Giving Reverses Greed

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

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

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

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

Can we identify with either brother? 

Perhaps both?

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

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

How are we like the farmer? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 138:1-3, TPT–emphasis mine)

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

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

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

What are we doing with all that he has given? 

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we give it all and enter in?

Luanne

Image result for table set for feast outside

 

2020 Perspective–Looking Back

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

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

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV

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

–Revelation 21:5a NKJV 

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

2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

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

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

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

(Behold, Hillsong Worship)

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

 “When did you last take the time to behold?

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

To behold is to be held within a moment…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your work in us be done…

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura ended her portion of the blog with these words:

Let your work in us be done…

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

–Luanne

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An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

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Heart Condition

Last week, we followed Jesus into Gennesaret and the surrounding villages. We found him in the marketplaces, healing the masses who flocked to him. This week, we saw that the sick and needy weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus.

Chapter 7 begins by telling us that the Pharisees–we don’t know how many of them there were–and teachers of the law came down from Jerusalem, a sixty-mile trip. The text says they “gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled...” (vs.2).

We’ll get to the agendas and motives of these guys in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the word “defiled”. The Greek word for “defiled” is “koinos”. It means “common; not set apart.”

Pastor Beau reminded us that these religious leaders always had an agenda, and we see Jesus call that out throughout the gospels. They had a way of honoring God with their words while their hearts were far from him. Jesus told them as much in this story.  They weren’t upset about dirty hands being unwashed as much as they were identifying that those hands had just been in the marketplaces, in the presence of those “others” that they kept themselves separate from. Many of their “laws” and traditions were put in place to keep them from being identified as common, from getting too close to those on the “outside” of their group. Their traditions communicated to those who weren’t set apart like them, “You don’t belong.”

These laws and traditions took up all their heart space. They didn’t have room within their many observances to love God or neighbor and, worse, they often twisted their laws in order to get out of showing love to their neighbors–even, at times, their own families. They used the “God card” to justify their intentions, decisions, and actions.

Can we admit that sometimes we do the same things?

Pastor Beau exhorted us to own our motives. He asked us if we are willing to look deeply into our own hearts and own what is behind our thoughts, intentions, actions. Jesus told the Pharisees plainly that it is not what goes into the body that makes one unclean, but what comes out. All forms of “uncleanness” proceed from our hearts.

Later, when his disciples asked for clarification, Jesus said, For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” Pastor Beau emphasized that this entire list can be done within our hearts–without us ever acting out any of them physically. These things can be kept hidden while, on the outside, we look good, holy, and godly. Jesus had some strong words related to this very thing in Matthew 23:25-26:

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”

Jesus’ motives always centered around love and the kingdom he was introducing. It was a brand new way of relating to God and to one another–one not dependent on the observance of tradition and entirely uninterested in separateness. Because community is such a prominent value in the kingdom, Jesus flipped the script on religious exclusivity. He saw through the shiny, put-together outsides and focused on the inner motivations. His emphasis was always on loving our neighbors. He had no interest in lip service from those who sought to remain set apart from the commoners.

Pastor Beau invited us to examine, and then own, our motives. He then exhorted us to surrender our judgments. We can pass judgment as individuals, and as a community. Our judgement, as Beau pointed out, can be internal or external, and can be directed at others or ourselves. Regardless of what or who we’re judging, judgement leads to division. It separates–even if only in the depths of our hearts. What we believe and perceive about someone else–or ourselves–often leads to arrogance, an us/them mentality, and often, condemnation. We don’t have to look very far in stories that include the Pharisees to find this to be true. In this story, we can see that they held perceptions about, and judged, the “others”, the disciples, and Jesus. They traveled sixty miles to do it.

But the temptation toward judgment can be as close as our own skin. It takes work to lay down the things we hold onto to make us feel better about ourselves. Ultimately, that’s what passing judgement does. It diminishes one to elevate another. This gets tricky when the one we judge is ourselves. Thankfully, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17, NLT) Through him, we can learn how to lay our judgements down.

In Mark 7, Jesus models his kingdom way of interacting with the “other” when a Gentile woman came to him pleading for him to heal her daughter. As Pastor Beau pointed out, Jesus–exhausted and depleted as he was–engaged the woman in conversation. He acknowledged her presence, and listened–without judgment, with the intention of hearing her. At the cost of his own time away. We see Jesus do this over and over again in Mark. He was driven by love and compassion. Always. If we want to be like Jesus, if Christ-likeness is our goal, we must follow his example, and lay down our judgments, too.

Finally, Pastor Beau invited us all to embrace the process, and further, to embrace that we’re in process. The entire message touched me deeply, but this last point hit me in my core. Beau spoke about the way Jesus did things, how he moved in the world. He often did things that his followers–and critics–were surprised by. The ways he healed, how he engaged others, the tangible ways that he entered into the lives of those around him were often different than how people thought he should do things. We were reminded that even though Jesus performed instantaneous healing–miracles in a moment–these were a point in the longer stories of the lives of those he touched. The miracles were part of the process–they didn’t replace the process.

Beau encouraged us to not rush the process. He compared it to a construction site. He said that construction sites are generally unattractive. They are loud and messy. The work is difficult and dangerous. And, I would add the obvious, incomplete. If the project is finished, there is no construction zone. Beau asserted that most of us do not enjoy living in the middle of a construction zone. But, is there any other way of living as we journey with Jesus? 

This analogy hit me hard. I am constantly frustrated by construction zones, especially if the construction is of the road variety. These zones are inconvenient, slow, and often difficult to navigate. They re-route us around old, familiar ways. We cannot navigate road construction zones on autopilot. because the detours require that we pay attention.

If I apply the same principles to the construction zone that is my life, I am no less frustrated. The work seems never-ending. And that’s because it is. Life is a process. Healing is a process. Becoming whole, and living into the example of the one we follow is a process. The only way to circumvent it is to halt construction. To put away all the equipment, put up a decent exterior to hide the busted up inside and send the contractor away. This is one way we can fall into traditions and “laws” that keep the garbage hidden in our hearts. It’s how we end up passing judgement–we condemn the out-in-the-open messiness of another because we’re working so hard to conceal our own. These motives and judgements hinder the process–and often halt it altogether.

I don’t like being messy. I don’t love danger. Risk is hard for me. I have a tendency to agree with the things that have been spoken to me throughout my life and so, passing judgment on myself is pretty easy. I carry a lot of fear. And while vulnerability is a value I hold dear, one I try to embrace as much as I know how, there is a big temptation sometimes to erect walls around the construction zone of my life and hide safely inside.

Some people’s broken somehow looks fairly neat and tidy–that’s never been the case for me. The “house” of my life is constantly under construction. Sometimes, it takes the form of deconstruction, sometimes it’s reconstruction–which can often feel so much harder–but it’s a perpetual conglomeration of incomplete projects. Sometimes, the construction process gets even more tricky to navigate when an under-qualified sub-contractor (me) acts on impulse and tries to do the work that only the general contractor (His name is Jesus) is qualified to do.

Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.

And Jesus wants to guide the process. He’s the only one who can repair what’s broken without inflicting further damage. He doesn’t ever belittle our brokenness. He doesn’t shame us or condemn us on the caution-tape days. His way is always gentle, kind, full of grace and mercy and real, unconditional love. And he takes care to create beauty out of what’s broken. If we let him. 

Embracing the process means that we have to get comfortable with being real. And real can be messy. Earlier I mentioned that the Greek word for defiled actually means “common, not set apart.” There is a beauty in embracing our commonness, and that of everyone we encounter. The word itself, “koinos” is where the word “koinonia” comes from. This word shows up 20 times in the new testament, from Acts to Revelation. It means “fellowship, communion, intimacy.” 

I can’t express how much I love this. What the Pharisees wanted to avoid by maintaining their separateness becomes something the early church held dear. I think it is one of the clearest ways to see the difference Jesus’ way made in the hearts of those who chose to listen to and follow him. What was a dirty word, one that let people know how unwelcome they were, gave birth to a word that invited all into community. The community of the common. Because it’s never the traditions we keep, the judgement we pass, or the things we try to build on our own that make the common magnificent. Jesus is the magnificence in our commonness. Because he showed us that what was truly magnificent was living fully human and fully alive while in process. And when we do that together, the common turns into communion…

–Laura

The lifelong process of being transformed into the image of Christ is messy. Beau mentioned, and Laura expounded on the thought that construction zones are messy–they sometimes feel chaotic. For a gal who likes inner peace, the process can sometimes feel excruciating.

Laura, when writing about the Pharisees asked if we act like them sometimes. The answer for me is yes.  Yes, I do. I would rather not admit that; however, if I’m being honest, I know that it’s true. When Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” he is using the word “actor” or “pretender”.  An actor plays a role. Am I alone in sometimes portraying an outward self that is not congruent with my inward self?

Jesus doesn’t think too highly of the Pharisee’s acting. Beau reminded us they had lost connection with the God they served, and were merely going through religious motions–acting religious, yet creating self serving loopholes to benefit themselves. They had lost touch with their hearts.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him for clarification regarding his conversation with the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus told them:  

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (7:21-23). 

The heart–out of the heart–out of the center of our being comes all kinds of things. In Proverbs 4:23 we are told to “Watch over your heart with all diligenceFor from it flow the springs of life.” (NASB) Another translation says Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (NIV)

The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).

But we are not hopeless–the Prophet Ezequiel reminds us God said: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezequiel 36:26)

The heart and the mind are where much of the battle lies. Sometimes it feels easier to live with a heart of stone. A heart of flesh feels things.  A heart of flesh is pliable. Sometimes we just don’t want that. We convince ourselves that hearts of stone are stronger, that they protect us–but truthfully, they don’t lead us anywhere good.

Jesus tells us that out of the heart flows evil thoughts, and then he lists what some of those evil thoughts can lead to. To give us a fresh perspective, I’m going to write the list backwards.

Evil thoughts lead to:

Folly, Arrogance, Slander, Envy, Lewdness, Deceit, Malice, Greed, Adultery, Murder, Theft, Sexual Immorality

I don’t think Jesus’ list leaves any of us out. It seems to cover the gamut. Sometimes in our arrogance, we pick a few things out of this list to judge more harshly, but Jesus doesn’t make any distinctions. These are the things that flow out of the heart when we allow evil thoughts to reign. Yet, as mentioned above, if we care for our hearts, if we watch over them carefully, from them can flow springs of life.

Paying attention to the state of our hearts is crucial to growing more like Jesus. I sometimes want to self-protect and when I’m living in that place, it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to turn “evil”, and a critical spirit to take over. My heart begins to turn to stone. Part of construction is the breaking down of stone. I like to think of the Ezequiel verse as God gently removing the heart of stone and gently replacing it with a heart of flesh–and sometimes he does. Other times it feels more like the stone is being chipped away with a pickax as I resist his work in my life, and other times a full-on stick of dynamite is needed. Some days I go back and forth between flesh and stone. Grace helps me to remember that we are all in process, myself included.

Since the thoughts and heart are intricately connected, it’s wise to remember we are encouraged to ask the Lord to create a new heart  in us (Ps. 51:10), we are encouraged to renew our minds  (Romans 12:2), we are encouraged to think on things that are  true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable–excellent or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8) and we are encouraged to have the same mind in us which was in Jesus. (Phil 2:5). None of this flows from our natural selves–we need the help of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to surrender to the process of becoming whole.

After all; we are all in process. We are all a construction zone. Laura wrote above:

“Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.”

Let’s learn to be gentle with ourselves in the process. Let’s learn to be gentle with others in the process. Let’s remember that when Jesus points out — “hey there beloved one–you’ve lost touch with yourself; you’re acting” it’s because he loves us and desires that we live from the authentic, unique, set free, place that we were created for.

Just like the Velveteen Rabbit in the old children’s story, becoming “real” can be really hard—maybe some of the “fuzz” gets worn off the outside of us in the process, we might not look as impressive as we once did, we might even feel discarded for a season…but for the rabbit, and for us, being made real opens us up to experience and to give real love–the kind that transforms us and everyone around us.

Are we willing to do a little excavation work and own our motives, surrender our judgments, and embrace the process? It may feel painful at times, are we willing to continue even when it feels hard?  Are we willing to do what it takes to remove our masks and get to authentic living and “real” love?

–Luanne

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A Matter of Principle: Sow Generously

Simple-earthy; Divine-heavenly. That’s how Pastor John described the parables of Jesus–simple, earthy stories to illustrate divine, heavenly principles. I love the word “earthy”; probably because I am a lover of the natural world, and when the weather is nice, it’s hard to keep me contained inside. I’m also a lover of Jesus, and I see him everywhere I look. He’s in the earthy, and I love that about him. He’s also in the divine, and I love that about him too.

After taking a little break, Pastor John has taken us back to the book of Mark. We picked up in chapter 4, verse 1. As a refresher, chapters 1-3 introduce us to Jesus and his message that the Kingdom of heaven is right here, right now, in our midst. God is not far away–he’s here. Jesus demonstrated that truth through authoritative teaching, miracles of many kinds, and the forgiveness of sins, showing that the Kingdom is here and available to everyone. Everyone. No one is excluded. 

In chapter four, Jesus begins to teach in parables. Pastor John reminded us that parables are meant to be heard, not read–a challenge in today’s world. If you can, take the time to listen to Mark 4:1-9–read it out loud or press the audio feature on a Bible app. Listen without analyzing or thinking, “I already know this one.” There’s always more to see, more to learn, fresh revelation through the Holy Spirit.

The Message version of the Bible goes like this:

 He (Jesus) went back to teaching by the sea. A crowd built up to such a great size that he had to get into an offshore boat, using the boat as a pulpit as the people pushed to the water’s edge. He taught by using stories, many stories.

“Listen. What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled among the weeds and nothing came of it. Some fell on good earth and came up with a flourish, producing a harvest exceeding his wildest dreams.

 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

Are we listening? Really listening? One of the things that I love about scripture is that there are always deeper layers to mine. We were reminded that this particular parable is often interpreted with the emphasis on the type of “soil” we should evangelize in. Or it is used as a way to judge the hearts of others. Or it is referring to the harvest at the end of time. Which interpretation is correct?  Could it be all of them?  What if we’ve emphasized the minor points? What if the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not about soil but about sowing seed?

A farmer (he’s the main character in the parable)–planted seed. He scattered the seed…  What!? He didn’t dig little troughs and plant his seeds 1/4 inch deep, 6 inches apart in nice little rows? Hmmm.

He scattered seed. That’s the point. He sowed seed generously. That’s the point. Seeds were sown everywhere. That’s the point.

Is the sown seed about a one time encounter? Is it about salvation? Or could it be something more?

Think about your walk with God–your relationship with him. Is he still sowing seed in your life? If your answer is yes, are there times when that seed is carried off by birds almost immediately? Are there times when you’ve had a spiritual encounter that lit a fire in you, but it’s not sustained and withers quickly? Have you had seed sown that could grow, but the circumstances surrounding you choke out its potential? Have you had seed grow that matures and you share with others? I believe we’ve all had those experiences. I have, and in my own life–not one seed has been wasted, no matter what state my heart was in.

I grew up in a family that was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night–all my formative years. Church attendance was not an option. Sunday School was not an option. Youth group attendance was not an option. Church attendance was not an option.

As a young child, I loved going to church. I had some wonderful teachers, I loved making arts and crafts projects, I loved being with my friends. I’m old enough to remember flannelgraph and loved the colorful figures that were placed on the board. If you asked me to come up with a particular Sunday school lesson that was my favorite, I wouldn’t be able to.  There is not one particular Sunday that stands out as spectacular. My memories are of the overall experience. My parents were consistent in loving God. They modeled love for all people, read us books like “Little Visits With God”, prayed with us, taught us to pray, and taught us to know that God is here and loves us very much. Lots of seeds were being sown generously into my life. What kind of fruit were they bearing? I don’t know. I do know that even as a child I loved people and reached out to new kids, defended my Jewish friend on the playground when other children were unkind to her and had friends of all colors at my house (or I went to their houses) after school.

As an adolescent and teenager, I loathed going to church. I was angry at God. I sat in the back of the sanctuary, played tic tac toe with friends, paid no attention to what was going on, and was most likely a distraction to anyone sitting near me. By all appearances, I was not taking in anything during those years–it would have appeared the soil was rocky, and birds were snatching away any seed that was being scattered. But is that true? Forgive me for being so graphic, but we’re going “earthy” here. Sometimes seed eaten by birds passes through their systems and gets scattered elsewhere.  There are entire islands whose lush vegetation began from seeds that came through the digestive tracts of birds. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no heavenly seed scattered in my life was wasted. Some of those seeds have borne fruit years later in locations far from where they were sown. Seed snatched by birds still has potential.

Part of my youth group experience included summer mission trips. Each summer, my heart was made tender toward God on those trips. Each summer, when I returned to church, I tearfully made my way to the altar at the end of the service and recommitted my life to Jesus. Every. Summer. Then school would start, and I would be back in my rebellious and self-destructive behavior almost immediately.  It would appear that those summer seeds grew quickly and died quickly. Were they wasted seeds?  No. My recommitment-Every. Single. Summer. -was genuine in the moment. My encounters with God were real. And every single summer, God welcomed me with open arms, no condemnation. I experienced his unconditional love over, and over, and over again. It’s possible that church people rolled their eyes and thought “there she goes again”, but what God was sowing in me, teaching me, was his consistency in love, and his willingness to embrace this prodigal daughter over and over and over and over. His love was sowing seeds that I was unaware of at the time, but today are seeds that I sow into the lives of those who think they’ve blown it and think that God couldn’t possibly still love them. I know that he does, because of that season of seemingly wasted, but not wasted seed in my own life.

As a young adult who was still struggling with anger, still resisting my upbringing, no longer attending church, “partying”, self-destructing–living among weeds– (I could have been identified by outsiders as a weed myself) –seeds were not wasted. I have a particular very clear memory from that season: One night when I was with a group of friends and we were drinking pretty heavily, the conversation turned to God. That moment lasted a couple of hours. I shared about God’s unconditional love with my friends.  I shared about some of my personal encounters with him, how I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me and them. None of that was my usual method of doing things.  Most of those friends had no idea I had any knowledge of God, much less a relationship with him. I was in a season in which I wasn’t even sure of that truth myself, but God was using me as a spokesperson of his truth in that moment. The Holy Spirit was speaking to my friends and to me through me-even as we were partying.  What happened? Was that conversation the result of seeds that had been sown but lain dormant in me for years?  Was I a weed or a seed? Was I sowing among weeds? Was that a bad thing to do? Are we not supposed to sow among weeds?

Does Jesus’ parable tell us that it is wrong for seed to be scattered on rocky roads, shallow soil, among weeds?  No. The farmer scattered seed. It landed everywhere. That’s the point. Who are we to determine which seed will bear fruit and which won’t? We can’t determine that. We don’t know.  Even in our organized modern-day agriculture, we can’t make seeds germinate and grow. Seeds are sown. We can try to create environments in which they can grow, but we can’t make them grow. Each seed grows or doesn’t individually. That includes seeds sown in you and me. Are they growing? Are they bearing fruit? Each seed which germinates and grows has the potential to multiply many times over. That’s the beauty of a seed.

I’ll ask again, are we sowing seed generously? (BTW- I don’t think that means our modern-day understanding of “evangelizing”) Does our seed sowing include creating environments where people feel loved and accepted right where they are and as they are? Think of the fruit of the Spirit–are we sowing seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? (Gal. 5:22).  Are we letting those fruits “go to seed”?  Each year, I let some of my lettuce “go to seed”. The following spring, new lettuce appears, some of it in the raised bed where my previous lettuce crop was, some of it appears on my garden path, some of it in sidewalk cracks. and some of it nowhere near the original lettuce location. No matter where it grows, it’s lettuce and we eat it. The lettuce that has been allowed to “go to seed” produces an unplanned crop. It’s a natural process, a result of sown seed. Sow. Sow generously. Sow everywhere. Sow.

And as you sow, don’t neglect the ongoing seed being sown into you. Let them grow. Sow, grow, sow, grow– this is the earthy, divine manner in which the Kingdom of heaven expands on earth.

–Luanne

I love what Luanne wrote, the way she was able to identify seasons in her own life during which seed was sown in all four types of soil that Jesus talked about in his parable. I love it because it reminds us all of what is true in our own lives, too. But what I love most about her examples is they clearly show that none of the seed that was scattered in her and around her was wasted. None of it. Every seed scattered served (and is still serving) a purpose, and our God who sows generously really doesn’t care if it looks like foolishness to us. He doesn’t live inside our boxes of limited understanding and formulas. His Kingdom cannot be contained within our rules and our traditions. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways.

Aren’t you grateful that’s true?

As people, we grasp for understanding as a way to control the chaos in and around us. But there are some things that we will never fully understand. There are parts of God that will always be mysterious to us… and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But sometimes, God pulls us in. He takes us a little deeper and reveals more of himself and his ways…

Scattering seeds everywhere might look like throwing caution to the wind–until things start growing. Human wisdom would never get behind tossing seeds into the air and letting them land where they may… that feels a little bit like swinging at a pinata while blindfolded.

But God…

When Luanne and I decided to go hiking on Monday, we had no idea how God would bring this message to life for us. We hiked a trail that never disappoints–it’s always full of reasons to gasp with wonder, beautiful gifts that surprise and delight. Monday felt especially enchanted. This place that captures our hearts afresh every time we are there had some things to show us, illustrations of this parable that are now seared into memories I won’t soon forget.

We saw wildflowers everywhere–I can’t remember a time I’ve seen so many blooming at once. All varieties, all colors, some not yet budding and some whose petals are withering as they complete their life cycle. No one planted these flowers in specific places–they grow where their seeds fall. And they are growing everywhere… We saw color cascading down hillsides, among the grass and weeds and trees. Some line the path, some are growing in the middle of the path. I can’t count the times we saw flowers, ferns, and even trees, growing out of the sides of rocks. I saw one growing on a rock in the middle of a creek. I’m still baffled by that one–I have no idea where its roots are attached, but it is growing nonetheless. This trail boasts several different types of soil–the wildflowers explode in all of it. Some of the flowers and plants are more prevalent in the sand, some in the rocks, some among the grasses and weeds, and some closer to the water. But they are all stunningly beautiful. Even the weeds dazzled us with blossoms so beautiful, it was hard to distinguish the weeds from the flowers. In this environment, the weeds and the flowers complement one another’s beauty. The bees and the butterflies move among them without preference, and they grow together–there is room for all of them.

But which soil on this trail is the fertile soil?

All of it. The path… the rocks… the sand… the grassy hills… the loose dirt where dead, fallen trees disintegrate and enrich the soil around them… the streams… the cliffs–gorgeous, fruitful life is being grown and sustained in all of these. The environment is healthy, and growth explodes everywhere your eyes land.

On Sunday, we had the opportunity during our “mission moment” to hear from Earlene about a beautiful ministry that she heads up in our community. At one point she said, “I don’t remember how it exploded as it did,” and then something to the effect of, “You sow the seeds–God grows it beyond imagining.”

When seeds are sown generously–everywhere–explosions of growth result. And there really is no explanation other than, “God grows it beyond imagining.” 

When Earlene shared those words, I immediately thought of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians from the third chapter of that book. I thought of it again many times as we hiked on Monday. This is how the Amplified Bible phrases verses 16-21:

May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. Now to Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.

Growth might look neat and orderly in meticulously manicured gardens (though, even there, seeds are carried off by birds and redistributed elsewhere, and things pop up in places other than where they were planted), but growth in individual people and in the kingdom is anything but nice and tidy. Humanity is messy. Kingdom work is messy. Trying to control and regulate the sowing of seeds into one type of soil in a certain environment will not lead to kingdom growth. The kingdom grows when seeds are sown generously in environments that are healthy enough to support variety and diversity. The most beautiful parts of the trail, the places that really took our breath away, were the parts that produced a wide variety of life that exploded into a kaleidoscope of color. Not because someone had studied which colors would go well together in that landscape. But because seed had been scattered generously, and what could be called wild, reckless, haphazard sowing has resulted in a breathtaking landscape where each life supports and sustains the next, and beauty expands.

The glorious beauty of the creation that surrounded and embraced us on Monday gave me a picture of what the kingdom is supposed to look like when we do it God’s way. If we dare to sow generously, without judgement, and trust God to do the growing, there are explosions of growth. And the God who lovingly fills and floods us with his very life will do superabundantly more than we could ever imagine–in us, around us, and through us. It’s the way of the kingdom. And it works.

–Laura

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This I Know: Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to be a pastor…

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

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

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

And I want to be angry…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Power, Elevation Worship)

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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This I Know: Love the Story

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
                                         to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.                                              Author Kate Hankey

Pastor Diane, our children’s pastor, began her sermon on Sunday with the words of this old hymn. The message she brought reminded us to fall in love with God’s story and teach it to our children. She used the same scripture from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, so I will not expound on them again, but as a reminder those verses say:

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NLT)

Pastor Diane reminded us that the Israelites didn’t do this right all the time, and by the time we get to the book of Judges, chapter 2, an entire generation of Israelites were born who did not know the Lord and the mighty things he had done on behalf of Israel.  Somehow, the story didn’t get passed to the next generation.

We have written before about the importance of loving God and living out His love in front of others. So let’s talk story. God is writing a story–the theme is his love for all of us. Each of us are written into the story. Whether we accept him or reject him, his love for us remains constant. He is the author of the story. His love never fails.

When God put on flesh and came to earth as Jesus, the method he used to teach us about God’s kingdom and God’s ways were through story. Those stories were included in the stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Story is a powerful method of communication. A good story is hard to forget. A good parable, or a good analogy that connects one thing to another is hard to forget.

The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? Is it personal? Is it dynamic? Do we bring our full, vulnerable, broken, forgiven, loved selves to the story? Is our story bathed in love?

The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today–new stories, new encounters, all of which remind us of Jesus and his love, and they are happening in and around us all the time.

In the summer of 2011, my life was in crisis. At that time, I was unaware of how deep the crisis was–I only knew that something felt off in my being. I couldn’t put my finger on it–I just knew that something was horribly wrong. I was sitting in my backyard praying when a swallowtail butterfly flew straight to me–it could have landed on my nose–and as the butterfly came-so did these words “I see you. You are not alone.”  For the rest of that summer, every swallowtail sighting-and there were some significant ones–came with the message, “I see you. You are not alone.”  

When my life as I knew it exploded in November of that same year, the message of the butterfly kept me going. Because I had shared my butterfly story beforehand with my sister, she reminded me in my storm of Hagar who was in a desperate situation, and God showed up. Genesis 16:13 tells us, She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  

The Message version of the Bible writes that verse like this:

She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!  “Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!”

I have shared that butterfly encounter with many people. It is part of my story. Last Friday I was sitting in the backyard with my daughter and her little ones. A swallowtail flew into the backyard (the second one I’ve seen this season), and landed on a lilac blossom right in front of us. As I always do with swallowtail sightings, I got excited. My three year old granddaughter studied the butterfly, but also studied me. My daughter explained to her that sometimes God speaks to us through his creation, and that God had spoken to me through a swallowtail, so they always remind me of God.  My granddaughter is too young to need to know the details of that story and the circumstances surrounding it–but what she knows today is that God spoke to her “Lulu” through that butterfly. She knows that God reminds Lulu of his presence and promise every time a swallowtail appears, and that’s enough for today.  As she grows older, the story can become more complete, and my hope is that as long as she lives, when she sees a swallowtail she will remember that God speaks, and that he reminds us that he sees us, he loves us, and he is with us.

My current God story is not even all settled in my heart and mind yet–I’m still very much in it–but what I know is that God has been teaching me a great deal these last few months through a marginalized people group. Because of a life event, I ended up immersed in this culture by accident and prayed often about what God’s purpose in that was. His answer was–love people. Love them sincerely. Be present and love What I didn’t expect was the incredible love that was offered to me. I also didn’t expect the beautiful, caring, loving, genuine community that I got to be part of–a community that looks a lot like church, but in whom many have been rejected by church. I had deep conversations about faith, life, heartache, love, rejection, belonging, and yes, God.  And you know what? He is fully there in a marginalized people who the mainstream church wants to reject. God has not rejected them. Just a few days ago I had the opportunity to again be immersed in that culture, but this time in my hometown. The experience was beautiful. I’m still processing this new story, which is the old story of Jesus and his love–I’m not sure where God is taking me, but my heart is open. My moments in this culture feel very holy. That was unexpected.

Story.

People can dispute Bible verses all day long. They can’t dispute our personal encounters with a living, loving God who is writing us into his story so that our stories can write into the lives of those around us.

I know stories about both of my grandmothers and their Jesus love lived out in action. I know the stories of my parents and their Jesus love lived out in action. I share those stories–shared one about my dad last week.  A new generation is hearing those stories.

What is your current story? If your story, your testimony is about a one time event that happened years ago, it is time to pay attention. The God who sees us also speaks to us. My butterfly encounter is about Jesus and his love. My time with marginalized people is about Jesus and his love. My heritage of faithful Christ followers is about Jesus and his love. There are countless ways that Jesus tells his story through our lives, so that we will, in turn, tell those stories through our lives. How has he showed you he loves you today? What current journey are you on with him? Are we paying attention? Are we sharing with others? Do we love to tell the stories, of Jesus and his love?

–Luanne

“The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today…” 

The old, old story of Jesus cannot be contained within the story of his death and resurrection–and yet, it can…because every God story, every encounter with the risen Christ is, at its core, one of death and resurrection. That old story is the story of God’s self-emptying love that most clearly shows us his heart toward all of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And he keeps showing up with that same love, infusing all of our stories with that one story. But if we don’t let it come to life within our personal stories, if we don’t have eyes to see the cycle of death and resurrection in our own lives, it can become–to us–stale and stagnant words on a page that we say we believe, but that stop short of affecting our actual lives. But, if we pay attention, we’ll see that what Luanne said is true: “The old, old story is flowing fresh today…’

Luanne also wrote, “The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? And later, she asked us, “What is your current story?” 

Her questions seemed easy enough to answer at first glance. But as I let those questions sink deeper, past the surface of things, I got a little squirmy. The kind of squirmy that let me know what direction my writing would take today… (ugh.)

I wrote above that every encounter with the risen Christ is one of death and resurrection. I really do believe that. It’s the way of the upside-down kingdom we’ve written so much about. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to talk about the resurrection parts. The thing is, though, you don’t have resurrection without death. And death can make us uncomfortable and afraid. Even though it’s a part of life… As Jesus followers, we are seed people, resurrection people–people who embrace death as part of the cycle of life. The late Rachel Held Evans, in her beautiful book Searching for Sunday, wrote:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”

And yet, we hate the death parts, don’t we? It’s what makes Luanne’s questions complicated for me to answer…

Do I love to tell the story? That depends on which parts I’m telling… I’ve made peace with a lot of the chapters in my past, seen them through new eyes, and–by God’s good grace– I have found a way to love even the hardest parts of my God story. If this were her only question, I might have been able to say, yes, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love in my life. On occasion. When I feel safe enough to go there…

But then she asked, “What is your current story?”

I don’t really want to answer that…because I don’t love my current story very much yet. The chapter that is in process is difficult to embrace most days. This chapter, so far, includes questions about the faith I’ve always known and loved, finding irreconcilable differences in the God I grew up with and the God I’m learning he actually is, and a growing awareness of the barriers the Church has built that have contributed to–and even caused–systemic and societal issues that are keeping people from seeing Jesus. I’ve never been lonelier, despite the many dear companions God has gifted me with. I’ve never felt more conflicted over speaking up versus staying quiet, never questioned so deeply who I can actually trust. The pages of this chapter are full of unknowns and an instability that often leaves me breathless. The stress level is unprecedented. Fear–especially of the future–visits often, an uninvited companion on this shadowy journey. The tears flow daily. It is a chapter wrought with betrayals and cutting words from unlikely places, but also from familiar places where it has become the norm. If I had to title this chapter in progress, I might call it “The Cloak of Invisibility”, because I’ve never felt less seen and less known.

Do I love my current story? Um…no. Are there days I want to run away from all the things that feel like pressure and conflict and chaos all around me? Almost every day. There are moments that I have to remind myself to breathe, moments when I literally feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. This is the first time I’m telling this much of this chapter’s story, and believe me, I don’t love telling one bit of it. I’m currently pondering deleting every word and starting from scratch in an entirely different direction.

Do you know what’s stopping me from doing just that? Jesus, and his love…

This isn’t the first chapter of my story that has felt unlovable. It won’t be the last. And if I’m honest, my God-story contains more chapters that are hard than are easy, more ugly than beautiful. But do you know what every single chapter contains? The thread of Jesus and his love woven into the tapestry of me. In every chapter, you’ll find death and resurrection, in equal amounts. Every part of my story is overlaid with the story of Jesus and his self-emptying, always pursuing love. Including this one. I may not see it yet, but I can trust that as long as my story is being written, it is inseparably woven together with the thread of Jesus and his love. His love redeems the ugly parts and renames them beautiful. He takes the unlovable chapters and renames them Beloved. Every season, no matter how devastating, contains death and resurrection.

Luanne wrote about a season that left her world in shambles. It was a season during which some things died–a long winter of sorts. The deaths that occurred, though, cleared the way for resurrection, renewal. And throughout that season of dying, God gave her Swallowtails. A butterfly. A symbol of spring. Possibly the best illustration we have of death and resurrection in our created world. A caterpillar is hidden within the cloak of its cocoon. And while it’s in there, it literally dies. Its organs disintegrate, and from that soup of cells, a butterfly is born. When the time is right, the cloak of the cocoon falls away, and the beautiful butterfly is free to fly. Death and resurrection. For Luanne, loving her whole God story means embracing every part of it, as each chapter led her to today. Swallowtail sightings, while still breathtaking and beautiful, wouldn’t carry the same weight in her story had it not been an icon of God’s love for her that carried her through a season of death and into resurrection.

The same is true for all of us. To love our stories means to embrace every chapter, and to learn to hold death and resurrection as equally necessary parts of the narrative. Once we can do that, we can learn to love telling our stories as well.

Diane spoke about sharing our stories with our kids as an act of worship to God. I agree that anytime we share our stories with anyone, it is an act of worship. 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts us,

But have reverence for Christ in your hearts, and honor him as Lord. Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you (GNT)

I believe that our answer for our hope goes beyond quoting verses that we have memorized. Of course sharing scripture is good, and sometimes appropriate, but if that’s all we do, we run the risk of handing people a stale, stagnant story… Our answer for our hope has to include our one, unique, vulnerable story of our personal experience encountering the love of Jesus. When we share in this way, we pull up a chair to the ever-expanding communion table of Christ and enter into authentic community with one another.

Sometimes it takes sharing the chapters we love the least to move toward embracing our whole stories.

It takes courage, but when we share, we might be surprised at the results…

When I wrote above that I might title my current chapter “The Cloak of Invisibility”, I had no idea I would be writing about the cloak of the cocoon in relation to Luanne’s story. As I wrote about it though, I started to experience my own cloak differently, as I wondered,

Could this cloak be a cocoon that is enshrouding me while the necessary deaths take place for new life to grow once again? Is the invisibility I feel maybe a protection while God rearranges me piece by piece, guarding me from the intrusion of predators that would attempt to thwart the process? 

In the pondering, I can feel myself already beginning to embrace my current story. Hope is sprouting from seeds of discouragement that fell into the soil of Jesus’ love. Why? Because Luanne shared her story. And even though it’s a story I know well, it fell fresh on my heart today and impacted my own. Perhaps my current story will impact one of yours and maybe then you’ll share with someone else. And as we continue in this way, we’ll keep making space at the table for all of our stories.

So, to wrap things up, I’ll ask Luanne’s questions again–will you answer them?

“The old hymn above says: I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? What is your current story?” 

–Laura

THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day started on Saturday for me this year. I went to the store to buy flowers. Some for my kids, to congratulate them at their upcoming last concert of the year, and some to take to the cemetery. It’s my fifth year of saying “Happy Mother’s Day” while kneeling in green grass beside a small headstone. I was tender, but not overwhelmed.

I realized my kids needed thank you cards for their section leaders, so I made my way through masses of last minute shoppers to the card aisle. I perused the section marked “Thank You”, and was on my way out of the aisle when my eyes landed on a beautiful card. Almost instinctually, I picked it up and began to read it. It was a Mother’s Day card for a daughter from her mother. And the words could have been written by my mama, to me. Each phrase read like words from her heart to mine, and by the end, I could hardly breathe. Tears spilled as I made my way to a check stand, avoiding eye contact with everyone on the way. I held it together long enough to pay and get out of the store, but I unraveled as I got into my car. I drove to the cemetery through tears, keenly aware of how lonely I felt… I stood in the quiet sunshine after I laid the rose on the black granite, whispering through tears to the woman who gave me life, how much I love and miss her.

Two days prior, I had learned that a good portion of my family, the one I was born into, would be together over the weekend, celebrating my nephew’s first birthday as well as my Dad’s. Over Mother’s Day weekend. There was no conspiracy to leave me out–we live far away and logistics prevent us from being together as much as we’d like to be. But, nonetheless, I hadn’t known about this plan. This feels a little too vulnerable (and selfish…and ugly…) to admit here, but one of my initial response (internally) went something like this: “Oh, wonderful. You all enjoy celebrating together–I’ll be here taking flowers to our dead Mom by myself.” The ache of loneliness settled deep into my heart.

Sunday morning brought a flood of conflicting thoughts and emotions. I’ve come to expect that on this particular day. My sweet husband and kids showered me with the gifts of heartfelt words written inside beautiful cards, gorgeous roses, and other thoughtful gifts. The tears started early…

As I got ready for church, my mind drifted to a daddy in Tennessee and his two precious babies–ages 1 & 3–who lost their beloved mama at age 37 just one week ago. I thought of another mom who is in the hospital now, recovering from extensive injuries, and of her children–and how, once she recovers, she will begin a new chapter of her life as a widow. I thought of a mother in the faith, and the firestorm she has been in lately, how she is modeling Christlike love in the midst of hateful attacks and criticism. I thought of those who long to be moms, and aren’t yet. Those who have buried children. Other children, like me, who have buried their mamas. I thought of broken families, of kids who don’t see this day as a celebration because their moms failed them in catastrophic ways. I thought of tense family situations–the ones that look okay from the outside but are wrought with strife behind closed doors and closed hearts. I thought of mothers who are estranged from their children through no fault of their own, and how they ache to hold their babies–even if they’re grown–in their arms once more…

To say that Mother’s Day is a day of mixed emotions is an understatement. 

That is how I walked into church on Sunday–full of mixed emotions. I had some idea of what to expect. I knew Pastor John would be interviewing Carolyn Smolij and Sumer Hansen about their experience as mothers and with their mothers. I had no idea what they would be sharing about, specifically.

If I had known, I may have stayed home–and missed all that my broken heart needed to hear…

A book could be written about the many wise, grace-filled things these two beautiful sisters shared–I definitely don’t have the space to cover all of it here. Instead, I invite you to join me on the journey their words brought me into.

Sumer began by sharing that, “My mom gave me Jesus.” I nodded, as the first teardrop formed. Me too… She shared that It was her grandma that gave Jesus to her mom, and then her mom passed him along to her. We sang a song before the message that contains this line, “The father’s love came pouring down for us…” I thought of those words as Sumer began to share about her mom. I think sometimes we most feel the love of God pour down to us through the vessel of our mothers. Our first experience of God often comes through the selfless, tender nurturing of women who love us well. More on that in a bit…

Sumer went on to say, “My mom is my champion.” Without my permission, my body slumped into the shoulder of my husband next to me as the first tear multiplied. He didn’t have to ask why. He’s heard me use that exact phrase to describe my mom–the only difference is the verb. I’ve said many times over the past almost five years, “My mom was my champion.” My biggest fan. My encourager. My cheerleader. The one who believed in me more than anyone–and told me so, often.

Then she said, “I see Jesus in the way she champions me.” Did I? Did I recognize Jesus in Mom’s big love for me? Did I see that it was his life in her that spoke life into me? I want to say yes… but if I’m honest, I think I have to say that often, I just see her. The beautiful woman with the larger-than-life ability to love. And I miss her voice, her texts, her cards full of encouragement. She believed in me when I couldn’t dream of believing in myself…

Our final song on Sunday was “Breathe”. It was my grandma’s favorite song, the one we played at her funeral, and my mom loved it, too. I couldn’t sing a word of it during the first service. But as the music swelled and the words washed over my hurting heart, the chorus stood out to me…

“And I…I’m desperate for you. And I…I’m lost without you…”

I tried to push away the question knocking at the door of my heart; tried to will myself into a different frame of mind. But it wouldn’t leave. As I listened to those words of longing, who was I longing for? Jesus? That’s who we were singing to, who I’m “supposed” to long for. And part of me could say yes, it’s Jesus I long for–any moment of any given day, this wouldn’t be a lie. I love him, need him, long for him.

But… in this particular moment, that wouldn’t have been the whole truth. Because, while I always want Jesus, the one I longed for as I wept was the woman who first showed me Jesus. I was desperate for my Mom. And in so many ways since her death, I’ve felt lost without her.

I knew what was coming as I settled in to take notes through the second service. And by the time we got to the last song, I was able to sing along a little bit. At the end of the song, the worship team added this tag:

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

I sat down on the pew, and wrote these words in my notebook:

“You’re the only thing we can hang onto that will remain…”

I was reminded of John 20:17, after the resurrection, when Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t cling to me…” He was telling her she couldn’t hold onto the Jesus she had known, for his physical form was about to leave them. But the risen Christ, present all around us, among us, within us? We can hold onto that reality. When we face loss, pain, rejection, heartbreak, loneliness–there is One we can be sure will never leave. One who sees us in the moments that are hidden from even those who are closest to us. One who delights in us and champions us in a million little ways.

I’ve held up the way my Mom loved me as the gold standard of how to love well. But what I’m seeing now, in new ways, is that she was mirroring to me the supreme love of God. She was my first experience of the unconditional love of God. I love that, because it reminds me that God created both male and female in his image. He is both father and mother. Scripture speaks of him in maternal language many times. One of my favorite instances of this is found in Isaiah 66:13,

“As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:13a, AMPC)

Just as our “Good Father” God can fill the gaps left by earthly fathers who may have been absent, abusive, or taken from us too soon, so can he fill our mama gaps. Whether we have never felt the love of a mother, or we’ve been loved by the best of moms; whether we have time left to grow our relationships, or we’ve had to say goodbye too soon–God loves us with a love that is as matriarchal as it is patriarchal. He is big enough to be both. 

This is really good news, friends… It means that, whether we are mothers or fathers or children–wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God, as Sumer shared with us. Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet. As Carolyn bravely shared about, there is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but that as we commit these things to God, “he will bring life to it.” Carolyn also reminded us that we are “a people of hope”, and that God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” She encouraged us to create the space so that healing can take place.

What space might you need to create? This conversation will land differently with each of us, depending on our experiences. For me? After Sunday’s message, I am realizing that I need to create space by letting go… It hurts to write those words. When you’ve experienced loss, the words “letting go” can feel insensitive, harsh, and like an unnecessary blow. I am wrestling with all of that… But I believe that Jesus is trying to impress upon my heart that he has been my champion all along. That the love I felt from my mom was a beautiful expression of his love that poured out through her. I think he wants me to really know that, just as he is “Papa God” in the moments when I need him to be, he is also “Mama God” when my heart aches to be held by the nurturing love of my mom. I’ve believed this about him for a while, but I’m not sure it made it beneath my surface level understanding until now…

I’ve been “clinging” to my mom, and her absence has left me feeling alone, living with the belief that no one could love me like she did. In human terms, that’s probably true. No one will ever take her place in my heart. No human being will love me with that same mama love that formed me into who I am today. But the God that birthed all of creation and continues to bring new life into being every day wants to birth new life in me. My “This I Know” has included that feeling alone is just part of my story now. It doesn’t have to be. I can miss my mom, honor her beautiful life and legacy, and be grateful for everything she taught me. Mother’s Day will never be easy or uncomplicated for me, and it’s okay and good if I cry when grief visits again. But I can choose to focus on the greatest gift that she gave me rather than on the loneliness that has been a constant companion.

Just as Sumer shared about her mom, my mom gave me Jesus. She wasn’t perfect, but she pointed me to the one who is perfect love. And I get to offer my kids that same gift, knowing that the gaps in my love will be filled by a greater Love, and that my weakness is good, because God’s power can shine through. The story isn’t finished yet.

What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?

–Laura

Laura asks What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?  This is a good question to sit with. Pastor John reminded us at the beginning of his message of the song “Jesus loves me, this I know”, and then he asked us what has clouded our “this”.   Maybe, God wants us to know (or to remember) that we are loved and that His love is enough.

Mother’s Day can be so hard. Some of us have lost our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our children, some of us have not been able to be moms for whatever reason, some of us have just become moms and are filled with excitement and insecurity–we carry all of this with us. We carry our incomplete dreams, our grief, our self blame, our comparison, our longing, our love, our happiness, our joy right into church with us on Mother’s day and there we are–a mixed bag of everything coming together in that place. It’s hard on Mother’s Day to keep our eyes on Jesus and not on our own lack. So there we are.

As Laura mentioned, we heard from two beautiful mothers on Sunday morning, and both of them were honest about their own weaknesses and pointed us to God. One comes from a line of Jesus following women, one did not become a Jesus follower until her daughter was two.  Both recognize that we can’t do this perfectly, and that we must trust our Savior with ourselves and with our children.

Carolyn, who admitted that she had no idea how to be a mother and acknowledged that we’re all just thrown into it, knew enough to pray “God, protect her” over her daughter,  because she knew that God is faithful and trustworthy, and that God is in our midst even when it feels to us “like it’s all going off the rails.” She went on to say, “It’s all about trusting God. We don’t have to worry about the final outcome or try to control it.” She reminded us to offer grace to ourselves because we don’t know what we don’t know. She reminded us not to have regrets, because regrets will kill us, but to make space for one another today with lots of grace.  She reminded us to learn to walk in forgiveness because life is all about relationships. She reminded us to own the things that we need to own–and again, to offer grace to ourselves and to others.  And she reminded us that the story is not over, and not to ever give up hope.

Sumer showed us a clip of a video from when she was a beginning violin student and was playing for her mom. The music wasn’t beautiful, Sumer was still just learning, but her mother’s voice of encouragement, of absolute delight, of edification would make one think that Sumer had just played like a virtuoso. Sumer wanted us to remember that this is how God sees us. He delights in us. He encourages us on.  He is not pointing out our flaws or how we don’t measure up. He is loving us into becoming our real selves.

Maybe what God wants us to know, whether or not we fall into the motherhood category, is that in all of our relationships, in all of our life situations, His grace is sufficient, that forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and that He delights in us.

No matter what your  “this”  has become, the absolute truth is that Jesus loves. Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves all of us, this I know–and that’s a great place to start.  The love we receive from others, the love we offer to others is a gift and a reflection of who Jesus is. None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.

–Luanne

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This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O, death, where is your sting?

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

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

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your stone? 

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

–Laura

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

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

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

How we see Him matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

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

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

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

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

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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Advent #3: Joy

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

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37-38 Message)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

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