THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Image result for psalm 73:26

This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O, death, where is your sting?

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

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

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your stone? 

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

–Laura

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

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

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

How we see Him matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

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

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

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

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

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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Advent #3: Joy

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

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

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Fan the Flame: Fear of Losing Control

“What is it that unsettles you?”

Pastor Beau asked us this question on Sunday. I was struck by how simple the question is, yet how complex and far-reaching its implications are. From misplacing our keys to worrying about the futures of our children, the things that leave us feeling unsettled are many, and their pursuit of our minds is relentless.

Ultimately, the things that unsettle us find their roots in fear–specifically, the fear of losing control. We have spent this month exposing the things that hinder our ability to live into the Spirit we have been given: the Spirit of power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). We have explored the fear of rejection, the fear of failure, and the fear of love and intimacy.

Pastor Beau shared on Sunday that the fear of losing control, is–at a deeper level–the fear of losing our minds. Our grasping at control happens within our minds, and it is insidious. The consequences of this particular fear play out in ways we may not immediately recognize. We might lose a little sleep here and there as the “what ifs?” and worst-case scenarios play out in our heads. We may experience headaches or a racing heartbeat on and off. Maybe we’re getting sick more often than we used to. These are just normal parts of life, right? Possibly. Sleeplessness, sickness, headaches–they all happen to all of us at times. But these seemingly normal parts of life, when they happen with regularity, can be symptoms of a deeper issue: very real anxiety that results from living under the fear of losing control.

Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that “Fear at its best keeps you from God’s best.” We have seen what this can look like as we’ve studied the other three fears. Fear of rejection can keep us from risking for the sake of relationships, and from connecting with God and others. Fear of failure can keep us from trying, from living into the gifts and purpose we were created for. Fear of intimacy keeps us from embracing our belovedness in Christ and ultimately can leave us feeling isolated and alone. And the fear of losing control, of losing our minds, keeps us from the freedom we are meant to embrace. It stands between us and the peace of Jesus alive within us, and it makes the exhale of faith and trust an impossibility as our hearts beat erratically to the rhythm of its voice.

Fear is a liar that dresses up like a friend. This friend tells us that it will keep us safe, that it’s wise to be aware of all that could go wrong. It whispers promises of peace and health and happiness but delivers a life of smallness, sameness, and selfishness. See, fear hinders growth in every aspect of life. It makes us wary of change. And to resist change is to resist growth. Giving into our fear of losing control keeps us stuck right where we are, unable to receive what Jesus came to bring us:

I am the Gateway. To enter through me is to experience life, freedom, and satisfaction. A thief has only one thing in mind—he wants to steal, slaughter, and destroy. But I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expectlife in its fullness until you overflow!                                       

(John 10:9-10, The Passion Translation)

Freedom, satisfaction, a life so full it overflows… these are the results of living in the Spirit we were given. The Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind leads us into the abundant life that is Jesus himself alive in us.

Giving into the fear of losing control is saying yes to a life of worry, stress, and anxiety. Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that anxiety never changes anything for the good–all it changes is you. Proverbs 12:25 says, Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” Anxiety makes our hearts heavy. How heavy are you today? Is your heart weighed down under the pressure of worry and anxiety? Is it leading you down a road of pain—physically, emotionally, psychologically? Anxiety can do that–it has the power to wreak havoc in our bodies. There are numerous studies that have shown that the very real physical side effects of anxiety leave no system in our bodies untouched. All of our being is affected when fear and anxiety are given free reign over our lives.

Please hear me on this–I am not saying that if you suffer from clinical anxiety or depression, it’s your fault for giving into fear. Some of us are prone to these conditions because of the wiring in our brains, not because we are trying to maintain control. As Pastor Beau mentioned on Sunday, what we are talking about this week is not medically diagnosed conditions that require medication to help our brains and bodies behave like they should. We would never want to be flippant or offer meaningless platitudes in the face of suffering. There is no magic button to push, no “right” prayer to pray that will unlock miraculous healing. For some, anxiety is a thorn that won’t be removed this side of the heavens. Instead, it must be managed through a variety of methods that we are blessed to have available to us in our time. That said, sometimes God does choose to miraculously heal people and that, of course, remains our prayer for all who suffer physically in any way. 

What we are talking about here, what Pastor Beau shared with us, has to do with the day-to-day decisions we make to live from a spirit of fear and timidity rather than the Spirit we’ve been given in Christ. We are talking about the decision to keep our fists clenched, full of all that we are trying to manage on our own, rather than carrying those worries to the One who says,

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

This is the first step to take when we want to overcome the fear of losing control. We come to the One who invites us to cast all of our cares on Him–because He cares for us. We come to the only One who is able to take care of all things–from each sparrow that flies and every wildflower that blooms to each one of us in all of our unique complexity. We accept that we are as powerless to change our height as we are to add a single hour to our lives, and we rest in the truth that we don’t have to be concerned with these things. Acknowledging our powerlessness is the first step to embracing the power of the Spirit alive in us. On our own, we can’t produce a single drop of real power, love, or control over our erratic minds. Once we know that, we can stop trying so hard to do it. We can choose faith and trust as we open our hands to receive connection, acceptance, love, and freedom–the things that come with living an abundant life rather than a life run by fear. Can you imagine a life like that? A life not dominated by the fears of rejection and failure? A life not afraid to love and be loved, not afraid of losing control and letting go? Do you want a life that looks like that?

Come to Him. Awaken to His ever-present Presence. Say yes to the Spirit that is already living inside of you. Relinquish your best efforts and attempts to do life on your own into the nail-scarred hands of the only One capable of carrying all that weighs your heart down. Let your faith and trust be ignited as you fan into the flame the gift of the Spirit. We are no longer slaves to fear–we are sons and daughters of the Living God. Romans 8:15 reminds us, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The perfect love of our Father drives out all of our fear. Every fear that attempts to blow out the flame of the Spirit we were given is extinguished by His love. It’s time to start living like we believe that’s true.

–Laura

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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