the flesh?

Each year, I ask for fresh revelation. I don’t ever want to be so familiar with scripture that I miss something new God wants to show me. There are always new things to notice, to ponder, to wrestle with, to be transformed by. Sometimes things I haven’t seen before rock my world and lead me to dig in to scripture for months. It is always fresh because the Holy Spirit makes it so. Pastor John’s sermon on Sunday gave me some things to ponder.

The Peace candle is also called the Candle of the Angels–the angels who announced that God’s peace had arrived on earth in the form of a newborn baby. His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough.

The words of the first angel to appear read like this:

And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:8-14

In their greeting, Luke used the Hebrew word “Savior” the Greek word “Christ” and the blended word “Lord” which was understood by the Hebrew people as Adonai, their name for God, and the Roman world was quite familiar with the significance of the word Lord. Right there, in the declaration of the angels is the first public announcement that God is here on the earth, that He is here for everyone, and that His peace is available. Those on whom His favor rests are those who recognize Him and step into life under His Lordship. What those on whom HIs favor rests really means is those on whom His kindly intent rests, His kindness–the very thing that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4)–available to all people everywhere.

The shepherds are the ones who receive this message. The shepherds whose very profession causes them to be unclean. They are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy, unable to enter the temple themselves. They are outcasts, “less thans” — and, as often happens with those deemed “other” or “outsiders”, they have been stereotyped. They were stereotyped as dishonest people, so much so that they were not allowed to testify in court. Their testimony was always considered invalid. Yet, these very people, are the ones God chose to confirm that the angel’s message was true.

I can’t help but make the connection that another stereotyped, less than, people group during this time period whose testimony  would be considered invalid were women. Yet, who did Jesus honor by giving them the awesome ministry of telling the disciples that He was alive? (Mt. 28:7-10)

I think there is much for us to ponder in God’s deliberate choices here. We must always be extremely careful with stereotypes. Those considered other, less than, and marginalized may be the very people that God is using to show us more of Himself and His Kingdom’s ways.  In His Kingdom the last are the first, the least are the greatest, the humble are the lifted up, and His ministry of making things right–peace for all humankind–belongs to all of us who call Him Lord. We minister to Him when we love the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor, the naked, not as less than, but as Christ Himself. (Mt. 25). And I know from personal experience, He has much to teach us through the marginalized.

So our first unlikely messengers, the shepherds,  after they see Jesus, leave rejoicing and go tell everyone. Our second unlikely messengers, who actually declare Jesus as King, are the Magi.

Matthew 2:1-2 tells us all the detail we get about them in this story: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

There are lots of assumptions made about the Magi–we most always see them in a group of three riding on camels, and they show up at the manger. Scripture doesn’t tell us that there were three, or what their names are, or that they rode on camels. What we do know is they came a long distance, they knew, when they saw his star, that the King of the Jews had been born, and they came to worship him.

First important thing to note–these are not Jewish men. The Magi are Gentiles, considered pagans. What is God doing by including these outsiders? Not only are they Gentiles–they are mystics.

We don’t know much about these particular Magi, but this is not the first time Magi appear in scripture. Magi were members of many ancient cultures–the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, and the Persians. They were interpreters of dreams, astrologers and astronomers, priests and teachers/anointers of kings.  In the Old Testament book of Daniel, in the account of King Belshazzar’s encounter with the writing on the wall, we learn that Daniel, who had been taken to Babylon during the Israeli exile, became chief Magi under King Nebuchadnezzar:

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.  He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:7-12.

When Daniel was brought in, he made it very clear that he served the Most High God, and Daniel said to the king that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. (v. 21)

Daniel was a Magi. Daniel was an undeterred, courageous, uncompromising lover and follower of the Most High God. Daniel counseled three kings in Babylon. He had great influence. Is it possible that the Magi that came to worship Jesus knew that the King of the Jews would be born because Daniel was a faithful witness to God’s promises and prophecies 600 years before?

Matthew continues, in his account to let us know that the Magi went to King Herod to find out where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod called in his priests and teachers of the law to find out, and Herod was greatly disturbed. Once the Magi learned that the prophecy spoke of Bethlehem, that’s where they went. The star led them to  the right house. They were not the least bit concerned that Jesus wasn’t in a palace. They presented him with gifts, and they worshiped him. They were declaring that Jesus is King.

God’s ways are not our ways. The religious community of Jesus’ day rejected him as King. He was a threat to their traditional way of doing things, and a threat to their power. The political community of the day certainly had no tolerance for a competing Kingdom. But God’s plans and ways will not be thwarted by our fallen world’s systems. He chooses foreigners, outsiders, oppressed people, mystics, and anyone else He cares to use, to draw us to Himself. Are we willing to let go of stereotypes? Are we willing to let the box we’ve put God in fall away, so that we can see Him, know Him, serve Him, love Him, and be instruments of His peace in this world that so desperately needs to experience His kindness and His love?

What have I to offer
To heaven’s King
                                                    I will bring my life, my love, my all…                                                   (Chris Tomlin, Adore)

My life, my love, my all. May this be the gift we offer to Jesus as we celebrate Him this season.

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough…”

I took the liberty of highlighting Luanne’s use of the word “all” above, because it so very important in our attempts to understand what the Shalom–the peace–of Jesus is all about. If Shalom is setting things right and bringing wholeness and restoration to ALL that is wrong and broken (and it is that…), then peace is only ever possible if ALL are included to the same degree. Where any are excluded, or where there is the absence of chaos but only through the means of hierarchy, there is not Shalom. Because in those instances, things are only really “right” and “whole” for some. The Prince of Peace came to rewrite our definition of peace. It was never meant to be exclusive.

The Shalom that was ushered in with Jesus’ incarnation “set right” all previous exclusion and rejection. From the day of His birth through His very last breath, we see this play out in extraordinary ways…

Luanne wrote about the shepherds–how they were viewed in society, and how their testimony was null in the eyes of the people of that day. She also wrote about the women–the first to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–and how their testimony was also worth nothing in the courts of that time. I can’t help but think of the servants who were the only ones to see Jesus turn water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), and the Samaritan woman (that’s two strikes against her according to the culture of that day) who experienced the Shalom of Jesus and went on to tell her whole village–and many believed in Jesus based upon her testimony. These are only a few examples of Jesus bringing restoration to all… Inclusion where exclusion and hierarchy had previously reigned. Acceptance where there had been only rejection. Healing and freedom where there had been brokenness and shame. He came to set it all right…

Do you know what is so mind blowing about all of this? All of these stories made it into our scriptures. They were written down by men who, according to the accepted practices of their time, could have completely dismissed their words. And what would we have if they had?

The two most important events in the life of Jesus–the incarnation and the resurrection–were reported by outsiders whose testimonies were invalid in all of the courts of that day. These stories that we celebrate on our two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, were first told by those who were most dismissable. Our all-powerful, Holy God chose those who were least likely to be believed, those most on the outside, and entrusted these precious ones with the biggest headlines that would ever be written. Because this powerful, holy God is perfect love and His disposition is kindness and He is a God who sees and sets right the wrongs of this life. This God saw to it that if the “haves” wanted to know the story, they would have to be quiet and listen to the “have nots”. And we see this invisible God in the person of Jesus who came, as Luanne said, as a “tiny, homeless baby”–so that His life could deliver true Shalom to ALL…

When Shalom comes, this peace that includes and restores all things, it can feel like rejection and loss to those who have become accustomed to being the “elite”. We see this play out during the life of Jesus, too. How, as He elevated those who had lived under the feet of others–under the weight of power structures and systems that oppressed them– those who had the power and stood on top were very unwilling to be brought down to the foundation of equality Jesus was rebuilding (the foundation was first set in Eden–broken humanity destroyed it). His ways felt like loss to those who were on top. And it was loss–loss of all that was keeping them from the wholeness that is only possible Jesus’ way.

I am so grateful that the story of Jesus was written through the testimony of the leasts, the lasts, the lowly, the rejected. I am so grateful there were some who did believe their testimony–because what if they hadn’t? I believe this love story of God coming for all of us would have still been told, because God is, well God and all… But I love that it was told by those who had probably never before been entrusted with news that carried any real weight–yet, here they were, carrying the weight of Glory within their testimonies… 

It can be tempting to see this as a reminder that even when we feel less-than and unqualified to share our testimonies, we should share them anyway–and, maybe there are times we need to remember exactly that… But I would challenge all of us to take a good look at ourselves and our “place” in the world before we land in that place. Who around us is stereotyped? Whose testimony is deemed invalid in our time? Who are those seen as unclean in our culture? If the answer to those questions is not us, then we need to understand that we’re the ones who’ve become accustomed to being the “elite”. And we’re invited into the Shalom of Jesus. We are invited to come down to the level ground of Jesus to listen to those who He’s brought up to that same foundation. The foundation of the Prince of Peace–real, lasting, all-inclusive peace. Where all is made right, and all are made whole. Where all are invited to call Jesus our Life, our Lord, our King. On this foundation, the Kingdom of heaven comes. And the ways of this Kingdom are love and Shalom.

Are we willing to give our lives, our love, our all to the King of this Kingdom?

–Laura

shepherd pic

Fan the Flame: Fear of Losing Control

“What is it that unsettles you?”

Pastor Beau asked us this question on Sunday. I was struck by how simple the question is, yet how complex and far-reaching its implications are. From misplacing our keys to worrying about the futures of our children, the things that leave us feeling unsettled are many, and their pursuit of our minds is relentless.

Ultimately, the things that unsettle us find their roots in fear–specifically, the fear of losing control. We have spent this month exposing the things that hinder our ability to live into the Spirit we have been given: the Spirit of power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). We have explored the fear of rejection, the fear of failure, and the fear of love and intimacy.

Pastor Beau shared on Sunday that the fear of losing control, is–at a deeper level–the fear of losing our minds. Our grasping at control happens within our minds, and it is insidious. The consequences of this particular fear play out in ways we may not immediately recognize. We might lose a little sleep here and there as the “what ifs?” and worst-case scenarios play out in our heads. We may experience headaches or a racing heartbeat on and off. Maybe we’re getting sick more often than we used to. These are just normal parts of life, right? Possibly. Sleeplessness, sickness, headaches–they all happen to all of us at times. But these seemingly normal parts of life, when they happen with regularity, can be symptoms of a deeper issue: very real anxiety that results from living under the fear of losing control.

Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that “Fear at its best keeps you from God’s best.” We have seen what this can look like as we’ve studied the other three fears. Fear of rejection can keep us from risking for the sake of relationships, and from connecting with God and others. Fear of failure can keep us from trying, from living into the gifts and purpose we were created for. Fear of intimacy keeps us from embracing our belovedness in Christ and ultimately can leave us feeling isolated and alone. And the fear of losing control, of losing our minds, keeps us from the freedom we are meant to embrace. It stands between us and the peace of Jesus alive within us, and it makes the exhale of faith and trust an impossibility as our hearts beat erratically to the rhythm of its voice.

Fear is a liar that dresses up like a friend. This friend tells us that it will keep us safe, that it’s wise to be aware of all that could go wrong. It whispers promises of peace and health and happiness but delivers a life of smallness, sameness, and selfishness. See, fear hinders growth in every aspect of life. It makes us wary of change. And to resist change is to resist growth. Giving into our fear of losing control keeps us stuck right where we are, unable to receive what Jesus came to bring us:

I am the Gateway. To enter through me is to experience life, freedom, and satisfaction. A thief has only one thing in mind—he wants to steal, slaughter, and destroy. But I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expectlife in its fullness until you overflow!                                       

(John 10:9-10, The Passion Translation)

Freedom, satisfaction, a life so full it overflows… these are the results of living in the Spirit we were given. The Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind leads us into the abundant life that is Jesus himself alive in us.

Giving into the fear of losing control is saying yes to a life of worry, stress, and anxiety. Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that anxiety never changes anything for the good–all it changes is you. Proverbs 12:25 says, Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” Anxiety makes our hearts heavy. How heavy are you today? Is your heart weighed down under the pressure of worry and anxiety? Is it leading you down a road of pain—physically, emotionally, psychologically? Anxiety can do that–it has the power to wreak havoc in our bodies. There are numerous studies that have shown that the very real physical side effects of anxiety leave no system in our bodies untouched. All of our being is affected when fear and anxiety are given free reign over our lives.

Please hear me on this–I am not saying that if you suffer from clinical anxiety or depression, it’s your fault for giving into fear. Some of us are prone to these conditions because of the wiring in our brains, not because we are trying to maintain control. As Pastor Beau mentioned on Sunday, what we are talking about this week is not medically diagnosed conditions that require medication to help our brains and bodies behave like they should. We would never want to be flippant or offer meaningless platitudes in the face of suffering. There is no magic button to push, no “right” prayer to pray that will unlock miraculous healing. For some, anxiety is a thorn that won’t be removed this side of the heavens. Instead, it must be managed through a variety of methods that we are blessed to have available to us in our time. That said, sometimes God does choose to miraculously heal people and that, of course, remains our prayer for all who suffer physically in any way. 

What we are talking about here, what Pastor Beau shared with us, has to do with the day-to-day decisions we make to live from a spirit of fear and timidity rather than the Spirit we’ve been given in Christ. We are talking about the decision to keep our fists clenched, full of all that we are trying to manage on our own, rather than carrying those worries to the One who says,

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

This is the first step to take when we want to overcome the fear of losing control. We come to the One who invites us to cast all of our cares on Him–because He cares for us. We come to the only One who is able to take care of all things–from each sparrow that flies and every wildflower that blooms to each one of us in all of our unique complexity. We accept that we are as powerless to change our height as we are to add a single hour to our lives, and we rest in the truth that we don’t have to be concerned with these things. Acknowledging our powerlessness is the first step to embracing the power of the Spirit alive in us. On our own, we can’t produce a single drop of real power, love, or control over our erratic minds. Once we know that, we can stop trying so hard to do it. We can choose faith and trust as we open our hands to receive connection, acceptance, love, and freedom–the things that come with living an abundant life rather than a life run by fear. Can you imagine a life like that? A life not dominated by the fears of rejection and failure? A life not afraid to love and be loved, not afraid of losing control and letting go? Do you want a life that looks like that?

Come to Him. Awaken to His ever-present Presence. Say yes to the Spirit that is already living inside of you. Relinquish your best efforts and attempts to do life on your own into the nail-scarred hands of the only One capable of carrying all that weighs your heart down. Let your faith and trust be ignited as you fan into the flame the gift of the Spirit. We are no longer slaves to fear–we are sons and daughters of the Living God. Romans 8:15 reminds us, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The perfect love of our Father drives out all of our fear. Every fear that attempts to blow out the flame of the Spirit we were given is extinguished by His love. It’s time to start living like we believe that’s true.

–Laura

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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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