A Matter of Principle: Sow Generously

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

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

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

The Message version of the Bible goes like this:

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

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

 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

Aren’t you grateful that’s true?

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

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

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

But God…

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

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

But which soil on this trail is the fertile soil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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This I Know: Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to be a pastor…

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

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

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

And I want to be angry…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Power, Elevation Worship)

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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This I Know: Love the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story.

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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