Teach Me to Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we already know the model friends…

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

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

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach me to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Teach Me: Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sings these lyrics:

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

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

What does it look like to live like that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, teach me to trust.

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 25:1-5, TPT)

–Laura

 

Giving Reverses Greed

Our text this week is quite long, so I’ll do my best to sum it up before we really jump in. In Luke 12:13-34, Jesus is standing before a crowd and a man calls out to him. The man demands that Jesus act as judge in the case of the family inheritance his big brother is hoarding. Jesus says no, he will not make a judgement. He exhorts the listening crowd, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” (from verse 15, AMP) In this one line, we see an indication that more than one form of greed is present in this family feud.

He proceeds to tell all who are listening a story about a rich farmer. The word “rich” is truly insufficient for the level of wealth this one man possesses. His storehouses are full to the brim and his fertile land is still producing an abundance of crops. So the farmer thinks to himself… (Note that he does not consult anyone about any of his decisions–he makes these choices unilaterally.) He thinks, “Soul, you have many good things stored up, [enough] for many years; rest and relax, eat, drink and be merry (celebrate continually).” (verse 19, AMP) In the story, God responds directly to the man, saying, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you…” Jesus finishes the story by telling his listeners that this is how it will be for anyone who hoards what they have and is not rich toward God.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and continues teaching them about the dangers of greed. He cautions them against cultivating a mindset of scarcity and makes it clear that, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we already live from a place of abundance. He tells them not to worry about anything–worry itself is futile–and reminds them of how even the most insignificant flower is clothed in dazzling beauty. Jesus exhorts his closest followers to live generously and completes the monologue with a statement that is very familiar to many of us: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verse 34)

There is much to unpack in this rich passage. First, Jesus encounters two brothers. As Pastor John pointed out in his message, both displayed a different form of greed. This is likely why Jesus said, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” Greed doesn’t always look the same. It is insidious and it can wear many different masks. One brother was hoarding his father’s wealth, wealth that wasn’t his to begin with. He had received abundance, and was unwilling to share any of it–even with his own family. The other brother felt entitled to what was his by birthright–simply because he was a son. He didn’t work for it, but he wanted what he felt what his. He was longing for more, discontent with what he had.

Can we identify with either brother? 

Perhaps both?

Do we find ourselves hoarding and protecting what is “ours”, withholding from others when we have plenty to offer? Do we constantly grope and grab for more, longing for what is just out of our reach? Ponder these questions with me as we continue…

Jesus refused to settle the dispute between the brothers, and as was common for him, chose to instead tell a story. In the story of the rich farmer, we saw a man who was already very rich. He had more than he needed. When he saw that even more was coming his way, he consulted his soul–his mind, will, and emotions–and no one else, about what he should do. He decided that all of his excess, everything he had been blessed with, should be kept in massive storehouses, hoarded for his own private enjoyment. He had prepared for himself an extravagant retirement. He decided to take it easy, live the good life, relax and be happy.

How are we like the farmer? 

What do we do when we run out of space to store all of our abundance? What have we prepared for ourselves without counsel, without thought of anyone else? Is there something we have that we’re holding onto for our own enjoyment? What have we become enslaved to? What has possessed us and stolen our souls, our attention, our love?

When Jesus addressed his disciples, he said, “For this reason I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (verse 22) For what reason? To protect them against the power of greed that can rob us of our souls. Jesus went on to remind them that they need not worry about earthly wealth, what they’ll eat, what they’ll wear. Why? Because they have already been given the kingdom, if only they will access what is already there:

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.” (vs. 31-32)

This entire passage may appear to be dealing with material wealth. It is–but there is more to it than that. What we have goes beyond our finances. It includes our gifts, abilities, talents, skills, time, and energy. Being “rich toward God” as Jesus instructed in our passage indicates being rich in relationship toward him, being rich in the ways of the kingdom. This would then include the fruits of the spirit produced in us and offered to others; it would include willingness, passion, and courage. Being rich toward God naturally makes us rich toward others, as we are living out of the abundance of the kingdom where God meets our needs with his presence.

Trevor, one of our elders, read a couple of passages of scripture before Pastor John’s message in our second service. As far as I am aware, he did not know what the message was about. Both passages he read struck me:

I thank you, Lord, and with all the passion of my heart
I worship you in the presence of angels!
Heaven’s mighty ones will hear my voice
as I sing my loving praise to you.
I bow down before your divine presence
and bring you my deepest worship
as I experience your tender love and your living truth.
For the promises of your word and the fame of your name
have been magnified above all else!
At the very moment I called out to you, you answered me!
You strengthened me deep within my soul
and breathed fresh courage into me.

(Psalm 138:1-3, TPT–emphasis mine)

Ask, and the gift is yours. Seek, and you’ll discover. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Matthew 7:7, TPT)

In the Psalm, we read David’s words of worship to God. He thanks God with all the passion of his heart, sings loving praise, and brings his deepest worship. Why? Because he called out, he asked God to show up, and being the good Father that he is, God did just that. He showed up and strengthened David deep within his soul. He breathed fresh courage into his mind, will and emotions, and this empowered David to respond with overflowing richness toward God.

We have constant access to this same overflow. Jesus told us in Matthew 7, Ask–you’ll receive; Seek–you’ll find; Knock–the door will be opened. What door? The door to the kingdom, and all of the abundance therein! We have nothing but ourselves to offer to our God. Everything else that we regard as “ours” was given to us. We can only be rich toward him when we’ve opened ourselves to receive the abundance of his kingdom and allowed it to change us. He has given us everything. He has been pleased to give us the kingdom. That line leaves me flabbergasted every. single. time.

What are we doing with all that he has given? 

When the father of the two brothers died, the mantle of “patriarch” fell to the older brother. It was his duty and honor to provide for and care for his family. But his heart and soul had been captured by greed instead.

We have been given the kingdom. The whole thing. An all-access pass to the presence of God and the gifts of the spirit. We who know Jesus are patriarchs and matriarchs–fathers and mothers–of our faith. How are we stewarding the abundance that we have been given? What are we doing with the abundant, generous, overwhelming love of Jesus that has been lavished upon us? Are we hoarding it for ourselves, cushioning our lives with it, using it as a barrier to keep others out rather than inviting them to the table to share in it alongside us? Are we using our gifts in a way that mirrors the self-emptying love of the one we say we follow, or are we using them to fill our own storehouses to overflowing? Are our hearts set on the kingdom? Are we passionate about sharing the abundance that has been poured out for all the world? Or are we attempting to contain it in a box that we’ve designed, a box that we can lock and hide and keep just for ourselves? What kinds of fathers and mothers are we–do we hold what we have just out of reach of those who need it most, or do we intentionally swing the doors wide and set a table of welcome to the bottomless feast of the kingdom?

Whatever our answers to these questions might be, take heart friends. If greed has possessed our souls, it’s not too late. There is an antidote. We can choose to give, and when we do we’ll find that giving reverses our greed. We can learn the mindset of abundance as we breathe in the fresh, healing air of the kingdom and clear the cobwebs of scarcity from our souls. But first, we have to get honest. And we must recognize our Source, and ask for what we need so we can change. We’ll find that our Father is pleased to give us access to all that he is and all that he has. He is pleased to entrust us with his kingdom. What will we do with it?

–Laura

This is a challenging message for those of us who live in a consumeristic, capitalistic nation. Having stuff we don’t need is our normal. Our culture’s definition of success absolutely lies in the abundance of our possessions, yet Jesus tells us: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions. (Luke 12:15 NASB)

Our lives do not consist of our possessions. It’s interesting to note that in this verse, the Greek word for life is zoe which is what we normally think of as life–living, breathing, full of vitality…  However, farther down in the passage, when Jesus tells the story of the greedy rich man, some translations say “your very life will be demanded of you”, which makes it sound as if it’s the same word used in verse 15. It’s not. The word translated life in verse 20 is the Greek word psyche. Psyche indicates our inner selves, the way we think, the emotions we feel or suppress, our convictions and passions…those are all part of the psyche. The King James Version translates this verse in a way that is closer to the original meaning when it says:

I will say to my soul (psyche), Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul (psyche) shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (19,20)
God’s response sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Why? Because greed, living for self, accumulating, hoarding, coveting, having a sense of entitlement is the anti-thesis of the Kingdom of Heaven, in addition, it leads to bondage, to worshiping other things, to chasing the kingdoms of this world, and to losing our psyches to worldly pursuits. God loves us and wants us free. Jesus came that we may have life and experience it in overflowing abundance (John 10:10).
What does that abundant, overflowing life look like?
Jesus tells us over and over and over that it looks like living by the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven where love for God and love for others is the highest priority. Jesus tells us that if we seek the Kingdom of God as our top priority, every other need we have will be taken care of.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom of God and for God’s will to be a reality on earth.
What does this kingdom look like?  Full and total inclusion. Jesus excludes no one. He gets frustrated with those who live with a religiously superior attitude, but he doesn’t exclude them. Not only does Jesus not exclude, he elevates the least likely…women, foreigners, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, the sick, the Samaritan; he ministers to the Roman Centurian, the Pharisee, the thief on the cross, the demon-possessed…  Is this what today’s Jesus’ followers look like? Is this what our churches look like? Is this what I look like?
Laura walked us through Sunday’s passage above, so I won’t go into it much here, but Jesus tells us to consider how God cares for the created world, he tells us not to worry about our clothes or our food and he goes on to say:

For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (30-34)

Even typing that out, I keep reading and rereading those verses. I need to do a constant heart check here. How am I doing in living generously? How many items do I have in my closets (yes, plural) that I rarely wear? How many extra dishes in my kitchen? Do I mindlessly spend money on myself? Yes. I do. I run after the things of the world and they add zero value to my life, my inner being, my essence. And as Laura mentioned above, these verses aren’t only about material things, although they certainly include that, and include caring for those less materially fortunate. What else has God generously blessed us with that we can use to bless others? What about grace, unconditional love, forgiveness, talents, gifts, wisdom, time, and on and on we could go. I’m not suggesting that we be doormats– Jesus is our example for how to do this. He had solitary moments where he pulled away from people and allowed God to restore his soul. He spent time alone time with his close friends. And, he ministered to the world.

In verse 21 Jesus tells us that whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God loses themselves along the way. We can become slaves to what we own or what we covet and self-destruct in the process.

What does it mean to be rich toward God?  Maybe being rich toward God means that we learn to pay attention to whether we are living in “I will…” rather than “Your will”.  The rich man who lost his soul to his riches said over and over again, I will tear down my barns, I will build bigger ones, I will store all my extra stuff, I will take it easy, I will eat, drink, and be merry, I, I, I, I,…  Maybe the opposite of being rich toward God is “I did it my way”. Maybe being rich toward God is what the apostle Paul encourages in Philippians 2: 1-5

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy.  So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. Be free from pride-filled opinions, for they will only harm your cherished unity. Don’t allow self-promotion to hide in your hearts, but in authentic humility put others first and view others as more important than yourselves.  Abandon every display of selfishness. Possess a greater concern for what matters to others instead of your own interests.  And consider the example that Jesus, the Anointed One, has set before us. Let his mindset become your motivation. (The Passion Translation)

You may be thinking–I can’t live like that. It’s too hard, I’m too human, yet God, who has been pleased to give us the kingdom, has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to live this kind of life, to love God’s way, to know His abundance, to share all that we have and all that we are for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, and he gives us new beginnings over and over and over again.

 Jesus, who loves us and wants us to experience life his way spoke a pointed message to a New Testament church and then offered a beautiful invitation:

I know that you are neither frozen in apathy nor fervent with passion. How I wish you were either one or the other…For you claim, “I’m rich and getting richer—I don’t need a thing.” Yet you are clueless that you’re miserable, poor, blind, barren, and naked…. Behold, I’m standing at the door, knocking. If your heart is open to hear my voice and you open the door within, I will come in to you and feast with you, and you will feast with me…           (Rev. 3:15,17,20)

His table is open to all. His feast is abundant. He is generous. His way is life.

Will we give it all and enter in?

Luanne

Image result for table set for feast outside

 

Giving Shapes Our Love

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

Wrestling. Desperation. Wanting to be close to God, yet not knowing how. Have you wrestled with questions like these? Have you ever asked “God, what do you want from me? How can I come before you? How can I draw near to you? How can I live in a close relationship with you? What tasks can I perform to please you? I’m willing to do anything…even sacrifice my own child to pay for my sin. What, God, do you want?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

 …do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…(NASB)

do what is right, to love mercy,  and to walk humbly with your God…(NLT)

What do these requirements look like in practice? Jesus showed us in the way he lived and interacted with people. He also showed us through a story that would have been shocking to his listeners. To set up the context in which Jesus told his story, Luke 10 tells us that…

Just then a religious scholar stood before Jesus in order to test his doctrines. He posed this question: “Teacher, what requirement must I fulfill if I want to live forever in heaven?” (TPT)

It’s important to note a couple of things about this question. The scholar (or lawyer as he is called in some translations) is not asking about how to have a relationship with Jesus. He’s not asking to be transformed. He is testing Jesus. He’s trying to show his superiority over Jesus. There was a time, earlier in the book of Luke that Jesus responded to Satan by saying: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Lk. 4:12). Same word. So Jesus answers the scholar’s question with a question:

 “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” 

The scholar replies: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus affirms that he got it right. And tells him do this and you will live“.  (Remember the scholar’s original question- what must I do to inherit eternal life (future). Jesus says…love like this, right here, right now and you will live). 

So the scholar wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.

Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.

Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.

Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return. 

Then Jesus asks this question: Which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?” 

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

Most of us are very familiar with this story. It’s a great deal more straightforward than many of Jesus’ parables. He wants us to get it. However, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the story because we don’t fully grasp the relationship that Jews and Samaritans had with each other in those days. The Jews considered the Samaritans “less than”. They did not associate with them. They despised them. If the story were told to religious Americans today, I wonder who Jesus would highlight as the example? Maybe a Muslim, someone from the Middle East, maybe someone from the LGBTQ community, maybe an immigrant whose legal status has expired, maybe an immigrant who never had legal status…without a doubt, it would have been someone unexpected and someone who would cause us to bristle.

So Jesus, after telling his shocking story asks the question: tell me, which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

(What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

The scholar, in testing Jesus, wants to know how he can have a good inheritance in his afterlife. Jesus responds if you want to live, see people and act; care for people; share what you have; make sure their needs are met; show tender compassion to others. 

If we pause to ponder all that the Samaritan man gave, it’s staggering. He was on his way somewhere;  he gave up his agenda, his time, his possessions (olive oil, wine, and whatever he used for bandages). He used his physical strength to place the injured, man onto his own donkey. With the injured man on his donkey, he most likely walked. He took the man to an inn, carried him into the inn.  The. Next. Morning. He gave the innkeeper money (the NIV tells us it was two silver coins—a hefty amount), and asked him to take care of the man until he could return.

I have a question…did he spend the entire night caring for this man who he didn’t know, most likely a Jewish man? Did he get a separate room and sleep? My gut tells me that he cared for the man the entire night, but I can’t know that for sure. Either way, he did not abandon the man.

Jesus is clear that the “religious” had no time to actually minister to someone in deep need. Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.

Pastor John gave us some excellent illustrations to help us see more clearly some ways in which we don’t love our neighbor well (most having to do with a sense of entitlement–my place in line, my seat at the movie theater, my appointment time, as if any of those things truly belong to us) and some ways in which we love ourselves more than we love others. For the sake of time, I won’t go into all of them, but one stuck with me.

If you (or I) injure ourselves in some way, maybe cut a finger, sprain an ankle, etc., do we pause to determine if we need to take care of that injury? Do we question whether or not we’re worthy or if we deserve to be taken care of? Do we question whether or not we have time? Or do we immediately stop what we’re doing, hold the injured portion of ourselves, and begin to figure out how to care for our wound? Do we see and love others in this same way? It’s worth thinking about.

The teacher of the law, the scholar, wanted to know how to have a good eternal life. I thought about how Jesus qualifies eternal life.

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

And I thought of John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I thought of Jesus’ emphasis on teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like–it’s what he taught about more than any other thing.

And I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife–when Jesus teaches Do this my way, the way of my Kingdom–here, now–and you will live abundantly–right now. I came to show you how. Follow my example. Get to know me, get to know the one true God. Your life in me isn’t just about heaven in the future, it’s about bringing heaven to earth today. “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is his will? It’s the lawyer’s reply to Jesus first question:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

I write it often because I believe it so strongly: when we draw near to God, when we allow the Holy Spirit to have access to the deepest parts of our beings, the beautiful fruit of the Spirit becomes the natural outflow of our lives-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We no longer live with the mindset of us and them, or I’m taking care of myself and my people because no one else matters as much, or I don’t like those people. All of humanity becomes our loved ones. All. Of. Humanity.

As I write this today, I am very aware that it is Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was a good Samaritan and paid for it with his life. He confronted unjust systems, he highlighted injustice, and he did so using peaceful means. His letter from a Birmingham jail is a pointed statement to the religious community who refused to see. It’s well worth a read. He said many things that I love, but maybe my favorite quote of his is:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Love God. Love others…

…do justice..love kindness, and…walk humbly with your God…

–Luanne

Pastor John began his message with the reminder that God loves us. Each of us. Equally. I immediately thought of William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, and how “Papa”–the Father God part of the Trinity–expressed love for all people. Papa didn’t say the words, “I love you,” in the story. Rather, the God character said “I am especially fond of you.” This was Papa’s sentiment regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. I love this subtlety in the story, because it challenges the narrative many of us learned along the way that God has to love us because he’s God and he is love. Young’s interpretation of God’s love is personal, intimate, and lavished equally over all of God’s children.

I don’t think I would be wrong in supposing that most of us struggle to believe, much less understand, that this really is how God feels about all of us. Sometimes our disbelief is rooted in our own sense of unworthiness–“There’s no way God could love me as much as (fill in the blank),” and sometimes it’s our own arrogance–“There’s no way God could love that murderer, rapist, heretic, immigrant, porn star, absent parent, school shooter, politician, transgender youth, etc… as much as he loves good Christian people like me.”

Whatever our thoughts, questions, and hangups might be, the scriptures we’re looking at this week confirm the lavish, relational, available-to-all love of God. In the Micah passage, the prophet asks, “What should we bring to the Lord?” The list of considerations includes thousands of animal offerings, ten thousand rivers of oil (which they didn’t actually have to give–the writer is emphasizing the point by listing such an impossible, extravagant gift), and even their firstborn children. If God were the transactional Being many of us grew up believing he is, superfluous sacrifices would matter to him. There would be a hierarchy of preference based on what we could offer to him. He would be especially fond of those who could give the most.

Sometimes I think we would prefer a transactional God. I think the religious scholar who asked Jesus what he needed to do to maintain his standard of living forever wanted a list. If we’re honest, sometimes we do, too. Luanne wrote above,

“…I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife…”

Is it possible that Christianity has, in many circles, morphed into this one-time transaction because the way of Jesus actually feels much harder to accomplish? Could it be that checklists, commandments, and a quid pro quo approach to God makes us feel like we have some measure of control and say in our destinies? We’re terrible at getting it all right, of course, but if the bottom line is one transactional, salvation moment, then we feel safe. We’ve done the important part.

Micah 6:8 challenges this way of thinking, and it was penned long before Jesus arrived on the pages of history. What is the important part according to God? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. How do we formulate a checklist for those commands? We can’t. These values are cultivated within a living, growing relationship with our God. If I were asked to teach a how-to class on loving mercy, I think I’d run quickly in the other direction. There’s no step-by-step process for learning how to love mercy. This is only learned by walking in step with the one from whom all mercy flows.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that in Micah 6:8, we don’t find God saying, “Don’t do___________.” It doesn’t say, “What does the Lord require of you? Stay away from people who don’t think like you, don’t go to that part of town, don’t befriend those disgusting pagans…” or anything like that. No part of the verse tells us what not to do. It simply tells us to do. Act, love, walk… these are action words. But what motivates these actions?

Let’s look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. Luanne wrote,

“Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.” 

Tender compassion. This automatic response–from someone who, according to the church crowd of that day, was an outsider at best–had to flow from somewhere. Compassion is a gut-level response of co-suffering love. It is a response that first sees and then identifies with the plight of the one suffering, feels it as if it were our own, and moves us to respond. It doesn’t “just happen” unless we’ve been conditioned to see beyond ourselves and our own individual needs.

All three men highlighted in the story saw something. But only one of them felt something–tender compassion–and was moved to do something. What stopped the first two men from doing something wasn’t that they didn’t see the need. They saw him… and they moved away from him rather than toward. Why? Because they didn’t feel anything. The man’s condition didn’t penetrate the walls of their hearts. Their preoccupation with themselves didn’t blind their physical eyes from seeing the needs around them. But the eyes of their hearts were blindfolded. By what? Perhaps by the same thing that consumed the religious scholar whose questioning of Jesus led to this story being told? A desire to maintain their lives as they were, to go about their days white-knuckling what belonged to them, to sustain their current quality of life on into eternity? Yeah… these things will absolutely tie a blindfold around a heart.

As Luanne pointed out, tending to the injured man cost the Samaritan. When we walk in the way of Jesus, with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of the others around us, we surrender our ability to maintain our lives as they are. Moving toward others, choosing to really see each one, will break us wide open. Loving like Jesus includes feeling like Jesus. This requires us to embrace vulnerability, to soften, to be woundable. Loving like Jesus means giving in the ways that he modeled, the ways that set his kingdom apart from every other kingdom that has ever existed. The Samaritan modeled kingdom values. It is costly to live this way. But it is what loving our neighbor looks like.

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

Where do we find ourselves as we ponder what God requires of us? Are we attempting to maintain a certain standard of living? Are we consumed with what is ours, with our positions and what we’ve earned? Are we simply trying to secure a spot in heaven? Do we arrogantly look down on certain others; do we cross the street when we see them? When we see a need, do we feel anything? Or do we, with hardened hearts, look the other way?

These are hard questions. They probe the depths of our priorities and they challenge our “me first”, individualistic mindsets. But we need to ask them. And we need to answer them honestly. We cannot say that we are people who love if we are not also people who give. Love motivates the heart to give, to break open, to embrace all others. Loving like Jesus means that, as Luanne wrote, all of humanity becomes our loved ones. No exceptions. God is especially fond of each one. All of us. Becoming like Jesus means that we will become especially fond of them, too.

–Laura

thumb_we-have-a-choice-we-can-embrace-our-humanness-which-57082437 (2)

Giving Goes Beyond You

I spent hours yesterday reading blogs, book excerpts, theological debates, and theories written by a variety of theologians, faith leaders, and other authors that all attempted to offer insight into our main scripture passage from Sunday’s message. I also spent a good bit of time thumbing through the chapters preceding and following the passage and looking up words in the original Greek.

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

I tell you that as a framework for where I’m actually going to go in my writing this week. Our passage is one that will probably be familiar to you, whether you have a religious background or not. There are plenty of voices who would offer us the “right” interpretation of these words–and most of them disagree with each other. That said, what follows is what I personally believe to be at the heart of the message, the way that I see Jesus representing his heart in this sometimes controversial parable, and where I see the application of it mattering in my life and in the way I love others. I could cite several sources that would back me up, several more who would disagree, and others still who would see it from another angle entirely. My goal is not to prove a point, or to explain away with ease what is a complex and nuanced cluster of scripture. I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

The passage is from a parable found in Matthew 25:31-40, the parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s one parable, set among several others, that Jesus used to describe the kingdom–what it was to look like and how his hearers’ lives would shift if they learned to follow his ways. It is the second message in our series about giving, and what we are invited to do is to look at giving differently. We are invited to move beyond a rules-based, transactional framework and begin to look at giving as an overflow of the self-emptying life of Jesus living within us and guiding us to deliver this kingdom to a waiting world. Whether you’re not at all familiar with this parable you have it memorized word for word, or you find yourself somewhere in the middle, I invite us all to read it again with a heart that’s willing to see it with fresh eyes as we dig into what it might mean for our lives today:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

Last week Pastor John spoke about the importance of being “for” all others, and how God calls us to give others our “for” before we give to him. Let’s look at this week’s passage through that lens. When we read the passage about the sheep and the goats, we naturally want to identify with the sheep, which pits us against the goats, those outside of our assumed camps. But if we can remember that the word “brother” in last week’s passage means anyone from a womb, then the sheep and the goats are our kin—regardless of which side we’re on.

Choosing to give all others our “for” can protect us against the temptation to try to identify who the sheep and the goats are, which really is not the point of the teaching at all. If we identify with one side, we set ourselves up against the other side, creating the us/them mentality that Jesus is continually trying to free us from. If we see one side as good and one as bad, one saved and one damned, one righteous and one depraved, we’re missing the point. We cannot give all others our “for” if we categorize people and only identify with one side. If we are for all others, we won’t stop to assess which camp they belong to or to judge the “why” behind their needs before coming alongside them as our brothers and sisters.

It is also important to note that, on any given day, we move from goat to sheep and back again a multitude of times. Sometimes we respond to the need in front of us, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do the right thing because we want the gold star, other times we are moved by the love of Jesus living within us and, like the sheep in his story, we don’t even realize we did anything worth noting at all. The two sides aren’t set in stone. No one gets caring for the least of these right every single time. This is a fluid picture, designed to teach Jesus’ followers what the kingdom is meant to look like. We would be wise to follow the example of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in praying this prayer,

“Loving God, allow me to be a sheep at least once in a while, and never let me forget that most of my life I have been a goat.”

We mentioned last week that paying attention to the context of what we read in scripture is vitally important. It bears repeating this week. This parable Jesus tells is set among several other parables in which he tells his hearers more than once, “This is what the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus preached about the kingdom more than 80 times in the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It was one of his favorite things to talk about. Our passage is set apart by chapter and verse in our bibles, but it is not a stand-alone teaching; it is a continuation of the stories that precede it, stories all about what the kingdom is like.

Jesus was (and is) a master communicator. He knew his audience, knew that they had been trained up in dualistic, transactional thinking (as many of us have been), and so he begins with what they know. He outlines an either/or, in/out scenario. He gets their attention and uses the opportunity to tell them again how important it is that self-emptying love be what sets them apart as his followers. He’s about to demonstrate what that kind of radical love looks like by willingly submitting to the murderous violence of the humans he created, but he’s telling them in this parable what that looks like in practical, day-to-day ways. And then, after describing the sheep and the goats and the fates of both sides, Jesus chooses to identify not as a sheep or as a goat—he doesn’t pick a side. He identifies himself, instead, with the needy as he states, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus continually challenged the religious, works-based teachings of his day. He often called the Pharisees out for paying lip-service to God while their hearts were far from him. This week’s passage is another example of the difference between behavior modification—works-based religion–and the kingdom of God. The interesting part is, Jesus is teaching his hearers to do good works. This is clearly not a passage that encourages us to say a prayer and so secure a ticket to eternal life. This passage encourages listeners to do good things, to serve, to act–but more importantly, it deals with the heart behind the works.

There were many in his day, some of them likely in attendance as he spoke, who were good at checking boxes. Behavior modification, keeping all the rules, was a common practice for the religious leaders at that time, and it was what they had been teaching the people for hundreds of years.

But the kingdom would never come by way of behavior modification.

For the kingdom of the God of love to come in its fullness, there had to be a different way, a new way, a way that wasn’t about us versus them. This is what Jesus continually taught about.

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I love this quote. It is absolutely true. When the love of Jesus reigns within us, we live like the sheep–unaware of our “good works”, living in the flow of the spirit, letting his kingdom be cultivated and grown within us, and then freely giving the fruit to all those around us.

The early church understood and modeled this is the way they lived with one another. Pastor John actually began his message with these verses:

All the believers were one in mind and heart. Selfishness was not a part of their community, for they shared everything they had with one another. The apostles gave powerful testimonies about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great measures of grace rested upon them all. Some who owned houses or land sold them and brought the proceeds before the apostles to distribute to those without. Not a single person among them was needy.

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

Not a single person among them was needy. Selfishness was not a part of their community. They were one in heart and mind. Is it possible that this is what Jesus was pointing to in this story that he told? Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that it is. In a blog post about the sheep and the goats, he wrote,

“The real message of the parable is a call to a transformed mind and heart.”

In the story, Jesus is calling his hearers into transformation. He is telling them, You can choose an either/or way of living, or you can join me on the margins, where I identify not only with the needy, but as the needy. The early church listened to his teachings, they understood what he meant, and they lived in unity with each other, having—as a community—the heart and mind of Jesus living within them. Self-giving love modeled after the givenness of Jesus replaced selfishness and they gave what they had for the good of all. It wasn’t about them, and what served them best. It was about understanding that self-giving love is the way of the kingdom, and as they were permeated with the love of Jesus, giving flowed from them as the natural expression of his life within them.

May it be so with us, as we each leverage what we have graciously been given for the sake of those who need what we have. What we give, we give to Jesus…

–Laura

Laura wrote above: I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

And she included this beautiful quote:

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I am taking a “grace” week in the midst of what is a super busy season, so instead of writing, I would ask that you read Laura’s beautiful words again. We are invited into the deeper…

–Luanne

C862BA5E-66D0-4D8E-895D-3EF33645E159

Giving: Forgive Before You Give

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bankrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

2020 Perspective–Looking Back

“The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  Dallas Willard

Ready or not, we will soon step into a new year–and a new decade. 2019 is coming to a close, and 2020 is about to begin. I don’t know how your year was, but this girl is raising a hallelujah at the thought of leaving the last twelve months behind!

Well, sort of.

I was. Until I realized that my battle-scarred, weary self didn’t see any of 2019’s hard coming twelve months ago. And that makes me a bit wary about throwing 2020 a welcome party…

Pastor John’s message on Sunday came out of Philippians 3:12-14. I am including two translations of those verses below–J.B. Phillips, the one John used, and The Passion Translation. Take a minute to read the words and chew on them a bit.

J.B. Phillips: “Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.”

TPT: “I admit that I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead. I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus.”

Pastor John shared with us that looking back can prepare us to move forward. He also warned us that how and why we look back matters. He advised us to look back in order to learn and to remember. We’ve written about the word remember before, how it means to stay connected to, that it’s antonym is not to forget, but rather to dismember. He advised us to avoid the kind of looking back in which we are concentrating on, dwelling on, or longing for where we’ve been. Those lingering glances, fixating on what was, can keep us from living. It can be a tricky balance, remembering and learning from our pasts, but not dwelling on or longing for what used to be. This can be especially difficult if we’ve faced a loss, or many losses–whether the physical loss of a person or relationship, or a circumstantial loss, like a relocation, a career change, or an emotional move.

John shared a quote from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner related to looking back in order to move forward. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but I did come across this one:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”
― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

If I’m honest, when I read in our passage, “I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal…”  from the J.B. Phillips translation and, “I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead,” from The Passion Translation, I don’t feel a lot of excitement. I feel a bit of trepidation. A bit leaning towards a lot at times. I am someone who tends to be oriented toward the past. Nostalgia and sentimentality have always been part of how I look at life. Seeing the world and my life in this way also keeps me keenly aware of the pain of the past. Sometimes, that makes me want to run forward with abandon–but not usually. More often, I succumb to fears that the future could hold worse pain than the past. My past might be hard, but at least I know what I’ll see when I look into those memories. The thought of moving forward with arms outstretched toward whatever might lie ahead? Fastening my heart to an unknown future? These things can feel dangerous to a fragile, weary heart. I’m not typically one who fears change or looks ahead with cynicism and pessimism. But I am telling you–2019 had it out for some of us. 

That said, when I look at these verses alongside Buechner’s quote, it settles my insides a bit. His words read like an invitation to discover both who we are and who we’re becoming by way of remembering who we were and how far we’ve come. He invites us to step into the room where we are most alive to where our journeys have brought us. In remembering, like Pastor John talked about, we can see where God was in the midst of everything we’ve walked through. Remembering shows us how far we’ve come, and highlights the One who’s carried us all along.

This kind of remembering, it makes our passage easier to get excited about. Because it’s impossible to look back at the ways God has shown up without our faith being stirred to believe that he will continue to be that same God for us and with us–regardless of what our tomorrows hold.

As I pondered the message, a few other verses and some song lyrics came to mind:

“Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

–Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5a NKJV 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

Behold the Father’s heart
The mystery He lavishes on us
As deep cries out to deep
Oh, how desperately He wants us…

Behold His holy Son
The Lion and the Lamb given to us
The Word became a man
That my soul should know its Savior…

Behold I have a friend
The Spirit breathing holy fire within
My ever present help
Speaking truth when I can’t find it…

(Behold, Hillsong Worship)

I couldn’t get away from the word “behold” as I prayed through John’s sermon and what to write about. I spent some time leaning into the concept of “beholding” and what it means a couple of months ago. So I went back to look at some of my personal writing to try to connect the dots. This is what I found:

 “When did you last take the time to behold?

To behold a thing is to go beyond the passive seeing, past the every day looking that happens by default.

To behold is to be held within a moment…

When we behold something, our entire person is engaged in the seeing. The word itself means to mentally perceive, take heed of, experience, care for, contemplate intently, regard, observe, consider, partake of, discern–it takes us far beyond what we perceive with our eyes.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve been held in a moment until that moment passes…

But to truly behold is to regard with intention and care all of the things–not only the beautiful. It takes courage to behold the other things, namely ourselves

Why do I only pause to acknowledge and behold the beautiful, as though the rest is undeserving of being named?

If it is in the moment of beholding that we find ourselves truly held, then why would we avert our gaze from the moments that leave us most in need of an embrace?

There is beauty to behold even in the dark, even in the broken, and if we’re willing to look straight at it, to engage what we see with all the parts of ourselves, we’ll find that the beauty we encounter there will change us. And as we courageously behold, we will find ourselves held.”

As I reread my own words, I realized that the key to engaging in the past, present, and future in a healthy way just might be taking the time to behold. To behold our past–the hard AND the beautiful–is to observe it, to contemplate what it had to offer and to teach us, to honor it and find ourselves held within it as we remember. We have to look at it with courage in order to be changed by it. The same goes for our present. Staying awake to the moments of our lives, pausing to take them in and to discern the deeper meaning is another way that we learn. And we have to also be willing to look up when we hear the “Behold!” that beckons us into our future.

Each of our journeys is a dance. There are rarely either/or options. More often, we have the opportunity to engage in a both/and way of being in the world. Beholding offers us a way to look back in a way that can propel us into our future.

We need to know, though, that there is a massive difference between beholding something for a moment and allowing something to take hold of us. Pastor John asked us to consider what has taken hold of us, what might be growing roots in us. If our answer is anything but Jesus, we’re in danger of not being able to move forward.

I wrote these words as I prepared to make the transition from summer into fall, and I’m asking the same questions again now as we approach a New Year:

“What am I refusing to fully let go of as the next season presses in on me? What weight from yesterday am I carrying? Is there something I’m holding onto that will inhibit new growth in the days ahead? How do I stay connected to the learning, to the beauty and the process of seasons past and move forward fully yielded to the process?”

May we all be willing to ask ourselves hard questions, and willing to answer them honestly. May we behold our yesterdays and our current circumstances with the intention of learning and remembering how we’ve made it this far. And may we step with courage, with arms boldly outstretched toward whatever comes next because we have a God who is Emmanuel–God with us. He is the one who goes behind and before us, the one who calls us into our future and asks us to trust that he will walk with us and carry us–no matter what that future holds.

As Dallas Willard articulated so well, “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.” We get to decide if we will behold and learn from or dwell on and long for what once was. We have to look back in order to learn–but we don’t have to carry what we find or let it take hold of us. We get to choose. May we choose well as we move into this new year. For those of us who had a brutally hard year and those of us finishing the best year of our lives, I pray these words over our next year, from the song I referenced earlier:

Light up this broken heart and light my way
‘Til my time on earth is done
Oh, Holy Spirit
Breathe in me like Kingdom come

Oh, Holy Spirit
Let Your work in me be done…

Let your work in us be done…

–Laura

There is always the possibility of newness when one is in a relationship with God. Each new second can bring a new beginning. Each new day. Each new week. Each new year.

The new year, of course, is the time when everyone is focused on change, on resolutions, on how things are going to be different from this point forward, so I sit here and type on New Year’s Eve day, the end of 2019, the beginning of  2020, with lots of mixed emotions. 2019 was a difficult year on almost every front in my world. Yes, there were moments of beauty: a precious new granddaughter, even a miracle that I saw up close as God healed one of my children who could have died or had limbs amputated, but there was also a lot of hard–really hard, and some of that goes right with me into 2020. So, like Laura, I sit on the cusp of this year with some trepidation.

I’m not the type to put too much emphasis on resolutions or New Year’s celebrations; however, as I typed out the word “resolution” above, I was struck by its two components: re and solution. Re means “again” or “again and again”. Solution comes from the Latin word “solvere” which means “to loosen (solve)” (etymonline.com). To make a New Year’s resolution means to try to loosen something, to try to solve something again. In light of our verses from Philippians, this takes on new meaning for me this morning.

As Pastor John shared his message, he brought up a strange account from the book of Genesis about “forgetting” the past. It’s the account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back while fleeing her city. I won’t even begin to try to explain that; however, Pastor John said that her looking back wasn’t like a glance in a rearview mirror; it was a longing for. She didn’t recognize that she was being saved as she left the past behind. She set her heart and her mind on her past and longed for it. Metaphorically speaking, being turned into a pillar of salt meant that she was stuck, there would be no new for her, her longing for the past left her immobile, unable to move forward.

As I pondered that thought, my mind went to something that I learned in counseling a few years ago. My counselor used an illustration in talking about our pasts–she said to think of our memories like our own personal DVD library. The stories that make up the library are our memories and will be part of our story forever.  We can remember them as part of the overall collection–one story of many, or we can choose to put one in the DVD player, press play, and watch it over and over. In other words, the Dallas Willard quote that Laura wrote above “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  is key to whether we stay stuck or move forward.

The Buechner quote is also key: “The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”  

We are all becoming something–all of us being transformed–but in what way?

Looking back is necessary, but “living” back is detrimental. Looking back allows us to find healing, to find re-solutions as we loosen ourselves from the old we are tied to, and looking back allows us to remember God’s faithfulness and see how He’s changed us over time. Remembering God’s faithfulness gives us hope for the future because we know that God will be with us.  Paul, in this passage in Philippians, is remembering what he had let go of and the call he was pursuing. That type of remembering was his catalyst for moving forward.

As is the case with lots of scripture passages, depending on which lens we look through, there can be different takeaways. Our passage (Phil 3:12-14) in the NIV translations reads:

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

Quick breakdown:

Not that I have obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal: back up a little bit in chapter 3 and Paul is talking about how he tried to earn righteousness before God in his former life as a devout, circumcised Jewish man and discovered that it didn’t work. Paul had learned that our right standing with God (and others) comes through faith in Jesus alone and through that faith, allowing God to work in us so we become like Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection. He was forgetting (letting go of) living a religiously law-based life yet knew that he had not become 100% like Jesus.

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me: What did Jesus “take hold” of Paul for? If we look at Acts 9:15 we learn that Paul (Saul)  was “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” and that Paul would suffer greatly as he carried out his mission. 

So when Paul says that he’s not there yet, that he hasn’t taken hold of it yet, he’s talking about becoming like Jesus. Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul would take hold of Jesus and become like Jesus, through faith, from the inside out. 

So when Paul says that he is forgetting what is behind, he’s talking about being a slave to the law, to a behavior-based attempt to be in relationship with God. He’s pressing forward to become more like Christ as he fulfills his mission to carry the name and ways of Jesus to Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,

In the original language, the word “heavenward” does not exist. Paul’s prize is not talking about going to heaven. Young’s Literal Translation words it like this: I pursue for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. High calling can be translated as “high invitation” or “high vocation”. The “high calling” of God in Christ Jesus is to become like Jesus–to die to self, to allow the Holy Spirit to live the resurrection life of Jesus through us (the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and lives in us (Romans 6:10)), and to pursue that high calling, full of faith,  with everything we are, no matter what our earthly circumstances look like. Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote Philippians, yet was still pursuing his holy invitation. 

What was the goal of the invitation Paul received from Jesus? To bear the name of Jesus, to carry the name of Jesus wherever he went–even prison. 

Is that any different from the invitation God has given to us? 

Romanian theologian and Pauline scholar Corneliu Constantineanu, writes: “In stark contrast [to the ways of Rome] the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel–God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this, not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation. Jesus, not Caesar, brings peace and justice! This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.”

This is what Paul had given his life to pursue–Paul’s self-giving life, the prize he was after, the race he was running–was about letting everyone know that Jesus brings wholeness (salvation), Jesus brings peace, Jesus changes individuals and Jesus changes the world. 

As we head into 2020, let’s look back to see what we are becoming in order to forget the things that have not made us more like Jesus, or to abandon the ways that we have not carried Jesus to those around us, or to let go of the ways we have not died to ourselves.

Let’s re-solution our lives by beholding God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and allowing God to transform us as we sit in stillness before Him, allowing Him to do deep work in us. Let’s pursue the high calling, the invitation of God, to join him in his mission to bring the ways of the kingdom of heaven to earth (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven). Let’s not get stuck in the past and beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right, but confess and move on into Christlikeness as we surrender our ways to his ways–even if it includes suffering.

None of us have attained it yet, but is becoming like Jesus the desire of our hearts? It’s a goal worth pursuing.

Laura ended her portion of the blog with these words:

Let your work in us be done…

May that be our prayer and our desire for 2020–no matter what comes.

–Luanne

Related image

Answered Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

“For he himself is our peace…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

Angelic Prophecy

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God is showing grace to you. For I have come to tell you that your prayer for a child has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you are to name him John… His birth will bring you much joy and gladness. Many will rejoice because of him. He will be one of the great ones in the sight of God. He will drink no wine or strong drink, but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while still in his mother’s womb. And he will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God. He will go before the Lord as a forerunner, with the same power and anointing as Elijah the prophet. He will be instrumental in turning the hearts of the fathers in tenderness back to their children and the hearts of the disobedient back to the wisdom of their righteous fathers. And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.”

(Luke 1:13-17, The Passion Translation)

Last week we looked at the first part of the messenger’s proclamation to Zechariah. He was informed by the angelic visitor that his prayer had been answered–he and Elizabeth would have a son. They would call him John. As if that message was not startling enough, there was more. This child would be set apart, great in the sight of God, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb. He would be a forerunner–THE forerunner. The one who would prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. I wonder if Zechariah was remembering these words from the prophet Malachi as he listened to the angel:

 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LordHe will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers [a reconciliation produced by repentance], so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse [of complete destruction].” 

(Malachi 4:5-6, AMP)

Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son, finally. And they would know much about what he would be like and who he would become before he ever inhaled the air of earth. He was the one who would prepare the way, according to the angel’s message. His would be a life filled with, as Pastor John detailed, potential, power, and purpose.

He would grow up close to the presence of God, and that would increase his human potential astronomically. He would never experience a moment without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And he would know his purpose: to break the silence and announce the coming of the Messiah.

In verse 17 of our passage, the Passion Translation reads: “And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.” The footnote says that the words “a united people” are the words used in the original Aramaic. I couldn’t find much else about it, unfortunately. But it stands out to me. We know that when Jesus came on the scene, and certainly when he began his ministry, not all people were united or ready for his coming. There were many opinions and judgments made about him, and there was much division among the people because of him.

Perhaps what John was to do was to bring together all those who were waiting expectantly for the coming King, and unite them under a message that Jesus himself would reinforce. Maybe the words of that verse meant that those who were ready for the Lord would be united under the message John preached, and it would be that message that would prepare them for the coming of the Lord?

What was the message that John preached? He began his ministry preaching about repentance. He invited the people to change the way they thought, to change the way they saw God and others. The spiritual leaders of that day had modeled self-righteousness, arrogance, and rules-based living. John’s message challenged their teachings. He told the people that those who have should give to those who don’t have. He told them to stop robbing from each other, to refrain from extortion, and to treat others with dignity and honor. He exhorted them to stop falsely accusing one another and to, instead, treat others with kindness. He told those with power to stop using it against the powerless. John preached about a whole new way of thinking and being in the world, and about forgiveness and becoming new. This was the message that would prepare those who had ears to hear. This was the message that would unite those who accepted it.

It was a message not unlike Jesus’ first public proclamation about himself just a chapter later in Luke, as he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

(Luke 4:18-19)

John was the voice in the wilderness that prepared the way for the message of Jesus to be heard. Those who were excited about John were excited because he brought something new to the old teachings. He brought word of a coming Messiah, and the new way that this coming kingdom would operate. It was a message that assigned value and worth, dignity and acceptance to those who could accept it. It paved the way for the radical ways and message of Jesus. That message would shake up the whole world, turn powerful systems upside-down, and extend an invitation to all. Everyone. The whole world. 

We are all the voice in the wilderness today. 

What message are we proclaiming? Pastor John said on Sunday, “Let the message of Jesus be your life.”

Our lives–the way we live, the way we love, the things we say and do–they speak. They expose what we believe, whether we think we are proclaiming a message or not. Do we offer Jesus to a waiting world? Do we love in a way that prepares hearts for an encounter with our Messiah?

As we live and move and interact with those around us, I pray that our lives will reveal the message of Jesus the way that John’s did. And I pray, especially during this season of Advent, that we are willing to be the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the arrival of our Savior.

–Laura

I am writing my portion of the blog on week 3, day two of this year’s advent season.  This year is different from others that I remember. This year, it seems that everywhere I turn, John the Baptist–his birth and his ministry–are being emphasized. Usually, in my experience, the story has begun with Mary or with Old Testament prophecies, but this year, curiously and intriguingly John the Baptist seems to be at the forefront of many advent devotions and messages. Anytime I see a common theme arising from multiple locations, I pay attention. Why does God have John the Baptist on the hearts of so many?

John, the advent announcer and forerunner of Jesus, is often treated as a minor character in a greater story. We gloss over his impact and move on. However, when we pause and spend time with John’s story, we realize how profound a role he played. I can’t recall another prophet whose birth story is so emphasized.

God wanted us to know both of his parents came from priestly lines, were considered righteous and blameless, were mature in years and mature in their faith, and that despite the tremendous disappointment of not having a child, they continued to serve God faithfully.

God wanted us to know about the angelic visit and the prophecy spoken to Zechariah regarding his not yet conceived son. Laura wrote out the prophecy above from the beautiful Passion Translation, I’m going to reiterate it here from The Voice paraphrase:

Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth. This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s wombHere is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God.  Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children; someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God. (Luke 1: 14-17)

This is an incredibly big deal. God had been silent for 400 years. In those 400 years, the religious fathers had added rule upon rule upon rule upon rule for the Israelites to follow. The weight of trying to be right in God’s sight was heavy and becoming heavier all the time. The entire religious structure had become behavior-based and the religious leaders determined who was in and who was out; who was righteous, who wasn’t; and who was being punished by God and therefore not allowed to participate (the sick, the disabled, the foreigner, women, etc). Into this mean-spirited time period, a sweet elderly couple was visited by an angel who spoke the words of the prophet Malachi regarding their impossible to conceive, soon-to-be on the way son. Their son would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. The silence was shattered and huge things were about to happen.

We don’t know anything about John’s formative years, but we do know that when he reached adulthood and appeared on the scene, he caused a bit of a ruckus.

His is the voice that God chose to use after 400 years.  He is the prophet who came in the spirit of Elijah. His message is bold.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke let us know that a large portion of John’s message was about repentance and producing fruit in keeping with repentance.

What would fruit in keeping with repentance look like? John’s listeners would have understood that repentance wasn’t about sin. The word–metanoia in the Greek—literally means new mind. In other words, change the way you think, allow your current thinking to be challenged, produce fruit that shows you are thinking in a new way, God’s way.

All of our outward actions begin in our minds. All of them. So the message of repentance is about allowing God to renew our minds. It’s only been in the last century that the word repent got twisted into having something to do with condemnation, shame, and sin, which is not the ministry of Christ. If we ponder that, we’ll realize that thinking new thoughts–thoughts that produce fruit that looks like Jesus makes a whole lot more sense–and John is paving the way for that.

When the people ask him “what shall we do?”  In other words…what is the evidence of this fruit…

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3: 10-14)

Hmmm. This is certainly different from all the rules and behavior-based striving that had become the religious system of the day. Rules and behavior-based striving are self-focused.  John is preaching an others-focused mindset:  Share what you have with those less fortunate, don’t cheat people in order to line your own pockets; don’t speak poorly of or lie about others, don’t slander another’s character; those of you who have power, don’t use it to take advantage of those who have less power; don’t finagle ways to get more and more–be content and live generously with what you have.  John’s preaching looks very little like the majority religious culture of his day and very much like counter-cultural living.

The angel addressed this counter-cultural mindset in speaking to Zechariah in Luke 1:16…

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (NIV)

He will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. (The Voice)

He will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God (The Passion Translation).

He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. (NASB)

Bring back and turn back indicate they had lost their way.  Have we?

The prophecy continues:  “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to:

turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and

the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—

to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

Who are the fathers?  Yes, it could be that the biological fathers had turned their hearts from their children, but it could also be the spiritual fathers. The religious leaders of the day would have been their spiritual fathers, and we learn from both John the Baptist and from Jesus that those fathers did not minister with the heart of God. John called them a brood of vipers, Jesus called them white-washed tombs and talked about the heavy yoke they placed upon people, keeping them from God rather than drawing them to God. They were judgmental, critical, exclusive, and mean-spirited.

What would it look like for these fathers’ hearts to turn to their children? If John’s message is one of repentance…what would new thoughts look like for “the fathers”? Is it possible it could mean that rather than a shaming, condemning, exclusive message and being known for all they’re against, they could cultivate loving thoughts that would turn into loving actions toward those they were called to shepherd?

And the disobedient…who are they? The sinners?  If we read the apostle John’s understanding of this, he writes: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2nd John 1:6) 

Jesus himself makes it super simple: If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15) What are his commands? Jesus says the greatest one is  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself… (Mt. 22:37-39)

 So the disobedient would be those who don’t walk in God’s love. Hmmm. Strong’s concordance defines the disobedient as the unpersuadable. The unpersuadable would resist repentance (thinking a new way)…so the disobedient are stuck in their ways, convinced they are right and can’t be persuaded to love God’s way.

Another thing John the Baptist was going to do was turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. What does that even mean? 

If, as Strong’s defines it, wisdom means understanding, or knowledge and holy love of the will of God and righteous means equitable (in character or act), or as others have put it, righteous means being rightly related to God and others, we begin to see a theme developing in John’s life purpose.

The last phrase of this prophecy is  Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God (The Voice) or He will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing. (TPT). 

Are we a united people ready for God to do whatever he wants to in our midst? Are we a united people ready for the Lord’s appearing?

As we ponder John’s mission and ministry, and as I ponder why I keep running into advent readings this year that are centered around him, I also must ponder what the Holy Spirit is communicating to the church.

Could it be that we’ve lost our way? Have we turned our hearts away from the children we are to shepherd? Are we the unpersuadable, stuck in our ways and disobedient because we’ve forgotten that love is our highest calling? Have we forgotten to seek understanding from God on every matter, or forgotten to love his will, (which is for us to bring his kingdom to earth by loving others into his presence)? Have we forgotten to be equitable, to live generously, to place ourselves in the shoes of another, to see life from another’s perspective and work toward the flourishing of all people everywhere?

Could it be that we are not prepared for a real encounter with the real Jesus who deeply loves and is for everyone everywhere, and who detests our manmade traditions?  Will we allow him to turn our hearts toward the world? Will we be unpersuadable or are we willing to change our perspective, think a new way and see things from His point of view?

The word advent means “to come”. Jesus is the one who was and is and is to come. (Rev. 1:8 and 4:8). Are we prepared for his coming, both in the future and in the right here, right now? Are we ready to let him use us his way, producing his kind of fruit, to draw people to God? 

–Luanne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unusual Couple (Luke 1:5-7)

“We tend to sanitize the birth story of Jesus, fashioning it into a pristine, shimmering nativity scene adorned with gold accents and residing comfortably on a hallway table or atop a fireplace mantle… We do this with our spiritual journeys too, wanting them to be comfortable and clean, desiring something attractive that we can easily accessorize our lives with–but that isn’t reality, is it? Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.”     (Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, John Pavlovitz)

I read the words above in one of my Advent devotionals early Sunday morning–the first day of Advent this year–and I thought of them again hours later, as I listened to the message at church. It can be easy to fall into the trappings of a shiny, sparkly Christmas. It can be tempting to recall the familiar story–whatever version has embedded itself in our consciousness–and stop short of engaging our hearts in the messy and the real of the season.

The real story of Christmas is full of twists and turns. So much of the how, the when, the why just doesn’t make sense. If we look closely, we’ll likely find more questions than answers. Four-hundred years of silence interrupted by an angel visitation? A virgin conception? A dirty, manger birth? Shepherds witnessing the announcement? Wise men from the east? None of this looked the way those awaiting their Messiah expected it to look. We’re familiar with these unusual happenings. They’re part of the story we celebrate each year.

Fascinating as these parts may be, we are not looking at these parts of the story this year. In this year’s Christmas series, Pastor John is walking us through another unusual part of the story, a part often overlooked. We are looking at an unusual couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become the parents of John, the forerunner of Jesus. Their story, like most of the Christmas narrative, doesn’t really make sense. As we take a closer look at them, perhaps we’ll find some hope for when our own seasons don’t make sense.

Pastor John identified four things that made these two an unusual couple. They were:

Unusually Priestly. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were from priestly lines. Luke sets this up in contrast to the political oppression of their day.

Unusually Righteous. They were identified by the way they were rightly related to God, set apart as upright and blameless during political upheaval.

Unusually Barren. Both of them were “well advanced” in years, and without a child of their own–a major blemish in their culture at that time.

Unusually Named. In a time when many women were named “Mary” or “Martha”, both of which mean “rebellion”, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s names reflected something else. Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers”, and Elizabeth means, “God is my oath.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth were an upstanding couple. A couple who could trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning of the priesthood. A couple whose very names were reminders of God’s withness and his faithfulness, who were rightly related to God in every possible way.

And yet, they were barren. 

Barrenness was a blemish they couldn’t escape in their day. Those on the outside looking in likely whispered among themselves, wondering what these two had done to be so cursed by God. They were likely rejected by some, and isolated from their community because they had been refused the blessing of a child. Can you imagine their questions, their wrestling? In a culture that equated children with blessing and identity, as the way to outlive your own life, how must this couple have felt? I imagine they wondered why. I imagine they asked why. They may have spent hours and days on their faces, begging God to bless them with the one thing they didn’t have–a child of their own.

I imagine their pain was deep, their lack of understanding a cloud that wouldn’t leave. And still, they remained rightly related to God, faithful to him.

We’ll dig into the story and see how God showed up for them–when all hope seemed long gone–in the weeks to come. For now, let’s wrestle with the tension this unusual couple likely experienced. Maybe observing theirs can help us identify our own.

What is your blemish? Where is the tension in your life right now? What are the things that make you feel unusual… perhaps even un-chooseable? What part of you makes you feel disqualified?

We have a God who chooses the unusual things, “the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT) “Unusual” is not a disqualification. God still chooses the unlikely ones–and that includes all of us, with all of our many reasons why he shouldn’t. He chooses us because of all that we think stands in the way–not in spite of those things.

We’ll see as we continue this series just how God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth–in the middle of their very real, very hard circumstances. And we will see how Jesus is still coming for us today–if we look for him. Ann Voskamp, in her gorgeous Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, writes,

“This, this, is the love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning. It is possible for you to miss it. To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous–how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait. Wait for the coming of God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved… Mark Advent with a counting, a way of staying awake and not missing… And the heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed. Because each day of Advent, we will actively wait. We will wait knowing that the remaking of everything has already begun.” 

Jesus came, and he comes still. May we stay awake to the wonder in this season. May we look at the unusual with fresh eyes–both the unusual parts of the familiar stories, and the unusual parts of our own…

–Laura

Each advent season, I ask God to show me something new–I ask for fresh revelation in the Christmas story. Each year, God reveals something new. I don’t know what this year’s revelation will be, so I will seek, ask, knock and wait in anticipation until it comes. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. Why? Because I don’t want to lose the wonder, I don’t want to lose the mystery, I don’t want to settle into the familiar story as if I already know it. I don’t want Christmas as usual. God always has new things to show us, new depths to explore, fresh revelation to wrestle with or be awestruck by. Nothing has to be “usual”.

Laura encouraged us to look at the unusual with fresh eyes–the unusual of the familiar stories, and the unusual of our own stories. Where do you find yourself this year? How has your 2019 been? What frame of mind are you in as the advent season begins?

What frame of mind were Zechariah and Elizabeth in? We only looked at a few introductory verses on Sunday, yet they were enough to show us that God’s plan was going to be fulfilled through an unusual set of circumstances.

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7)

Laura highlighted the main points that Pastor John made regarding these verses: Zechariah and Elizabeth were unusually priestly, unusually righteous, unusually barren, and unusually named, and I am going to add that they were unusually beyond child-bearing age. Luke states it pretty bluntly “they were both very old.”  I don’t know how old very old is, but here they were–faithfully serving the Lord, no children to carry on their legacy, and they were old. And God saw them. And God knew them. And God chose to use them. And through them and their son, John (the Baptist),  the four hundred year silence of God was broken.  We will dig into their story and John’s birth in the next few weeks; however, for today, I want to emphasize that God loves to use the unlikely and the unseen.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. They were quietly living out their lives in the days of Roman rule, under Roman oppression as part of a minority people group. They were not trying drawing attention to themselves as they practiced their Jewish faith, consistently serving God in the synagogue, and living blamelessly and righteously according to the law of Moses. I imagine they believed that’s how they would spend the rest of their days. I truly love the fact that even though they were old, they were still actively pursuing and serving God.

Years ago, my family met a man named Buddy Wood. He was old. He was also vivacious, full of life, and children-mine included-flocked to him in droves. Buddy faithfully served the Lord and spent a good bit of his time being invited to speak to groups of senior citizens. He once said something to me in a conversation that will stick me forever. He said that although his body was aging, the Holy Spirit within him would never grow old. He lived with a fresh perspective, a holy “what’s next?” and encouraged others to seek God and choose to love and serve God faithfully as long as they were alive on this planet. Age doesn’t exclude any of us from being used by God.

I get the feeling that Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that.  We don’t get the feeling that they were disgruntled. We don’t get the feeling that they were judgmental and full of themselves. We are told that they walked blamelessly with God, and served faithfully day in and day out. I don’t even get the feeling from these verses that they were waiting for the spectacular. They appear to be content to walk with God, despite life’s hardships, and they loved Him.

I don’t know where you find yourself this season, but I want to encourage you to keep leaning into God. The life of the Holy Spirit is within you. The Spirit does not grow old or weary. God sees you. God knows you, and God loves the things that make you unusual. He is faithful; he wants to use your story in his story. Allow yourself to push beyond Christmas as usual into the wonder of whatever God wants you to see and experience as you walk faithfully with Him.

–Luanne

5602F97E-A72C-4B44-BA76-4C90FD3C5249.jpeg