Stories: Carolyn

For the last few years, Pastor John has interviewed various members of our local body on October Sunday mornings, giving us the opportunity to learn each others stories of faith. It has become one of my favorite things we do. This year our first “story sharer” was Carolyn.

Carolyn grew up in a protective, moral home in Southern California. Even though they were moral people, they were not people of faith, so Carolyn grew up with no knowledge of Jesus at all.  When Carolyn met John, who would become her husband, she was drawn to his adventurous spirit. She was ready to escape the confines of her protective home environment, so she and John married and within the first year they moved to the Pacific Northwest and had their daughter, their only child.

At first the carefree life was fun, but carefree eventually became hard. Carolyn realized that her husband was restless and couldn’t settle. She went through tumultuous seasons, fearful seasons, uncertain seasons, unsettling seasons. She was a long way from her extended family. There were many moves, many “adventures”.  She lived in a teepee for a season, lived in an A-Frame in the woods with no water or electricity–lots of adventure, no doubt, but also lots of hard. She and John separated off and on during these years. There was a lot of pain.

During one of their difficult seasons, Carolyn, who is an avid reader, found the Bible that her grandmother had given to her and sat down with it. She didn’t know anything about the Bible, had never read it, and this particular one was the King James Version which can be hard to understand. Carolyn was crying so hard that she couldn’t read through her tears anyway, so she just cried over the Bible. And God–He met her there. Carolyn had never heard about Jesus, had no idea that He could be her Savior, but she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that God met her as she cried over her Bible. She said that she didn’t know to look for God, but God saw her broken heart crying out to Him even though she didn’t know that’s what she was doing. She sensed his presence and knew He was real.

Some time after that encounter, her family moved closer to their little town in Washington State. There was a little church within walking distance of their home. Carolyn thought it would be fun to walk with her daughter to that little church on Sundays, so she began to do that. In that Little Brown Chapel, Carolyn began to hear about Jesus. She said that a light came on and she began to see things differently than she had before. She acknowledged again that she wasn’t really looking for God, but that He found her.  God began transforming her life from the inside out.

Her husband didn’t want anything to do with Carolyn’s new journey. He could see the difference in her and rejected it outright. He left her for about six months, yet God used that season as a season of tremendous growth in Carolyn’s life. She said that the Holy Spirit began to reveal things to her, and gave her understanding as she read her King James Bible. She shared with us that her faith grew under the teaching of the Lord, not any man. There is something truly beautiful about that.

The Apostle John wrote in his first letter: As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him. (1st John 2:27) 

Jesus taught us that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide (us) into all truth. (John 16:13).

This is what Carolyn experienced, and I can personally attest that she draws from a deep well.

She prayed during that season of separation, asking God if she was to get a divorce. God spoke many promises to her during that season, and one of those was that her husband would come to know Jesus. She thought that meant it would happen soon, but God’s timing wasn’t Carolyn’s timing. He told her to bloom where she was planted. She knew that God could have revealed Himself to her at anytime during her life, and He chose to reveal Himself to her while she was married, so she trusted that there was purpose in that. She remained faithful to God, and to her husband, and acknowledges that it is God who gave her the strength to stay the course.

Many years later, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. He fought it courageously for three years. He had previously shared with Carolyn that he believed in God, but didn’t need a middle man to believe in “the man upstairs”; however, during his cancer journey he began to have different thoughts. Carolyn says that he began to share some things that allowed her to see that he was contemplating new things.  She did not push, she knew that God alone changes hearts and she didn’t want to mess it up, so she allowed the Holy Spirit to work in John’s life. Ten days before he passed away, he gave himself to Jesus. The joy on Carolyn’s face when she relayed this part of her story was contagious.

Once Carolyn was widowed, she had some choices to make. She knew that she couldn’t remain on the land that they had shared together, so she chose to move here,  to Casper, Wyoming, where her daughter and grandson live.  She and her daughter have experienced much healing in their relationship. Carolyn is able to acknowledge that she chose to stay in a painful home environment, but her daughter had no choice. They don’t shy away from hard conversations about those years, and they have grown very close as a result.

Carolyn has always been drawn to encouraging and helping other women, so in our church and community she has led small groups, Bible studies, and shared with women over coffee dates and dinners. I’ve been blessed to sit under her teaching. She’s the real deal.

Some of the nuggets that she shared during her time on Sunday include:

“God was good, even though the time was painful.”

“Adventure with God is better than anything we can plan.”

“Letting Him (God) love me was all I needed for Him to be real to me.”

“When God gives you a promise and plants it deep, hold onto it.”

“It’s never over. We ask too little and forget to hold on to faith.”

“There is a beauty about God when He works in our lives.”

“He is a God who is trustworthy and faithful in everything.”

Pastor John, in his closing remarks reminded us of Abraham’s call in the book of Genesis. God asked him to leave his country, his family, and go. Abraham had no understanding of where or how. He had nothing figured out. Abraham wasn’t focused on his destination, he was going because God called him, and he was following that call. Carolyn was following God’s call, and through many transitions, she still is.

Transitions are part of our stories. Transition means the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. Synonyms: Change, passage, move, transformation, conversion, metamorphosis…

Doesn’t that describe God’s desire for us? When I think of transition in terms of my relationship with Christ, I don’t see that there is a point when I’ll  be able to say “I’ve arrived! I’ve transitioned fully!” I believe that’s part of the journey. Part of the beauty.

The Apostle Paul wrote and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

To contemplate the Lord’s glory, His beauty–to sit in His presence–is where transformation– transition– happens.

The Message version of 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 reads like this:

Whenever, though, (we) turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there (we) are–face -to-face! (We) suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free for it!  All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured, much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

This is Carolyn’s story. She encountered the living, personal presence– a living Spirit, and she is free. Her face shines with the brightness of God. She is a reflection of the Savior and her life continues to grow more and more beautiful as she continues to seek God’s face.

That invitation to sit in His presence is available to all of us. And as we sit, as we seek, as we allow Him to be our teacher, He changes our beings and we become vessels that reflect His glory to a world who needs to see it. Carolyn’s transformation was the seed God used to soften the soil of her husband’s heart. After almost 30 years of marriage, and “blooming where she was planted”,  her husband reached for, and felt the embrace of His Savior.

The video that played before the beginning of our service concluded with the phrase Faith begins when we can’t imagine what the next chapter holds.” 

None of us knows what the next chapter holds, but we know Who will be with us always. Let’s spend our days in His presence, seeking His face, experiencing His love and reflecting His glory. He is–and will be–faithful and trustworthy in everything.

–Luanne

Interestingly, I jotted down the same line that Luanne did from the video that preceded Carolyn’s story:

Faith begins when we can’t imagine what the next chapter holds.” 

Carolyn’s story held many unknowns before she met Jesus. Married to a man with a bit of a gypsy spirit, I imagine there were many days early on when she couldn’t imagine what the next chapter would hold. But the word Carolyn used more than once when she spoke of those earlier days was not faith. It was fear. The uncertainty in her life made her feel fearful.

In a way, though… her faith did begin in those fearful moments when she couldn’t imagine where they might live next or when they would move again. Eventually, it was the fear and pain that colored her days that led her to cry over her King James Bible–an act of faith, though she didn’t regard it as such then. As Luanne also wrote about above, Carolyn says of that moment, “God saw my heart crying out. I didn’t know how to cry out.” 

I think there is something so irresistibly beautiful about Carolyn having zero theological constructs when God, in her words, “found her”. She wasn’t looking for Him. She didn’t know there was a “Him” to look for. When she found herself fearful and in pain, she, for whatever reason, pulled out a little Bible and cried her eyes out over it. She didn’t read a word. And then she put it back.

This isn’t the “right way” many of us were taught to come to faith in Jesus–

But it was good enough for God. 

He met Carolyn as her tears fell, each one seen and collected by His daddy-heart. She didn’t know what the next chapter would hold–and this is where her faith began. The gorgeous simplicity of this small beginning grips my heart. It reminds me that, “the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you…” is a verse that is written in our Bibles, one that is often overlooked. I remember the day I read it for the first time–partially because it was only two years ago. At that point, I had spent three decades surrounded by theological structures and saturated with Scripture–but somehow, this one hadn’t penetrated my consciousness. When I read it again in Luanne’s portion, it thrilled my heart the same way it did that first time. Jesus teaches us. His Holy Spirit leads us. God finds us where we are. Our faith has never been about a formula, a “sinner’s prayer”, a certain theological structure. Because Carolyn wasn’t trapped in any of these man-made confines, she was able to experience her Savior as the God He truly is: One who sees, who comes down to us and finds us where we are, and the One who is mighty to save us from ourselves and everything else that has a hold on us. 

She said, “Church, and even Scripture, can get in the way of Who it’s all about.” There is a depth, a richness about Carolyn’s faith that was formed by encounters with the Real Thing. When you watch her face as she talks about her Savior, when you listen as she shares pearls of wisdom, you can’t help but notice something… different. Something refreshing. Something real. Her real encounters with the real Jesus have marked her with a realness, a believability, that can be found nowhere else. She reflects the realness of Him who saw her, who continues to teach and guide her.

Luanne wrote above, regarding when Carolyn’s husband was beginning to show signs of being open to Jesus, “She did not push, she knew that God alone changes hearts and she didn’t want to mess it up, so she allowed the Holy Spirit to work in John’s life.” Why was she so able to rest in this truth? Perhaps it was because she had been blessed to encounter the God that found her where she was, so she trusted that that same Good God would do the same for her husband. She hadn’t been “evangelized” by any human being, her transformation was the result of encountering the only One capable of changing a heart. It is no small thing to stake everything on Jesus, to let go of everything and everyone we love the most, and trust Him to do the rest. Most of us aren’t good at this. The temptation is often to do all that we can, to say the right thing, to “teach” those we love how to find Jesus. Our motives are good–we want those we love to know Jesus, to find their peace in Him. But we could learn much from the way Carolyn “witnessed” to John…

Her lack of words, her faithful love, her solid trust in the promise God made to her heart-these are the things that spoke the loudest. She innately understood–maybe because of her own experience with God–that sometimes, people can’t see Jesus because we are standing in the way. So she got out of the way and let God be God. And, as Luanne wrote,

“Ten days before he passed away, he gave himself to Jesus.”

Beautiful.

Carolyn’s realness, her depth, allows her to connect with people–specifically, women–from all kinds of backgrounds and in different stages of life. I, like Luanne, have been blessed to learn from her teaching, and Jesus has loved me through her. As my own mama was slipping from this world into the next, Carolyn was one of her faithful friends. There were many who loved my mom, and our family, well during that season. When Carolyn spent time with my mom, though, their time was marked with the contagious joy that both of them exuded-that still pours from Carolyn-and it was a thing to behold… Carolyn may not be aware of this, but she taught me much during that time. She and my mom didn’t spend a ton of time together. But the way she loved her as she was dying is something I won’t forget… She stayed present in the moments they shared. They laughed–a lot. There was a sharing of memories of time gone by, and a knowing that the end was near. But when Mom and I would talk about their time, it was clear that spending time with Carolyn left her feeling more at peace with her circumstances and more ready to see the face of the Savior they both loved so deeply. What a gift…

Carolyn’s story is far from over, and her influence goes beyond what she will ever see or know this side of heaven–I’m sure of that. There are chapters yet to be written, as there are in all of our stories. And, really, none of us has any idea what the chapters will hold… What do we do with that? With the transitions we would never have imagined? If we can fix our eyes on the One who knows the end from the beginning, and take steps to follow His lead, He will teach us how to walk in the dark, how to follow the light that finds each of us in our darkness. And we will find, as Carolyn’s story displays, that ours is a God who is trustworthy and faithful–in everything.

–Laura

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Dear Church #7: Philippians 3:12-14

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Church… keep moving forward.

–Laura

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Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

Last Words: Jesus

Over the last three weeks we’ve looked at three men: Peter, Judas and Pontius Pilate. We saw things in their stories that left us wrestling with the unsettling truth that we can, in fact, relate to all of them–even (especially?) at their very worst. We explored stories that we don’t often look deeply into–and in the deep pools of their humanity, we’ve seen our own reflections. We’ve seen how we can get caught up in our own fears and misunderstood identites. How expectations can cause us to take things into our own hands and lead us down a road of self-destruction. We have had the opportunity to face our own indifference and its consequences, to see how a desire to self-protect can be the very thing that implicates us. We were reminded that we cannot wash our hands of our guilt, and that there’s only One who can wash away our betrayals and failures.

It is the words of that One-Jesus-that Pastor Beau brought before us in this final message of what has been a compelling and profound series.

The book of Luke contains three of Jesus’s last seven statements before His death on the cross. These are the words Beau spoke from on Easter Sunday.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

From these three statements, Beau asserted that Jesus is for us: He is our intercessor (Romans 8:34, 1 Timothy 2:5-6); He wants a personal relationship with each of us, evidenced by His response to the thief on the cross who believed; and Jesus was fully committed to His surrender, as He gave absolutely everything-even His very last breath-in obedience to His Father on behalf of us.

Pastor Beau went on to bring us into the space where God had really spoken to his heart as he prepared for Easter Sunday. He reminded us that there is absolutely no power in the cross itself or in the empty tomb alone–it was the Man who was hung on the cross and placed into the tomb that contained the power. It was Jesus who made the cross and the tomb symbols of our faith-the symbols alone are meaningless. Our resurrection-our movement from death to life-only happens when we encounter the Resurrected Savior, Jesus Himself. Beau told us that our salvation is immediate and eternal-as it was for the thief on a cross who gave Jesus his heart at the very end of his life. But Jesus desires more for us! He wants us to live into the fullness of our identities as those who have encountered our Resurrected Savior. He desires that we live beyond the cross and the tomb, into the truth of redemption and the ministry of reconciliation as those who’ve been reconciled to the Father through the Son! He longs that we fulfill the purposes we were built for, to live fully committed to our surrender as He did. We talked about Peter in week one of this series, about how he did this-he lived into his true identity. But, as Beau reminded us, he didn’t really step into his new identity until he encountered his Resurrected Savior. During his conversation with the post-resurrection Jesus on the beach (John 21), Simon Peter dropped the “Simon” and put on “Peter”. And he spent the rest of his days fulfilling his purpose on this earth. He didn’t will himself to become Peter. He didn’t work hard enough to make the name stick. The transformation happened when he had a redeeming encounter with the Resurrected Jesus. That’s where change begins, where real transformation starts–for all of us.

Have you encountered your Risen Savior? Have you experienced redemption that began the transformation process in the depths of you? If not, you need to know that this Gospel we preach, it is simple. The thief on a cross next to Jesus? He believed Jesus was actually who He claimed to be, and he asked Him to remember him when He came into His Kingdom. He didn’t have any time to make amends for the wrong he’d committed, to ask forgiveness from those he’d hurt. He came to Jesus just as he was. And Jesus not only promised him that he would find himself in paradise that very day–He made it personal. He told the man, “You will be with me today in paradise”. Beginning a relationship with Jesus is that simple. We give him all that we are in exchange for all that He is. And if we die in the next moment, we’ll find ourselves with Him for eternity.

But if we still have life to live… there’s so much more. Meeting our Risen Jesus is only the beginning. We have identities to grow into, new names to wear as He writes the rest of our stories. We don’t want to miss out on all that He has planned for our lives. One day we’ll say some last words of our own. We will leave a legacy no matter what–the stories of our lives will point to something. We have some choices to make that will determine what-and who-that legacy points to.

Beau reminded us on Sunday that in the Apostle’s Creed, only a few names are mentioned. The three manifestations of God: God our Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and… Pontius Pilate. The mention of him reads likes this:

I believe in Jesus Christ…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”

Beau suggested that maybe that wasn’t the legacy Pilate would have chosen to leave. But his choices left it for him, whether he consciously chose it or not. The record of our choices will leave a legacy, too. Our lives will tell a story. Mine contains some chapters I’m not proud of–accounts that make me cringe, that grieve my heart. But thankfully, those chapters are only part of the story. I’m hopeful that when I take my last breath and join the nameless thief and Jesus in eternity, my story will exist as a small portion of His story, a portion that evidences the power of Jesus and the difference He can make in a willing, surrendered life. I hope that one day, my last words are lyrics in the song being written by the Word of Life Himself–the One whose words will echo on for all of eternity. I hope that yours evidence the same Savior and join the song He wants to write through your lives.

–Laura

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Contingency Plan

On Sunday in the absence of our pastor, one of our elders brought the message. Jim spoke about the importance of a contingency plan and used an illustration from his work to highlight his point. Jim is the manager of the air traffic control tower in our city, and one Friday evening he received a call, which is unusual. He was told that the tower had lost its radar, phone capabilities, computer screens– basically everything that was needed in order to carry out their duties and keep passengers and crews safe. Jim asked them if they had carried out the contingency plan, which they had. He asked if they needed anything from him. They did not. They were able to function using the contingency plan, and calling Jim was part of that plan.

I looked up the definition of “contingency plan”–  according to dictionary.com this is what one is:

1. A course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.
2.  A plan or procedure that will take effect if an emergency occurs; emergency plan

In Jim’s example, I can’t imagine the panic that would have set in had the air traffic control tower not had a contingency plan, but because of the plan, when the unexpected happened, they were prepared, knew what to do, and were able to continue carrying out their mission of keeping planes and people safely where they needed to be.

A contingency plan is in place before the unexpected happens. Spiritually speaking, it’s good for us to have a contingency plan. Life on this fallen planet is full of the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, do you have a plan in place?

Jim’s spiritual contingency plan consisted of four parts:

1. Keep your eyes on Jesus: Jim read to us the account of the incarcerated John the Baptist sending his followers to find out from Jesus if Jesus was truly the Messiah. John was in a crisis. He was confused. He was hurting. God wasn’t doing what he had expected, and he had some questions. (Notice that he took his questions to Jesus—always a good idea in a tough season.) Jesus didn’t get angry with John or his disciples—nor did he explain John’s situation or tell him what the outcome would be—instead, he told John’s disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus was reminding them of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah, and that even though John’s personal situation was unexpected, He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah and His Kingdom work—God’s plan— was being done.

Ravi Zacharias says “In its essence, faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.”

Does our contingency plan include choosing to hang on to Jesus, to trust Him, to have unwavering faith, even when the bottom drops out?

2. Pray for each other.  Jim illustrated this point by reading us the account of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal (fabulous account found in 1st Kings 18).  King Ahab was a terrible king and Elijah wanted him to know the one true God  so 3 1/2 years earlier he had prayed for no rain to fall. This encounter on Mount Carmel was the tipping point in that 3 1/2 year drought coming to an end.

In the New Testament, in order to remind us of the power of prayer,  James writes this about Elijah: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:16-18 NLT)

Blaise Pascal wrote one of my favorite quotes about prayer when he stated that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” 

 Things happen when we pray.

And things happen when we don’t.

God told Ezekiel “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)  

Our intercession for each other and for the world is huge.

I read the following in my devotion this morning:

“Prayer (and fasting depending on the translation) is part of Jesus’ casting out of unclean spirits (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21). Why prayer? These verses about prayer and fasting are not about our holiness such that if we are worthy we can wield them to use God’s power…. No, prayer is conversation with God. Prayer helps us to attune our hearts toward God as well. It is in the midst of this form of communion with God that we hear from God and also make intercessions for the world around us. We pray for strength, insight, forgiveness, healing. We pray for the transformation of situations and for the needs and welfare of others. We pray for darkness to be lifted and for people to become free.  I absolutely believe in Holy Spirit driven calls to action. I also believe in the powerful activity of prayer that moves in ways that I don’t always see… If prayer is the method that Jesus uses to cast out the darkest forces that invade and misdirect our physical world, let us also choose prayer as a form of resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.”  Justin Coleman

Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray…if we want darkness conquered we must be people of prayer. Paul tells us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, he tells us to put on the armor of God, and he tells us when we have done that to PRAY.  (Eph. 6)  He tells us in 1st Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Jesus reminds us  “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,'”  (Mt 21:13a). 

 We are the temple of God (1st Corinthians 3:16) and we are living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 5:8).  WE are His houseWould our houses, our temples be recognized as houses of prayer? Is prayer part of our plan?

3. Continue in community.  Jim used the story of Lydia in the book of Acts (chapter 16)  to highlight this part of the contingency plan. He pointed out that Paul normally went to the synagogue when he entered a new city; however, on this sabbath he went to the river to pray.  While there, he visited with a group of women, and encountered Lydia, who was a worshiper of God but did not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus. She responded to Paul’s message and was baptized. So many things about this encounter are beautiful–Paul went where the Holy Spirit led him. On this occasion the Holy Spirit led him to a group of women.  Women were little more than property to the men of that day.  But to God, each woman was His image bearer. Jesus highly esteemed women when he walked the earth, and Paul was following in the footsteps of his Savior. The result of this encounter with Lydia is that not only did she come into a relationship with Christ, she came into the kingdom of his people–community. The church in Philippi was birthed out of this encounter.

Paul was already part of the kingdom of God, and he leveraged his life to bring others in. He noticed the marginalized. This is our call. All of us. Who are the marginalized in our day, and what is Christ’s desire for them? We do not have His permission to despise anyone.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17), and we–his people– are the ones who carry this message to those who don’t yet know Him.

One caution–when we go through hard times our tendency is to want to withdraw from community, to isolate. We are not meant to go through life alone.  Seek a community that allows you be exactly who you are, exactly where you are–one that doesn’t require pretending. Seek a community that will love you into the arms of Jesus.

Is your contingency plan to stay connected to kingdom people, and bring others in?

4. Love each other.  Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this, instead, he gives us godly ways to handle conflict (Mt. 5:23).

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14)   James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)  Peter tells us “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.” (1st Peter 1:22).

Does your plan include choosing to love?

Jim’s air traffic controllers had a contingency plan in place. When the bottom fell out and their normal system failed they followed the contingency plan.

My hope is that each piece of our spiritual contingency plan is part of our daily lives–focusing on Jesus, prayer, healthy spiritual community, and loving well–so that it is as natural to us as breathing. Then, when life falls apart, systems fail, and the bottom drops out-we hold on to Jesus, to His people and weather the storm with eyes fixed on Him.

–Luanne

As I think back over the four parts of the contingency plan that Jim laid out for us, I believe that the first and the last are paramount for us to really grab hold of. Keep our eyes on Jesus and love each other. When I put these two side by side, it reminds me of some words that Jesus spoke when He was asked which commandment is the most important. He answered:

“…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)

During Jesus’ ministry, He never wavered about what had to come first. He called out sin, of course, and He spoke and taught about many things. But He maintained that our primary focus as His followers was to 1. Love God, and 2. Love (all) people. This is what we’re called to. It’s always been the way to bring His Kingdom on earth. I know that Jim’s first point was to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to love Him–but I think they are one and the same. If we fix our eyes on Him, if we see Him for who He really is, we will love Him.

So the two most important commandments, according to Jesus, are the bookends to Jim’s contingency plan. I’m going to focus only on these two points here, because I believe that loving God and loving each other are what spur us on to pray for each other and to continue in community. They are part of the natural outflow of prioritizing the other two, and cannot exist without them.

Okay… Love God. Love people. 

So simple… and so hard.

One of the reasons this simple command is so hard has to do with something Jim brought up on Sunday. He used the term “expectation bias“, and I believe it can get in the way of fulfilling the call we were given (Sidenote: It is a call and it applies to all of us…) to love both God and people.

So, what is it? What is expectation bias?

Expectation is defined as: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; an attitude of expectancy or hope. 

Bias is: A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned. 

Expectation bias is explained a lot of different ways by a lot of people who are much smarter than me. One article I read defined it this way:

Having a strong belief or mindset towards a particular outcome that influences perceptions of one’s own, or others’, behavior.

If we look at the three different definitions above, it’s easy to see that expectation bias can be a slippery slope. None of it is grounded in truth. Our expectations may be grounded in truth at first; they may spring up from the hope that we have, hope that comes from our knowledge of God and His love for us as well as from Scripture. But it doesn’t take much for our expectations to move away from truth and toward a focus on self. And when expectation is paired with bias, which is often preconceived or unreasoned, based on incomplete stories or isolated experiences, it’s a dangerous combination.

So let’s look at Jim’s first point: Keep your eyes on Jesus. How could expectation bias complicate this simple concept? In the story Jim referenced about John the Baptist, John asked this question of Jesus:

 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT)

John (and many others over the course of Jesus’ ministry) suffered from expectation bias. They expected a conquering King, not a suffering Savior. Nothing Jesus did or said lined up with their expectations of Him, even though-as Luanne wrote about above-He was fulfilling every prophecy that had been written about the coming Messiah. John’s expectations began with the prophecies from Scripture that he had learned about since childhood. His expectations started out grounded in truth. But as he grew, bits of his own ideas, his own bias, infiltrated what began as pure, hopeful expectation, and as the story unfolded and he found himself in very unfavorable circumstances, his expectation bias kept him from seeing Jesus. He had, at some point, lost sight of the real Jesus, the prophecy-fulfilling Jesus he’d grown up with, and he’d fixed his eyes on a counterfeit. He had fixed his eyes on a self-serving image of the Messiah somewhere along the journey. And we are in constant danger of doing the same thing. 

If we are going to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, we have to have our eyes fixed on the real Jesus-not the self-made version that suits us best. We can’t say we love Him if we’re not looking at the real thing. The real Jesus is found in Scripture. The real Jesus can be seen in the faces around us. The real Jesus is revealed to us in everyday moments through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The real Jesus won’t always keep us from or get us out of crises–but He is always by our side in the midst of our suffering. We have to fix our eyes on that Jesus. If we can do that, if we can look up into the face of love Himself-all filters and expectations aside-we will love Him with all of ourselves. We just will.

When it comes to Jim’s last point, Love each other, we see expectation bias affect things a little differently. Luanne wrote this above:

“Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this…”

When it comes to people, our expectations can reach all-out crazy levels. And we have so many different biases, we are probably unaware of most them. All of our expectations, in regard to other people, are rooted in selfishness. 

Um… all of them? I think so. Yes. I am sitting here trying to think of one single expectation I have of another human being that isn’t somehow linked back to me and my well-being… and I can’t find one. If you disagree, feel free to comment–I would love to be wrong about this!! But I don’t think I am. I could write example after example and dig into the roots of all of them, but I won’t do that here. I would challenge you to think about it though, and to pray through what God might be saying to you on the subject.

I’ve been studying the life of Joseph the last few weeks. Not Mary’s Joseph. The Joseph who was daddy’s favorite-the one with the beautiful coat of many colors… the dreamer. That Joseph. He went through some stuff. We could definitely say that he experienced a crisis or two… His circumstances were beyond unfavorable from the time his brothers sold him into slavery until the dream God had given him was realized in his life a couple of decades later. He was betrayed by those closest to him. He was sold into slavery. Falsely accused. Imprisoned. Forgotten. Alone. And yet… We never see expectation bias play out in the way Joseph interacted with those around him. And years later, when his brothers repented of their sin against him, Joseph’s response was:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20-21 NLT)

When we’ve been hurt, mistreated, let down-and we all have-our expectation bias will grow out of control if we let it. If we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus, attach our hearts to His word, His truth, our minds and hearts will run wild with fear, conspiracies, stories we’ve created out of our pain. Joseph could have found himself in the midst of a bitter, resentful web of expectation bias. But he didn’t. I think it might be because he had a contingency plan. He knew His God and he kept his eyes, his heart, his mind, his strength firmly fixed on Him. And because He did this, because He loved God most, he also loved others. And he made accommodation for their shortcomings. He chose to love anyway, to move toward people anyway, to draw those who had betrayed him back to himself anyway… I see such a picture of Jesus in Joseph’s story. It’s what Jesus does for us. It’s what he asks us to do for others. Ann Voskamp writes this in her book Be the Gift,

I am what I love and I will love you like Jesus, because of Jesus, through the strength of Jesus. I will love when I’m not loved back. I will love when I’m hurt and disappointed and betrayed and inconvenienced and rejected. I simply will love, no expectations, no conditions, no demands. Love is not always agreement with someone, but it is always sacrifice for someone.

Loving each other means laying aside our expectation bias and moving toward people anyway. We can only love each other if we fix our eyes on the Jesus who loves us perfectly first. And if we fix our eyes on Him and love others, we will pray for each other and we will continue in community.

Contingency plans exist for the crisis. They’re in place for when the unexpected happens. When we find ourselves in crisis, we have to hang onto, “…but God intended it all for good…” He knows what we’re going through. He has a plan. Do we?

–Laura

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A Balanced Life

Are you longing for balance in your life? I know I am. Even before this series started, I began taking inventory of my life, asking God to show me what to lean into and what to back away from during this next season. We can sense when we’re out of balance–there is a tension, an instability that keeps us on edge, divided hearts within us. We may not be able to articulate that we’re feeling that way as a result of being unbalanced, but we feel the repercussions of living this way. The consequences of an unbalanced life are the things that leave us longing to find our way back, out of the chaotic mess our lives have become.

What is it, though? What does balance even mean? Pastor John hasn’t directly defined balance in his messages. The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t really define it either. In nearly every definition I read, the word balance was used to define itself. I thought that was a no-no, defining a word by itself… But apparently even Merriam-Webster is a little stumped by this one. To get any grasp at all on what balance actually is, I had to consult a Thesaurus. The synonyms for balance include harmony, evenness, equity. Its antonyms include disproportion, instability and inequality.

I want harmony, equity and evenness to mark my life. How about you? How do we get there from where we are?

Pastor John explained to us three laws of balance. To acquire and cultivate balance, we must first have a reference point, engage in constant correction, and maintain a clear objective. Living this way-much like standing on one foot for an extended amount of time-is simple. The directives are not difficult to understand. The list is not long. It’s simple. But it’s not easy… What is easy, though, is to look back and see where we’ve been in or out of balance in the past. It’s very easy to see how our yesterdays have impacted our todays-for better or worse. We remember the seasons our lives that were marked with instability and disharmony… because we have felt the consequences of living that way. Looking back is easy. Maintaining an awareness of how today’s decisions will affect our tomorrows, though, is harder-if we don’t hold onto the three laws of balance.

While finding a solid definition of balance is a challenge, there are principles that we can grab onto. We heard in this week’s message that “Balance allows us to be all God has created us to be”. It’s not possible to live our lives to the fullest, to fulfill the purposes God designed us for, if we’re living out of balance.

King David understood this. We know from his well-documented story that he didn’t always live a life of balance. But he evidenced over and over again that he did know how to find it. He understood that:

Everything belongs to God. Everything. Scripture drives home this truth many times. Here are just a few examples:

The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all that is in it, You have founded and established them. (Psalm 89:11 AMP)

Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine. (Job 41:11 NLT)

 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:8 NIV)

David penned these verses in one of his own psalms:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1-2 NIV)

And these verses record David’s words from the chapter Sunday’s message came out of:

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
    and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
    for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
    you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
    you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
    to exalt and give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12 NIV)

Every single thing-and every single human being-belongs to God, the Creator of all. And everything we have? It all comes from God.

We can easily identify that David truly believed-and lived by-this truth in the story that John put before us on Sunday.  The verses above, from 1 Chronicles 29, are a portion of a prayer of praise that David lifted after he had given absolutely everything he had, along with the leaders around him, to provide what was needed to build the Temple. He continues his acknowledgment of God as the Giver in verse 14, the verse that Pastor John focused on in his message:

 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

David worshiped, in awe of how generous God had been with him and his people that they could now give so generously. By any standards, David gave extravagantly-today’s equivalent would be somewhere around $14 billion. But he didn’t credit himself as being a selfless guy, some generous temple sugar daddy. He didn’t take one tiny bit of credit. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the extravagance of God that allowed him to then give so much.

When I heard verse 14, I immediately remembered a similar prayer from earlier in David’s story. In 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, in response to God’s declaration that He would build a house for David-not the other way around-and would establish the throne of David’s son Solomon forever, David said these words:

“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?  And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.”

In this instance, David is awed by all that God promised to do for him and for his family. He understands that it is not man who establishes himself, but rather God who holds the plans and the future of each one He has created. He worships, humbled and grateful for the God who gives identity, purpose, position, in addition to providing for physical needs. In the story in chapter 29 that we discussed earlier, he is humbled again as he sees how much he was able to give-because it was a reminder of just how much he had been given.

So what are the takeaways for us? There are many, and I won’t cover all of them here. I encourage you to dig in and seek God’s heart for what He has to say to you through His word. I do want to highlight a few, though.

Our ability to give is not dependent on how much we have, but rather the condition of our hearts. I don’t have $14 billion to give to God’s house. Not even close. And I may have a little more or a little less than you have. God doesn’t give out resources equally-but if we see the whole picture, we’ll see that He always gives extravagantly. Our bank accounts will look different, as will the size of our homes, the year of our vehicles, the vacations we take. But we have all been given the greatest Gift in equal measure. The Gift of Jesus, given for each of us so that all of us could be grafted into the best family-the forever family of God. And within that identity in the family of Jesus, we are given everything.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ(Ephesians 1:3 NIV)

For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6 NLT)

Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. And that should motivate our hearts to give our raised-from-the-dead lives right back to Him. If we understand how much we’ve been given, we won’t want to hold anything back when it comes to giving to Him-because all that we have was first given to us.

Delighting in God above all else changes our “have to” into a “get to”. I don’t believe that David was just an extra-generous guy. And I don’t believe that any part of him struggled to let go of his wealth or himself in surrender to His God. I think we can see pretty clearly that he was a cheerful, grateful, humble giver. I believe this is because he delighted in God. Not as one of many things he found delight in, but as Source of all of his delight and joy. He didn’t have to choose in the moment whether or not to honor God with his life and his giving-the matter had already been settled in his heart. He delighted in his God, and his choices flowed from that place.

I recently listened to a message from a conference that asked the question: Is delighting in God your highest aim, your priority? My current answer? Sometimes. Less than sometimes, probably. But I want it to be my priority. Because if we are absorbed in who God is, in enjoying being with Him and delighting in Him, our focus is on God-not on the gifts that He gives. And if our delight is truly in Him and not in what He can do for us or in us, or in what He gives, then living a generous, open-handed, surrendered life that honors Him is easy. Because it ceases to be about us. 

John asked us to enter into these 21 days of prayer asking God this question:

How can I honor You with everything I am and everything I have?

I’ll be digging into this question in the coming days and hopefully you will, too. I don’t know the full answer yet. But I do believe that honoring God with my life includes these things that David modeled in his life: delight in God above all else, understand that everything belongs to God, and because it all belongs to Him, acknowledge that everything comes from God. 

If we start here, I believe we’ll be well on our way to living lives that honor God.

–Laura

Like Laura, I tried to find a good definition of the word “balance”, and then sought out the etymology of the word. In the midst of that search I found an interesting rabbit trail to follow; I came across the question on stackexchange.com,  Why is a bank balance called a bank balance? This is a portion of the answer that was given:

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

This is not rocket science to anyone who has a bank account; however, it got me thinking about balance in the spiritual realm.

Laura wrote above: Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. 

Jesus cried out “tetelestai” on the cross right before he died. That Greek word has two meanings. One is literally “It is finished.” The other meaning is a banking term meaning “Paid in full.” So when Laura writes “the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for.” It is settled. Done. Complete.  That debt that we owed, that negative balance is wiped out, paid for, finished.

However, in other ways God gives unequally, and He is very purposeful in that. He is a diversity loving God, and He has a plan, using that diversity, to bless the world.

When God called Abraham He told him… I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:2)  Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be blessings. Whatever God has given to you doesn’t stop with you; it is part of God’s bigger plan to bless the world, for His glory,  through you.

Saturday, John and I were preparing for our 21 days of fasting, and we were going through the refrigerator, the freezer, and the cabinets cleaning out old food, expired food, etc.  I was mortified that we had some things that expired years ago. I felt the Lord speak to me, and He said, the more you have, the more you waste.  I felt the prick of that statement, but began to ponder it, process it, and face it. It’s not just food that I waste. I have a fully furnished living room that no one ever uses. It just sits there. Wasted sofas, wasted space. I have clothes and shoes in my closet that don’t get worn. Wasted garments. I am fasting from social media, but when I’m not fasting and have a minute I’ll often pop onto Facebook or Twitter and before I know it I’ve lost thirty minutes or more. Wasted time. The more we have, the more we waste.  And I believe that oftentimes the more we have, the greedier we are. When John and I lived in Brazil, we were very aware that when we worked with the poorest of the poor, they were the most generous, AND the most joy-filled. They gave us fruit from their trees, things they had made with their hands, they gave their laughter, their love, their embrace, their time, accepted us with open arms into their community–it was beautiful. A few years ago on a mission trip to Romania, I tried to bless a family of 13 children by purchasing some of their beautiful flowers. They would not take payment. I tried and tried, but they wanted to give the flowers to me as a blessing. That was a costly gift for them, part of a days wages. It was not what I was seeking, but it was what I received–their costly generosity, their beautiful joy, their gorgeous flowers. If I’m being truthful, I feel the paradox of beautiful pain in my heart when I think about it. I received much more than flowers that day.

Jesus tells us a sobering story in Luke chapter 12, beginning in verse 14. He says: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

What does it mean to be rich toward God? Tim Maas writes: Being rich toward God means remembering that God is the ultimate source of time, abilities, and financial or material means that have been placed at our disposal in this life, and using those gifts not purely for our own ease or pleasure, but to express our thanks to God for His grace and generosity toward us… and (for) benefiting those who have not been equally blessed.

Going back to the rabbit trail that I chased earlier…

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

What has God blessed you with? Has he blessed you financially? Has he blessed you materially? Has he blessed you with wisdom? With artistic skill? With the gifts of craftsmanship? With the gift of hospitality? Encouragement? Teaching? Time? Cooking? Mechanics? Computer skills? Music? Writing? Compassion? Organizing? Decorating? The list goes on and on…

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

Sit for a bit and think about all that God has lavished upon you. Think about how many incoming transactions you have received and continue to receive from Him. He is over-abundantly generous! We will never ever out give Him. When you look at the outgoing side, does it balance out with what you’ve received? Do the gifts and talents and personality and love and fruits of the Spirit that He has deposited into you get spent?

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

The reason that the Dead Sea is dead is because water flows into it, but no water flows out. That’s a negative balance.  Receiving and not giving leads to a dead, joyless life. All humankind is made in the the image of God (we all equally bear His image), and He is a generous giver. He blesses and blesses and blesses. To be like Him, to reflect His image indicates generous living. And to be rich toward Him, by living generously, honors Him.

The three things required for balance:

  1. A reference point, a focal point–I recommend Jesus.
  2. Constant correction–I recommend balancing your life and choices against His Word and His actions, and readjusting as needed.
  3. Clear objective–I recommend a life goal of honoring God and leveraging your life on this earth for the sake of His kingdom.

Will there be wrestling? Yes. We all want control over what we perceive to be our own lives and our own stuff. But truly, none of it is ours. It all came from God.  Will it cost us something? Yes. Will it stretch us? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. Jesus tells us If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Mt 10:39)  May we have the wisdom to find the balanced lives we were meant for by completely giving our lives to the one who completely gave His for us.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…(Col 3:17)

–Luanne

 

 

 

Coming Apart

How do we see Jesus? More specifically, how do we see Jesus when things feel like they’re falling apart? Do we see Him as He desires for us to see Him, or do we create distortions of who He is in light of what we’re going through?

John spoke to us on Sunday about how the apostle John saw Jesus in our series passage out of Revelation:

 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,  and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.     (Revelation 1:12-14)

We learned about the lampstands last week, that they represent seven churches that Jesus had specific messages for. We learned this week that the description of the robe identifies it as a priestly garment. We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. I want to first address the “eyes like blazing fire”.

John emphasized to us that the passage doesn’t say that Jesus had fire in his eyes, just that they were like blazing fire. His eyes were like  whirling, flickering, dancing flames that held the apostle John’s gaze. Just as flames are mesmerizing and captivating, these eyes that John had seen many times before held his attention in a whole new way.

To mesmerize means “to hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else or so as to transfix them”.

To captivate is “to seize, capture, influence & dominate by some special charm, art or trait and with an irresistable appeal”.

So, a question for us  is, does Jesus hold our attention to the exclusion of all else? Are we transfixed by gazing into His dancing eyes? Are we captured within His gaze and do we see Him as He is, absolutely irresistable? Or do we see something else? It matters how we see our Jesus…   

Let’s go back to the robe for a bit… John talked about what we picture when we hear the word “priest”. And then he brought up Hebrews 4:14-16:

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.  So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (NLT)

This passage humanizes Jesus and allows us to think of the word “priest” a little differently. As I listened to this passage, I thought of another-1 Peter 2:9:

“…you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. (NLT)

This passage is talking about us, the family of believers. We are called “priests” in this verse. And when I did a little word study, I found the word translated “priest” in both the Hebrews and 1 Peter passages are linked to the same root word. As Jesus is a priest that understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses and offers mercy, grace and help in our times of need, we are also called priests and we get to offer those same things to the world around us and to one another.

John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy. He doesn’t need our help-He could fix all of our problems without us. But He, our High Priest, invites us to partner with Him so that we-the priesthood of believers-can learn from Him and carry Him to others.

Jesus has always been about “withness” and He still is. He didn’t need the twelve disciples in order to carry out His ministry and perform His miracles. He brought them close to Himself to love them, to teach them, to impart Himself to them. So that when the time came for Him to go the Father, He could leave knowing that He could be seen, felt, touched in those He left behind-a priesthood that would carry out the work He started.

Jesus isn’t a High Priest who intercedes from a distance. He doesn’t sit on the outside and judge us when our lives come apart. He doesn’t tell us what we should do to find our own way out. He always, always, always comes down into our mess and works with us until we can get out together. Just as He came down from Heaven to be born as a baby in a dirty manger, He comes to each of us when things are falling apart, when we find ourselves in a mess we can’t see through, a pit we can’t climb out of-and he offers His help. He sets the example of what kind of a priesthood we are to be. Will we follow His lead and get into the mess with those around us, those who need help? Will we let the mesmerizing, captivating, irresistable gaze of Jesus pour through our own eyes as we interact with the world He’s called us to love the way He loves us? What we see in Jesus is reflected in us–how do you see Him?

–Laura

Laura asked us how we see Jesus. There are times that we get wrong impressions of Him. We struggle to fully understand His love, His grace, His compassion, and His “withness”. But when we sit with scripture, take it slowly, soak it in, we come to see that Jesus is truly for us. He became our high priest, not in an aloof, detached, judgemental way, but in a beautiful “I am with you” way. Hebrews 4:15-16, highlighted above, tells us that He is with us, He is for us. We don’t have to hide anything from him. We don’t have to carry anything alone. We don’t have to try to fix ourselves. We don’t have to pretend to be strong. Jesus is in our midst. Jesus is with us. Jesus has tethered himself to us and has told us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Mt. 11:30) He has come to help us. And He has given us His Spirit to help us as well. Romans 8:26 words it this way: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness…

When John pointed out that the word “help” in the Hebrew verse and the Romans verse, is the same “help” used to describe a wife, my mind went to marriage. A husband and a wife are in partnership together. In order for their marriage to work, there has to be “withness”, a belief that they are in this together working toward the same mission is to be with the same goal. The “yoke” will be easy and the burden light if they are headed the same direction, keeping in step with each other, loving each other, and communicating along the way. Laura stated it this way: John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy…

Stay with me here for a moment. The church is the bride of Christ. So if “help” in this context means “withness”, do we see ourselves in partnership with Jesus? Think about what it implies that the apostle John saw Jesus, with eyes like blazing fire, among the seven golden lampstands—the seven churches. The groom was in the midst of the bride. Intimate partnership.

Sometimes I get a visual that’s a little hard to put into words, but I’m going to try. Jesus, with His eyes like blazing fire—the dancing, mesmerizing, captivating, drawing us in kind of eyes, is among-he is with-the seven golden lampstands. What I saw in my mind was the reflection of Jesus in the gold of the lampstands, and the reflection of the lampstands in Jesus’ eyes. There is a lot of light happening in this scene, and a lot of reflection. I was reminded that in John 8:12 Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew 5:14 He tell us that we are the light of the world. He tells us that if we walk with Him, we won’t walk in darkness. (Jn 8:12) And our light? It’s Him. It comes through intimacy with Him, proximity to Him, and His light reflects off of us to the world.

Laura pointed out that Jesus is our High Priest, and we, too, are priests in His kingdom, so that we can show others the goodness of God, for he called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light….so that we can let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven. (1 Pt 2:9, Jn 5:16). No matter what season of life we are in, He is with us, he has called us out of darkness so that we can bring glory to the Father. He can use our coming apart seasons to give others hope and bring glory to God. The question is, will we choose proximity and intimacy with Jesus when things are coming apart? It truly does come down to how we see Him.

So how do we see Him? Is he hard to see? Do we see Him like one who wants to come alongside us, or do we see Him as distant? Do we filter Him through what we’re going through, or do we filter what we’re going through, through Him?

Look at Him. Can you see your reflection in His eyes? Do you see Him clearly? He is with you. Walk with Him and you will not walk in darkness. Yoke yourself to Him and your burden will be light. He is with you, He is holding all things together. (Cl 1:17) He is Emmanuel—the with us God, and He has got you, no matter what you’re going through.

-Luanne

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Stories… “Arise, My God”

When a person survives a life-threatening situation, we tend to focus on the miracle. We rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. And that is good and beautiful and absolutely appropriate. But it’s only a glimpse of the story, an incomplete picture at best.

This weekend, we were blessed to hear the other side of a miraculous story. The parts that we don’t usually ask about, the pieces that–while they’re not often celebrated–may actually contain the greater miracles. Kent’s story is a powerful one. It is a story of a dire diagnosis-Acute Myeloid Leukemia-that took him immediately away from home and into the throes of chemotherapy and hospital living. He endured infections, septic shock and at least one night at death’s door. We have seen God show up and do the impossible time after time in Kent’s life since the day he was diagnosed. From the perspective of someone who battled in prayer for him, it seemed that God was so near, so close–that He never left Kent’s side.

And He didn’t.

But what we learned as Kent shared so transparently with us, is that he wasn’t so sure. And after hearing about the less than glamorous side of this walking miracle, I am convinced that the greater miracle is what God did in the dark…

Kent shared with us that in the beginning of this journey, he sensed God telling him, “I’m going to teach you something more”. He said that when he heard this, he expected God to take him to new heights. Instead He took him to new depths. In this unfamiliar place, God seemed different than He had before. Kent was unsure of who He was. It was a dark, fearful, lonely place, and God seemed to have a harshness to Him that Kent hadn’t known before. Have you ever been in a season like that? A dark night of the soul, when God seemed cold and distant and out of reach? I imagine you have. To varying degrees, we all have probably experienced what Kent expressed.

It is in these places, these seasons marked with confusion and the threat of chaos, that we have a choice to make. Do we succumb to the fear, the loneliness, the lack of understanding and sink into the shadows of despair? Or do we lean in, trusting in what we know to be true of our God-even when we can’t feel Him near? There is a word for the honest, grief-filled cries of the soul that rise from our depths when we choose to lean in. That word is lament. The Psalms are full of laments. There is a whole book in the Bible dedicated to them. Choosing to lament before our Father requires a willing vulnerability. To lament is to bring your tattered, worn, aching heart before God without holding anything back. To lament is to implore God to listen, to act on behalf of our grief. It is bringing our hardest questions and asking our Father. It is ugly crying. It often includes shouts and wailing and indecipherable groans. It can look and sound different for each one of us. But it is always brutally honest. And it happens during dark, uncertain times, when we’re not sure God’s even listening.

What we rarely see in the moment are the treasures that are found in the darkness.

Isaiah 45:3, in the Amplified Bible, says this:

And I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

In a book I keep coming back to, the author talks about these “treasures”. She writes, “We do not go through dark nights of the soul for nothing. We enter into these regions to find treasures that they alone hold. Jewels and precious metals are rarely found on the surface but rather are mined deep underground. Likewise, God’s treasures are unearthed when we enter, willingly or unwillingly, into dark regions and dig deep within ourselves and within the caverns of who God really is.” (This Beloved Road, Amy Layne Litzelman)

This same author writes elsewhere, “…a season of transition always stands between where we are and where He wants to take us. Something must be left behind and something gained in order to go on… We don’t understand how we can do what He has asked of us. And yet, know this: the moment we say with Jesus, “I want Your will, not mine”, mighty and glorious grace is released for the journey ahead.” 

During Kent’s dark night of the soul, he chose to lean in, to lament. He refused to let his journey be wasted, whatever the outcome. I believe the “outcome” is multi-faceted. There are pieces of his miracle left to unfold, as is true in all of our stories. But however the rest of his story unfolds, he found treasures in his darkness. As he placed his life in the hands of a God he couldn’t even feel in the moment, glorious grace was released for his journey. He saw God differently, he found unexpected beauty in unlikely places. His story speaks to the miracle of a healed body–and it testifies to an even greater miracle: A heart renewed in the truth of who his God really is. A God who never leaves us in our loneliest moments. A God who leads us into the darkness where we would never choose to go–because He wants to give us treasures that we can find no other way.

Are you living through a season where God feels far away? May Kent’s story encourage you to lean in, lament, and hold on-there are treasures to be found…

-Laura

I cried this morning while Kent spoke. I didn’t anticipate crying, but there was such beauty in the rawness of his season in the dark that it brought me to tears. He shared with us treasures, the type of treasures that Laura wrote about above, that if we are willing, they can be gems for us as well.

John asked Kent “What’s changed?”  Kent told us that upon receiving the life altering, possibly life ending diagnosis he asked himself, “What am I living for? What is truly important?” All of a sudden the treasures of this world didn’t matter anymore, and Kent had to wrestle, even in the spiritual realm with whether he wanted the things that Jesus offers—comfort, peace, presence—or if it was Jesus himself that Kent desired.  That’s a powerful question for us to wrestle with. Is Jesus alone our treasure? Kent pointed out in first service that there were only three, out of all the people who followed Jesus, only three that went to the cross. Are we willing to go the distance with him, to the hard places with him, the dangerous places with him, because he alone is who we desire? Or do we only “follow” him to get the benefits?

Kent talked about how alone he felt. For a portion of his lengthy hospital stay, after his closest call with death when he had to be intubated and coded, he couldn’t feel the presence of God, he couldnt’ feel the power or the warmth of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t sure in that moment who God was,  the experience felt harsh, and it didn’t feel like something a loving God would do. In addition to that spiritual isolation, anyone who entered his room had to wear a mask, gloves, a gown, booties—no one could touch him. So not only was there no sense of God’s touch, there was no human touch either. There was fear, there was confusion. Isolation.

As Laura wrote above, Kent turned to lament. He reminded us that many of the Psalms are laments, that it’s okay, it’s healthy to lament; yet in the lamenting hang on to God’s truth.

And then the unanticipated beauty—Kent asked for someone to bring him his guitar. He sat in his hospital room at night and played songs of worship and sang. He did not know it at the time, but outside his door nurses would gather and listen, some patients would gather and listen. As Kent reached through the darkness for God, God was using him to minister to others in the hospital. That’s not why he did it. Kent was honestly seeking, searching, reaching, lamenting, praising, and God was using Kent’s raw honesty to reach others on that floor. Eugene Peterson once said that the people who made the greatest difference in his life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference. Kent wasn’t trying to make a difference. He was merely being his authentic raw self—no masks, no pretense, no knowledge that God was using him—yet God was using him. What a beautiful reminder that when we walk humbly with our God, the world is impacted.

John asked Kent, “What would you say to someone who is battling today—who sees God as distant?” Kent emphatically replied that God is not distant, that He is here when we can’t feel or touch him. And then he said what may have been my favorite part of his sharing—he said that even though he couldn’t feel Jesus he got to see Jesus through the church, the body of Christ. Jesus touched Kent through our prayers, cards, text messages, visits, and Kent reminded us that this is what we are about. This is what the church is to be about. He encouraged those who may want to isolate, to stay connected because the Church truly is the hands and feet of Jesus—we are how the hurting get touched. Kent shared with us other major events from his own life, he called them “possible soul destroying” events, but his soul wasn’t destroyed because Jesus showed his love in each of those hard seasons through the body of Christ.

Then he reminded us that the church has a choice.  He said, “We can bless or we can curse and both go a long way. Be a blessing to those around you; love, pray, reach out, touch—it’s not about condemnation, it’s about calling people to a higher place…We know Jesus redeems but it’s the body that puts the touch to Jesus’ redemption…we point people to Jesus by being him.” 

I don’t know what those words do to you. I know that they fan the flame in me. My passion for Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is really this simple. Know the Jesus of the gospels well enough to be Jesus to those around you. All others.  Bless, lift up, love, touch, reach out, listen to,  pray with, pray for, don’t condemn, don’t curse…we point people to Jesus by being him.  Can you imagine if the entire capital “C” Church made this our mission? That’s what I want my life to be about. How about you?

—Luanne

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Putting it into Perspective

The last two verses of Colossians 3:5-11 caught my attention in Sunday’s sermon. Verse 10 ends with the words, ” in the image of its Creator.”  Followed by verse 11 which reads, ” Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.”  The beginning of verse 10 reveals that it is our new self that is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

The new self is being renewed. The new self is being renewed in knowledge. The new self is being renewed in the image of its Creator. And one of the greatest evidences of a life like this, a life lived in Christ, is that all labels, all ethnic divides, all status divisions, all cultural customs, all of life’s various positions do not matter any more because “Christ is all, and is in all. ”  The NLT version beautifully puts it like this: “Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.”  And The Message states it like this:  “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.”

I think this is what the body of Christ truly longs for, whether we know it or not. Jesus himself prayed,  I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one–as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them, and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.  (John 17:21-23 NLT)

Perfect unity in the body of Christ, the “capital C” church– Jesus longs for it, the Holy Spirit longs for it, God the Father longs for it, do we? Because if we do, it means we need to heed Paul’s words in Colossians 3:5-11.

Here’s the quick recap.

1. Put to death everything that belongs to your earthly nature. Kill it.

2. Put off, put aside, remove things like anger, rage,  malice, slander, and filthy language, and don’t lie to each other…

3. BECAUSE you have TAKEN OFF your old self with its practices (all of the above) and have PUT ON the new self—the new self that is being renewed, that is growing in knowledge of our Creator and becoming more like Him in the process.

John wisely reminded us that we are incapable of changing ourselves. So how does this transformation happen?  We have to yield ourselves to God.  Romans 6:13 reads: Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God… (NLT)  And Philippians 2:13 tells us that God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (NLT) 

So, when we yield ourselves to God, when we surrender to him, he works in us transforming us from the inside out into his image, which brings us back where we started—Colossians 3:10-11 (You) have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

If I were to scroll through my FaceBook feed, I could find articles about why churches should or shouldn’t worship certain ways, whether or not they should serve coffee, if they should have colored lights or not, all the things millennials do right, all the things millenials do wrong; I could read articles pointing fingers at Christians who would be considered liberal, and articles pointing fingers at Christians who would be considered conservative; and there would be many hateful articles and comments aimed at people who are not yet in Christ.

The reason the Apostle Paul wants us yielded to God is so that we can put to death earthly things that destroy us, put aside ugly behaviors that are aimed at others, and put on the new self is because only in the new self, the in-Christ self can we live in unity, and it is our unity, according to Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that will lead the world to believe that God the Father sent Jesus the Son.   Unity–not around a political party, an ideology, a generational preference, a style of worship, a church size, a denomination, an ethnicity, a nation, a culture, but around Christ, His mission, His message, His love, His grace, His death, His resurrection, and His power that is alive in us through the Holy Spirit. And get this, unity doesn’t mean uniformity, and it requires incredible humility. God created us in all of our beautiful diversity to reflect who He is; therefore it is imperative that we know Him, so that we can recognize Him in those who are different from us. The journey to label-less living may take a lifetime, or many lifetimes,  yet it is what the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus desires to see on earth looks like.  And then, one glorious day after Jesus comes again there will be a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7: 9-10)  

Paul tells us what to put to death, what to put off, and what to put on in order to move toward Kingdom living in the here and now. I want to see it, to live it here and now! How about you?

-Luanne

My heart screams “Yes!” to Luanne’s last question. I long to see and live the Kingdom here and now. But, as was beautifully stated above, Kingdom living only happens when we are committed to unity. And I know that I don’t always live with that in mind. Unity is hard-especially if we misunderstand what it is and what it isn’t.

Luanne expressed that unity is not uniformity. It’s so important that we understand that. So I looked up what unity is, as defined by Merriam-Webster. One definition of unity is “a condition of harmony”. Another is “a totality of related parts: an entity that is a complex or systematic whole”. Hmm.

Having a musical background, I can’t help but relate to these definitions with music in mind. A good band, choir or orchestra understands the difference between uniformity and unity. A marching band may have uniformity in their attire, in the way that they march and in the steps they take. But once they start to play, if they’re any good at all, it’s unity they are after. Because a marching band made up of only trumpets playing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time may be loud and intimidating and seem powerful–but it won’t win any competitions, even if every note is executed to perfection.

Musical groups that win, the ones we want to listen to over and over again, they have a grasp on the concept of unity. No instrument or voice plays or sings for itself. Because the various parts know that they are related and that the beauty and power lies in the parts working together to form a whole. The parts understand that no one part runs the show-that’s the director’s job. The director decides which part to bring out, to showcase, and when to do so. Only the director has that power. And the parts understand that. They also understand that the elevation of one voice doesn’t mean all of the others are muted or insignificant. It means that for that part of the song, the other parts play a supporting, but equally important, role. They maintain their intensity, their musicality and they keep a firm gaze on their director, ready for whatever comes next.

A winning group is not a group made up of soloists, all fighting for the spotlight, the platform, a chance to be heard. There’s no harmony in a group like that.

We, the Church, can end up operating like a choir full of soloists when we don’t heed the words we are studying in this week’s passage. If we don’t put off the old self and put to death our sinful nature as Paul instructs us to do, we are like a soloist, a diva, concerned only with ourselves and our performance. We have to choose unity. Luanne wrote:

Perfect unity in the body of Christ, the “capital C” church– Jesus longs for it, the Holy Spirit longs for it, God the Father longs for it, do we?

We each have to answer that question for ourselves, understanding that our answer doesn’t only affect us individually. We are parts of a systematic whole if we belong to Christ, whether we want to be or not. And if our part is not doing the job it was created for, it creates dissonance in the whole, disunity among the parts.

I love that Luanne referenced the John 17 verses. This line, “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Jesus gave us His glory when He made us alive in Him. But that glory is not something for us to hoard for ourselves. It was not given so that we could elevate ourselves and lord it over others or as a spotlight to bask in. It was given so that we may be one. Jesus died to make us alive in Him. And we are His glory on display for the world to see. What a privilege to be entrusted with the glory of Christ… It’s a weighty thought. But we have to remember that this putting off of the old self and putting on of the new isn’t something we are responsible for doing. As John said, and Luanne reemphasized, we must make the choice to yield. To surrender to the process God is working within us. I am reminded of the Ephesians verse Beau referenced last week:

“And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.” (Ephesians 4:24 Message)

If we allow Him full reign, full access to every part of us, we will find ourselves harmonizing beautifully with all of the other parts. Because it is God, the Master Director, who reproduces His very own character within us. But once again, we have a choice. Will we let Him do His work in us? To put aside and rid us of our old selves and our old ways so that we can put on the new self, the one that sees and believes that “Christ is all and is in all”? Or will we cling to our old selves and refuse to part with the dead, old ways we’ve grown accustomed to? I pray that we all we choose to yield our hearts and our lives to the One who gave everything so we could be found in Him.

–Laura

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Something Had to Die

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (Colossians 2:20-3:4)

Being made alive in Christ is both a one-time transaction and a continual process. This is one of many concepts that Beau presented to us as we continued our journey through Colossians this week. He shared with us two of the things that happen within us when we give our lives to Jesus:

-Salvation: being reconciled, put back into right relationship with God

-Sanctification: re-creation by God, being set apart to a sacred purpose

Salvation happens immediately. It is not in any way dependent on anything we say or do. It is the transition from death to life. Sanctification, though, is a lifelong process of being changed from the inside out until the image of Christ shines in us. I love the verse from Ephesians that Beau used in his sermon:

And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you. (Ephesians 4:24 Message)

This God-fashioned life, this life that is renewed from the inside and works itself into our conduct–it is produced in us “as God accurately reproduces his character in [us]”. So, sanctification, this re-creation process, it’s something God does, not us, right? Like salvation?

Yes… but, there is more to this piece. Beau articulated that we can be alive without really living. We can breathe and eat and drink and be “alive” in the most basic definition of the word. Paul reaffirmed in his letter to the Colossians that they had “died with Christ” and been set free from the spiritual powers of this world. But they were not experiencing real life. They hadn’t fully become new, though they were new creations in Christ. They were following rules and thinking of earthly things, still caught up in “this life”. Does that resonate with anyone? Paul is asking them “Why?” in this passage. He reminds them that their “real life is hidden with Christ in God”. 

Beau shared about the process of coming alive in Christ in his life. It reminded me of my own process…

When I gave my heart to Jesus as a little girl, I crossed from death to life by the free, un-earnable gift of salvation. I was alive in Him. There were moments of growth in those early years.

When I recommitted my life to Him as a teenager, there was a degree of surrender. A knowing that the life I was “living” wasn’t really life the way God wanted me to experience life.

But I didn’t really experience “coming alive” in Christ until I was ready to die to myself. Not partially. Not only in certain areas… in everything. The experiences of my childhood and youth and early adulthood were undeniably steps on the sanctification journey. And, like Beau said, I haven’t “arrived” at my fully sanctified state-of-being. I wholeheartedly believe and expect that we won’t reach that point until we kneel before our Savior in heaven. We are in process during our entire time on earth-I see that as one of the clearest marks of God’s nearness and faithfulness to us–that He never leaves us where we are. He keeps coming to us, to work on our condition and reproduce His character within us… if we allow Him to do so.

It wasn’t that many years ago that I understood in a new way what it meant to die to myself and be made alive in Christ. I, like the Colossians, was good at following rules. My life was one full of pretense–which is “professed, rather than real, intention or purpose”. I was focused more on my kingdom than the Kingdom of God. Earthly things had my attention. There were times my sights were set on things above–but it didn’t take much to distract me and take my eyes of the path ahead. I had my salvation. I was “alive”. But I wanted the sanctification part to be on my terms. So the life I was experiencing was not the fullness of life that God desired for me to have in Him. And somewhere along my journey, I started to crave more. I didn’t know what that “more” was yet. I had no idea how much it would cost, or how much dying would be involved. But somewhere along the way, I knew I had a choice to make…

Before church on Sunday, I was reading in Deuteronomy 30 and I paused and wrote down these verses in my journal:

“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (vs.19-20)

The words came to mind again as I listened to the sermon.

Choose life…For the Lord is your life…

We get to choose. We move from death to life in the moment we are saved by grace. But, as He has since the very beginning, God gives us choices. We get to have as much of God as we want. How much do we want? It’s easy to say that we want all of Him. All that He has to offer. All of the fruits of His Spirit. The very fullest life in Him. But just as Jesus had to die in order to be resurrected, fullness of life in Him can only be created in us if we are willing to fully die to ourselves.

Beau said that sanctification “requires being in and with Christ daily” and, “To be in and with Christ is to identify with Christ in death and resurrection”.

We can’t experience one without the other. We cannot be resurrected, made new, made alive without being willing to die first.

Surrendering our whole lives-our desires, dreams, expectations, fears, hopes-before God, choosing to die to our own kingdoms–it doesn’t feel safe. But each time we say yes to God’s re-creation process within us, each time we choose His Kingdom over ours, we come to life a little more. Because that’s where our “real life” is found.

Beau summed up this very complex passage with the phrase:

“Truly living is right position, working on condition“. 

Our very first step is being put back into right position before God-salvation. The rest comes after that. We don’t work on our own condition before coming to Christ. And we aren’t the ones who work on it afterwards, either. Legalistic rule-following, trying harder to be better–this doesn’t get us saved and it isn’t what makes us sanctified. It is God who works on our condition, as the Ephesians 4 verse beautifully states. We simply have to be willing to let Him. We have to be willing to die. Because for something to be made alive, something always has to first die.

What is God asking us to die to this week? Where have we chosen a lesser life? Are we willing to lay it all down, to die to ourselves, so that we can experience the fullness of life God desires each of us to have? I am pondering these questions again and I hope you will, too.

–Laura

life from death