Advent #2: Love & Preparation

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you.

(Colossians 3:1-4a, The Message)

On the second Sunday of Advent, Pastor John lit the love candle. He invited us to consider how we are preparing for the coming of Christ, and whether or not it’s the love of Christ–or something else–that is magnified in our lives. During this season, as John pointed out, we do a lot of preparing. We spend time decorating, cooking, planning, wrapping–and we see Christmas morning as the culmination of all of our preparation. If you remember what we talked about last week, though, you know that we–as Jesus followers–aren’t only looking back at when he came in the past. We are looking with hope toward His coming again. That means our “preparation” need not be seasonal. It is, instead, a lifestyle.

Pastor John told us that he believes there is a verse that summarizes what Christmas needs to be about. It is Colossians 3:2, contained within the passage above. I opened with the Message paraphrase of the passage because it adds nuance that makes the whole passage more understandable. But you are probably more familiar with the NIV translation of verse 2. It reads,

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

How does this verse fit with Christmas? The same way that it fits every day of the year. Which, if I’m not mistaken, was Pastor John’s point. We take time to celebrate and remember the first Advent of Christ at this time every year. But how we live, what we prioritize, where our focus is–these ought not change with the seasons. For Kingdom-minded Jesus followers, the “spirit of Christmas”–hope, love, joy, preparation, celebration, giving–is how we aim to live every day.

How do we live this way? We set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Does this mean we live with our heads in the clouds, dreaming of heaven and angels with harps? Uh, no. Thankfully, it doesn’t mean that at all. And not setting our minds on earthly things does not mean we stop decorating, gift-giving, white elephant partying, etc…

What it means is we have to find our focus. What, or who, is most important to you? What do you prioritize? What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

The verse tells us to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. I love the way the Message expresses this part: Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. “Things above” are the things of Christ. The things that matter to Him, to His kingdom. The earthly things aren’t all bad–many earthly things are good, and lovely. We’re just not supposed to set our minds on these things, give our affection to them, prioritize them. We are invited to look up from all the things of this world that can consume our hours and our days, and be alert to Christ. He is the One worthy of our affection, and His kingdom is the one we live from. 

I listen to a weekly podcast called “Things Above”. It is hosted by author James Bryan Smith. He describes his podcast this way:

“This is a podcast for ‘mind discipleship.’ It is for those who want to set their minds on ‘things above’ (Col. 3:2). Each week, I will offer a glorious thought–something good and beautiful and true, something excellent and praiseworthy–to fill your mind with heavenly truths.”

I love listening to this short podcast every week because it does exactly that. It offers glorious thoughts–thoughts that draw me deeper into Kingdom-mindedness, thoughts that deepen my understanding of the character of God and what that means for life here and now. Thoughts that I can set my mind on…

But what do we do once we find our focus and set our minds on things above? Is that it? Focus on Christ and watch Him for the rest of our lives?

Far from it… We can choose to live that way if we want to… But, according to novelist & journalist Chuck Palahniuk, living that way wouldn’t be living at all. He wrote,

“The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

If we set our minds and our attention on Jesus and His ways, but don’t join Him where He is, we aren’t living. This line, from the Message translation of our Colossians passage, seems to be in agreement with Chuck:

Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.

John said on Sunday that “movement marks [God’s] whole story.” Every part of the story that includes Creation, life & death, our humanity, and God’s activity in it all moves. And perhaps no part of the story moves more than the pages where Jesus put skin on and came to us as one of us.

What if Zechariah & Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men had simply watched…? Simply seen and heard…?

Here’s the thing–

It is possible to focus on Jesus, give Him our attention, and watch what He’s doing… all without moving from the place where we are.

However, if He has all of our attention, and if that attention becomes affection that blossoms into love that outgrows our insides… it’s impossible to simply watch.

When preparing our hearts and making space for our King becomes our one overwhelming desire, when we are wholly focused and wholly devoted to the One leading us, when we can say “Jesus, be the center of it all” and mean it with all that we are, we. will. move. Because love moves. Love sees what Jesus is doing and is stirred to join Him–no matter the cost.

The individuals in our familiar Christmas stories had an awareness of God. But more than being aware of Him, they were devoted to Him. He was their priority. And so when He came to them, in whatever ways He chose, they accepted His invitation to join Him on the journey of a lifetime. A journey that would change not only their lives, but would change the entire world.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves where we are this Advent season… Are we sitting in the stands, spectators who live with our heads down, focused on the things of earth? What if God wants to move part of His story through you? Through me? I have no doubt that we are invited to partner with Him as He changes this world. I have no doubt that He desires for all of us to join Him in what He’s doing right now. He loves to bring things above to bear through things below… More specifically, through people below.

Will we join Him?

–Laura

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Sit with that verse for a minute. Let it have your attention–your focus. Ponder what it means.

Laura wrote above:

What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

I also want to reiterate Laura’s point that to “set our minds” on something does not imply that we just sit and watch. To set our minds on something leads to the trajectory of our lives. Our actions begin in our minds, our words begin in our minds, our choices begin in our minds, our relationships thrive or not depending on how we think and what we choose as a result of those thoughts.

Scripture is not silent on this issue:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…(Ph 2:5).

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6 ESV)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

“‘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.” (Luke 10:27)

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

So, this week’s advent theme is love, yet it would appear that we are talking about something totally different–except for the fact that what we love consumes our minds, and agape (unconditional love) is a Holy Spirit empowered choice of the heart and mind followed by action.

As I’ve pondered our key verse--set your minds (focus) on things above, I’ve wondered if “things above”– rather than referring to things far off, way up in some inaccessible place– could mean “things above” as in above our fallen world’s ways of doing things and our fallen world’s ways of thinking…setting our minds on the way God thinks–his mindset.

God has said to us:  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9).

 I believe that to set our minds on things above means to align ourselves with God’s ways. In order to align ourselves with His ways, we must know Him, and to know Him we must love Him, and if we love Him, we will walk with Him, and He, and His ways,  will consume our thoughts, and those thoughts will inform our choices, and our choices will lead us to live in Him, and His life in us will spill over to those around us, and He will be magnified. 

Paul, just a couple of verses after he wrote set your minds on things above… wrote the phrase, …Christ, who is your life...

Acts 17:28 tells us that in Him we live and move and have our being. That verse certainly implies that Jesus is our total life force– it also implies action– movement.

Pastor John, when talking to us about focusing on and magnifying something, explained to us the science behind magnification. In order for something to be magnified, light rays, which normally run parallel to one another, have to be bent, which happens when they pass through a curved lens. Those light rays then converge-are concentrated through the lens- and bring whatever is out of focus or hard to see into focus, making it possible to see detail that was previously unclear.

I love the fact that magnification has everything to do with the bending of light. Light is always on the move. The Apostle John tells us of Jesus that in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

In the Old Testament, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, God replied “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”(Ex. 33:20).

But in the first advent, God bends His glorious, blinding, all consuming light rays in the person of Jesus— and concentrates all of His love and His desire for relationship with us through Jesus, so that who He truly is–the God whose very nature is love– can be made clear to us. He makes Himself knowable and approachable through Jesus–the Light of all mankind. When we look through Jesus we see who God is. If we have seen the Son then we have seen the Father. (Jn 14:9) 

The Christmas story includes beautiful accounts of magnification and light.

Mary, in her song of praise (after Gabriel fills her in on God’s plan), exclaims my soul magnifies the Lord… (Luke 1:46)She rejoices that she is part of God’s plan and is willing to make Him great, to bring Him into focus, to carry His light, to yield to His plan, to magnify Him.

In Luke 2 we are told that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them... Brilliant light caught their attention and resulted in them being among the first to see God in the flesh, to worship Him in person, and to carry the message of that encounter to those around them. 

In Matthew 2 we learn that the wise men, when looking for Jesus, told King Herod,  “We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  Light led these men to leave their own country and travel a great distance in order to draw close to God who had come to make Himself known in the person of Jesus.

There is acknowledgment, awe, and movement in each of these encounters.

Jesus, in John 8:12 tells the people “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Whoever follows me… will have the light of life.  To follow implies movement.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus tells us “You are the light of the world…”

To be the light of the world; to magnify the God who so loves the world that He gave His only Son; to bring God into focus, means choosing to bend before Him, to yield to His ways, so that His glorious light rays can shine through our lives, illuminating Him in a way that those around us can see Him and experience His love, His life, His light.

Beautiful lyrics that we sing every year speak of this glorious light:

Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Jesus, Lord at Thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. (Joseph Mohr)

Redeeming grace, grace which makes it possible for us to be restored, to be made new, to be in relationship with God, to receive His light, to be His light, to reflect His love…

In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

Set your mind…

 

–Luanne

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Advent #1: Hope

Advent. The word literally means “arrival; an appearing; coming into place”. In Christianity it has come to mean the season leading up to Christmas Day, beginning four Sundays before.  For Christians all over the world, advent combines two things:

1. Remembering the birth of Jesus and taking time to ponder that arrival and all that it means.

2.  Jesus told us that He is coming again–there will be a second arrival, and we ponder that as well. And just as we anticipate and prepare for the Christmas season, we are reminded to anticipate and prepare for His second advent.

Each Sunday leading up to Advent has a different theme. The first Sunday’s theme is “hope”.

Hope. Anticipation. Waiting for something to happen. Desiring to see something take place. Longing. For Jesus followers hope is much more than wishful thinking, it is the confident expectation of what God has promised and its strength is in His faithfulness. (Wiley On-Line Library)

I love that definition. Confident expectation of what God has promised and its strength is in His faithfulness.  Christmas is the perfect season to be reminded of God’s promises and His faithfulness. The first advent of Jesus fulfilled more than 300 prophecies–promises that the people of Israel held on to–longed for. God was faithful to fulfill those promises, and He remains faithful today.

So, as we ponder, as we anticipate, as we hope for his second advent–how do we prepare?

The Apostle Peter tells us as we  look forward to this (Jesus’ return) to make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. (2 Peter 3:14). 

This verse implies a future focus as we live in the now. As we look forward…that’s future …, we make every effort to be found...that’s present…

So the question for today becomes what does it mean to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him?

In 2 Peter 2:13, Peter identifies false teachers as “blots, blemishes”. To be spotless is to be without blemish..  1st Peter 1:19 tells us that Christ was a lamb without blemish or defect, and we learn in John 14:6 that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life…Jesus was not a false teacher, he is the embodiment of truth, he was without blemish in all of his ways.

The Apostle John wrote I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3rd John 1:4)

Could it be that being spotless means we live and walk in the truth of Christ? Paul tells us not to be corrupted by the world (blemished, spotted, entrenched in the world’s mindset), but we are to be lights, shining like stars in the midst of the world’s corrupt systems and structures (Phil 2:15). Pastor John pointed out that Jesus prayed we would not be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected from the evil one (John 17). We are to remain in the world and take Jesus, who lives in us, and shines through us to the world.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to think about being spotless as being perfect–having it all together.  That thought immediately disqualifies me from this verse. I am nowhere near spotless, if that’s what it means. However, to be one who is connected to Jesus, who loves Him and truly believes that He is the hope for the world, to be one who knows that I am a total mess without Him and who knows that He has totally transformed my life,  to be one who tries to be grounded in His truth and through the power of His Spirit to live by His principles, to own it when I fall short, and to let others know who He is and how much He loves them–I can do that. And at the end of the day, Jesus is the one who gives us the ability to be spotless. (Eph 5:27).

Jesus is also the one who makes us blameless. Again, if I look at myself, my own story, my own shortcomings–blameless disqualifies me. But I don’t look to myself for my identity. It is Jesus who, by His death on the cross, has purified me from my sins and made me righteous and blameless before God. That goes for you too. 1st John 1:9 tells us that If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. And 2nd Corinthians 5:21 tells us that (God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  God sees us as blameless because of what Jesus did in order to reconcile us to God.  His sacrifice on our behalf makes us blameless.  What an incredible gift! 

The third thing Peter asks us to make every effort to do is to be at peace with Christ. Make every effort to be at peace with Christ. Peace and Jesus go together. One of the prophecies about Jesus gave him the title “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). When the angels announced his birth to the shepherds the multitude of them said “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will, toward men.” (Luke 2:14). Colossians 3:15 encourages us to Let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.

I’m not sure that we will ever fully grasp the magnitude of what peace means to God. The Old Testament word is “Shalom”, the Greek word is “Eirene”, and the Garden of Eden, before the fall is the example of what Shalom looks like. All of creation was flourishing, There was no violence, no death, there was no conflict between people, and the presence of God–close,  intimate unbroken relationship with Him was the life-force of it all. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the remedy for the destruction and separation that occurred in the garden. Jesus is the one who is returning Shalom to us and making all things new (Rev. 2:15).

We have a tendency to think of the peace of Jesus as an individual thing–my own inner peace–and that’s part of it, but only part. Once our relationship with God is restored through Christ, we become citizens of His kingdom which is about the restoration of all things. Shalom means wholeness, not just for me, but for all of creation—everyone everywhere flourishing; God’s creation flourishing in every way. We get to be part of making all things new, of bringing His kingdom and its principles to earth. Yes, it begins with a personal relationship and personal peace with Christ, but it doesn’t stop there.  The message of the angels–peace, good will for all humankind (good will means kindness–my will is for your good) is a global message for everyone everywhere, and in Colossians, Paul reminds us that as God’s people, we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, because we are called to peace.

So, as we anticipate the second advent of Jesus, and long for that day with confident expectation, let’s remember that in addition to being spotless, blameless, and at peace with Christ, Peter also wrote, the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (3:9).  

The desire of God’s heart is that everyone everywhere experience His love, His kindness, His good will toward them, leading them to repent, so that they can experience personal peace with Him, and then carry His peace to the world–the peace that leads to the transformation of our lives, that leads to our flourishing as we become all that He made us to be, that leads us to see others and love others and  carry His good will, His kindness to those around us so that they too may experience peace with Christ, and become spotless and blameless, and part of His kingdom of love that desires and lives for the flourishing of all…

Make every effort….

–Luanne

I love the definition of Advent that Luanne opened with, especially the last phrase, “coming into place”. Those three little words are kind of overwhelming me as I ponder them… The Advent, the arrival of Jesus can also be defined as Him “coming into place”. I think what’s so mind-blowing about that to me is that Jesus left His place in the heavens, left the physical interaction with the Father and the Spirit, and came to our place. The place He spoke into being, breathed into existence. And for Him, this wasn’t moving out of place, but into the space He knew He would occupy back when the universe took shape under the sound of His voice. Take a moment and bask in the awe of that with me… He was moving into place as a fragile, human baby so that His Kingdom of love could invade our atmosphere with a new way of living. He came, because, as Luanne wrote above, our Creator is restorative by nature. He desires the flourishing of all, and we were clearly not going to figure out how to do that on our own. Our ways of living had led us to “go against the grain of love”, as Brian Zahnd puts it, and Jesus knew we would. He knew He would need to come set things right again, because those He created would depart from the Shalom, the wholeness, that He desires for all to experience and propagate.

He knew. At the Advent of humankind, Jesus knew there would one day be another Advent. A moment when the Kingdom of the heavens would be made visible here on earth… in the form of a newborn baby born to one willing peasant girl. He knew that when He came as God with skin on, as the image of the invisible God, it would change everything. He knew He would suffer. But it was worth it to Him… because He also knew that, through Him, we would be restored. He would remove the walls we had built, and He would tear down the barriers that had kept us from Him.

Frederick Buechner wrote:

“The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.”

When Jesus came, He brought with Him a new way of understanding life AND a new way to live it. Pastor John included Colossians 1:17-21 in his message on Sunday. I heard something in verse 21 that I hadn’t paid attention to before. It reads,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.
The phrase “enemies in your minds” caught my attention. When I looked up the Greek for the word “minds” in this verse, I found that it also means “thoughts, imagination”. I am not a theologian, and I can’t prove what I’m about to say. But it struck me in a deep place, so I’m sharing it with you anyway…
The verse says we were enemies in our minds. In our thoughts and imaginations. It doesn’t suggest that God thought of us as His enemies. But we assumed that He did. We assume that He does. We are conditioned, somewhere along the way, to believe that our God is a God of wrath and vengeance. But, remember, Jesus knew He would be coming and dying before humanity was breathed into existence. Before the foundation of the world. Love created us. Love prepared the way for His coming. And then love came down to rescue and restore us into the arms of…Love. In God’s mind, we’ve always been His. Worth creating. Worth redeeming. That doesn’t sound like He’s ever thought of us as His enemies. We are His children. And so, Jesus came and made a way.
Maybe this is why Proverbs tell us,
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track. (Prov. 3:5-6, Message)
Maybe it’s when we try to figure everything out on our own that we imagine and think we are enemies of God. It’s then that we see the command to be spotless and blameless and at peace with Him as something we have to work to attain. Believing that we are enemies of God keeps us striving and prevents us from considering the question Luanne wrote above:
“Could it be that being spotless [and blameless, and at peace with Him] means we live and walk in the truth of Christ?”
Proverbs exhorts us to “listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go”. Other translations say “in all your ways acknowledge Him”. To acknowledge something, we have to see it, to hear it. To see something, we have to look for it. Pastor John told us that to look means to “earnestly wait for with sincere and unrelenting conviction; constant awareness“.
To show us Himself, to show us His way of love, Jesus came in the smallest, biggest way. He came as one of us, born into history to fulfill everything that had been foretold, and to write a new story for each one of us. He came the way that the prophecies said He would–so that we couldn’t miss Him.
But so many did. So many missed it, missed Him. Those who missed Him were those who thought they were most prepared for His coming. They were earnestly awaiting their Messiah “with sincere and unrelenting conviction”. They knew the ancient prophecies and thought they were the most qualified to recognize Him when He came. They knew the law–so well that they were self-proclaimed masters of spotless, blameless living. So, how did they miss Him? Their own feeble attempts at spotless, blameless living had taken the place of the “constant awareness” piece. They weren’t listening for God’s voice in everything they did, everywhere they went. Their god was contained within their own “goodness”. They had tried to box God into their expectations of Him. Jesus entered our space outside of that box. And they missed Him... It’s heartbreaking to think about. To live in the days Jesus walked the earth, to be close enough to touch Him, and to miss Him…
We often miss Him, too. Even in this season of Advent, when Christ is mentioned and thought of more often than usual, we can miss His coming. J.F. Wilson says we get a “daily advent of Emmanuel”. But if we focus on being spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him without understanding that all three are only possible in and through Christ alive in us, we will miss the daily coming of our Messiah. Every day, every moment, Jesus desires to “come into place” on the throne of our hearts. He desires to find us looking for Him, listening to His voice and inviting His moment-by-moment advent to invade our consciousness. Because our understanding is so limited. But He came to bring us a new understanding–and a new way of living. I pray that as this season unfolds, our Savior will find us looking for Him, preparing space for the “daily advent of Emmanuel”
–Laura
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Fan the Flame: Fear of Losing Control

“What is it that unsettles you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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Fan the Flame #3: Fear of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it all boils down to a fear of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

therefore, my mindset is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I came across this quote this morning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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Fan the Flame

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control  (2nd Timothy 1:6-7).

Pastor Beau took us to this portion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy on Sunday. It’s important to know that Paul and Timothy shared a special relationship–Paul loved Timothy like a son, and Paul saw things in Timothy that Timothy struggled to see in himself. Been there! I’m grateful for those whom God has placed in my life who have seen things in me that I struggle to see in myself and have encouraged me to step out in faith. I pray that you have those people around you as well.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy was the last one that he wrote before he was executed. He knew that his time was running out, so he is once again encouraging his young friend to grasp who he is in Jesus. He encourages Timothy to boldly take hold of the call on his life.  Paul had left young Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus–a big deal for a young man. There were a lot of people in Ephesus, a lot of different life philosophies; there were people trying to distort the simplicity of the message of Jesus–and for all Christians who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire in that day–there was a lot of danger as evidenced by Paul’s arrest, and the martyrdom of many, including-eventually- Paul.

Timothy’s fear made sense. Paul, in his love for Timothy (and his love for Christ), gently reminded him that the Spirit who lived in him was not a spirit of fear but one of power and love and self-control (or a sound mind).

Over the next few Sundays, we will be exploring different fears. Pastor Beau’s topic this week was the fear of rejection.

Rejection means to refuse, dismiss, desert, abandon someone. The Urban Dictionary says this about rejection: “It makes you feel depressed, lonely and like a worthless reject who will never amount to anything or find someone worthy to love or love you in return for who you are because you are not good enough.” 

Even reading that definition causes emotion to swell up inside me. Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced rejection at some point in our lives, and because of the worthless way it makes us feel, we then live with the fear of it happening again which affects our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine.

Pastor Beau worded it like this: “The fear of rejection is the product of lies we believe based on previous life experience.”

Those lies can include thoughts such as:

My value lies in what I do.

I’ll never be good enough.

My presence doesn’t matter.

I can’t depend on anyone.

If I don’t go along, they won’t like me,

and so many other things.

I really hate that rejection is part of life–it absolutely makes sense that we’re afraid of it. It feels horrible. It’s easy to identify past rejection. It’s more difficult to recognize how the fear of rejection, based on that past rejection, affects our lives on a daily basis. In order to do that, we must have some self-awareness.

Pastor Beau pointed out that the fear of rejection can cause us to reject others.  It keeps us from connecting. It keeps us locked up in our own prison. It keeps us from deep relationships. It keeps us from loving with all that we are. It keeps us from blessing others with our gifts. It holds us back from receiving the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, and it keeps us from connecting deeply with ourselves and our God given purpose. When we find ourselves pulling back from others and building invisible walls, we must learn to do some personal inventory to try to figure out what past experience our current reaction is connected to. What fear is driving our behavior? Is it the fear of rejection?

Fear is powerless–until we give it power. 

So, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10),  Paul, who experienced constant rejection in his ministry, and was imprisoned again because the message that he carried was once again rejected in violent ways, reminds Timothy–God did not give you a spirit of fear. Paul reminds Timothy that The Spirit that God gave to Timothy is

The Spirit of power,                                                                                                                               

               The Spirit of love,  

                              The Spirit of self-control. 

I believe that Paul’s word order was very, very intentional. I believe that Paul was remembering the words of Jesus, who told his disciples: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul was reminding Timothy that The Power within him was the One who would empower him to carry the message of Jesus and His Kingdom to those around him.

Paul also penned the words: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I posses to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:1-3.)  Paul was reminding Timothy that the Holy Spirit would empower him to carry out his call with courageous agape love.

In addition, Paul wrote of self-discipline and a sound mind when he wrote the words: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2 NLT) And, take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

So, Paul is saying to Timothy–remember who you are in Jesus. Don’t fall into the enemy’s trap of feeling inferior or ill-equipped to be who God has made you to be. Instead, fan into flame the gift of God which is in you.

Clarence Jordan translated that verse like this: “I’m reminding you to shake the ashes off the God-given fire that’s in you.”

I. Love. That!

There is a God-given fire within us. Have you stoked it, or quenched it? Paul implores us in 1st Thessalonians 5:19 not to quench the Spirit.

Pastor Beau brought to mind a campfire and what’s involved in keeping the fire going. If the fire is not tended, it will grow cold; however, if it is stirred, if new fuel is added, if ashes are gently blown on, the fire will continue to burn.  And sometimes, it looks as though it is out–gray ash covers the coals, and no visible smoke rises, but if you throw water on what appears to be dead,  a sizzle is heard and steam rises from the buried coals that are still burning–it can be fanned into flame again.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy centuries before electricity was a reality. The weight of Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God was huge. Fire provided warmth, light, fuel for preparing food–fire sustained their lives. A household in ancient times would not have allowed their fire to go out. And if it did…neighbors shared live coals with one another, so that the fire could be rekindled. Lack of fire could be deadly. I’m sure that Timothy understood the life-giving importance of what Paul was implying. Do we?

We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit–the power of the Spirit that we’ve been given to carry the message of Jesus. We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them, who will never abandon them, who will never treat them as worthless, who has proved by the death and resurrection of His Son that they have more value and worth than they can imagine, and who invites them to His table which is open to all.

You have within you the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Fan it into flame. Renew your mind. Reject the enemy’s fear mongering, and use your gifts to embrace the world with the warmth of the Spirit’s fire. Use the power within you to light the world with the love of God.

–Luanne

“We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit… We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them… and who invites them to His table which is open to all…”

His table. Pastor Beau talked about the table, too. He said, “Ultimately, we overcome rejection by coming to the table.” What table are they talking about? The table of communion. The Eucharist. The tradition that, sadly, has become an emotionless part of a church service for so many–but offers to us a solution for our brokenness, even the brokenness of rejection.

The solution to all our brokenness is found in more brokenness…

During the meal, Jesus took and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples:

Take, eat.
This is my body.

Taking the cup and thanking God, he gave it to them:

Drink this, all of you.
This is my blood,
God’s new covenant poured out for many people
for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, Message)

Jesus, knowing the men with Him in that upper room, knowing their hearts and how they would reject and betray Him in the next hours and days, offered Himself to them. His brokenness, to absorb all of theirs–and all of ours. His brokenness, so they–and we–could be made whole. He invited them into His new covenant in all of their brokenness, just as they were. They didn’t understand the gravity of His words–not yet. But they soon would.

Similarly, many of us don’t understand the implications of the invitation to come to the table. I didn’t understand. There is still some mystery around the way Jesus communes with us at His table, and I like it that way… But my understanding has certainly grown. I read in Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way that Jesus’ words in that upper room are the same words spoken in a Jewish marriage proposal. That the last supper was actually a marriage covenant. Ann writes, quoting the pastor who told her about it,

“In other words, Jesus says to you with this cup, ‘I love you. I want you. I covenant Myself to you. I commit to you. This cup is the new covenant in My blood which I offer to you. Do you love me? Will you covenant yourself to Me?‘” She goes on to write, “Every abandonment ever experienced could be abandoned in this sacramental act… How can it be? When we’re naked and ashamed and alone in our brokenness, Christ envelops us with His intimate grace. When we’re rejected and abandoned and feel beyond wanting, Jesus cups our face: “Come close, my Beloved.”

This is the invitation. This is how we can begin to overcome rejection. By saying yes to His invitation. Pastor Beau emphasized that each of us has a standing invitation. Those words I wrote above? Jesus speaks them to all of us, over and over again. He asks us to come and be united with Him, to take Him in, so that He becomes part of our very being.

“All our brokenness is only healed by union–

With-ness breaks brokenness.” (Voskamp)

With-ness breaks brokenness… I love that so much. But that statement, while true of our being “with” Christ, means more than that. Because we don’t come to the table alone. We can, and should, commune with Jesus daily in our personal lives. But the picture is incomplete without one another. There is a with-ness that represents the Kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus brought with Him when He came to us with skin on. It is the with-ness that Beau was talking about when he said that rekindling our fire happens individually AND in community. It’s not an either/or. And this is the part that a lot of us are afraid of…

Pastor Beau said, and Luanne highlighted above, that “the fear of rejection keeps us from connecting.” Ann, again from The Broken Way, writes:

We all long for the belonging of communion and yet there is this fear of the closeness of the fellowship. Love is our deepest longing–and what we most deeply fear. Love breaks us vulnerably open–and then can break us with rejection.

The fear of rejection can keep us from coming to the table. Even if we hear Jesus’ personal invitation to us, and believe that He wants us there, we’re not always sure we’re welcome to come. Because “they” may not want us there… As Pastor Beau said, we may feel that way because of a past church experience, or because someone put certain parameters or requirements around being “allowed” to come. We may have been wounded and felt rejection at the table, from those who wanted to control it.

But the thing about it is… the table belongs to Jesus. It’s His. He gets to do the inviting. And he makes it clear–over and over again, in the words He said, in the people He associated with, in the way He conducted Himself–that His invitation is open to all of us. Male, female, Republican, Democrat, divorcee, adulterer, addict, young, old, rich, poor, homosexual, healthy, ill, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, evangelical, transgender, immigrant, homeless, celebrity, veteran, felon, Black Lives Matter proponent, and MAGA proponent–all. are. welcome. at. the. table. ALL. Every ethnicity. Every nationality. The table levels the playing field. Because none of us is “worthy” of the body and blood of Christ. Not one of us. And if anyone is excluded from the table, then we all are.

John 7:37(MSG): On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!”

If anyone is thirsty… come to the table. Come commune with Jesus. It is meant to be a place of welcome. A place of renewal. A place to bring our brokenness and share in the ministry of the breaking–together. No matter how many times we’ve rejected Jesus, He will never reject us. He keeps inviting us into His healing embrace. And He gives us the opportunity to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-18), rather than wielders of rejection. He invites us into His own brokenness, to experience the breaking of our own brokenness by the power of with-ness. And then He invites us to offer our brokenness and with-ness to others as part of the beautiful, upside-down Kingdom He brought to us. And in the middle of all the shared brokenness, as we sit together around His table, the power of fear–even the fear of rejection–is broken. Fires are stirred and kindled, lies replaced with truth, and the breaking births new life.

But we have to be willing to come. To respond to the invitation. To believe that there is a place where we are wanted and welcomed, a place where acceptance–not rejection–is bestowed on all. Jesus is waiting there. Will we come? Will we take the first step and trust that He’ll be there? If we have been the rejected one, if we are afraid, will we come? And if we have rejected others, will we hear the invitation as a call to lay down our pride and selfishness and let Jesus change our minds about some things? Will we come alongside those we see as “others”? Will we walk to the table hand-in-hand with those we disagree with? Will we take a seat next to someone we once vilified–or maybe still vilify?There’s no room at the table for arrogance or religiosity. It’s not a place to argue opinions or policies. We can’t judge each other at the table, because none of us belong there on our own merit. None of us. It is by the grace of God that we come. And we’re invited to come together, to see the image of God in each face around the table. We don’t have to agree on everything to come. We don’t have to believe exactly the same way. The invitation isn’t ours to give or withhold. It belongs to the One whose body and blood was given for all. It belongs to Him alone. He says, “Come”. Let your fear of rejection be broken by the embrace of the One waiting at the table with a place set for you…in the midst of the places set for all.

–Laura

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Stories: Shelly Ann

I have to begin this by identifying that I’ve typed and deleted my opening sentence half a dozen times… I feel the weight of the gift we were given this Sunday, and I deeply desire to honor the one who gave it. The gift Shelly gave us was not easy for her to give. While we needed to hear it in all of its interwoven grief and joy, she didn’t owe us her story. She chose to share her experiences, drenched in grace, and I have to acknowledge that before I write anything else. She gave us the gift of courageous vulnerability and a window into her reality–a reality that most of us in attendance will never understand for how much it differs from our own.

I know Shelly as my friend. I know her to be a woman of great strength who stands up for equity and serves many of the marginalized in our community in ways many people don’t know. I know her as a committed follower of Jesus who deeply desires to embody His love for all people. I know her as a friend who gives and gives… and then gives some more–from a heart that selflessly wants to help. I know her as a mother who would stop at nothing to provide an environment where her children can soar–but also understands the value of letting go so their wings can unfurl. She is a learner who asks hard questions–and doesn’t stop at easy answers. I know her to be feisty and fiery in all the right ways. Conversations with her can leave me doubled over laughing as easily as they can leave my eyes full of tears. This is a short summary of the Shelly I am blessed to know.

Shelly shared with us a couple of other descriptors of who she is. She is a twice-divorced mother of two, and she is an Hispanic woman. These are facts that make up part of who she is. Unfortunately, the world around her–including the part that lives within the walls of the Church–has failed to see beyond these two pieces that are only part of who she is…

She described being a single mom as overwhelming, a role marked with insecurity, self-doubt and second-guessing herself. She expressed that she “didn’t want to screw [her] kids up.” She talked about carrying the weight of all of the decision-making and not wanting to ask for help. “When you have to ask for help, you’re vulnerable,” she said. So she kept her two children in tightly clenched fists, and did her best to keep their world safe. Until she couldn’t do that anymore…

“I finally had to realize I couldn’t make my kids who I thought they should be…I had to give them back to the Lord and ask Him how to love them best.”

And so, in the vulnerability of asking for help, Shelly began to realize she wasn’t alone. She began to look for safe people who could speak encouragement to her and her children. She also heard a quote from Andy Stanley that shifted her focus as a mom:

“Your ministry may not be what you do, but who you raise.”

And I can attest to the fact that she has raised–and continues to guide–two incredible human beings who display the same love and light that is evident in their mother.

I mentioned that Shelly began to look for “safe” people for herself and her kids. It’s hard enough to be a divorced single mom. The struggle can be magnified by church culture that often ascribes higher value to married couples and “whole” families than to divorcees and their children. I spent half of my childhood as the daughter of a hardworking single mom. I saw the struggles my mom experienced and I felt the pang of our “difference” in our church experience, though there were certainly those who loved us well. What I cannot identify with–and never will be able to say that I understand–is the role that ethnicity has played in Shelly’s story. She didn’t only have to look for people who would be safe for a single mom and her kids–she had to find people who would be safe for an Hispanic single mom and her Hispanic children.

This is the part of Shelly’s story that makes me cry the most. It is also the part I feel most intimidated to write about. So I will share with you what she shared with us, and I invite you–especially those of you would identify as part of the majority culture (white people)–to listen. It took courage for Shelly to share her experiences–and those of her children–with an audience that has contributed to their pain. It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

With the exception of two years spent in Southwest Texas, Shelly and her children have lived their entire lives in Casper, Wyoming. This is their home. Here is some of what they have experienced here, in the community they call home:

Assumptions that they’re from Mexico, and when they say that they were born here, they are often asked, “When did your parents come over?”

Racial slurs and “jokes” out of the mouths of teachers and coaches.

Assumptions that they’re on welfare and have no manners.

Assumptions that they all speak fluent Spanish.

Continually being treated as “less than”. 

Enduring racial comments and condescension from students within our own church youth group.

These examples are a smattering of the prejudice Shelly and her children endure on a regular basis. So when she shared that she needed to find “safe” people, that wasn’t an easy step to take.

Shelly also shared with us that it was about a year ago that she realized who she is. In her words,

“I am His precious daughter and I have worth and value. And I want my kids to know that about themselves before they’re 44 years old like I was.”

As she spoke these words through tears, much of the room cried with her. This precious, beautiful woman has experienced a world that has repeatedly left her feeling less than. A world that has made assumptions. A world that has refused to acknowledge our part in her pain, and has made excuses to try to justify our behavior. But after 44 years of life, she began to see her preciousness as a daughter of God. I am so grateful that she sees this deep truth and holds onto it, that she lives from that place and knows she has worth.

But Shelly’s identity in Christ does not replace the other parts of her identity. Oftentimes, we who are part of majority culture want it to, because it lets us off the hook. There is a real temptation, especially within Christian circles to subscribe to “colorblindness”. But as Daniel Hill wrote in his book White Awake, “Colorblindness minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage…The ideology of Christian colorblindness is fortified by theological truths that are unfortunately misapplied to cultural identity. The short form usually sounds something like this: ‘God did not create multiple races; there is just one race: humankind.”

This may sound good–it certainly sounds easier. But taking a culturally neutral approach strips all of us of the intricacies of the Imago Dei (the image of God) represented in all of our differences more than in our sameness. All of us bear the image of God–every tribe and tongue. It is problematic to choose colorblindness as a way of interacting with one another because we each have different cultural experiences, traditions, and ways of being in the world that make us who we are. It is also a problem because colorblindness will always most benefit the majority culture. It protects us from listening, and from repenting and lamenting the pain we’ve caused. It gives us an excuse to keep things “normal”. And it keeps us from seeing and hearing the beauty in experiences that differ from our own. We all have to be aware of the temptation to sacrifice pieces of how God fashioned us on the altar of our identity in Christ. Is our identity in Him the most important identity we carry? Yes, I believe that the Imago Dei is the defining characteristic of all of humanity. But the image of God is grossly misrepresented if we choose to subscribe to a monochromatic version of who He is, and then try to call it equality. 

In regard to Shelly, her ethnicity contributes to who she is, as much as her gender does. It is a beautiful part of who she is and should be regarded as such. It would be naive of us to try to separate this part of her from who she is. It can’t be done.

This story was especially poignant after a week full of hatred…

11 Jewish people are dead–gunned down in their place of worship… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity. 

Two Black people are dead–gunned down in a grocery store… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity.

Many other stories have surfaced recently that evidence a mentality of white superiority. There has been a rise in hate crimes and fear is running wild. Colorblindness is not the answer to the violence and hatred.

Embracing one another as image bearers of God, as human beings who have inherent value and dignity, and choosing to see the beauty in our differences–choosing to love and listen to and learn from those differences–is where love can begin to grow and overpower the hate.

Church, the Kingdom Jesus brought to earth is not a white kingdom. It is also not a colorless kingdom. Our Jesus took on a human form that was Jewish and brown. The Bible speaks of every tribe and tongue–distinct, yet unified under the banner of Christ and His love.

Shelly gave us the gift of her story, her life experiences. We now have the opportunity to let her words pierce our hearts, to repent where we’ve caused hurt, and to choose to live our tomorrows differently. When we operate out of our judgement, assumptions, and prejudices, we distort the image of God in others and in ourselves as those who proclaim to love a Jesus who doesn’t share or approve of our superior mindsets. Let us choose instead to acknowledge, honor, and uphold the image of God in one another.

–Laura

Laura wrote:

 It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

I want to reiterate that it is not the role or responsibility of the stereotyped and marginalized to teach us about their experiences. It is costly to do so. It is our own responsibility to learn. There are wonderful books, fabulous podcasts, conferences, Facebook groups, etc. available to help us learn, but in order to learn, we have to be willing to face some uncomfortable truths.  Laura reminded us that it is our responsibility to listen without getting defensive or questioning the validity of another person’s pain.

This is where we get stuck. We get defensive. We push back. Some of us deny the valid experiences of others because they are not the experiences that we have. Some of us listen with sorrow, and then push back by saying “I’m not a racist, I see everyone the same,” which takes us back to Laura’s comments about color blindness. We can’t be color blind when it comes to people. It’s not realistic and it’s not Christ like. God made us in all of our wonderful diversity. We are to value one another–celebrate one another–learn from one another. Instead we “other” one another.

And Laura wrote: it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

…assumptions and prejudices that we may not even be aware we carry.  My prayer is that Shelly’s courage will bear good fruit, and we will begin to open our eyes and hearts to what many in our community, our nation, our world experience. I pray that we won’t just have our hearts open, but we will truly move toward making it different with the genuine love of God flowing out of us through the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that when assumptions begin to appear in our thoughts, that we’ll take those thoughts captive and replace them with Imago Dei thoughts.

We must understand that racism isn’t just about individual behavior, it’s much larger than that. And please, please, please, please don’t jump to political categories as you read through the next portion of the blog. Please don’t see “liberal” and “conservative”, “right” and “left”.  Racism is about human beings created in the Image of God. It is a spiritual issue that matters deeply to the heart of God. We must be willing to go there.

In the article “Understanding Whiteness–Calgary Anti-Racism Education” (University of Calgary), they write:

…racism is the result of The power of Whiteness manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 46-47).

Whiteness is multidimensional, complex, systemic and systematic:

  • It is socially and politically constructed, and therefore a learned behavior.
  • It does not just refer to skin colour but its ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour (Frye, 1983;  Kivel, 1996).
  • It represents a position of power where the power holder defines the categories, which means that the power holder decides who is white and who is not (Frye, 1983).
  • It is relational. “White” only exists in relation/opposition to other categories/locations in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness. In defining “others,” whiteness defines itself.
  • It is fluid – who is considered white changes over time (Kivel, 1996).
  • It is a state of unconsciousness: whiteness is often invisible to white people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference which is a root cause of oppression (hooks, 1994).
  • It shapes how white people view themselves and others, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned (Frankenberg, 1993). Cultural racism is founded in the belief that “whiteness is considered to be the universal … and allows one to think and speak as if Whiteness described and defined the world” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 327).

Okay–take a deep breath. There’s a lot to take in and process on this journey. A lot of squirming and discomfort involved–a strong desire to separate ourselves from it because it’s ugly and doesn’t feel good, and we don’t want to be part of it or perpetuate it. I know. I’m on the journey too. I’ve been one of the people who’s pushed back with “…but not all white people…” and “I’m not that way…”. And while those statements are true, they completely overlook the fact that I am part of a system that began long before I walked this planet, that benefits me over others. That’s what we must be willing to see.

So, what do we do?

We bathe ourselves in prayer, in scripture, in the life of Jesus, we ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us–to show us. We educate ourselves about systems and policies and accurate history, we allow ourselves to feel the pain and suffering of others, and we use our voices to make a positive difference, and we step into uncomfortable spaces as He leads.

God’s heart for all people is consistent throughout scripture.

In Genesis we are told that he created male and female and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world…not dominion over one another.

In Exodus 22:21 God tells us do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

In Leviticus 19:33-34 God says to us When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The Ten Commandments are all about loving God and treating others well, therefore Jesus could say that they are summed this way:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22:36-40)

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it very clear that our neighbor is everyone. As a matter of fact, if you look closely at the gospels, often times the nationality of a person was mentioned…the Samaritan woman at the well (the disciples questioned the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman, and to a Samaritan woman at that), the Roman Centurion, the Syrophoenician woman (Canaanite) woman, and others.

The disciples struggled with prejudice, and Jesus called them on it. In Luke 9:51-54 we read  As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him;  but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.  Why is the Samaritan refusal to let them stay not reverse racism? It’s because they were the oppressed. Their frustration to the Jewish disciples made sense based on the way they’d been treated as second-class citizens through unjust treatment and systems that had been happening at the hands of the Jews since the Babylonian exile hundreds of years prior (when exiled Jews and Assyrians married). 

In the book of Acts, God continues to makes it clear that all people are precious to Him, it matters to him that the Hellenistic Jewish widows (those who had adopted the Greek customs and language) were being treated differently than the Hebraic Jewish widows in the daily distribution of bread. (6:1-7)

In the 10th chapter of Acts, Peter is confronted with his own prejudice- his own national and religious pride- and, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable for him; however, he allows God to change his heart and teach him that God does not show favoritism (10:34).

Paul dealt with the type of racism that Shelly has received…assumptions were made about him that weren’t accurate and he was treated poorly as a result of those assumptions.

Acts 22: 25-27 tells us what happened:

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.” The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered.  Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

I could cite example after example in scripture of the mistreatment of those considered different and/or less than, and how it is completely counter to the character of God–but here’s where I want to land-

If we are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model for how to live. Jesus loved the marginalized, the oppressed, the foreigner, the overlooked citizen, the Jew, the Gentile, even the Pharisees and Sadducees who caused him so much grief. He loved the rich, the poor, and His desire for all of them, for all of us, is that we love one another, and work for the flourishing of all people everywhere. That’s what His Kingdom looks like. It’s the restoration of the dignity and worth of all people–that they, like Shelly, come to know that they are beloved children of God. Everyone equally valued and loved.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2: 8-9)

Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)

Let’s love our Lord well by loving His Image Bearers well. Let’s humble ourselves, listen,  learn, let’s be sensitive with our “humor”, with our influences. Let’s speak light into darkness, let’s be aware that the tongue has the power of life and death (Pr. 18:21). 

God has entrusted us with one another. Let’s live lives worthy of the calling we’ve received (Eph. 4:1) leveraging our lives for The Kingdom, and doing life the Jesus way.

–Luanne

If you want to learn more:

Books:  White Awake (Daniel Hill), The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

Facebook Page: Be The Bridge (Latasha Morrison)

Twitter: follow Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She’s amazing!)

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Stories: Michael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The words Jesus loves you saved his life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

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

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

–Luanne

 

 

Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.  (Phil. 4:8-9 Amplified)

As I typed out the scripture above, I could feel within myself a deep longing to do better about living with the mindset that Paul is encouraging in those verses, and a deep desire to see the followers of Christ, the Church,  live like that. Our actions flow from our minds.  Taking our thoughts captive, renewing our minds, having the mind of Christ–these are all concepts that we are encouraged to put into practice, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us who truly does give us the power (the energy) that we need to live godly lives. But man–the mind is a battlefield!

In preparing for his sermon, Pastor John did a Google search and typed in the words: “Why are Christians so…”  The responses that come up are: mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…, yet Jesus said that his followers will be known by our love. What has happened? How did we get so off track-and what can we do to get back?

I think it’s super important that we each pay close attention to the voices that we are allowing to “disciple” us. To be discipled means to be taught. To be a disciple of someone means that you learn from them, that you model what they do. I’m afraid that in this culture of constant chatter, constant noise, constant opinions, choosing sides, etc….we are quickly digressing.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to be discipled by him when he writes: The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and he tells us that the result will be the peace of God in our lives. When the peace of God rules in our lives, our mindset–our heartset becomes about the flourishing of others, and, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount–the peacemakers will be blessed by being called–or recognized as children of God. (Mt. 5:9)

Pastor John pointed out something that has frustrated me for quite some time which I believe has led to our meanness, our misery, our judgmental attitudes and our intolerance. Somehow in our individualistic western mindset we have made Christianity about “self” rather than about building God’s kingdom. We’ve made personal salvation the main point–when personal salvation, or entering into a relationship with Jesus is the beginning point–the new birth that leads to a new way of life that is completely others focused. It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…and we’re the plan.

Yes–it all starts at the cross. Without the cross, we have no hope for a relationship with God. But there is a cross, and it not only reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is also a reminder of how we are to live in complete and total surrender to God.

Pastor John gave us three very practical ways to look at the cross:

  1. As a plus sign. In mathematical equations, the plus sign indicates things that are added. There is tremendous personal benefit in coming into a relationship with Jesus–no doubt about that. Jesus adds incomparably more to our lives than I think we can even fully recognize.  But the plus sign also serves as a reminder that we are to be about the business of bringing God’s peace, love, and message of His grace to those around us. His heart is for everyone to know about the life that He offers through Christ.
  2. As a minus sign.  Picture the crossbar as a minus sign (a takeaway), and the vertical  bar as the letter “I”.  If I take myself and my will out of the equation so that God’s will can be done in me and through me, I am much more inclined to be the light of the world and salt of the earth that Jesus said I would be. When I’m not worried about or focused on myself, I am much more inclined to lift Him up, and He said that when we lift Him up, He will draw all people to Himself.
  3. Picture the vertical bar as the symbol that God has raised us up to a place we could never be on our own, and the crossbar as the reminder to reach out beyond ourselves to others.

Pastor John shared with us the results of a study put out by the Center for Attitudinal Healing that stated all conflict begins with a mindset of “lack”; focusing on what we don’t have and allowing our thoughts to be obsessed over how to get what we don’t have. As I began to ponder that thought I saw a great deal of truth in it. Becoming aware can help a great deal. When we begin to feel angsty inside, rather than lashing out and reacting, can we begin to sit in that angst and get to the bottom of what it is that we think we lack?  Is it God’s love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Is it material goods? Is it a certain talent?  Is it political power and persuasion? Is it fairness? Is it inner peace? Is it not getting our way? What is it?  If we don’t figure this out, it will lead us to anger, bitterness, and conflict. Every war ever fought–whether a personal internal war, a domestic war, a cultural war, or war on a global scale is about someone trying to gain what they “lack”–whether lands, or power, or the obliteration or oppression of an entire people group so that the “conqueror” can have dominion and supremacy, or (on a much smaller scale) control over the remote control, a mindset of lack has led to it. Think about it…

This same Center for Attitudinal Healing said that the solution to conflict-the pathway to peace- is to learn to love others well, and to receive the love that is extended to you.   The Center for Attitudinal Healing is not a Christian Center–they are secular, yet their approach sounds just like Jesus.

Does it work? This week I read an article on nbcnews.com about a former white supremacist, former grand dragon in the KKK, former Nazi,  who was part of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march last year, but whose life has changed completely because of a woman of color who offered kindness to him as he was struggling from heat exhaustion at that rally. Her kindness began to change the narrative in his head, which led to him begin having conversations with an African-American neighbor, who just so happened to be a pastor–resulting in this former white supremacist coming into a relationship with Christ in an African American church. He was baptized in that church, he belongs to that church, and is now telling those who he used to recruit to get out of the business of hate–that it will ruin their lives. (Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville  nbcnews.com). Love works–just like Jesus said that it would.

So, what does all of this have to do with this week’s verses? Everything.

In every situation, are we (am I/are you)  willing to have the mind of Christ? Are we willing to renew our minds and think with the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh? Are we willing to pause, get our thoughts under control, examine what’s going on under the surface, surrender our wills to God’s greater will and purpose, and “be the change that we want to see in the world”? Are we willing to keep our minds focused on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy?  Are we willing to put into practice the things that Paul is encouraging the Church to put into practice in his letter? If so, the peace–the shalom of God– will be with us and will naturally spill out to all of those around us-leading to their flourishing in all ways, and we will be known as Jesus’ followers by our love. His way is always the better way, and to know His way means to know Him- our true, noble, righteous, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy Savior.

–Luanne

We’ve said it over and over again since we began this series in Philippians: It is all about Jesus. And this week is no exception. Paul is writing to the church and exhorting them (and us) to think rightly so that God and His peace would be with them. Our passage, these two short verses, do not directly reference Jesus. But marinating in the words reveals what we have seen repeatedly in this letter–it all revolves around Jesus. Let’s look at the words Paul uses to tell the Church what to think on:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…”

True. Honorable. Worthy of respect. Right. Confirmed by God’s word. Pure. Wholesome. Lovely. Peace-bringing. Admirable. Of good repute. Excellent. Worthy of praise.

What do these words describe? I could use the word honorable to describe my husband. I might say the fresh snow is pure white, or use it in reference to the water in a mountain lake. I could call food or old T.V. shows wholesome. There are MANY things I call lovely–skyscapes, butterflies, flowers, birds, my dear friend who wrote the first half of this post… peace is used frequently and in a variety of contexts. We can call hard work admirable, and use the descriptor of good repute in reference to candidates we are backing. Excellent is used often in the world of academia as well as in athletics. Worthy of praise is less often used than the others, but we could find areas where it, too, could apply.

But can you think of one thing that all of these words together describe? One thing that fully embodies the meanings of each adjective?

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

And us, the Church, when we’re living in the fullness of His life in us.

These words do describe the things I mentioned above. But none of those things, on their own, fully embody the meaning of the word used to describe them. At least not when held up to the standard of Jesus himself.

So, without overreaching or hypothesizing too much, I think it’s fairly safe to say that when Paul told the Church to “think on these things”, he was encouraging them to keep their minds trained on the life, ways, and person of Jesus. Pastor John mentioned that Paul didn’t go into the meanings of the words he chose. He didn’t explain what he meant.  He wrote the words and moved on. Maybe that’s because if we know the real Jesus, we already have the most complete picture of what these words mean. Maybe his readers knew that. Because he goes on to say  “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” (vs. 9a, NLT) What did the church at Philippi (and what do we…) learn, receive from, hear and see Paul doing? Ultimately, what Paul modeled was what being a disciple looks and sounds like. He taught and gave what he learned and received from the person and ways of Jesus. The words he wrote in his letters are sometimes difficult to understand and to swallow, and we read things in them that appear to contradict each other–he was human, after all, and his work is most likely not without its flaws. He knew this about himself–he understood his own humanity, his own brokenness. And so he did two distinct things: He pointed his readers always to Jesus himself as the authority and standard. And–and it’s a big and–he had the audacity to imply that we, the Church, could actually live up to the standards of Christ, by the power of the Spirit at work within us. NOT by striving or trying harder to achieve all that we aren’t. But by accessing the power (energy) of the Spirit.

I also believe that “these things” include one another, when we’re operating out of the mind of Christ. We don’t think of one another this way if we’re operating out of our self-focused mindsets of lack. But if we understand the ways of the Kingdom, the life and character of Jesus, his way of abundant love that is available to us, then what we see when we look at each other is the Imago Dei. The image of God in each one, our shared humanity, made beautiful in the Agape love of Christ.

Luanne wrote above, “It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…”

None of us could refute that statement. It truly is impossible to come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self if we actually read these accounts of his life. Nothing that Jesus said, did, or taught is responsible for the self-absorbed, I want more, individualistic “faith” many of us find ourselves trapped in today. In fact, it is precisely because we have ignored (if we’ve read them at all) the words and life of Jesus that we find the Church in the condition she is in today… full of people the world around us identify as “mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…”

We wonder why our lives are filled with conflict and chaos and we long for the peace we hear preached from the pulpit, the peace that Paul writes about at the end of our passage. He tells us to think on “these things”, to put into practice what we’ve heard and seen. And, “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 9b, NLT)

Remember when I said that the whole passage points us to Jesus? These final words are no different. If we read these verses and don’t pause to ponder their deeper meaning, we can read these two verses through an “If this, then that” filter. It sounds like cause and effect. Do this, think on these things, act this way–and then you’ll have the peace of God with you. I believe it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

For he himself is our peace… (Eph. 2:14a)

This verse has been a favorite of mine for many years because it always reminds me that peace isn’t a thing, or even a state of being. Peace is a person–the person of Jesus. He, Jesus, is our peace. He doesn’t give us peace. He IS peace. If we have Him (and He is accessible to any and all who desire to know Him–this has nothing to do with church and everything to do with relationship), then we have peace. Period.

So what does this verse mean then? And what about all the times we feel like peace is beyond our reach, even though we know Jesus?

I think, like many things we write about, this has a lot to do with choice. I can have a refrigerator full of food, but if I never open the door and take out food to eat, I’m going to feel hungry despite the fullness that is available. In regard to peace though, the study that John presented to us, that Luanne referred to, better shows us why we often find ourselves peace-less.

It is all about the mindset we choose. Do we choose lack? Or love? Is there never enough? Or is there abundance? Jesus, if we know Him, is always with us. His life lives in us. We always have Him–and He IS our peace. But the thing about the life of Jesus within us is that it’s like a faucet. The supply of water is no less present in a faucet that is turned off versus one that is on. But the water only flows when the faucet is open. And do you know the quickest way to turn off the water of Jesus’ life within you? Get focused on yourself. Because self-focused living is completely contrary to Kingdom living. It is impossible to experience the peace, the Shalom, the setting-all-things-right life of Jesus while focused on self. When the secular study declared that giving and receiving love is the pathway to peace, they hit on the central principle of the Kingdom, the only standard that mattered to Jesus and His ministry because everything else flows from it: Love God (which is impossible without learning to receive the love He has for you); Love your neighbor (Everyone. ALL people, everywhere–including yourself)Giving and receiving love is the opposite of living a life focused on self. And it is the only way to access the peace of Jesus that is always living within us. The well of peace does not run dry because it’s full of the eternal, unending, forever-flowing living water that is Jesus himself.

I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the letter to the Philippians by repeatedly stating that it’s all about Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is everywhere, if we’ll only look. And He is the authority, the rock, the foundation, that the Bible and every other created thing is built upon. Seeing how every word Paul wrote is made complete in the person of Jesus expands my heart and my mind, as well as my view of scripture–because I’m finding Him there. I hope it does the same for you, as we continue to dive into the depths together.

This week, think on “these things”: Jesus—in all of His beautifully simple complexity, and those all around you who bear His image and inhale and exhale His Life. As you do, love will replace the mindset of lack, and Peace will overflow…

–Laura

Image result for giving and receiving love

What Is Your Standard? (“Dear Church” #8)

What is the standard of your life?

This is the question Pastor John opened with on Sunday morning. He reminded us that we all have standards that dictate our thinking, behavior, work ethic, hygiene, relationships. They define us and how we live.

We each have a measurable “standard of living” as well. This refers to  “the level of wealth, comfort, material goods, and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class in a certain geographic area, usually a country…closely related to quality of life.” (Wikipedia)

But neither of these explanations is the “standard” that Pastor John spoke to us about.

He explained to us that, originally, a “standard” was defined as a conspicuous object on a pole, a banner, something that calls people to action. It was a rallying point in battle, an emblem that represented the people. A standard, by definition, is not a set of rules, not a benchmark. It is not striving to live up to the “shoulds” that have been spoken over us, or meeting a set of expectations. It is not reaching in order to obtain something we don’t yet have. It is, rather, something we have already attained. 

 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

The “standard” that was presented to us this week comes out of verse 16 in our passage: Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  Our standard is what we already have. 

What do we already have?

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferingsbecoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead(Philippians 3:7-11)

What we already have is Christ. We are found in Him, invited to participate in His sufferings and raised from death into His life. And we have a conspicuous object, a standard, that calls us to action.

Our standard is the cross of Christ. It represents what we have already attained–Jesus Himself. Paul exhorts his readers to live up to what they’ve already attained, and then says that they can follow his example. What example is he referring to? He is referring to the verses we covered last week, verses 12-14:

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.

His example is one of vulnerable humility, transparency regarding his lack, and an unrelenting focus on the One whose example he is following–that of Jesus himself. Paul’s standard was most definitely the cross of Christ. But not as it related to him and his personal salvation. He saw the standard of the cross as the rallying point, the invitation, to follow our Savior into His example of suffering on behalf of others. The rally cry of the cross is the message of humility and self-sacrifice. It is an invitation to lay down everything we utilize for our own power and authority, to set it aside on behalf of others. What does this look like, practically? If we’re white, it could be our whiteness. For men, their maleness. It could be our family tree, our bloodline, who our parents are. It could be our level of education, or our economic status. It could be the nation we were born in, or a particular group that we belong to. It could be our religion, and the way we view “others”. Whatever grants us power and authority, we are invited to lay these “standards” down at the feet of the only standard that matters.

Most of us aren’t willing to truly follow the standard of the cross, however. We have set standards about what we want to obtain rather than what we have already attained. We have set our sights on earthly things and have chosen a personal salvation that revolves around us as individuals. Pastor John had some strong words regarding this form of “Christianity”:

“When the cross is about you, you render it useless.”

When we refuse to follow the example of Paul, which was modeled after the example of our suffering Savior, our standard, the cross, becomes useless. Not only that, we set ourselves up as enemies of the cross of Christ (verse 18). In this verse, we read that Paul is telling his readers this “with tears”. This particular translation does not quite convey Paul’s heart the way he wrote in the original Greek. The word he used is klaiō, and it means to mourn, weep, lament, wail aloud. This exemplifies Paul’s focus on others, rather than himself. He was lamenting that there are some who set themselves in opposition to the way of the cross, who refuse to accept the cross as their standard and who live focused on themselves–those who render the cross useless. Being an enemy of the cross is scorning the way of selflessness. When we choose self, we set ourselves up against the message of the cross.

Interestingly, when Paul writes in this verse of the “cross of Christ”, the word translated “cross” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it means… The root word for cross in this verse means “stand”. The definitions that follow include “establish, be kept intact (as in a family or kingdom), make firm.” No joke. When I was looking up definitions in the Greek, I almost didn’t check it for the word “cross”. Because, surely it means exactly what we think it means. Except that it doesn’t. I am so glad I looked it up. Using the definitions and root words, this is what we can piece together:

Paul was weeping and lamenting the fact that some are hostile, hateful and opposed in their minds to that which stands and establishes, that which keeps the family and kingdom intact and makes firm. Our standard is the stand that is the cross. It is what establishes us and keeps us-as a family-intact. Those that stand in opposition to the message of the cross may appear to be strong in number–there are in fact (sadly…) entire congregations that subscribe to this other variety of “Christianity–but in reality, they each stand alone, focused on their personal standards for their individual lives.

Paul-and Pastor John-put before us a better way. The example of Jesus. The way of humility. The way of laying down the things that grant us power and privilege on behalf of others. This is the example we have been  given. This is the Jesus we have already attained.

Dear Church, will we follow in this way of humility? Or will Paul’s wailing be joined by the desperate weeping of the “others” around us that we cannot see or hear for the sound of our own selfish standards ringing in our ears? Will we roar for our own power, for our rights? Or will we adhere to the roar of the rugged cross, that bids us to come and die so that we may truly live? Church, what is our standard?

–Laura

ruggedcrossnailssunset

Dear Church #7: Philippians 3:12-14

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. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What does it mean to “obtain” something? In this case, it means “to lay hold of” or ‘”to make as your own”. So Paul begins this passage by pausing in his exhortations to the Church, and letting his readers know that he hasn’t yet made “all this” his own. What is the “all this” he is referring to? It is everything he has written about to this point, everything we’ve covered in the first six messages of this series. By this point in the book of Philippians, Paul has encouraged the Church to begin where we are right now, to love those around us with the love of Jesus, to take the story of what Jesus has done in our lives everywhere, to “live as Christ” which is to die to ourselves, to model humility, to abandon ourselves and embrace Christ’s life in us as we focus on Him as our Lord–as the One thing that really matters. He outlines all of these things (and more), and then in the middle of chapter 3, he pauses. He stops to say that he hasn’t yet obtained these things, he hasn’t made them his own. And that pause is an invitation to stop and take a breath, to reflect and consider all that we’ve heard thus far. And to remember that, once again, this walk is not something we do in our own strength.

This passage highlights the tension between the now and the not yet. There is this picture of the ideal walk of faith that Paul has been painting for us, what it looks like to die to ourselves and live fully for Christ. And then there is the reality that we all-including Paul-fall short of that ideal. But rather than allow the truth that we’re not there yet to make us feel defeated or to cause us to lose hope in the process, Paul encourages us once again to remember that we are not the ones holding our lives together. He reminds us that we are not actually in control–and that is precisely why we can breathe and just keep going.

Where am I getting that? Paul says that he has not obtained all this, he hasn’t arrived, hasn’t yet taken hold of “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”In these few verses, he is contrasting his own shortcomings-he hasn’t yet made all of this his own-with the surpassing power of Christ, who has already made him (and us) His own. The crux of verse 12 is not that we keep pressing on in order to take hold of Jesus, to cling to Him, to make Him our own. It is that we can keep moving toward Him, because He’s already holding onto us. It’s imperative that we see this rightly, or we live a life of striving, of attempting to grab hold of Jesus, but always falling short in our own strength.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.   (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Just as dead people can’t make themselves alive on their own, humanity can’t manufacture the strength to hold onto the Divine, to the eternal. But because Jesus first took hold of us, we can now, in His strength, reach back to Him. This reaching, though, is not what we might think of when we think about “holding on” to something. It is not a white-knuckled grasp, a secure grip so as not to lose what we’re holding onto. Because it’s impossible to lose something that has taken hold of you-unless that thing lets go. We have zero control of our ability to hold onto Jesus. And realizing that is pure grace. What we may have perceived as a need to “hold on tight” becomes an invitation to completely let go. Because that which is holding onto us is Jesus himself. And He will never let go. There is nowhere we could go that He wouldn’t already be there waiting for us. We cannot lose Him, because He’s grafted us into the vine of Himself and placed His very life into us who were dead, and there’s no separating our life from His. It is a sheer impossibility. Inhale. Exhale. And find yourself completely safe within the hands that knit each one of us together and put His own breath in our lungs.

So what is the “pressing on” that Paul writes of, then? It’s an invitation to keep going. Understanding that Jesus has already made us His own, that we are forever held by Him, we can take the next step. We can stop worrying about all that we have to “do” to cling to Jesus and live present to His leading today, in this moment. Our “pressing on” is simply taking one step at a time on our journey of being made like Christ and living for Him.

If we see ourselves as responsible for holding onto Jesus, we’ll find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences of Him–and we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. In verse 13, Paul writes of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. Straining, in this context, means “to stretch out in the direction of something”. It is less about straining in the way we think of strenuous exercise or effort and more about which direction we’re going

When I ponder this section, I can’t help but think of Isaiah 43, where God, through Isaiah, instructs the people to simultaneously remember and forget. Considering the two passages together, I believe the point is our orientation to time, because it determines what and how we see what’s happening in the now. In the beginning of Isaiah 43, and more specifically in verses 16-17, God reminds the people of all He has done, of how He has been their Deliverer, their Savior. And then, in verses 18-19, He says this:

Forget about what’s happened;
    don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
    rivers in the badlands.” (MSG)

So God tells the people first to remember, then to forget. Why?

Sometimes, we get fixated on what God did then, and how He did it before. Maybe the remembering is to remind us that God is and always has been, in the case of this particular passage, our Deliverer. But the forgetting is about the way He delivered then. It is a laying down of our expectations of how He will show up this time. The miracle of parting the Red Sea is not the miracle the people needed in the middle of the desert, when there was no water in sight. They needed to remember who God was to remind them that He still is that same God. But they needed to forget the circumstances of then, so that they could live present to nowIf we find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences with Him–we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. 

In our passage, when Paul says he is forgetting what is behind, it is in order to remain present to the Jesus who lives with us in the now. So that we can keep moving toward what’s to come. Dwelling on the past, whether it be about what we’ve done or failed to do, or how we’ve experienced Jesus before, robs of the gift of today. The depths of Jesus are unsearchable. We cannot dive deep enough to explore the breadth of all that He is. We can only see and grasp what He reveals of Himself to us. And if our eyes are fixed on what is behind us, if our expectations are based in who Jesus was to us then, we essentially dig our heels in and cease moving forward. We cannot continue to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus if we fix our gaze on a faded photograph of how He appeared to us back then. And as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the opposite of looking back  is not looking forward. We have to have a different view of our now. We have to let go of our white-knuckled grip on the faded photograph of yesterday so that we can live fully present to our today, which will allow us to take the necessary steps that will get us to our tomorrow. That’s how it works.

Dear Church… we haven’t arrived yet. We didn’t have it together back in “the good ole days” (those days are an illusion-for so many, they were anything but “good”), we don’t have it together today, and-spoiler alert-we aren’t going to have it together tomorrow either. And that’s okay. We aren’t the captains of this ship-we never have been. What we are responsible for is waking up to now, to the leading of the Spirit in this moment. We can only take one step at a time, trusting that the One who has always been holding onto us will continue to hold us firmly within His capable, loving hands, and will lead us on until the day we are perfected and made complete in His presence, as His beloved Bride. Until that day comes, we practice all that we’ve learned so far, all that has led up to this point in the letter. We learn from Christ and we allow His life to overcome ours. We experience His love and then we share that experience everywhere we go. And when we feel overwhelmed by all that we have not yet obtained-we press pause. We breathe. And we remember that we can make Jesus our own only because He first called us His own. And we can only run after Him as He draws us in. We were dead. He made us alive. And we get to live for Him, one step at a time.

Dear Church… keep moving forward.

–Laura

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