Like Never Before-Week 1

The first Sunday after Christmas marked a turning point, a launching-type moment. You could sense it in the air at church, feel it as we worshiped together, and hear it in the words Pastor John spoke to us. I’ve felt the stirring of the Spirit within me and I know I’m not the only one. God is shaking things up–so it’s fitting that our new series will take us down an old path… but through new eyes and with a new vision.

Our new series will take us through a good portion of the book of Mark. Pastor John has titled it “Like Never Before”, and those words carry a dual meaning. We will look at the ministry of Jesus–how He came and lived like no one ever had before. And we will be invited into becoming like this One we follow–letting His life indwell and transform us–in ways that we never have before, as we follow His lead to become the Church that He has always desired that we be.

This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible, the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters, Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none. (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 VOICE)

I came across this paraphrase of these verses this morning, and it felt so appropriate to include it here. When Jesus came to us with skin on–Emmanuel, God with us–He ushered in the new. He came as the answer, the fulfillment to the old covenant and the King of this new way that we’ll hear Him speak of over and over and over again–the way of the kingdom. His kingdom.

This week’s passage took us into the middle of the first chapter of Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

Before we launch into these two rich verses, I want to touch on the first thirteen verses of this book. The very first words of the book of Mark, according to the NIV, read like this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” I want to note here–because we’ll come back to it later–that “good news” in this verse as well as in verse 14 above is translated from the Greek word “euaggelion”. This is the same word that is translated “gospel” at least 67 throughout what we call our new testament. Hang onto that and we’ll come back…

Mark 1: 2-8 chronicles the work of John the baptizer, the one who some thought was the Messiah, but who was actually the forerunner–the one who prepared the way for Jesus. Verses 9-11 record Jesus’ baptism by John, and verses 12 & 13 tell us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Our series begins after that, as Jesus launches His ministry with bold, authoritative words. I included the NIV translation of these verses above; here is how J.B. Phillips says it:

It was after John’s arrest that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, saying, “The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.” (J.B. Phillips)

Jesus came proclaiming the “gospel”, the “good news”. The good news of what? Himself. Look back at Mark 1:1. Mark wrote “…the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah…” The good news was about Jesus.  What was it? Simply, He is here. Now. Messiah, God with us. The answer. The prophecy fulfilled. The King who had finally come to change everything and bring His kingdom to bear here, among us.

The “Gospel” was never meant to be a “sinner’s prayer”, a ticket to heaven or even, solely, our salvation. The Gospel, the good news, is: Jesus, the image of invisible God, God in the flesh came to us. He so loved us, valued us, desired relationship with us, that He came down into our grimy, broken existence to change everything. He, himself, IS salvation. To know Him is to experience salvation. But it doesn’t stop there–and that is what Pastor John brought to us on Sunday. Jesus absolutely saves us–no question about that. My life has been saved because I encountered this One who pursued me in my brokenness and won my heart with His extravagant love. But He does more than save us. He transforms us–from the inside out.

Mark 1:7-8 out of the Message paraphrase translates John the baptizer’s words like this:

As he [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (emphasis mine)

When Jesus says in verse 15, “Repent and believe the good news!”, He is not saying, as we’ve so often been told, “Stop sinning and say the sinner’s prayer so you don’t go to hell!” No. He is inviting us into the process of transformation. As we study and search the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’ll find many things, many different ways of doing things, and much that challenges us to do the seemingly impossible. What we won’t find anywhere in the story of His life on earth is Him offering a one-time salvation experience that stops with that moment. He wasn’t satisfied with a statement of belief that went nowhere. He wasn’t looking for the masses to declare that they’d accepted Him as Lord on the temple steps and then go home to return to life as usual. There are many mentions of the word “salvation” in various forms in our new testament, but most of those occurrences were post-resurrection, and not said by Jesus. In fact, if you read the words of Jesus, you’ll find that He speaks of “salvation” very few times. What He can’t stop talking about is the kingdom.

What is the kingdom? We could try to define it many different ways, and they would all probably be part of the whole picture. But the original Greek word is defined like this:

royal power, kingship, dominion, rule; not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom–the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah

This is the kingdom Jesus speaks of in Mark chapter 1… His authority as God, His right to rule, and the power to do so. And He will spend the rest of His time on earth showing us what that kingdom looks like, and how it operates. And it’s like nothing anyone had seen before. His is an altogether different kingdom, unlike any that came before or any that would come after.

We’ll see the picture of this kingdom develop as our series continues. For now, in this week’s passage, Jesus tells us that this kingdom is “at hand”. I could jump up and down over what these words mean in the Greek!!! The word translated “at hand” is “eggizo“. It means, “to bring near, to join one thing to another“. It comes from the root word “eggys”, which means, “near: of place, position, and time”. And the root word of this word means, “to squeeze”.

So, if you’ll allow me to take a little bit of creative liberty, we could put it together like this:

“The kingdom, the triumphant rule of Jesus our Messiah, has been brought near. So near, in fact, that it has squeezed into our place, position and time to join together what had been previously separated–that is, the heavens and the earth.”

Jesus came as fully God and fully man, as one born of both heaven and earth, that the two realms might be joined together under His Lordship. “To join one thing to another” is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the union between husband and wife. It is an intimate oneness. This is the language Jesus used to talk about this kingdom that is now available to us through Him.

But He said something else right before he spoke this declaration about the Kingdom. He said, “Repent.” Earlier, I included the J.B. Phillips translation of our key verses. The word “repent” shows up differently in this translation. These are the words used in place of “repent”: “change your hearts and minds”. This is actually a far more accurate translation of what Jesus was saying than what we have come to understand the word repent to mean. To repent is to change the way we think. This is what Jesus was offering to His listeners in these verses. An invitation to change the way they thought about Him, about the prophecies of old and their expectations of how they would be fulfilled, and about what this new kingdom would look like.

Jesus is offering us the same invitation today…

Many of us have gotten stuck somewhere on our journey. Maybe we said the sinner’s prayer and stopped there. Maybe we learned a little and grew to a point, but life got in the way. Whatever our individual stories may be, we are all invited to change the way we think, to let Jesus transform our minds and grow us like never before. Transformation is always a product of the renewal of our minds. And it is essential to our becoming kingdom people who actually are growing into the image of the Jesus we follow…

William Paul Young writes in the Foreword to the book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,

“If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. But it is hard work to change, to be open, to take the risk of trust. Change always involves death and resurrection, and both are uncomfortable. Death because it involves letting go of old ways of seeing, of abandoning sometimes precious prejudices. It means having to ask for forgiveness and humble ourselves. And resurrection is no easy process either; having to take risks of trust that were not required when everything seemed certain, agreeing with the new ways of seeing while not obliterating the people around you, some who told you what they thought was true but isn’t after all. Transformation is not easy; ask any butterfly.”

Transformation is not easy, that much is certainly true. But it is essential to our growth, to our learning to thrive, and to our becoming the people–and the Church–that actually look like the Jesus we say we follow. Transformation is at least as important as our initial salvation experience, if not more so–because transformation is the process in which we are joined so intimately with our King that his kingdom is conceived in and then born through us.

Church, are we willing to do things in a new way, in a way like never before, so that the world around us might see the Jesus that they’ve never been able to see before?

–Laura

I am very excited about this series, and I’m also very aware that those of us who know the stories of Christ can have a tendency to glaze over a bit and sit back comfortably thinking we’ve heard it before. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be “wowed”, to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new, to be awestruck and further transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  I agree with Laura–we can all get a little stuck. Our Christianity becomes formulaic, it becomes about church attendance and Bible study, so, I too want to reiterate that  Christianity is about transformation (personal, corporate, societal etc.)–a beautiful process that will continue as long as we’re on planet earth, if we’ll let it.

I imagine most of you will agree with me, that these are difficult days in our nation. We are divided, polarized, angry, and hateful. Unfortunately, the church, primarily the white evangelical church is right in the middle of the “ugly”.  How did this happen? I think Brian McLaren is right when he says we reflect the image of the God we believe in. Who is God? What is He like? How does He treat you? How does He treat the people you don’t care for? Does He have favorites? Is He loving? Is He angry? Is He kind? Is He mean?

Your answers to these questions, and many others like them, will reveal what you believe about God. The question then becomes are you believing in the God who is fully revealed in Jesus. Does your view of God look like Jesus?  Because if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) Does your God look like Jesus? Does your reflection of God look like Jesus? Is the image of God in you the image of Jesus? It’s key that we get this right.

As we head into this series “Like Never Before”,  let’s pay close attention to the God revealed in Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ words in Mark 1.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

The time has come...  God designed that planet earth would be governed by time. We all understand our lives in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. God, who knows what He’s doing,  has designated times and seasons with specific purposes in mind. In the scriptural accounts of Jesus, we see many references to the time had come, or the time had not yet come…etc.  In Luke 2, we read about the birth of Christ and the time came for Mary to give birth. In her case, it meant that the months of pregnancy– of waiting –were over. She was going to get to see the face of her sweet baby, the face of God.  Jesus was ready to be born–it was time. God’s ordained time.

When Jesus proclaims “The time has come”…He is saying your long season of waiting is over. This is the birth of a new thing. I am going to show you the very face of God. All of time has been pointing to this moment. You will see His face in me. You will get to know Him in me. You will experience His heart in me. He will be fully revealed in me. THE time where everything changes forever has come. This simple statement is huge. Jesus is announcing a world altering event. Huge.

The kingdom of God has come near...I like the translations that say, The kingdom of God is at hand…. I like that because “near” can still be distant. I live near my place of work, but I drive to get there. At hand signifies I can reach out and grasp it right now. I currently have notebooks, pens, a throw pillow, my phone, my computer, lots of books, a lamp, and some Kleenex “at hand”.  The kingdom of God is at hand. It is readily available. You can reach out right where you are and grasp it. The dominion of God is here, available to you.

Jesus taught us to pray may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt. 6:10), giving us the key as to what it looks like for His “at hand” Kingdom to be present here. When God’s will is being done, His Kingdom is here. I’m almost afraid to write that because His will has been interpreted so many different ways and many atrocities have happened/are happening in His name.  That’s why it is imperative that we know Jesus, the full revelation of God, who makes the ways and will of God very clear. Pastor John broke it down into very simple terms in our first service when he told us that  to pray “your Kingdom come” means that we want God’s love, grace, and mercy here, on planet earth--and I’ll add that it’s for everyone. We want God’s love, grace and mercy here, for everyone.

Repent. Laura wrote above that “repent” means to change your mind. It is the Greek word metanoia– which literally means to change one’s mind, a transformative change of heart, a conversion. Think about the process of the butterfly that Laura wrote about above…it goes through meta-morphasis. Total change. The Oxford dictionary says that the word conversion is “The process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. ‘the conversion of food into body tissues'”.    

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  The NLT version translates the phrase “renewing of your mind” to “by changing the way you think”.   And the result of not following the world’s ways by thinking a new way is that we’ll know God’s will–the ways of His Kingdom, His dominion, His reign–and we will be transformed and transforming into something new.

Believe the good news: What good news? Everything that Jesus has just said. Believe that the time is here, God’s Kingdom is here, you can be part of it–

You can be part of it. This is good news. In that day, the religious elite kept everyone else out. According to them, unless you looked like them, acted like them, had their education, were their gender (male), were part of their ethnic group, you were out. And they put all kind of demands on the “commoners” who wanted to be close to God, making it impossible, in their system, to be close. Jesus said—those days are over. God has come to you–the commoners. God loves you…you who think you’re not worthy of God’s love. He loves you. You who have been told you’re unclean–He loves you. You who have nothing to offer–He loves you. You who have made horrible choices and have tremendous regrets–He loves you. You who don’t really want anything to do with Him–He loves you.

Believe the good news–the gospel—the kingdom of God is here and Jesus is what God looks like. The time has come. Believe Him and then join Him in bringing His love, His grace, His mercy here…everywhere to everyone.

–Luanne

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Advent #4: Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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Advent #3: Joy

In September of 2011, my book club read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Her book fell into my hands during a confusing season in my life, just a few months before a very dark season in my life. I began to practice very intentional gratitude, writing down three things a day for which I could be grateful. This practice of counting gifts– being grateful, ended up saving my life. Ann writes, As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

Pastor John took us on a journey through Colossians 2:6-7:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened (established) in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

He highlighted four truths from these verses that will lead us to joy.

In order to live our lives in Jesus, we first must identify who is Lord of our lives. Is it Jesus or is it me?  For Jesus to be Lord means that I yield my will to his, my desires to his; I  walk with Him, spend time with Him–He is the focus of my being.

1. Live in Jesus: The Apostle Paul encourages us–once we have settled who is Lord– to continue to live our lives in him. To continue signifies an ongoing action. I think sometimes in modern day western Christianity, we emphasize the gift of eternal life , but de-emphasize living our everyday lives in him. We check our quiet time or our prayer time off of our “to-do” list, and carry on with our day any way we want to. To truly live in Christ means that my choices, my behavior, my attitudes, my thoughts, the way I influence and am influenced all show that Jesus is my Lord. And may I point out, that Jesus doesn’t make us mean. One can not look at his life in the gospels and come to the conclusion that his followers are to be hateful and mean, so if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us, which brings us to our second truth:

 

2. Rooted:   At this time of year, there are Christmas trees all around us. Some are real, some are artificial, neither one is alive. The real trees, once they’ve been cut, begin the dying process immediately because they’ve been separated from their life source. They no longer have roots that are bringing them nourishment and the ability to grow. The artificial ones never had a life source. They are pretty, but they are fake.

Jesus tells us the importance of staying connected to Him as our life source. He knows that connection to Him leads to life and to joy. He says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, …you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples… Now remain in my love...If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love… I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete…. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you… This is my command: Love each other. “(Excerpts from John 15: 1-17)

Connection to Jesus, our life source, leads to His joy, which is the only real joy that exists.

Once we’ve settled who is Lord–which source we will draw our life from, which source our roots will tap into– we can then be:

3. Built up: To be built up means to grow or build upon the foundation that has been laid.  I’ve said this before, and it will probably come up again, but I can not emphasize strongly enough that we do not transform our own lives. Christianity is not a behavior modification program. Jesus transforms our lives. Our part is to intentionally connect to Him. I can look back over my life, and easily see that I am not the person I used to be. (Praise His Holy Name!) He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being. And the beauty of a relationship with Jesus–there is always more to know, more mystery to explore, more layers to allow Him to peel back, more growth to be had. It’s a living relationship. Pastor John worded it this way, he asked us to ask ourselves “What’s your next step?” We all have one. Take the step. Build. Grow.

My dad is one of the most beautiful examples of a life being built on Jesus that I know. He had his 89th birthday last month, and do you know what his one requested Christmas gift is? A new study Bible. His roots go deep. He and I still have wonderful conversations about new things being revealed to him. As long as you are still living and breathing on planet earth, there is more of Jesus to know; however, living in Him, being rooted in Him and built on Him is not “rule” following. That does not lead to life. Being connected to Him, the resurrected, alive, very present Jesus,  leads to life.

I won’t pretend like there aren’t (many) times a day that I have to make a conscious choice to make decisions that honor Him, but I don’t do that out of obligation or “have-to”, or performing. It comes from being in love with Jesus, with determining that He is my Lord, and asking the Holy Spirit to strengthen me and help me in my choices. True, the ultimate decision lies with me–God has not made us robots–but choosing His way, His life, leads to my life, and to joy.

4. Strengthened (Established) in the faith:  I’m not going to lie, sometimes I don’t like the phrase “in the faith”, because of what it sometimes implies; something boring, stagnant, fixed, but to be established in the faith means that my beliefs are actuated into something real and living. My beliefs that God is who He says He is, that He fulfills His promises, that He loves me unconditionally, that my life is founded on a very real, very alive, very active resurrected Savior with whom I visit every day, leads to living differently, seeing the world differently, seeing people differently–and that relationship allows me to:

Overflow with thankfulness, which leads to joy: the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6), righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17),  I get to be a disciple  who is  filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).

Remain in the vine, be filled with the Spirit, be grateful, and the fruit of God’s joy will overflow in your life, and people will be drawn to Him through you–no matter your circumstances.

As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

–Luanne

What does a tree do when it is thirsty? Its roots reach and twist and search for water. It knows it has to have water. It’s built into the DNA of the tree. If it finds water, it drinks and it grows. If it doesn’t, it eventually withers and dies.

We are a little more complicated than a tree. We are born into this world and as long as we are breathing, and our organs are all functioning, we are considered “alive”. But we come into this world spiritually dead. Dead things can’t reach for anything… So how do we ever come alive?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart… (Ecclesiastes 3:11a, NIV)

There is a longing in each heart that we can’t explain away. There is a reaching of our roots for soil that will satisfy… a desire not created or contained in our humanity but placed there by the Divine, that we might discover all that our eyes cannot see. It is Jesus, the Word that breathed creation, that was with God in the beginning; the Word made flesh that dwelt among us–it is He who wakes us up and reveals our need for Him.

“Even as He exposes the need, His is the Presence that meets it.” (Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing podcast)

Zephaniah prophecied these words more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus:

On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be,“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among youHe is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17, NLT)

That day that Zephaniah spoke of came. We remember the angst of the waiting and the Glory of His coming with lyrics like these:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here–until the Son of God appear…

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining–til He appeared and the soul felt its worth!”

He set eternity in our hearts that we might wake up to our neediness. And then He came. He appeared in the flesh as the One who meets our need.

But… we don’t always reach for what we need. We don’t always reach for the right water. Sometimes we wake up to our need, by the grace of God, but reach for everything but Him to meet it. We drink from stagnant ponds of self, performance, others, approval, riches, fame, and many more… in a futile attempt to find the life our souls long for. Instead of plunging deep into the soil of Christ, our roots sometimes crawl around on the surface, frantically searching for what is readily available to us if we would only stop reaching higher and higher… and instead, allow our roots to go down and be hidden in Him…

The soil of Christ is the only place we’ll find the living water our souls crave. Rivers of living water flow just below the surface, and we are all invited to tap into this source. But the life of Christ and His Kingdom always involves going down. The upside-down way of the Kingdom requires that self be buried in Jesus, fully submerged in His life. It’s only when we willingly go low that He can raise us into “…oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His Glory.” (from Isaiah 61:3) We must be rooted in the soil of Christ, continually drinking from His rivers of living water. This is the beginning of living in Him. Luanne wrote:

“…if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us…”

Behavior modification and all attempts at finding life anywhere but in Christ are part of living above the surface. Manufactured life eventually repels others rather than drawing people in, because every one of us is searching for the one thing that is real to satisfy our thirst. People may buy an act for a while–but the eternity set within our hearts will cry for more when we drink for too long from what is artificial. What will draw others, Luanne said, is the overflow of the life of Jesus in us that is revealed in our changed behaviors and choices.

But first, before we can overflow, we have to drink. We sink our roots deep into the soil of Christ and–because He doesn’t make it difficult to come to Him–we find that, as soon as we break through the surface, as soon as we acknowledge Him as our Lord, as the One our souls ache for, we find ourselves surrounded by rivers of life. We don’t have to dig around in this soil, performing for and pleading with Jesus to satisfy our thirst. It’s immediate. And who is invited into this immediate satisfaction of our desperate thirst?

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. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37-38 Message)

Anyone. All of us. And in case we weren’t certain after those words, there are these words:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17 NLT)

Anyone can come. And not only once… The verse says “let anyone who desires drink freely… As much as we want.  If we accept the invitation to freely drink in deep draughts from our source, if we continually go to Him, drink in His life, we’ll find that “… Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way…” We become what we continually consume. If our lives are hidden in the soil of Him, and if we are continually drinking in His living water, we’ll find that–as Luanne said before–we will overflow. Rivers of living water will spill out of us. Rivers move and flow, carrying life, and growing new life, both within and all around them. Ezekiel 47:12 says it this way:

 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.”

Beautiful… Life. Change. Growth. And none of it on our own… Luanne wrote:

“He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being…”

I could say those same words about my experience with Jesus. Our experiences are unique to each of us, of course, but the result is the same: I have no idea how He’s changed me, but I know that He has. I know I’m nothing like the me I was before I was rooted in Him. Somehow, my life was absorbed into the life of Jesus and step by step, He is working His life and ways through every fiber of who I am. He is rewiring my heart, renewing my mind, refocusing my thoughts, restructuring everything about me so that as time goes by, I’m a display of HIS glory, not my own. This transformation process is what grows His fruit in my life. Because of His life in me, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and JOY can grow and exist in me… and then, overflow out of me.

This assurance of His life working in me, changing me, is why thanks is always possible. Because regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, regardless of the sorrows of this life, if we are rooted in Him, that’s a forever thing. Nothing and no one can remove us from our life source. Roots planted in Him, hidden in Him, cannot be separated from Him. Even if we are cut down above the surface, our roots remain connected to our source… And even a stump can grow again…

But on this humbled ground, a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit… (Isaiah 11:1, Voice Translation)

When we’re rooted in Christ, we’re connected to life that will never end. For this reason, no matter what, thanks is always possible. So, joy is always possible.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come…”

And He keeps coming, and bids us, “Come, and drink freely from the water of life.”

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

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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!)

Related image Related image

 

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