Like Never Before #2

We began a new series last week called “Like Never Before”. We looked at Jesus’ words in Mark 1:14-15 where He told us what God is all about. He let us know that the time had come, the Kingdom of God had arrived in the here and now; He encouraged us to repent (change our minds) and believe the Good News (gospel). God is here, His Kingdom is here, He has come near. Good news indeed!

After telling us Jesus’ message, the next thing that Mark tells us is how Jesus called His first disciples (vs 16-20). And, as is always the case with Jesus, it didn’t look the way one might have expected. We sometimes become so familiar with the accounts of Jesus in scripture that we forget how radical His ways were. One would think that God in the flesh would look for followers in the temple, or among those who were well versed in the Torah, but that wasn’t His way. Is it possible that He went elsewhere because often times the religious think they already know everything there is to know about the ways of God? Could it be because the religious have expectations of how God is supposed to act–how He’s supposed to relate to sinners? Could it be that the religious don’t want their belief system messed with?  Could it be that they are comfortable with it the way it is? Could it be that  the religious struggle to believe that everyone counts in God’s kingdom?These are definitely attitudes for us to think about and guard against in our own journeys of faith.

So, Jesus, in His unorthodox way of doing things, took a walk along the seashore where there were common fishermen and He called out to them. First to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, then to John and his brother James. He invited them to come after Him and told them He would make them fishers of men.

Mark tells us that “at once” and “without delay” they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Stop and think for a moment how remarkable that whole scenario is. Jesus is inviting regular common laborers to join Him in His mission. They don’t have a clue what they are really getting themselves into, but they followed immediately. What does this tell us about the type of followers that Jesus is looking for?

Pastor John highlighted three things:

1. Trust. Jesus is looking for followers who will trust Him completely. He is looking for those who will go where He leads without having to know all the details. He is looking for those who will drop everything to be with Him and join Him in what He’s doing. Jesus says to these men in verse 17, “Come after me.”  

“Come after me” can be interpreted in two different ways: it can be the literal following–He goes ahead and we come after, or it can be intense pursuit. I think both are fitting.

Do we trust Him enough to go after Him with all that we have and all that we are wherever He leads?

We won’t do it perfectly. Peter was the first disciple called, and he denied Jesus a few years later. Even so,  Jesus didn’t leave Peter behind. He again went to Peter by the sea, fixed him breakfast, asked Peter if he loved him, and continued to invite Peter to be part of what He was doing.  Peter followed Jesus once again and was powerfully used by God after Jesus’ ascension. That should give all of us some hope. God is not after our perfection, but He is after our trust. Will we trust Him with our lives?

2. Teachable: Jesus says to Peter and Andrew–come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.  Jesus was telling them that he was going to teach them something new. He was going to turn them into something that they weren’t before. To be teachable, we must be willing to be changed. There is no growth without change. We have to be willing to let go of old positions, old understandings, old ways of thinking, and go with Jesus.

I think maybe this is one of the reasons that Jesus didn’t go to the religious. He went to men who had no religious baggage, and they were willing to let go of the familiar and learn something new. Again, I think there is much here for those of us who’ve been around church for awhile to think about. Jesus, later in His ministry, confronted the religious leaders and said to them: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8 NLT)

That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the religious community. He wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected Him and the peace He offered (Luke 19:41) —  they were not teachable.

Are we teachable? Are we willing to wrestle with our own traditions to see if they line up with the teachings of Jesus? Are we willing to wrestle with cultural Christianity and get to the heart of the true message of Christ–the real good news that He Himself preached,  and not what we’ve turned it into? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit take us deeper? Are we teachable?

3. Task-oriented: Jesus told his first followers what their purpose would be. He was going to make them “fishers of men”. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the fishermen did not use a hook and bait–they used nets. They knew when to throw them, how to throw them, and how to bring them back in. They didn’t fish alone; they worked together. Fishing was their livelihood. If they didn’t fish, they didn’t eat. Their lives were totally about fishing.

Most of the fishermen/women I know today  fish recreationally. They use a hook, they use a lure, they basically trick the fish, then get it caught by the mouth and reel it in. Pastor John pointed out that, unfortunately, that’s how much of the church “fishes” for people. We bait and hook people with guilt and shame, and I’ll add fear, then reel them in on that line–which is never the way of Jesus. Lots of the bait and hook “fish” don’t stick around for the long haul, or they don’t get past thinking that God is mean and angry with them, and therefore never encounter the love and freedom that He has for them or the joy that can be found in Him.

A net holds fish, it doesn’t hook fish. Are we casting a net that attracts people to the God who loves them, or are we fishing through condemnation?  Jesus was incredibly attractive to the outcasts of the day. He valued them and let them know they were loved, wanted, worth spending time with, treasured. He did not manipulate people into His Kingdom. He is not an “us and them” kind of Savior. Is this the Jesus we show to the world?  Do we model the real Jesus who got in trouble because of who He hung out with, or do we model  the Pharisaical religious community who judged the world and those they perceived as “sinners” harshly? Again–things to think about.

Ultimately, what is it that Jesus wants us to be about?  He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us.  Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news. And then He invites us to join Him in sharing this good news with everybody everywhere.

This is our call:

Go in MY authority that I am giving to YOU and make more disciples. Show them who I AM so they will believe in ME, so they will follow MY words, MY teachings. Let those who choose to come after ME proclaim I am their Lord through baptism. And know this, there will never be a day that I AM NOT WITH YOU. (Mt. 28:19-20 paraphrase)

Jesus tells us to follow His teachings and teach His teachings to others. To be a disciple means to be a student. Are we students who know our Teacher well enough to know His teachings, to trust Him, to let Him continue to teach us, and to give our lives for the task that He’s laid out before us so that others can become His students, experience His love, and join us in making more disciples? This, my friends, is how the world will be changed–one precious person at a time.

–Luanne

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back over my life, and my own personal journey with Jesus. I love that Jesus went to the unlikely, those on the outside, to invite them to be his closest followers and friends. I love that He did things his own way, that He was radical, and that He always showed up in unexpected places. But I haven’t always loved these things about Jesus…and I don’t always love these things, even now.
At certain points in my life, I’ve been the fisherman willing to drop everything and follow Jesus as a trusting, teachable, task-oriented disciple. I’ve also been the religious one in the temple–a know-it-all Christian with expectations of how God will show up. For me, this wasn’t a “before and after” thing. I can look back over my life and see seasons when I was in one camp, and seasons when I was in the other. I hate that about me…
Within my one self, I am capable of religious bigotry, and I know that I’ve lived a good many of my total days as a prideful, judgmental “Christian”. I know that I’m capable of drifting back to that space in any given moment, too, under certain circumstances. I wish that wasn’t true. But it is.
It’s also true that as an eight-year-old girl, I ran to Jesus with reckless abandon. I fell in love with the beauty that only One possesses long before I had any sense of what falling in love even was. In that season? I was a trusting, teachable follower, and all I wanted was more of Jesus. I had a fair amount of religious baggage already, and it would rear its ugly head down the road, but Jesus had my whole heart. He had pursued me, called me, and I wanted to follow Him wherever He would lead me.
I could cite example after example of the times I’ve been the arrogant, privileged, religious, put-God-in-a-box, “in the know” “Christian”, too. The list is long. In fact, just this morning the Holy Spirit convicted me about an area where I’ve been acting this way, an area where I need to repent–change my way of thinking so that it aligns with Jesus’ way of seeing the situation.
I could also cite many examples of times I’ve felt like the outsider, the one on the sidelines, the one whose presence doesn’t matter at all. These are the times I’ve felt unseen, unworthy, unqualified, and just plain unloved.
Do you know what is so beautiful about Jesus? He comes to both versions of me (and all the versions in between) and issues the same invitation every time. I’m so grateful this is true. This is what I couldn’t stop thinking about as I pondered this message… How, so often, I’m not trusting Him. I’m not very teachable. And I lose my focus on the task at hand. And yet, He comes. He pursues me and He chooses me-even when I’m in the “wrong” camp. I’ll never get over the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy He continually extends to the mess of me…
I completely agree that Jesus was looking for those who would allow Him to make them into a particular kind of follower–those who would trust, who would be teachable, and who would be task-oriented. The story clearly shows us that. I just believe, based on my experience of who Jesus is, that He chooses all of us. I believe his invitation was the same to everyone He encountered as He walked the earth. The story of Jesus includes many interactions between Jesus and the religious. He ate meals with them, engaged in conversations with them, and invited at least a handful to follow Him, though, sadly,  most did not. I believe there must have been many times that He extended the invitation, because Jesus doesn’t change. If He invites ALL now, He invited, or chose, ALL then, too. We know that many of the religious elite eventually put their faith in Him, and were leaders in the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I’m certain that Jesus issued many invitations that didn’t make it into what we have come to know as Scripture, because not everything that happened was included. We know that. But because we know Jesus and we know that He came with a reckless, unchanging love and a desire to reconcile ALL people to Himself, we can safely assume that there was no one that He didn’t choose. None were worthy of being chosen. But He wanted all of them–and all of us–anyway.
I absolutely believe Jesus invited all–including the judgmental, arrogant, religious community–to follow Him. And that is good news for those of us who find ourselves in that camp today–or even just from time to time. He is always calling and pursuing. But as was the case for many in His day, sometimes we don’t hear the invitation for what it is. We have expectations of how Jesus will show up, what He will say, who He’ll consider worthy of His invitation. We choose to reject things that don’t line up with what we have come to believe is true, and in the process, we often reject Jesus Himself. We end up rejecting Him because we don’t recognize Him, and we’re unwilling to let Him “make us become” who we could be in His hands.
Our response to the invitation of Jesus is what reveals what’s in our hearts. Whether we find ourselves in a boat on the water or studying in the temple, the invitation is the same. We get to choose whether we want to follow or not. And when we choose to follow Him, we are trusting Him to cultivate the heart of a follower within us. It’s not something any of us innately possess that sets us apart from anyone else. It’s something Jesus grows within us as He makes us into people who are becoming more like Him. There is no formula to being chosen by Jesus. He’s already chosen all of us. He came to show us just how far Love will go, how much Love will sacrifice, and how the way of Love stands above all other ways of living life. And He’s invited all of us into that love as our new way of being in the world. As Luanne wrote above,
“He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us. Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here, full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news.”
Jesus is the good news. For all people. And He’s invited us to share that beautiful message with all people, everywhere. Will we leverage our lives, as He did, to make Him known? Will we live out the love of Jesus like never before?
–Laura
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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

shepherd pic

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

Image result for living evergreen tree in snow

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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Stories: Shelly Ann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assumptions that they all speak fluent Spanish.

Continually being treated as “less than”. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Laura wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whiteness is multidimensional, complex, systemic and systematic:

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

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

So, what do we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 22: 25-27 tells us what happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

If you want to learn more:

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

Facebook Page: Be The Bridge (Latasha Morrison)

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

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Dear Church #12: Philippians 4:10-13

This week, we looked at a short passage in Philippians that contains one of the most frequently quoted verses in our Bible. I bet that if I gave you the first few words, you could complete the sentence without even having to think about it.

“I can do all things…”

You know what comes next, right?

“…through Christ who gives me strength.”

You have probably seen this verse on coffee mugs, greeting cards, calendars, bumper stickers, and beyond. It’s what we say and pray when “all things” includes something overwhelming that we don’t feel equipped to handle. This verse, though, like the rest of the Bible, was not written as a stand-alone thought. There is context around it. And that context is important.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13, NIV)

The verse we quote so often actually comes at the end of our passage, and apart from the verses that preceed it, we have a tendency to make it into a personal, individual promise. We have to read it in context, without skipping over the familiar things, if we want to understand what Paul is telling the Church.

At the beginning of Sunday’s message, Pastor John asked us what we think “content” means. The assumed definition is “happy, peaceful, satisfied”, or something along those lines. And then he shared with us that, in this passage, it actually means a barrier/shelter against the wind. When we understand this definition and connect it to “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, we find that the secret Paul is talking about here-the secret of contentment-is that we become the wind that pushes back the barriers.

If your Bible is anything like mine, you probably have notes at the bottom of the pages that add insight to the verses. My note for verse 12 says this:

“Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content and the source of Paul’s abiding strength.”

Upon first glance, the “secret” that Pastor John identified doesn’t line up with what the Bible translators came up with. But if we look beyond the words, I believe we’ll find that they actually are saying the same thing…

As individuals who have come to know Jesus under the banner of Western (and especially American) Christianity, we love the idea of Jesus being our refuge. We highlight verses that support that claim. So many of our worship songs reference Him as our shelter, fortress, refuge, hiding place, etc…

And He is. He is our shelter. 2 Corinthians 12:9 in the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition says this:

But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me!

Clearly, Jesus is our covering, and we can absolutely take refuge in Him.

BUT… When we stay inside the tent too long, it becomes a prison that keeps us from becoming His “Kingdom come”. We get focused on ourselves, and on our blessings–so much so that blessing–which means a special or undeserved favor or gift–becomes our expectation, rather than something we are humbled by and grateful for. We crave the happy, peaceful definition of content, and all that matters to us is our own satisfaction. Staying locked inside the shelter may keep us safe… but it also keeps us selfish, silent, and still. We may think we’re satisfied in this space, but if we stay there, we will never experience the God of the impossible in our midst. We won’t see the bread multiplied. We can’t walk on the water. We can’t hear the Kingdom singing. We won’t taste the water-made-wine.And we’ll never know the thrill of sharing the gift we’ve been given with others. Hiding in the shelter makes us apathetic and unaware of the world around us.

We all experience seasons when we need the shelter of Jesus. Sometimes, we need Him to “pitch a tent over us” so we can hide in Him. Here’s the thing, though… this is why Pastor John & the Bible translators are both right in their interpretation of what the secret to contentment is:

We can be “hidden” in Christ, in the shelter that is Him, and simultaneously be (through  Him, by His power) the wind that pushes back the barriers. In fact, we MUST be hidden in Christ, in our union with Him, to successfully push against the strongholds of this world.

The Message words verse 13 this way: I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (emphasis mine)

Remember, the Bible notes say, “Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content…” Union is an intimate word. And I love that the Message uses the words “in the One”. We must be in Him, and He in us, to be content. I agree with the notes.

But, what does us being in Christ and He in us really mean? I don’t think it means we get to live a quiet, happy, little (and it would be little…) life with our safe and protective personal Jesus. Nope. Pretty sure that’s not it.

I believe it means our life will be joined with His. That we die to self and are raised to life in Him. That His life begins to manifest itself through us as we live and move and have our being through Him. I think it means our perspective on what blessing means changes and we begin to believe that the “blessed” are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It means we are given a heart of flesh that, like the Jesus living within us, sees and moves toward the marginalized and the oppressed, the overlooked and impoverished, and loves them with the love we’ve received. A love that touches, comes alongside, listens, and leverages the abundance we’ve received on behalf of those who have not.

Union with Jesus means that we have the opportunity to experience the love and protection of being in the shelter of Him and at the same time extend that love and protection to those around us. Living this way means challenging the systems and structures that create barriers that keep some people from flourishing. Jesus pushed back against the systems and structures, the stereotypes and supposed roles of His time for the sake of people He loves who bear the Image of God–and He has entrusted us with the same mission. Part of His Kingdom coming on earth as it is in Heaven is absolutely becoming the wind that pushes back the barriers. We can’t be united with our Jesus and moving with Him, through His power alive in us, without joining Him in pushing back the strongholds that are keeping people in prison.

So I agree with John, too. I believe both statements ring true, and we can’t really have one without the other. We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

Maybe the first stronghold we need to join Him in knocking down is the one we’re hiding in. So that we can carry the Jesus that is living in us and through us to the world He loves that needs what we’ve been hoarding for ourselves…

–Laura

Laura wrote: We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

So, my question is, are we living like this? Are we seeing the power of God move in and around us? Are we experiencing His power moving through The Church (that’s us) that Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against? Which kingdom do we believe is stronger? The kingdom of this world-or the Kingdom of God? What we believe is what we live. Therefore, the way that Paul ends this paragraph is hugely important.

Different translations of the Bible highlight different elements from the Greek, so I’ve written out a few versions of Philippians 4:13  for you to ponder the various nuances (bold print mine):

I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” NIV.

 “I can do all things through Him who gives me power.” Complete Jewish Bible ”

…for I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power.” Living Bible

I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me.” New American Standard

I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.” J.B. Phillips.

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose–I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.] Amplified.

The secret that Paul has learned begins with a mindset of belief. I can is a mindset; do implies action; through takes us from one place to another, and all of this implies that Paul is part of, (and that we are part of) the ongoing, moving, active, advancing Kingdom of heaven coming on earth–not in our own strength, but in His.

Many of us in this western American culture were taught that our relationship with Jesus is all about us-personal, private. Like Laura wrote above–I don’t believe we can come to that conclusion if we take off our cultural lenses and ask the Holy Spirit to give us fresh perspective as we read scripture. When we come into a relationship with Jesus, it is extremely personal. We fall in love with this precious Savior who gave everything and suffered much so that we can live in Him and He in us–so that we can know the love of God the Father, and so we can experience the power to carry out the will of God because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I can do…through Him…who empowers is all about His Kingdom. Pastor John highlighted the story of the the rich young man who came to Jesus (Mark 10:17-27) who wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The young man told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments. Mark tells us that Jesus felt love for him, so He told him that He lacked one thing—Jesus told him to go and sell all he possessed, give it away to the poor, gain treasure in heaven by doing this, and follow Jesus. The young man went away sad–the New American Standard Version says that he felt grief–and he walked away, because he had much wealth. He responded to the extreme invitation of Jesus with an “I can’t” mindset.

The grieved young man wanted his religion to be about himself and his behavior. Jesus was teaching him that in His kingdom his religion was to be about others. Jesus own brother writes in his book “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James 1:27 NLT  (Religion is the outward actions that reflect the inner work of Christ in you.). We think of being corrupted by the world as wild partying and sex, however, the rich young man shows us that being corrupted by the world can include being a “good” person, but holding wealth too tightly.

Paul writes that even when he is well fed, even when he has plenty he relies on the power of Jesus who empowers him to carry out the will of God.  Our stuff can become our prison. We must hold all worldly possessions loosely and acknowledge that it is all God’s and He can do with it whatever He wants. It’s not easy, given the way our culture has discipled us, but Jesus, when talking to His disciples about His encounter with the rich young man acknowledges that His way of life is hard, but that nothing is impossible with God. If we believe that nothing is impossible with God, then we believe I can do all things through Christ….because they are the same thought.

And our I can do is all about being the answer to “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done right here on earth as it is being done in heaven.  God’s Kingdom comes when we are living in the power of the Holy Spirit and carrying out the will of God. (Just a hint…His will has nothing to do with us being mean or hateful to anyone, it has nothing to do with placing inscribed Bible passages in public places, it has nothing to do with political parties–it has everything to do with loving others, with sharing our lives, and with pushing back the kingdom of this world with kindness, grace and Christlike love.)

So, where does this power come from?  Jesus ends the Lord’s Prayer  with “Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the power, Yours is the glory forever. Amen”. 

The Kingdom…God’s life, God’s presence, God’s rule, God’s ways, God’s will, God’s love,  God’s power right here, right now- (This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God, and Jesus who you have sent. John 17:3).

The Power…the energy, the strength for all of this to happen belongs to God–and He shares it with us through the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in Romans 8:11 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. He prays in Ephesians 1:19 for us to understand the incredible power that is available to us who believe. Peter tells us that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3). You all, we have more than we need to carry out the mission of Christ. Do we believe it?

Last week I was preparing for a devotion and was digging into kingdom, power, and glory. Believing what the New Testament says about Jesus making all things, that without Him nothing was made, that in Him all things hold together, and that the visible world points to the invisible reality of His kingdom, I read some science journals and textbooks.  I learned way too much to write about it all here, but I was fascinated by a couple of things.

One: The air (in us/around us) is made up of gasses one of which is oxygen.  Humans need oxygen to live. We breathe it into our lungs where it gets in our bloodstream and goes to every part of our body. Oxygen infuses our muscles with the ability to exert the energy they need to carry out every movement we make. Every blink of the eye, every pump of the heart, every intentional movement…all oxygen in the blood infused.  We don’t exhale oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide that the plants need to take in so that they can produce the oxygen that we need. Nothing is static, everything is dynamic–there is a whole lot going on all the time that we take for granted. There is no such thing as an “empty glass”. It’s full of moving gasses that are keeping us alive individually and are shared by all of us. If you are like me, you don’t pay much attention to the miracle that is happening in and around us all the time, but this all the time miracle is the physical world pointing to the realities of the very real spiritual world that is dynamic in and around us all the time.

Two: Our earth is able to sustain life because of energy that comes from the sun. Without the sun, everything dies. We don’t produce the energy that comes from the sun…as a matter of fact, I read in two different science books/articles that energy can’t be created and it can’t be destroyed, but it can be lost. If we don’t eat for a few days, we lose energy, but the potential to regain that lost energy is always available as soon as we fuel our bodies with food. Our cars don’t go anywhere if they have no fuel. The potential for the car to go is still available as soon as it gets the fuel it needs. God has given us the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God working in us. Power, strength, energy—these are all synonyms. So, the power, the energy, the strength of God is available to us at all times. We can’t create it, we can’t destroy it, but we can lose it. Paul warns us not to quench the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to “be filled” with the Holy  Spirit, which implies action. We must spend time in the presence of God to have the Holy Spirit fuel that we need to carry the heart of God, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), the message of Jesus, to the world, so that His kingdom of life, light, and love will advance one person at a time across the face of the globe.

Air, energy from the sun–in us, around us all the time giving us what we need for life. God–Father, Son, Spirit–in us, around us, all the time giving us what we need for His life to be lived through us.

In Him, you have all you need to carry this out. Do you believe it?

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose…I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace. Phil. 4:13 (Amp).

-Luanne

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

What is the standard of your life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we already have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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Dear Church #6: Philippians 3:1-11

Paul begins this week’s passage with another exhortation to the church to rejoice in the Lord. He says that he repeats this in order to safeguard their faith. To rejoice is to protect oneself from a counterfeit religion, one marked by rules and legalism rather than by the joy of the Lord, which is our strength. (Psalm 28:7)

In the following verse, he cautions them (and us) to, “Look out for the dogs [the Judaizers, the legalists], look out for the troublemakers, look out for the false circumcision [those who claim circumcision is necessary for salvation]…” (Philippians 3:2 AMP).

In verse 1, he reminds the readers to rejoice, because it is a safeguard against the very legalism that he writes about in verse 2. There were people, the Judaizers, who were distorting the message of Jesus. They believed Jesus was the Savior of Israel, and preached that Gentiles could only come in through the door of Judaism if they wanted to be saved. This teaching included that Gentiles must be circumcised if they wished to be counted among them. Paul counters their false teaching with these words:

“For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…”      (Philippians 3:3 NLT)

And in these words, we find reason to rejoice in the Lord. Paul begins to lay out in verse three that it’s not about us. We hang our faith on one peg–and it’s not the peg of works and legalism. It is Christ risen. As Pastor John said on Sunday, this is what changed everything. He told us that churches spend a lot of time focusing on how to get saved. There is a strong focus on the cross and Jesus dying for our sins, but we often leave out the rest of the story. The cross is where the story begins. Resurrection takes it the rest of the way. Without the resurrection, our faith is utterly futile. In 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, Paul says it this way:

“And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.”

So we rejoice because of what Jesus has done, because He has made a way for us to become alive as we join in His resurrection life. And we rejoice because we don’t have to rely on ourselves, on our merit and effort in order to be counted among His faithful followers. Anyone else grateful for that? I’d say it’s absolutely cause for rejoicing!!

Paul continues to make his case in the verses that follow. He already stated that it’s only through what Christ has done that we are saved. But, he says, if anyone could place confidence in their own efforts, it would be him. Remember, those who are distorting the message are Jews who are hanging their hats on their credentials and merits. Paul says that his credentials are more impressive. Pastor John laid out for us what these credentials were:

-He was born to Jewish parents who followed the customs and laws as they pertained to him since his infancy. John described them as loyalists, committed to their tradition.

-His ethnicity set him apart as the “best of the best” in Jewish culture. He could trace his lineage all the way back to the tribe of Benjamin.

-He was highly educated. He had studied under a great priest until he himself joined the ranks of the Pharisees, who demanded the strictest obedience to Jewish law, which he claims to have kept faultlessly.

Paul identifies his birth, ethnicity, upbringing, education, and his own moral uprightness. The things that granted him immediate access to privilege, power, and authority. He identifies that these things set him apart, and that if anyone has room to boast in who and what they are, it’s him. He is setting his readers up for the bombshell he’s about to drop. He doesn’t ignore who he is, the privilege he was endowed with at birth, and the power it has afforded him. He identifies it and owns it as true. And then…

…he lays it all down.

He says, I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (verses 7-8a NLT, emphasis mine)

What matters to Paul is not where he came from, what his ethnicity is, who his parents are, what nation he belonged to, or how well he followed the rules and the laws. The only thing that matters to Paul at this point is knowing Jesus as Lord. 

He takes us a little deeper into what it means to know Jesus as Lord. He expresses that he wants to be fully found in him–to know the power of His resurrection, to join in the fellowship of His suffering, to be crucified with Him, and to attain resurrection from the dead.

To know Jesus as Lord, we must exchange our kingdoms for His Kingdom. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, writes,

“Every last one of us has a “kingdom”–a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens… Our “kingdom” is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have the say over is our kingdom.”

We like to control our kingdoms. We like to compare our kingdoms. We do not like stepping down from the throne at the middle of our kingdoms, and we certainly do not like the thought of anyone else taking that place of authority in our lives. Some of our kingdoms are naturally larger and more prominent, like Paul’s was. Where we are born, the color of our skin, the economic position of our parents, the nation we are raised in–all of these things determine the power of our individual kingdoms-the things we genuinely get to have say over. But we all have one. However meek or mighty, we have one. And we get to choose who sits on the throne.

Pastor John asked us on Sunday, “Who do you say yes to? Who and what do you lay down your life for?

Paul’s answer to these questions isn’t hard to discern. There was One who had his yes. One who was worth laying down his life–his privilege, power, his own kingdom, absolutely everything–for.

JESUS. 

To Paul, the surpassing greatness of calling Jesus his Lord was worth everything he once held dear. None of it mattered anymore. Knowing Christ and being raised to life with Him, for the benefit of everyone else, became his only focus. There was no system or structure, no rules or regulations, no position of power or privilege that could offer him the new life and purpose that he found in Christ. Knowing Him, living for His Kingdom, leveraging his life and all he once held dear for others–that’s what mattered to Paul. And it was cause for rejoicing. The old way was all about laws and the past. Jesus showed Paul the new way–hope for the future. For everyone.

Dear Church, who and what do we lay down our lives for? Who and what do we say yes to? Do we live for Christ… or do we live for ourselves? Are we known as people who lay down our pedigree and privilege? Or are we known as those who lord it over others as a means to impose our will? Do we align ourselves with the marginalized and oppressed as we enter into the fellowship of the suffering, like Jesus did? Or are we responsible for further oppressing and marginalizing others either by our words and actions or lack thereof?

These are hard questions, Church. But we must answer them. Because if we profess Jesus as our Lord, we profess that His Kingdom is superior to our own and we lay down our own lives so that His resurrection life can be born in us. If we aren’t willing to lay ourselves down in order to be found in Christ, then we had better stop professing Him as our Lord. If He is really our Lord, we will joyfully accept His invitation to die so that we can truly live. Not for ourselves-we don’t leverage our lives so that we get more in return. Jesus didn’t die for Himself, and neither do we. We lay ourselves down in the way of our Lord, for others. And this is the hope for the future. That we know Him-truly know Him-in His death, suffering, and resurrection, and that we leverage our lives so that others can know Him, too.

–Laura

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