Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

The Lord’s Prayer #3

We will begin this week where we left off last week…

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Pastor Beau started Sunday’s sermon with the same verses I closed out my portion of last week’s blog. As he prepared to preach, he didn’t have any idea what Luanne or I were writing about–yet, God was already leading him to connect the same dots. I love it when that happens! He read us these verses out of Matthew 11, and then shared with us a brief summary of Matthew 1-6. He reminded us of what Pastor John has taught us to this point from the sermon on the mount, highlighting the many places Jesus invites us to think differently, to see things a new way, to prepare our hearts to encounter his kingdom. (The last few blog posts include summaries if you’d like to revisit the material we have been learning.)

Beau challenged us to, once again, set aside what we have become familiar with and be willing to let God teach us something new. He emphasized the importance of coming to familiar passages–like The Lord’s Prayer–with open hearts and minds. He reminded us that, throughout the entire sermon on the mount, Jesus is introducing an upside-down kingdom. This now-familiar prayer is no exception.

He read us the prayer, and then explained it in a similar way to how I wrote about it last week. His focus was on how each line connects us to Jesus. When he finished walking us through the lines of the prayer, he said,

“The Lord’s Prayer is a moment to pause, to breathe… Trying too hard to check boxes off a list becomes overwhelming. We forget that we’re asking God for Jesus in this prayer.”

He then took us back to Matthew 11, only this time he read it from a different translation:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

(Matthew 11:28-30, NLT, emphasis mine)

I highlighted the word yoke because what Beau shared with us about this word blew my mind on Sunday… When we think of this word, what generally comes to mind? The wooden piece of equipment placed on the backs of oxen so they can pull a plow, right? I’ve heard plenty of beautiful, informative sermon illustrations that employ this interpretation of the word. But what Pastor Beau shared was brand new to me.

Apparently, in ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, were easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Yes, I audibly gasped as I listened to this new teaching about one of my favorite passages of scripture. And it makes so much sense.

In The Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to daily--every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the yoke of our rabbi. And we are guaranteed that in that yoke, in the set of teachings we desire to model our lives after, we will find rest for our souls. I will never get over the beauty of our Jesus, the kindness of our God, the fresh revelation of the Spirit that leads us beyond our own understanding.

Pastor Beau asked us to breathe in Jesus, so that we could exhale Jesus into the world. He asked us to consider what burdens we are carrying, and then he shared that during this season of unknowns there has been a song that has ministered deeply to his heart. He paused in his sermon to share it with all of us. Here are the words:

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

Oh, I’m sorry when I’ve just gone through the motions
I’m sorry Lord when I just sang another song
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

I’m sorry when I’ve come with my agenda
I’m sorry when I forgot that You’re enough
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

Take me back, take me back, take me back to my first love…

I just want you
Nothing else, nothing else
Nothing else will do

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

“Nothing Else” by Donzell Taggart–

As I listened to this beautiful song, the words, “I’m caught up in Your presence, I just want to sit here at Your feet…” grabbed my attention. I couldn’t help but think of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha worked away in the kitchen. Luke 10: 38-39 tells us:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 

(NLT, emphasis mine)

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, soaking in his presence–taking on the yoke of her rabbi… We don’t have time here to go into all the reasons this scene was such an affront to the culture of that day, but it was so significant. It is also a beautiful illustration of what Pastor Beau taught us on Sunday.

The yoke of Jesus–his ways, teachings, leadership–is unlike any other yoke. We may carry many yokes–volumes of teachings, full of rules and expectations that don’t fit and are burdensome and heavy to carry–but we need only carry one.

Jesus teaches us to pray a prayer through which we ask God daily for Jesus. And when we ask for Him, when we position ourselves at his feet soaking in his presence, he shares with us his way. He carries his yoke with us so we can watch how he does it–all of “it”, and learn from him. Our souls long for this yoke, to be still and breathe in the Holy rest Jesus offers us. He is our daily bread, all that we need, and he longs to fill us with himself.

As I close this week, I find myself praying the same words I prayed last week:

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura

Matthew 11:28-30 - I Will Give You Rest - Free Art Download ...

The Lord’s Prayer-Part 2

There is so much in this week’s few verses, that I almost hate to take the time to recap. Fortunately, Laura and I are a team, so, I trust between the two of us, we’ll cover it as well as we can–and hopefully create a hunger for each of you to dig in even more deeply.

Last week in our Sermon on the Mount series, we began to dig into the first few phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s prayer comes in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on When you give…When you pray…When you fast–the three pillars that keep us connected to God and to community. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about prayer:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us today our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matthew 6:9-13)

Last week we dug into the significance of God as our Father, of the hallowedness of God’s name, of His kingdom and His will being done on earth as in heaven. This week the verses turn toward us. It’s significant to note that the verses don’t turn toward “me”. Each of us is part of a greater whole, a kingdom people who God wants to use to bring His kingdom of love and light to the world.

Pastor John pointed out that it seems odd that we’ve just addressed and honored God and his desires and then we say “give us”. In our English understanding, it’s almost as if we say, God, you’re great and awesome and your kingdom and will matter a lot, but now, I’m going to demand some things from you…give me my bread today…

So, digging in a bit to what Jesus is actually teaching us to pray is a good idea. In the address of the Lord’s Prayer, the word hallowed is an imperative verb. I don’t think I knew it was a verb until Pastor John pointed it out. I’ve always thought of it as an adjective describing God’s name, so this is something new to ponder. I love that. As is my practice, I looked it up for myself in the concordance, and sure enough…it’s an imperative verb. What it means is that we hallow, acknowledge, separate from profane things God’s name today, tomorrow, and for always. It’s an action that we carry out.

“Give” in the phrase Give us this day our daily bread, similar to hallowed is an acknowledgment, a declaration, that it is God who provides for us. The really interesting word in this passage, however, is daily. 

The Greek word “daily”, found in the Lord’s Prayer in Luke and in Matthew, is not found anywhere else in the Bible. Scholars and commentators have been puzzled for centuries about its actual meaning. It was not a word commonly used in the Aramaic language. I find that fascinating! What was Jesus trying to communicate in using this obscure word? I read through a number of different commentaries and, like Pastor John, can see that the most common understanding falls in line with “now, tomorrow, and continuously”, so the phrase can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.

Even the word “bread” is discussed heavily among biblical scholars…was Jesus teaching about actual bread? Daily sustenance? Spiritual sustenance? Many scholars believe this was a declaration of dependence upon God for life–not a desire for opulent living (more than enough), nor a desire to be destitute–just a humble and grateful dependence upon God for all of our daily needs.

This makes sense to me in light of Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and a verse that we haven’t yet come to in the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus teaches So don’t worry and don’t keep saying, ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink or what shall we wear?! That is what pagans are always looking for; your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your heart on the kingdom and his goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course. (J.B. Phillips)

More familiar translations say Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.  

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him.  Looking at the lives of Jesus and his disciples, they traveled constantly.  Jesus was basically homeless. For sustenance, sometimes they fished, sometimes they ate in the home of friends, sometimes they ate in other people’s homes. Sometimes they slept in gardens, sometimes they were in the homes of friends or family–they were rich in relationship, they were rich in community, they were rich in spiritual matters: they weren’t rich in material goods, yet they never went without what they needed for life and sustenance. God provided daily what they needed as they traveled sharing the good news of God’s loving kingdom being right here, right now. God promises to do the same thing for us when we seek His kingdom first.

The next phrase: Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive those who transgress against us, is also (not surprisingly) filled with deep meaning.

The one word sin in our English translations is one of five words found in the original languages. “Sin” can mean:

  1. Missing the mark
  2. Crossing the line
  3. Slipping up
  4. Knowing right and choosing wrong
  5. That which is owed

In the Lord’s Prayer, number five is the word used, so the phrase can be prayed, God, you forgive us that which is owed, as we forgive those who owe us something. 

Jesus asks us to pray this prayer on a daily basis, so each day we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we haven’t done life perfectly, we haven’t lived up to our responsibilities, we owe something,  and we can bring that to God. We don’t come to God in shame, but with honesty and humility. In one of the prayers that I pray most days of my life (sometimes multiple times a day), there is a portion that states: I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. 

Basically — God, I own it. Will you please forgive me? (And God will–he already has).

Then, we acknowledge that we desire to forgive those who owe us; those who haven’t lived up to our expectations, who owe us an apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement of how they hurt us,  or something else.

Jesus wants us to forgive like he forgave–even if they don’t ask. Oooo…this can be hard!

Pastor John encouraged us to hold in our thoughts the way God treats us. Romans 5 reminds us that we were enemies of God, we hadn’t asked for forgiveness or reconciliation and yet, God loved us, initiated relationship with us, and forgave us, without our asking when he placed himself on the cross in the person of Jesus.

That’s how God wants us to be. When we harbor anger and bitterness it destroys community. When we choose grace instead of entitlement or getting even it changes the world. When we forgive this way, we embody the beatitudes, we let go of our understanding, our rights, and listen to Jesus teach us, you have heard it said, but I say...  We become the answer to Jesus’ prayer…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.

When we pray these forgiveness words daily, acknowledging their meaning and desiring their fruit, the behavior of others doesn’t stick to us anymore. We learn to let the offenses go; we leave others in God’s hands, and we become transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ as a result.

As we dive deep, there is plenty to ponder in these two phrases. I’ll leave the third phrase to Laura.

–Luanne

As I begin to type my portion, I am sorting through hours of thoughts… I have no idea where this is going to go yet, so I’ll start by bringing you into the space I’m in right now…

I am pondering the third phrase of this week’s message, the meanings I discovered as I prepared to write, and I’ll get there–but not yet. When I opened the website I always use to find definitions for the original Greek words used in our scriptures (Blue Letter Bible), my eyes landed on their verse of the day. I’ve never before noticed that part of this particular webpage. Today, it was Ephesians 2:14, For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” When I read the words, I paused, because this verse has been meaningful to me for many years. I remember the room I was in nearly a decade ago when it struck me that Jesus doesn’t simply give us peace, but He IS our peace. If we have him, if he lives within us, we always have peace. I was thinking about the verse a day or two ago, and here it was again, reminding me…

I moved on from there to dig into the meanings of the words in our passage. As I studied, I remembered something I had written about in this blog previously and set off to find that post. Scrolling through dozens of posts from a couple years back, my eyes landed on a highlighted verse. It was Ephesians 2:14. Again. As I read the familiar words again, these lyrics floated up from the quiet music I have on: “Be our peace… Christ our peace…”

Hmm. Okay…

I continued scrolling, looking for one specific post, and found myself caught up in our words from seasons past. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I read pieces of Luanne’s heart and my own captured in pictures painted with words from days gone by. Each post took me back to the time it was written, to the circumstances that we found ourselves in during those moments in time. I read about the kingdom, about love, about Jesus and how everything really does revolve around him and his way of love. We’ve written the same thing in different words over and over again. And woven into these recurring themes are threads of our own lives, our stories, lessons learned, the concepts we are still wrestling with–the ways our experiences illustrate the truths that have come to define our lives.

This blog chronicles both our church’s and our own daily walks with God. Luanne shared above that “daily” in this week’s passage most clearly means, “now, tomorrow, and continuously.” She continues, telling us that the words Give us this day our daily bread, “…can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.” The words I read from days gone by, they chronicle our daily seeking of the God who is our provider. Through the joys and the pain, the thread is God’s great love and his kingdom coming to and through us.

Just a minute ago, as I wrote about Jesus being our peace, these words floated up from the song that played “randomly”: “Your peace will make us one…” 

Friends, even as I type in this moment, I’m not sure where the Spirit is taking us. But I am paying attention…

Let’s jump back into our verses and we’ll see where we end up…

The last phrase from Sunday’s passage is Matthew 6:13:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

The Message paraphrases it this way:

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

Again, there is much for us to explore in these few words. “Lead us not into temptation” is an interesting line that can trip us up a bit. As we consider what Jesus is saying to us here, it is important to remember these words from his brother James:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed…” (James 1:13-14, NIV)

What Pastor John identified on Sunday is that the statement “Lead us not into temptation…” is a declaration of our need for God to lead us rather than us leading ourselves. As we pray these words, we are acknowledging that where we lead ourselves is often nowhere good, and we need to be led away from those things that would bind and cause pain. The Message captures this idea above when it says, “Keep us safe from ourselves…” 

The second half of the verse is, “…but deliver us from the evil one.” Many English translations of this verse don’t include the word “one,” and simply read, “deliver us from evil.” A deep dive into the original Greek tells us that the broader “evil” is the working definition with a deeper root being a word that means “pain.” We’ll come back to that in just a moment… There is another word we need to look at first. It is the word deliver. What do you think of when you hear that word? Rescue? Birth? Save? It does mean all of those things in our English usage of it, but none of those capture what it means in this verse. It does, in its root form allude to a rescue, but a rescue that occurs by “drawing to oneself… like the flow of a current.” How beautiful is that? 

Back to evil… I mentioned that the word “pain” is a deeper root than “evil.” There is a deeper root word, though, and I find the meaning of this deepest root word so significant to our discussion of The Lord’s Prayer as a whole… The word that becomes “pain” and then “evil” is, in its original form, “poor.” And it means, “to toil for daily subsistence.” 

Luanne just wrote about asking God for our daily bread, to be our provider today, every day, forever. And the prayer finishes with words that mean (if you’ll allow my paraphrase):

“We need you to lead us away from the things that would bind us. Save us from ourselves. Rescue us from our pain–from our poverty, our toil for daily subsistence–by drawing us like a current to yourself.”

These words, built out of the definitions of the original root words, sound a whole lot different from our understanding of “temptation” and “evil”, but it flows a whole lot more with the preceding parts of the prayer, doesn’t it?

Before I close this out, I want to paint one last word picture…

Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus lists one phrase as synonymous with the verb “toil.”

“Sweat blood”

This is the one synonymous phrase given for this word. Wow. We are to pray–in declarative form–God, draw us like a current to yourself, away from our struggle for daily survival, away from sweating blood. Lead us your way. Give us what we need each day, every day, forever, as you always do. Help us to offer forgiveness as you have. 

Jesus, in The Lord’s Prayer is teaching us how to ask God for HIM. I am fairly undone as I consider all that we’ve looked at and studied here…

Our holy, huge, sovereign yet personal, intimate Father—Your kingdom come…

The kingdom comes through Jesus…

Your will be done…

God’s will looks like Jesus…

Give us our daily bread, the bread we need today, every day, forever…

Jesus is our bread of life…

Forgive us as we, through you, forgive…

The forgiveness of God hung on display in the person of Jesus on the cross…

Lead us in your way…

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life…

Draw us like a current to yourself…

Jesus is the way to the Father…

Away from our toiling, away from sweating blood for our daily survival…

Jesus sweat blood as he prepared to empty all of himself that we might be saved–made whole. He toiled, he sweat blood, on our behalf, that he might become our peace.  

The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. 

There are many antonyms to the word toil, but one stood out to me among the others: rest. I’ll wrap this up with a passage that has become a recurring theme in my life, one I have included so many times before, out of Eugene Peterson’s gorgeous Message paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Come to Jesus, always to Jesus, daily and forever to Jesus, “For He, himself, is our peace…”

The Lord’s Prayer does what the Sermon on the Mount does, what all of scripture does: It points us back to Jesus–our way, our truth, our life, our daily bread and living water. And as we come to our Father on the current of Jesus our Savior, we are delivered into the image of Christ as we become “an anticipation of the age to come” (Expanded Lord’s Prayer, Brian Zahnd), as the Kingdom comes through us. 

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura

Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

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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