Sermon on the Mount #1

I am extremely excited about the new series Pastor John began on Sunday. For the next 22 weeks will be diving into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  For those of us desiring to follow Jesus (his way) on planet earth, the words he spoke in this sermon are of utmost importance.

With that being said, today we are going to look at the first 5 verses of the fifth chapter in Matthew. Before we hit our passage, let’s briefly skim over what Matthew covered in Chapters 1-4 of his gospel: Chapter 1 contains the genealogy of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb. Chapter 2 contains his birth story including the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the return from Egypt; Chapter 3 contains Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son. Chapter 4 contains the temptation Jesus endured in the wilderness, the calling of his first disciples; we learn that “From that time Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent (change the way you think), for the Kingdom of heaven is here” ( Mt. 4:17). Matthew 4:23 tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom“. Matthew 4 goes on to say Jesus traveled, healed the sick and freed the demon-possessed. If I counted correctly, in these four chapters there are seven verses in which Matthew mentions that Jesus’ life and actions were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so before we ever get to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

One more detour before we get into the sermon itself–Jesus is doing a new thing. Everything Matthew has told us so far is mind-blowing as he establishes the true identity of Jesus. Large crowds from lots of regions can’t get enough. So Jesus goes up on a mountainside, he sits down (as was the posture of rabbis in that day when teaching). The disciples drew near (disciples are students—those who wanted to learn from what Jesus had to say, not just experience what he could “do” for them).

“Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he opened his mouth to teach them saying…”(4:25, 5:1-2)

He opened his mouth (that’s the literal Greek phrase)–I believe this is very intentional because in the Old Testament we learn:

Isaiah 55:10-11As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

And he taught them saying…(Mt. 5:2).  

It’s important to note that Matthew ends his entire gospel with these words of Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

Teaching is different from telling. Teaching is interactive; teaching requires relationship; good teaching requires modeling, good communication, and willingness to come alongside the student. The goal of teaching is for the student to learn something that will affect his/her life. We know that we have “learned” when the lesson becomes part of us and we can teach it to someone else. A good teacher loves his/her subject and loves his/her students. A good French teacher not only knows and loves French but knows how to help his/her students to learn French. Students don’t leave that teacher “doing” French. French becomes part of them.  Jesus, the Son of God, not only knows what the kingdom of heaven on earth looks like, he knows how to help us learn so the kingdom of God can become part of us and flow out of us like language flows out of the French speaker. Learning requires being challenged; learning requires watching, listening, practicing, making mistakes, correcting mistakes; learning requires humility.

…he taught them saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3 NIV), or worded another way: What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom. (TPT). 

Right away we see that the word “blessed” in the NIV is translated very differently in The Passion Translation. Pastor John informed us that “blessed” is a very difficult word to translate…it’s much larger in concept than our traditional understanding conveys.

The Passion Translation has a footnote regarding how they translated the Aramaic word which teaches us: “The Aramaic word toowayhon means “enriched, happy, fortunate, delighted, blissful, content, blessed.” Our English word blessed can indeed fit here, but toowayhon implies more—great happiness, prosperity, abundant goodness, and delight! The word bliss captures all of this meaning. Toowayhon means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Bliss means perfect happiness, great joy…hmmm.

The Greek word translated “blessed” is makarios. Lutheran commentator Brian Stoffregen helps us to grasp its significance by writing: “In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people…”

Hmmm.

Pastor John shared with us that “blessed” is the essence of wholeness–being made whole.

This first of the nine beatitudes about the “poor in spirit” being blissful, being made whole, living beyond all the cares of life–is the subject of the first “be like attitude” for kingdom of heaven people. It’s the first phrase of this sermon from the open mouth of Jesus that will water the earth and not return empty. Paul wrote about this poor in spirit attitude in Philippians 2, when he wrote:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privilegeshe took the humble position of a slave…he humbled himself in obedience to God…(NLT)

Going back to The Passion Translation’s footnote we are reminded again that in translating “blessed”: The word bliss captures all of this meaning… to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

There are many who are born into poverty who must truly depend on God for every morsel of food. Yet, if you’ve been graced with the opportunity to be among the poorest of the poor, you will observe that even in the midst of great hardship–enviable, abundant joy and rich generosity exist in their communities. It makes no logical sense–but Jesus didn’t tell us to look for logic in the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It’s beyond logic and goes into the beautiful realm of mystery.

There are others who are born into privilege. God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. “This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Aaagh….there’s so much more to write, and I’m barely even scratching the surface of the first of the three beatitudes Pastor John talked about on Sunday, but I must leave room for Laura to write, so I humbly close my portion here with one final thought. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are sheltering at home these days. We aren’t able to hug our friends, to meet together as a body of Christ, to visit family. Some of us are not able to work, have lost jobs that seemed secure, have become sick, or have lost loved ones to this virus. Things that we thought we had some form of control over we’ve discovered we have no control over. This is a perfect time to humble ourselves before God, confess our true and total dependence upon him, allow him to meet us where we are and teach us about reliance during this time.

Blissful are those who recognize that we are all in this together; we can’t depend upon ourselves for our material lives, physical lives or spiritual lives; we are utterly dependent upon God for every heartbeat, every breath. Living with the humility of our acknowledged utter dependence opens the doorway to living in and living out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. (my paraphrase)

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am bursting with excitement about out new series. I have been enamored with the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes for a few years now, ever since I was challenged to read through scripture differently. I attended a conference–one Luanne and I have each referenced in previous posts–that stirred a hunger in me to read the Bible in a new light. We were challenged to look for the leasts, to see from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed, and to think deeply about the setting and culture. Most importantly, we were invited to set aside our default way of looking at the text and to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see all of scripture through the lens of Jesus alone.

I returned home with a desire to dig into the words of Jesus like I had never had before, and I started in the book of Matthew. The Holy Spirit reveals truth, and Jesus is the truth. And when I began to search for the truth, for the treasures that lie beneath surface readings of scripture, the Spirit opened the floodgates!!! I began to see Jesus, his ways, his priorities, and mostly his kingdom–the thing he spoke about more than anything else--everywhere!!

There may be no better illustration anywhere in scripture of the upside-down ways of Jesus’ kingdom than what we see in the sermon on the mount. It’s that good, that telling of the heart of the one who opened his mouth to teach it to his followers. It’s a bold assertion to make, I know. At the end of these 22 weeks, you may agree with me, or you may not. But for now, at this point in my journey with Jesus, nothing illustrates kingdom principles better than the words recorded in these three chapters.

Luanne did a masterful job of setting the scene for this new series. There is nothing I feel like I can add to her introduction, so I’ll pick up where she left off. Before I do that, though, I wanted to share some thoughts from some people you have probably heard of regarding the importance of the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes.

“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the sermon on the mount.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dallas Willard defines the discipleship Bonhoeffer referenced this way,

“Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”

The process of becoming includes–according to Jesus–becoming like a child, and also includes the humility Luanne wrote about:

“Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in. Whoever continually humbles himself to become like this gentle child is the greatest one in heaven’s kingdom realm.” -Matthew 18:3-4, TPT

How do we become like children again? Henri Nouwen said,

“Becoming like a child is living the Beatitudes and so finding the narrow gate into the kingdom.” 

James Bryan Smith asserts that,

“The Beatitudes, far from being a new set of virtues that further divide the religious haves and have nots, are words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized.”

Regarding these marginalized that Smith speaks of, Mother Teresa believed that, “In the poor, we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”

How do we find our way into living in this upside-down way Jesus presented in the sermon on the mount? Pope Francis believes it’s by way of the Agape love we extend to one another. He said,

“Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”

High praise indeed from well-respected, faithful voices. But what difference would it actually make if we reorganized our lives around the principles Jesus teaches in this sermon? Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think it would make all the difference. He said,

“I doubt if there is any problem in the world today–social, political, or economic–that would not find happy solution if approached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Do we have social, political or economic problems in the world today? Perhaps more than ever before, especially now, in these challenging days… What if all of these voices are right? What if this upside-down kingdom ushered in by the one we say we follow actually made a difference in the way we live our lives? What if we listen to his words, but more than simply listening, allow ourselves to be taught, changed–so that the words become part of us? So that we embody the ways of Jesus and his kingdom in a way that changes the church and the world?

There is power in the self-emptying, others-seeing, humble, upside-down way of Jesus. It will never line up with the power-grabbing ways of the kingdoms of this world–that’s not who our God is. Are we willing to take a closer look, to lean in and learn, to let ourselves soften and be changed? I hope so. Because I happen to agree with those whose words I listed above–this sermon has the power to change the world, because it is the heart of Jesus. But before it can change the world, it must come to life within us.

Luanne covered the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The second is,Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

(Matthew 5:4, NIV)

Have you mourned? Grieved? My guess is we have all felt the ache of mourning. A deep dive into root words and etymology reveals that the Greek word used here that was translated “mourn” in English means, “to lament, wail; to feel grief and sorrow; to suffer.” Blessed are those who experience this kind of ache?

Yes.

Why?

“…for they will be comforted.”

If you’ve been in the throes of grief–perhaps you’re there now–you have likely experienced the inexplicable comfort, the withness that seems to come into our lives as a companion to grief. This comfort that Jesus speaks of here, it is the Greek word parakaleo. This word means to come alongside, to encourage, exhort; to be with.  It is strikingly similar to another Greek word, parakletos. Jesus uses this word four times in scripture, and each time he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter he promised would come once he was no longer physically with his disciples.

We are blessed because we do not grieve alone. We are blessed because the same deep, caring comfort we receive from the Spirit in our darkest moments lives in us and empowers us to extend that same comfort to others. Have you been the recipient of love that moves toward you in your sorrow? Have you had the opportunity to move toward others in their grief? I have been fortunate to experience both, and I can say with no hesitation, I have felt blessed by these Spirit-filled moments of comfort–the receiving and the giving.

This mourning goes beyond grieving a personal loss. It is also our response to the needs around us; it is what drives us to move toward suffering, injustice, corruption, brokenness. We are able to respond to all that is hard because we are empowered by the Comforter, the Spirit who lives within us and leads us on.

The last beatitude Pastor John covered on Sunday is, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” ( Matthew 5:5, NIV) Meek can be a tricky word for us. We tend to think of it as a synonym for weak. It can conjure thoughts of smallness, timidity; of one who is fearful, shy and quiet. Let’s look at it how it is phrased in the Passion Translation:

“What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you will inherit the earth.”

The word gentle can carry some of the same connotations in our minds as the word meek. But what it means might surprise you. The footnote in the Passion Translation tells us,

“Jesus is saying that when you claim nothing as yours, everything will be given to you. The Aramaic word, makeekheh, implies being both gentle and flexible.” 

Pastor John reminded us that gentleness is a response somewhere between anger and apathy. He shared that it is both a posture and an implied action. It is a fruit of the Spirit that moves us to engage, challenges our indifference and empowers us to respond with both flexibility and restraint.

In this beatitude, we are told that those in whom gentleness dwells will “inherit the earth.” In the original language, this is quite the gift. It means, “to become a partaker of, to receive their allotted portion of the land as an heir; to receive a place to stand on the ground of this earth.” Wow. The gentle, the flexible, those who are moved to act but not out of anger, those who don’t take anything for themselves–these “meek” ones will receive what is set aside for them as heirs. Those with no ground to stand on will be given a place of their own to stand. I don’t know how this one plays out in Jesus’ kingdom, but it is beautiful. Especially when I consider those who are driven from their lands, who are refugees in a foreign land, and all those who exist between two lands, waiting for a place to call home. Jesus says these gentle ones, they are heirs that have ground to stand on in his kingdom.

We are invited in these first three beatitudes to begin to see differently. Jesus taught differently than the other rabbis of his day. He carried in his words none of the arrogance that marked other prominent teachers. He spoke highly of the downtrodden, the marginalized, those who were used to being at the bottom of the barrel in the eyes of the culture of the day. He elevated the “leasts”, and as we learn from him, we have the opportunity to do the same–“to live in and live out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now,” to borrow Luanne’s beautiful words.

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

–Laura

File:Aerial view of Masada (Israel) 06.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

 

 

The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

Image result for pharisees ask for a sign

 

A Matter of Principle–Kingdom Growth

What we hear over and over again, we ingest. What we ingest becomes part of us and shapes our understanding. We cling to our understanding as it becomes intertwined with our identities, and so our understanding forms our convictions. We then build arguments around our convictions, and this affects our ability to hear.

The paragraph above is a rough paraphrase of a couple of statements Pastor John made in Sunday’s sermon. It is especially applicable to the passage we looked at this week:

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:21-25)

Have you heard these words of Jesus before? If you have, what is your understanding of what they mean? What formed that understanding? Did you hear them together, in the context of the whole chapter, or have you heard them as standalone phrases, used to illustrate concepts unrelated to one another?

Pastor John offered some common interpretations of the text. A few of those are:

-The lamp symbolizes Jesus; he is talking about himself in verse 21. 

-What is hidden and concealed will be disclosed is in reference to our sin. God, who is keeping a list and checking it twice like some kind of righteous Santa Claus, will expose every last thing we’ve done wrong.

-“The measure you use” from verse 24 is talking about our financial offerings and the use of our spiritual gifts.

Have you heard explanations like these? I know I have. Over and over and over again. My understanding of these verses was shaped by how I heard them taught. After ingesting that teaching time and time again, it became easy to gloss over them as odd, standalone phrases sandwiched between otherwise connected passages. My understanding affected my ability to hear.

I can’t help but think about the proverb that exhorts us to lean not on our own understanding, but instead, acknowledge God in everything, including the truth that his ways and his thoughts are so much higher than ours. Remembering these truths reminds us that part of what makes God so beautiful is that we cannot possibly, within the limits of our humanity, grasp or understand the enormity and vastness of the mystery of all that he is. We are continually growing and learning more about his heart and his ways as he reveals himself to us. If we have ears to hear what he is saying.

Pastor John offered a different explanation of these five verses, an explanation that not only keeps them within the context of the passages surrounding them but also keeps them connected to the central message of Jesus throughout the gospels: the kingdom.

Jesus was always talking about the kingdom. Theologians disagree on many things, but one point they tend to agree on is that the central theme of Jesus’ ministry was the Kingdom. He continually talked to his followers about what the kingdom is like, and then he showed them what the kingdom looks like in action. Luanne and I are convinced that kingdom living–living our lives as Jesus would live them if he were us–is our highest priority as Jesus-followers. He was always all about the kingdom. He taught that it is here, now, and that living according to the ways of his upside-down kingdom could actually change the world. We agree. We agree so much that the tag “kingdom living” is our second highest used tag on this blog–second only to the tag “Jesus”.

Our verses this week are sandwiched between passages in which Jesus tells stories about seeds and sowing as illustrations of what the kingdom is like. Pastor John offered a new take on what they might mean, considering their context. He offered that these five verses actually teach about kingdom growth and that the shame-based way many of us have heard them taught stands contrary to the point Jesus was actually trying to make.

What if…

Jesus talked about the lamp because it was familiar to his hearers. He asked them if they would hide what illuminated their homes, the thing that transformed the darkness around them into livable space. Obviously, their answer would have been no. Who would do that? Likewise, why would we hide what is illuminating our lives, what has transformed us? Who would do that? Well…we would. We do. The seeds of Jesus’ kingdom grow within us and change us, but oftentimes we hide the changes…

So, Jesus moves on to say that what is hidden and concealed is meant to be brought into the open, to be seen. The fruit of the seeds that have been sown into our lives is meant to be shared and sown into other lives…

Because what we harvest depends on what we sow. With the measure we use, it will be measured back. Pastor John said, “Sow generously so you can reap bountifully. Throw seeds everywhere. Stop judging and calculating where it would be best to sow.” If we want to see the kingdom grow, we have to be people who sow generously.

Jesus finishes these statements by talking about those who have been given more, and how those who don’t have will lose even what they do have. John explained this last statement by contrasting the principle of consumption with the principle of conception. This is where I’ll linger a while…

The principle of consumption teaches that as we consume, we deplete the resource. We use it and lose it. The principle of conception is all about creating something new, birthing something that grows. As is grows, as we use it, it isn’t depleted–it is multiplied. It expands. John 12:24-25 explains it this way:

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (MSG)

The way of the kingdom as Jesus taught it and lived it is the way of self-giving love. In Philippians, Paul uses the word “kenosis” to describe this kind of love. Bradley Jersak, in his stunning book, A More Christlike God, defines kenosis as:

“Greek for emptying, used by Paul in Philippians 2 to describe Christ’s self-emptying power, self-giving love, and radical servanthood, revealed in the Word becoming flesh and particularly seen in the Passion of Christ.”

Love, in the kingdom of God, is meant to look like this. It is meant to expand and to grow without condition. It gives, over and over, and is never depleted. “Wherever God, wherever Christ, wherever we risk emptying ourselves of self-will and self-rule to make space for the other, that is where the supernatural kingdom-love of God rules and reigns… He rules and reigns through our consent, our yieldedness, our surrender–through our willingness to mediate his self-giving love into the world. That’s a different kind of kingdom! A strange kind of King!” (Jersak, A More Christlike God)

When we pair the concept of self-giving, self-emptying love with the principle of sowing seeds of love generously, we must confront our tendency to control where we sow. I think this might be what Jesus wanted to show us through this particular teaching. His exhortation to sow generously with our lives, to empty ourselves in love, trusting that the seeds in us will be continually reproduced by the grower acts as a mirror to show us ourselves. To show us where we’re unwilling and unyielding, where we have a tendency to hold on and calculate the love we give rather than throwing it out vulnerably and generously. The mirror shows us which image-bearers we find worthy of our seeds–and which ones we find unworthy.

In Dallas Willard’s book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, he wrote:

“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christians” will become disciples–students, apprentices, practitioners–of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.” 

Every corner. 

Every corner leaves no one out. Every corner includes the cages our brown-skinned brothers and sisters are living in on our nation’s border. The offices of the politicians we find easy to hate, regardless of which “side” they represent. The megachurches preaching nationalism as gospel. The prisons that hold those who have committed the vilest acts against fellow human beings. The precincts that protect officers who have misused their power. The brothels where pimps profit from the rape of women and children. The homes that hold family members who have torn our own hearts to shreds. The alley where the addicted find their next high. The bars that make space for those whose lifestyle we don’t agree with. The clinics that provide abortions to women and girls. The orphanages overflowing with children no one wanted. And endless other places full of faces that bear the image of our God.

Are we sowing generously into all of these corners? Are we living the life of the kingdom and loving into every image-bearer, without exception? Do we have ears to hear Jesus’ words and apply them his way, for the sake of the growth of his kingdom here and now?

–Laura

I could not agree more with what Laura wrote above, and I could not agree more with what Pastor John shared with us on Sunday morning. I believe the message of sowing the seeds of the Kingdom of God is the heart of our partnership with God in reconciling the world to God and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Not one of us can transform anyone else’s life or save them. What we can do is sow seeds of the Kingdom by seeing everyone as an image-bearer of God, and by choosing to treat every image-bearer with dignity, love, and kindness so that they can discover their incredible worth and be drawn to the One who loves unconditionally, saves, transforms, heals, and empowers so that they too can be part of God’s ministry of reconciliation and Kingdom growth.

I love the way Jesus, in his teaching,  takes common, everyday items and uses them to teach deep principles. I find it interesting that he chose to talk about lamps in the middle of his teaching about sowing seeds…but both fruit and light are principles in the Kingdom and they are intricately connected.

Seeds, when sown, are hidden in the ground. Every hidden seed has potential. My three-year-old granddaughter and I planted some seeds together in a contained environment a few months ago. They weren’t put into the dirt to be forgotten, but to grow something. As the first two tiny leaves pushed through the soil after a week or so, excitement ensued (mine more than hers if I’m being honest). Evidence that the seeds would bear fruit had begun. What had been hidden, was now seen.   If I had chosen to deprive that little plant of light, of water–if I had chosen to cover the plant and let it be consumed by darkness–it would have died, but by continuing to provide what was needed for growth, it finally outgrew it’s container and was ready to be transferred to a new environment.  If the fruit matures, the seeds inside can be salvaged for an even greater harvest next year. I don’t know how many seeds each fruit holds, but I know that it’s more than one.

Like fruit, light is meant to be seen. Light actually is the fruit of fuel and spark.  Jesus–in thinking of oil lamps asked who would take their lamp and hide it. It’s a good question. It’s hard to contain light. Light, by its very nature, is generous. It’s impossible to turn on a light and have it just shine on the one who lit it. Anyone else in the vicinity will see the light as well–unless it’s hidden under something, and then, what’s the point?

A  year or so ago, I led a devotion about anointing and light and took some time to learn about the oil lamps of Jesus day. This is what I learned:

 For an oil lamp to function, it needs a containeroil, a wick, and fire. The container holds the fuel and the wick. The wick must absorb the oil…keeping the wick wet is what allows it to draw fuel up to the top where it can be burned. The purpose of the wick is not to burn, but to carry fuel up to the top edge of the lamp where it (the fuel) can burn. It is the fuel that is creating the ability for light

Wicks that carry the fuel to the light have to be saturated in the fuel source. Wicks are not striving to get that fuel to the light, they are immersed in the fuel and soaking it up.  The farther out of the lamp the wick is, the more light it produces.  The fuel must be lit by an outside source. As the fuel burns, it will need to be replenished with fresh fuel.

John the Baptist, when speaking of Jesus, said He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Mt. 3:11)  The Holy Spirit within us is the fuel that burns providing the light of Jesus to those around us.

The Apostle John tells us that in Jesus was life and that life was the light of all mankind. (Jn 1:4) No one is excluded.

Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill can’t be hidden (Mt. 5:14).  Do we try to contain our light, control where it shines, just like we sometimes try to control where we should sow seeds? Sow generously, shine generously.

1st John 2:20 and 27 tell us  You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth…, 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–remain in Him.”  In order to shine the light of Christ, we must remain immersed in the fuel source of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit’s presence will permeate our lives like wicks absorbing oil, providing light through us. 

 The fuel source for God’s light is within us; however, we have choices about what we’ll do with that fuel source. 

1st Thessalonians tells us not to quench the Spirit…meaning that we can put out the fire. 

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about some foolish young ladies who let their fuel supply get too low so their fires were going out meaning that without refueling by remaining in the Spirit’s presence we can become inefficient light-bearers.   

Unlit oil makes a lamp useless– the lamp’s container might look pretty sitting on a shelf or in a pew, but that’s not what it was designed for; it was designed to bear light, and light is not meant to be hidden.

Ephesians 5:18 tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, 

Luke 11:13 says HOW MUCH MORE  will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.  A constant supply is available as long as we remain in Him.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:16 to let our lights shine before men, so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. That verse could almost make it seem as if Jesus is encouraging behavior-based goodness until we remember that our light source is the Holy Spirit. We can’t manufacture our own light, just like we can’t germinate sown seeds. Our part is to remain in the Spirit allowing ourselves to be filled with the Spirit’s fuel,  giving God access to use our lives as wicks that allow His light to burn and shine on those around us; therefore sowing seeds everywhere we go.   

Scripture says that the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, of his fuel burning in us,  will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal 5:22)–none of which is meant to be hidden, all of which is meant to be sown wildly, generously, everywhere to everyone. 

Pastor John concluded his message by reminding us that condemnation doesn’t lead to Kingdom growth and change, condemnation leads to conformity. It’s kindness that leads to change. It’s the kindness of the Lord, expressed through us,  that draws people to him (Romans 2:4). His kindness is without limits, without exclusion, it is to be extended to everyone, including all those that Laura reminded us of in her powerful second-to-last paragraph.

Kindness, love, gentleness, patience, goodness–evidence that the seeds of the Holy Spirit that were sown in us have grown and are bearing the fruit of the Spirit whose light burns in us, through us, and around us, so that the world can be changed and the Kingdom of God, his expansive upside-down Kingdom of love, inclusivity, unity,  equality, and grace can expand and grow right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom that is right here, right now, more than any other subject. The Kingdom and its ways are the priority of His heart. We are His followers, His apprentices–are we bearing light that looks like Jesus, and sowing the seeds of His Kingdom–or ours? Our fruit will let us know.

 “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

–Luanne

seed growing up

 

 

 

This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

Last week, we talked about a parent’s priority: to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God. Part of that conversation included acknowledging our own shortcomings as parents. Our parents made mistakes, and we make mistakes, too.

This week, Pastor John talked to us about what it looks like to love well when our children have made mistakes. It is a message that absolutely speaks to how we love our kids–but, beyond that, it is a message about how everyone needs to be loved.

Pastor John began by simply stating:

“Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

The self-emptying love of God is illustrated in many places throughout scripture. It is most clearly seen in Jesus’ death on the cross, as he proved there was no length he, the perfect image of our invisible God, wouldn’t go to in order to show his love for us. It is also captured beautifully in the story of the prodigal son. It is this story that Pastor John opened with on Sunday. I’m including the whole story, out of the J.B. Phillips translation:

Then he continued, “Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property that will come to me.’ So he divided up his property between the two of them. Before very long, the younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a foreign land, where he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance. And when he had run through all his money, a terrible famine arose in that country, and he began to feel the pinch. Then he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. He got to the point of longing to stuff himself with the food the pigs were eating and not a soul gave him anything. Then he came to his senses and cried aloud, ‘Why, dozens of my father’s hired men have got more food than they can eat and here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But his son said, ‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more…’ ‘Hurry!’ called out his father to the servants, ‘fetch the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and get that calf we’ve fattened and kill it, and we will have a feast and a celebration! For this is my son—I thought he was dead, and he’s alive again. I thought I had lost him, and he’s found!’ And they began to get the festivities going. “But his elder son was out in the fields, and as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants across to him and enquired what was the meaning of it all. ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has killed the calf we fattened because he has got him home again safe and sound,’ was the reply. But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him. Then he burst out, ‘Look, how many years have I slaved for you and never disobeyed a single order of yours, and yet you have never given me so much as a young goat, so that I could give my friends a dinner? But when that son of yours arrives, who has spent all your money on prostitutes, for him you kill the calf we’ve fattened!’ But the father replied, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32, emphasis mine)

There are so many layers within this restorative story. We won’t fully plumb its depths here, but let’s dig in and see what we find…

The first point worth noting is found in the opening line of the story:

Once there was a man who had two sons…

Often, this story is taught with an emphasis on the younger son, the prodigal. But the story is about both sons and their relationship with their father (and, I think, with one another, but I don’t have time to get into that part today…). The opening line of any story emphasizes who or what the story is about–this story is about two sons. Two sons, deeply loved by their father, who had a home with him, wherever he was.

When we read the part where the younger son asks for his inheritance, we tend to be so appalled by his audacity and disrespect that we miss a very important detail, one that keeps big brother in the center of the story:

So he divided up his property between the two of them

Little brother’s payday was a fraction of what big brother inherited that day. In ancient Jewish culture, the oldest heir was to receive double the inheritance of any other heir. Big brother may not have asked for it, but he received his father’s overwhelming generosity that day, too. This is highlighted later in the story, when the father says to his oldest son, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours.’ Indeed, everything the father had was his. He divided up everything he owned between his boys, living as though dead while he was still alive. When the younger son squandered his portion, everything else that had once belonged to the father, now belonged to his oldest son. Everything he had was his.

The self-emptying love of the father was displayed as he withheld nothing from his children. He gave all he had. He had nothing left, and as far as we can infer from the text, that part didn’t bother him one bit. But he also didn’t have his boys’ hearts. This is what grieved him. It’s all he wanted. Emptying himself of all of his material possessions wasn’t enough to win their affection, to woo them into relationship. I don’t think he was trying to earn their love at all–he was showing them that there was nothing he would withhold from them. He was willing to give them everything because of his great love for them. They didn’t reciprocate his love…

He gave them his material wealth, which included laying down a measure of his power and authority, though he still ran his estate. What did he have left to give?

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He would have lost some respect within his community when he chose to give his possessions to his sons while he was still living. But this, to lift his cloak and run to his son–to move toward him and go to where he was–and then to embrace and kiss this boy who would have been “unclean” according to their laws and customs? This was a disgrace to the man’s dignity. This boy had slept with prostitutes, he had lived among and fed dirty pigs. What was the father doing?

He was, once again, modeling self-emptying love to his son. He couldn’t wait for his boy to get to him. He wasn’t hard at work, anger etched into his face, rehearsing the admonishment he would give him if he ever saw his face again. He didn’t “stand his ground.” No. He was watching for him, waiting with hope that, against all odds, his son would come home. Home… This young man had no expectation that the home he had known as a child would still be there waiting for him. In fact, he had a speech prepared to give his father, to ask him for a place as a servant on the property. But as he’s in the middle of his groveling, his father interrupts him. I love the way the Message phrases verse 22: “But the father wasn’t listening.” Instead, he called to the servants to bring a robe and the family ring, to kill the fattened calf and prepare a celebration feast in his son’s honor. No mention of the many offenses the son had committed. The boy had already endured the consequences of his choices–his father had no intention of further punishing his son. In fact, he doesn’t even make mention of any of it. He chooses instead to remind his son with his actions that he has a home. A secure home, a forever home. He acknowledges his presence and his place in the family, and doesn’t admonish him even once for all he had done. He emptied himself of the right to be right, displaying self-emptying love once again. 

What about our other main character, the older son?

The father went to him, too. While big brother hung around and displayed the “right” behavior, the father knew he didn’t have his heart, either. He gave to this son in the same ways he did to the younger, always sacrificing himself to love them both. When big brother refuses to come in and celebrate his little brother’s return, his father once again breaks custom to leave the party he is hosting so he can go to where his son is. And again, what we see is not admonishment. He says to him only,

‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’

He could have said so many things… Change your attitude. Get inside. What is wrong with you? Don’t you love your brother? Why do I still have to chase you down like a toddler and listen to your tantrums? You’re keeping me from our guests, I don’t have time for your whining! I’ve given you everything, and still it’s not enough for you! You’re selfish… Arrogant… Immature…

I’m sure there’s so much more he could have said. But he says none of these things.

When I picture this scene in my mind, I imagine the father speaking softly, tears glistening in his kind eyes, the tenderness in his voice imploring his son to turn around and look at him so he could see all the love he has for him. I imagine the son with his back to his father, arms crossed, years of entitlement, anger, and pride held in his stone-cold gaze over the property that all belongs to him. I imagine the father reaching his weathered hand out toward his son’s shoulder, but pulling it back, knowing that this boy’s heart was still not inclined to receive his love, but hoping one day that would change. I can see the hope flash bright in his glistening eyes, because he had never given up hope for his younger son, and today, his hope was rewarded with a homecoming so sweet, he’d remember the moment forever. With that moment fresh in his heart, I see dad straighten, stand a little taller, as he resolves to hold onto hope that this big brother will come home to him one day, too…

We don’t get to know how this particular story ends. What we do know is that the father loved both of his boys with the same, steadfast, self-emptying love. We know that home was wherever the father was, and that home was secure. No matter how long it took, he would be there waiting, hoping, actively moving toward his kids, acknowledging their presence, knowing there were chapters yet to be written in their stories.

We all might need this story for different reasons today. Some of us may need it to show us an example of how to love our children well in the day-to-day. Some of us may need to be reminded of how we can have hope for children who have wandered. Some of us only received admonishment as children, and never felt seen or acknowledged, and we need to find healing. Some of us just need to be reminded that we have a home in God, and he is always pursuing us, regardless of where we’ve wandered. Regardless of where it lands for each of us, I pray that we’ll all see that everyone needs to be loved like this. Everyone is aching for Shalom, for wholeness, for a stable home. Everyone needs to be pursued and sought out. Everyone longs to be acknowledged. We get to do that for our children, for each other, for the world around us. We have the opportunity to love like Jesus by drawing near to others, closing the gap, being present, listening. We get to go to all of them, see them, value them, love them exactly where they are. In the midst of their failures. And in the midst of our own…

–Laura

I want to reiterate what Laura reminded us of above–Pastor John began by simply stating: “Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

Pastor John also said “How we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice our children made.”  I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I have seen adults struggle with their self-worth because their parents tore them down rather than built them up.  Gratefully, that is not my story.  I am the daughter of a dad who loves me like Jesus loves.

I was an at-risk kid, and in a recent blog post we reiterated that children in pain don’t know how to articulate their pain, which was true of me. One September evening when I was 12 or 13, I was having a particularly tough time, and I unleashed my anger on my dad. I said hateful, mean things, and ended my tirade by telling him I no longer wanted to be part of our family; I wanted to live elsewhere and asked him to put me in the foster system.

My dad didn’t say a word while I screamed at him. When I was finished, I went downstairs and sat in front of the TV. My dad came down a few minutes later and asked me to get my sweater. Fear kicked in. I thought he really might be taking me to a foster home, but I wasn’t going to let on that I was afraid. I got my sweater and got in the car. We rode in silence. He took me to the miniature golf course and we played a round of golf. After golf,  he took me to Dairy Queen and let me get a Peanut Buster Parfait (it’s important to note that being one of seven children, we didn’t get treats like Peanut Buster Parfaits. If we went to Dairy Queen, we got a soft serve cone. My treat was extravagant and it was undeserved.)

I didn’t say a word the entire evening. My dad said very few words, and most of them came while we were at Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was having a hard time, that I was hurting deeply, and he told me that he loved me and would always love me. He did not address my behavior at all.

I’d love to say that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him, but I didn’t. I still did not speak, and when we got back to the house I went straight to my room. Yet, the assurance that my dad loved me, even after I had been so horrible to him began to change me. So, when Pastor John says the way we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice the children made–that can be a positive thing too.

For those of you with children who have wandered away like the prodigal son–I was that child. It was another ten years before my dad saw lasting fruit in my life. I’ve apologized to him multiple times for the pain that I caused him during those years, and he assures me that what’s important today is who I am now. My past is never thrown in my face. My dad showed me what grace in action looks like. I often say that grace is the most powerful force on earth. The reason I know is because I have been a recipient of extravagant grace, and over time, I have been transformed by grace. God’s grace offered to me through my dad–and through my Savior.

Just in case I’ve left the impression that I was never disciplined– I was. Discipline in my house involved a one on one conversation with my dad. He sat in one green chair, and whichever child was “in trouble” sat in the other green chair. He was not shy about telling us that we had disappointed him, and would let us know why, but there were no raised voices, no yelling–just conversation.  Sometimes I was grounded, sometimes I lost other privileges, but all discipline in my house was carried out through relationship. I hated that! It killed my heart to know I had disappointed my dad. Why? Because I knew he loved me, and I loved him. Relationship. Love. My dad loves us like Jesus loves.

I tried to love my children and raise them the way my dad raised me. I hope they know, that as imperfect as I am, they have always been loved and nothing could ever change that. My husband and I have decided more than once that we choose relationship over being “right”, and we’ve never once regretted that choice.

Bradley Jersak in his book “A More Christlike God” writes, Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith….He was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy…the repentance that he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. 

So–the answer to how we parent when our children fail? We love them. We pursue them. We draw near to them. We build relationship. We maintain relationship. We hold on to hope. We try to love like Jesus. Jesus came to us–He didn’t tell us to “come here”.  He closed the gap. He died for us while we were still all kinds of messed up. (Romans 5:8) He is our model for what it looks like to love.

Therefore; love your children as if Jesus was loving them through you–because He is.

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

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This I Know…PG-13

On Sunday, Youth Pastor Beau Gamble interviewed Luanne Marshall about today’s youth culture. Luanne is the Academic Facilitator at Kelly Walsh High School here in Casper. According to her, her job is to build relationships with kids who are “at-risk”. She said that academics are her door into their world, the first step to gaining their trust so that she can build relationships with them and love them. Beau talked to her about what she encounters while working with these kids on a daily basis.

There is no way I’ll cover everything Beau and Luanne talked about–even in what they shared, they only had time to scratch the surface of what our teenagers are dealing with. I do want to highlight some of what stood out most to me.

The conversation began with Luanne challenging the narrative about what an “at-risk” kid is. What do you think about when you hear that label? Chances are, you don’t think of church kids with good grades and a modest appearance, from good neighborhoods with good parents. The picture in your mind most likely looks nothing like that. Yet, there are countless kids who fit my description who are, in fact, at-risk. Sometimes at-risk relates to academics. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Beau asked Luanne, “What is an “at-risk” kid?” Luanne responded, “I was at risk.” She shared with us that she lost her mom when she was eleven years old. Her dad remarried a year later. His new wife was a widow. Between them, they had seven children. All of them were carrying the burden of loss and grief. And now they lived together under one roof–on the other side of town from where Luanne had gone to elementary school. She told us, “I was never at risk academically, but I was emotionally. I did not know how to articulate my pain. I was self-destructive, and others-destructive, because we don’t self-destruct all alone. People had no idea. It was not rebellion against my parents. I was trying to take care of my own pain the only way I knew how.” She also shared with us that she never wanted to reflect poorly on her dad, who was a pastor. She loves him dearly and was aware then of how her behavior could impact him. So she kept up appearances at church.

I was at-risk, too, but like Luanne, most of the people around me would never have known. My grades were near-perfect, I excelled in music, I wore a happy face–especially at church. But I spent my earliest years in an environment that was spiritually, verbally, and physically abusive. Not only was I not taught how to articulate my pain, I was punished if I tried. So I stuffed. And conformed. When I was eleven, two major events occurred in my life. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and my parents divorced. We moved four times that year, and I attended three different middle schools. I continued to stuff and conform for a few more years. I was both of my parents’ shoulder to cry on, my mom’s right-hand while she was sick, and I kept the peace in our family as well as I could. I maintained my grades and activities, while my emotional and psychological well-being continued in a downward spiral. By late high-school, I was self-medicating with alcohol and sex, living to be loved and accepted, and to be seen–even if it was for the wrong reasons. My parents, along with most of the adults in my life, never knew the extent of my self-destruction. I still maintained near-perfect grades and excelled in music and at my job. Mercifully, I survived that season of my life. There were many opportunities for me not to. I was at-risk, too.

As I ponder my experiences, along with Luanne’s, I wonder how many of you are nodding along as you read. How many of you were at risk, too, in one way or another. I bet the numbers are staggering… In Beau’s closing prayer, he said these words, “We’re all kids–some of us are just older than others.” Hearing those words instantly brought tears to my eyes. I’m still trying to discern why I felt it so deeply, but I think it was mostly because it’s so true. Most of us grew up not knowing how to articulate our pain, and for most of us, it came out sideways along the way. We all have different stories and experiences, but regardless of how wonderful our parents may have been, it’s unlikely that any of us made it into adulthood without experiencing some level of trauma. I grew up with parents who did the best they knew how to do, but no one had taught them how to deal with their own pain, so how could they teach me how to deal with mine?

Luanne told us that there were adults who loved her well throughout her self-destructive years. These people modeled the ways of Jesus to her. She said that they, “…loved me unconditionally, always,” and that there was, “no judgement, ever.” She said later on, “People aren’t shamed and judged into the kingdom of God. They’re loved into the kingdom.” These precious people saw beneath the image Luanne was projecting. They saw that she was isolating and in pain, and rather that grilling her about it, they simply loved her right where she was. It was clear as she spoke that she still feels the impact of these people in her life today.

These nameless people (they are not nameless to Luanne, of course, but they are to the rest of us) were a drop of love in the pool of her pain. That one drop created the first ripple in the wave of love that is now impacting hundreds of students each year. There’s no way to measure how many lives have been touched and changed because they took the time to see and love one hurting, at risk girl. That girl grew up to model the Christ-like love that was modeled to her, and now she’s the one who sees and loves the hurting kids around her. And she teaches others to do the same. She learned how to process her pain. She took the necessary steps to get help. She took the time to heal. She was willing to own her own stuff, and chooses to be honest about her own brokenness. She doesn’t try to change the world alone, because she’s learned that this life is a journey that we take together.

We can do that, too. We can learn how to articulate our own pain, how to own our own stuff, how to be honest about our brokenness. And we can do it in front of our kids, so that they can learn what we never did–how to process the pain of life rather than walk the road of self–and others–destruction. We can lead by laying down our pride and our walls, so that our kids can see that, while they are dealing with different things than we did, we’re not that different at all. We’re kids who are learning how to navigate the journey, too–we’re just a little older. We aren’t great at articulating our pain, either. And we need them as much as they need us. We can become aware, and we can be willing to learn about what we don’t know. We can choose to love people–not as projects, but as the individuals they are.

The things our youth are facing are daunting… They are growing up in a culture where suicides are commonplace, where constant standardized testing tells them they’re never good enough, where social media has replaced relationship, and sexting is an accepted part of conversations. They are a community of misfits who haven’t seen acceptance of diversity modeled. They are struggling with their sexual identities, their ethnicities, and the policies and systems that affect their lives in a world that is angrier than ever before. They are angry. They are scared. They deal with unprecedented anxiety levels. They learn active shooter procedures in P.E. They are addicted, and so are their parents. They are taking care of sick parents and mourning the loss of parents who chose suicide as their answer. They are a generation well-acquainted with abuse in all of its forms. They don’t have “safe spaces” to process all of this. They don’t know how to find the love, care, compassion, and wisdom they’re craving, so they look to their peers or to themselves for answers. Many of them see churches as judgmental and exclusive, some because they’ve experienced shunning from Christians. The Christian witness they hear often sounds angry and uninviting…

They don’t know how to dream of a better tomorrow–many of them have no dreams at all. It is dark, and it is daunting.

But friends, this I know… There is hope for a new day. Carolyn shared with us last week that “We are a people of hope,” and that God can restore and reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” That includes the lives of our youth, this next generation to whom  we will hand off the baton. We can all be one small drop that creates a ripple effect in the lives of our youth, the way that those adults who saw and loved Luanne created the first ripple in her life. Tomorrow is a new day, and it really can be differentIt will take courage. And honesty. And time. And it will start small. But, remember,

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10a, NLT)

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6, NLT)

We don’t do the work alone. In our own lives, as well as in the lives of the kids around us, our friend Jesus is the source. The starting point. Our model for how to love. He begins the work, if we’re willing, within us. And as we live out our journey of brokenness and healing in front of our kids, as we honestly own our stuff and make space for theirs, the love of Jesus will flow out of us and become drops that create ripples that make a difference in the lives of our kids… The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Laura

There is always hope. As the people of God choose to put people first, to love them well, to meet them right where they are, things begin to change. God’s plan for salvation, for saving lives is through relationships. Salvation is not for the after life, it is for the here and now. As Laura wrote above, my life was saved because people who loved Jesus loved me right where I was. And yes, I am very honest with students about my own brokenness, I share with them nuggets that I learned in my therapy, and in so doing, I give them permission to be real. Sometimes it takes years to build a relationship, sometimes months, sometimes it happens almost instantaneously, and some students resist relationships altogether, but I still greet them by name when I see them. Nothing that I do is hard. I greet students by name. I smile. I make every effort not to talk down to them, I try to always treat them with respect. I “see” them, as do many other adults in our building.

Even still, I was part of a suicide intervention today. What Beau and I talked about Sunday is real. Our kids are hurting. Our kids are anxious. Our kids are afraid. Our kids are angry. Our kids don’t know how to express how overwhelmed they are. They don’t know what to do with their pain.

So I write to those of us who would qualify as older kids– are we in touch with ourselves enough to know our own brokenness? Our own anger? Our own fear? Our own hurt?Have we sought healing? Are we on the healing journey? Have we found healing? Are we sharing our journeys with others so that we have support, and so others know they are not alone?  Would we be considered safe people for others? Are we able to hold their hearts, their pain, and their stories with the awareness that we have been entrusted with a precious gift–the gift of vulnerability, of confidentiality? Do we know how to do conflict well? Do we listen well? Are we pouring love, grace, and wisdom into the generation that is coming behind us?

We come together through the love of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth to experience and to share in one another’s sufferings and joys. Yes it’s messy. No, we won’t do it perfectly, yet through the messy of our shared humanity God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth. It’s slow, but it’s powerful enough to change the world.

As Laura wrote above: The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Luanne

11947-one-step-at-a-time

Like Never Before #2

We began a new series last week called “Like Never Before”. We looked at Jesus’ words in Mark 1:14-15 where He told us what God is all about. He let us know that the time had come, the Kingdom of God had arrived in the here and now; He encouraged us to repent (change our minds) and believe the Good News (gospel). God is here, His Kingdom is here, He has come near. Good news indeed!

After telling us Jesus’ message, the next thing that Mark tells us is how Jesus called His first disciples (vs 16-20). And, as is always the case with Jesus, it didn’t look the way one might have expected. We sometimes become so familiar with the accounts of Jesus in scripture that we forget how radical His ways were. One would think that God in the flesh would look for followers in the temple, or among those who were well versed in the Torah, but that wasn’t His way. Is it possible that He went elsewhere because often times the religious think they already know everything there is to know about the ways of God? Could it be because the religious have expectations of how God is supposed to act–how He’s supposed to relate to sinners? Could it be that the religious don’t want their belief system messed with?  Could it be that they are comfortable with it the way it is? Could it be that  the religious struggle to believe that everyone counts in God’s kingdom?These are definitely attitudes for us to think about and guard against in our own journeys of faith.

So, Jesus, in His unorthodox way of doing things, took a walk along the seashore where there were common fishermen and He called out to them. First to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, then to John and his brother James. He invited them to come after Him and told them He would make them fishers of men.

Mark tells us that “at once” and “without delay” they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Stop and think for a moment how remarkable that whole scenario is. Jesus is inviting regular common laborers to join Him in His mission. They don’t have a clue what they are really getting themselves into, but they followed immediately. What does this tell us about the type of followers that Jesus is looking for?

Pastor John highlighted three things:

1. Trust. Jesus is looking for followers who will trust Him completely. He is looking for those who will go where He leads without having to know all the details. He is looking for those who will drop everything to be with Him and join Him in what He’s doing. Jesus says to these men in verse 17, “Come after me.”  

“Come after me” can be interpreted in two different ways: it can be the literal following–He goes ahead and we come after, or it can be intense pursuit. I think both are fitting.

Do we trust Him enough to go after Him with all that we have and all that we are wherever He leads?

We won’t do it perfectly. Peter was the first disciple called, and he denied Jesus a few years later. Even so,  Jesus didn’t leave Peter behind. He again went to Peter by the sea, fixed him breakfast, asked Peter if he loved him, and continued to invite Peter to be part of what He was doing.  Peter followed Jesus once again and was powerfully used by God after Jesus’ ascension. That should give all of us some hope. God is not after our perfection, but He is after our trust. Will we trust Him with our lives?

2. Teachable: Jesus says to Peter and Andrew–come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.  Jesus was telling them that he was going to teach them something new. He was going to turn them into something that they weren’t before. To be teachable, we must be willing to be changed. There is no growth without change. We have to be willing to let go of old positions, old understandings, old ways of thinking, and go with Jesus.

I think maybe this is one of the reasons that Jesus didn’t go to the religious. He went to men who had no religious baggage, and they were willing to let go of the familiar and learn something new. Again, I think there is much here for those of us who’ve been around church for awhile to think about. Jesus, later in His ministry, confronted the religious leaders and said to them: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8 NLT)

That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the religious community. He wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected Him and the peace He offered (Luke 19:41) —  they were not teachable.

Are we teachable? Are we willing to wrestle with our own traditions to see if they line up with the teachings of Jesus? Are we willing to wrestle with cultural Christianity and get to the heart of the true message of Christ–the real good news that He Himself preached,  and not what we’ve turned it into? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit take us deeper? Are we teachable?

3. Task-oriented: Jesus told his first followers what their purpose would be. He was going to make them “fishers of men”. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the fishermen did not use a hook and bait–they used nets. They knew when to throw them, how to throw them, and how to bring them back in. They didn’t fish alone; they worked together. Fishing was their livelihood. If they didn’t fish, they didn’t eat. Their lives were totally about fishing.

Most of the fishermen/women I know today  fish recreationally. They use a hook, they use a lure, they basically trick the fish, then get it caught by the mouth and reel it in. Pastor John pointed out that, unfortunately, that’s how much of the church “fishes” for people. We bait and hook people with guilt and shame, and I’ll add fear, then reel them in on that line–which is never the way of Jesus. Lots of the bait and hook “fish” don’t stick around for the long haul, or they don’t get past thinking that God is mean and angry with them, and therefore never encounter the love and freedom that He has for them or the joy that can be found in Him.

A net holds fish, it doesn’t hook fish. Are we casting a net that attracts people to the God who loves them, or are we fishing through condemnation?  Jesus was incredibly attractive to the outcasts of the day. He valued them and let them know they were loved, wanted, worth spending time with, treasured. He did not manipulate people into His Kingdom. He is not an “us and them” kind of Savior. Is this the Jesus we show to the world?  Do we model the real Jesus who got in trouble because of who He hung out with, or do we model  the Pharisaical religious community who judged the world and those they perceived as “sinners” harshly? Again–things to think about.

Ultimately, what is it that Jesus wants us to be about?  He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us.  Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news. And then He invites us to join Him in sharing this good news with everybody everywhere.

This is our call:

Go in MY authority that I am giving to YOU and make more disciples. Show them who I AM so they will believe in ME, so they will follow MY words, MY teachings. Let those who choose to come after ME proclaim I am their Lord through baptism. And know this, there will never be a day that I AM NOT WITH YOU. (Mt. 28:19-20 paraphrase)

Jesus tells us to follow His teachings and teach His teachings to others. To be a disciple means to be a student. Are we students who know our Teacher well enough to know His teachings, to trust Him, to let Him continue to teach us, and to give our lives for the task that He’s laid out before us so that others can become His students, experience His love, and join us in making more disciples? This, my friends, is how the world will be changed–one precious person at a time.

–Luanne

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back over my life, and my own personal journey with Jesus. I love that Jesus went to the unlikely, those on the outside, to invite them to be his closest followers and friends. I love that He did things his own way, that He was radical, and that He always showed up in unexpected places. But I haven’t always loved these things about Jesus…and I don’t always love these things, even now.
At certain points in my life, I’ve been the fisherman willing to drop everything and follow Jesus as a trusting, teachable, task-oriented disciple. I’ve also been the religious one in the temple–a know-it-all Christian with expectations of how God will show up. For me, this wasn’t a “before and after” thing. I can look back over my life and see seasons when I was in one camp, and seasons when I was in the other. I hate that about me…
Within my one self, I am capable of religious bigotry, and I know that I’ve lived a good many of my total days as a prideful, judgmental “Christian”. I know that I’m capable of drifting back to that space in any given moment, too, under certain circumstances. I wish that wasn’t true. But it is.
It’s also true that as an eight-year-old girl, I ran to Jesus with reckless abandon. I fell in love with the beauty that only One possesses long before I had any sense of what falling in love even was. In that season? I was a trusting, teachable follower, and all I wanted was more of Jesus. I had a fair amount of religious baggage already, and it would rear its ugly head down the road, but Jesus had my whole heart. He had pursued me, called me, and I wanted to follow Him wherever He would lead me.
I could cite example after example of the times I’ve been the arrogant, privileged, religious, put-God-in-a-box, “in the know” “Christian”, too. The list is long. In fact, just this morning the Holy Spirit convicted me about an area where I’ve been acting this way, an area where I need to repent–change my way of thinking so that it aligns with Jesus’ way of seeing the situation.
I could also cite many examples of times I’ve felt like the outsider, the one on the sidelines, the one whose presence doesn’t matter at all. These are the times I’ve felt unseen, unworthy, unqualified, and just plain unloved.
Do you know what is so beautiful about Jesus? He comes to both versions of me (and all the versions in between) and issues the same invitation every time. I’m so grateful this is true. This is what I couldn’t stop thinking about as I pondered this message… How, so often, I’m not trusting Him. I’m not very teachable. And I lose my focus on the task at hand. And yet, He comes. He pursues me and He chooses me-even when I’m in the “wrong” camp. I’ll never get over the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy He continually extends to the mess of me…
I completely agree that Jesus was looking for those who would allow Him to make them into a particular kind of follower–those who would trust, who would be teachable, and who would be task-oriented. The story clearly shows us that. I just believe, based on my experience of who Jesus is, that He chooses all of us. I believe his invitation was the same to everyone He encountered as He walked the earth. The story of Jesus includes many interactions between Jesus and the religious. He ate meals with them, engaged in conversations with them, and invited at least a handful to follow Him, though, sadly,  most did not. I believe there must have been many times that He extended the invitation, because Jesus doesn’t change. If He invites ALL now, He invited, or chose, ALL then, too. We know that many of the religious elite eventually put their faith in Him, and were leaders in the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I’m certain that Jesus issued many invitations that didn’t make it into what we have come to know as Scripture, because not everything that happened was included. We know that. But because we know Jesus and we know that He came with a reckless, unchanging love and a desire to reconcile ALL people to Himself, we can safely assume that there was no one that He didn’t choose. None were worthy of being chosen. But He wanted all of them–and all of us–anyway.
I absolutely believe Jesus invited all–including the judgmental, arrogant, religious community–to follow Him. And that is good news for those of us who find ourselves in that camp today–or even just from time to time. He is always calling and pursuing. But as was the case for many in His day, sometimes we don’t hear the invitation for what it is. We have expectations of how Jesus will show up, what He will say, who He’ll consider worthy of His invitation. We choose to reject things that don’t line up with what we have come to believe is true, and in the process, we often reject Jesus Himself. We end up rejecting Him because we don’t recognize Him, and we’re unwilling to let Him “make us become” who we could be in His hands.
Our response to the invitation of Jesus is what reveals what’s in our hearts. Whether we find ourselves in a boat on the water or studying in the temple, the invitation is the same. We get to choose whether we want to follow or not. And when we choose to follow Him, we are trusting Him to cultivate the heart of a follower within us. It’s not something any of us innately possess that sets us apart from anyone else. It’s something Jesus grows within us as He makes us into people who are becoming more like Him. There is no formula to being chosen by Jesus. He’s already chosen all of us. He came to show us just how far Love will go, how much Love will sacrifice, and how the way of Love stands above all other ways of living life. And He’s invited all of us into that love as our new way of being in the world. As Luanne wrote above,
“He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us. Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here, full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news.”
Jesus is the good news. For all people. And He’s invited us to share that beautiful message with all people, everywhere. Will we leverage our lives, as He did, to make Him known? Will we live out the love of Jesus like never before?
–Laura
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Dear Church #5: Philippians 2:12-30

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12 NIV, 13 NLT)

Salvation.

What came to your mind when you read that word? Sit there for a minute. Turn it over in your mind.

When I type “salvation definition” into Google, these are the first results that pop up:

a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss.

deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ.

synonyms: redemption, deliverancereclamation
antonyms: damnation

How do these Google results line up with what first came to your mind? If your thoughts about salvation are similar to these words, I have some beautiful news for you: It is so much bigger-and better-than that!

Pastor John told us on Sunday that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute.

The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal.

So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this:

That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.  

Is salvation deliverance from sin? Yes. I believe that Scripture teaches us that it is. But what Paul is identifying here is not that definition. The church he was writing to was made up of people who had experienced the salvation moment. That moment that happens when we see the sacrifice of Jesus, believe that His sacrifice offers forgiveness for our sins, and declare that He is the Lord of our lives. The Philippians had experienced this. They knew Jesus and were living out of the relationship they already had with Him. We do ourselves-and everyone else-a disservice when we read this verse with only the salvation moment in mind.

The reason I’m camping out here is that we (the Church) have adapted a smaller, incomplete understanding of what salvation is. In many cases, it’s boiled down to exactly what Google said it is: deliverance from sin. The opposite of damnation. Our “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Friends, if that’s our understanding, we are missing out. And if that’s what we’re offering the world-in those terms-it’s no wonder people see that offer as resistable.

The word salvation is not the only part of this verse that gets misinterpreted… Let’s look at the words that precede “salvation” in this verse:

…work out your salvation…

Sometimes this verse is used to support works-based theology and to say that salvation (the way many have understood it, as our pass to Heaven) must be earned. This interpretation keeps us striving, fearful, and living lives that lack joy, as well as the other fruits that life in the Spirit brings. If you’re living under the oppression of works-based theology, I’m so sorry… I lived that way for years–a victim of spiritual abuse who grew into a striving perfectionist before the real Jesus set me free. If you’re feeling the weight of trying to earn your way into God’s good graces, I invite you to take a deep breath and move toward the One who says to all of us:

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

Back to Philippians 2:12… This verse wasn’t written to keep its readers in bondage to fear and works. The words translated “work out” actually mean to accomplish, to fashion into existence what wasn’t there before. Pastor John summed it up as “the ongoing process of growing up in our faith.”

Salvation is a process. 

Our terminology has messed with us, so much so that even typing those words felt hard. Because that can sound exactly like what I’m trying to dispel here. Salvation, the way that Paul writes about it in our passage this week, is a process. And that, dear Church, is freeing! We don’t have to be fully matured believers on day one. Our sweet Savior, who takes up residence in our hearts, gives us time to grow into the fullness of His life in us. We get to grow up in our faith.

So how do we do that? How do we grow up in our faith? Philippians 2:13 is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible:

“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

This fashioning into existence what wasn’t there before, this growing up into the life of our Savior, this journey to wholeness–we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. Not only does our good Father show us the way through His example lived out in the person of Jesus, He (through His Spirit) gives us the desire and the power to grow…

This is where the “fear and trembling” piece comes in for me. This particular kind of fear is not the anxious kind. It’s the mouth-wide-open, Holy ground, awed speechless kind. And that’s how I feel when I read verse 13. How beautiful and beyond comprehension is our God? He knows our weakness, our smallness, our inability to move toward health and wholeness on our own. And rather than ridicule our frailty, He gives us a salve that promotes healing, His very life to bring us to completion in Him, and even the desire and ability to keep going.

But… as beautiful as this is, it’s not the end. This process, this growing up in our faith, is not simply a means to get closer to Jesus. That is a natural result, but it’s not the end.

Pastor John identified that there are ingredients that come together to create growth in us. God gives us the desire and the power to recognize and do them. They are obedience, abandonment, and rejoicing.

The root word of “obedience” in the Greek is “listen”. We are invited to take the posture of an active listener, and to keep listening. To hear well. Before we do anything, we have to stop talking, stop trying to take (or maintain) control, and listen for the voice of the One who leads us.

Abandonment, the way that John spoke about it, is best defined as the act of pouring oneself out. (Phil. 2:17) This is a picture of releasing control, a picture first modeled by our suffering Savior, as He poured out His life for us. We are invited, as we grow up in Him, to do for others what Jesus did for us. We are invited to die to ourselves, to be poured out like a drink offering for somebody other than ourselves.

Sometimes, this feels like drowning. But as Jonathan Martin writes in his book, How to Survive a Shipwreck, “The waters that drown are the waters that save… The bad news is that this shipwreck feels like death, because you really may be dying. The bad news is that old and familiar things you loved and that made you what you were are slowly passing away. The good news is that you’re being born, and this drowning makes possible the moment when all things become new–most of all, you.”

It seems to me we’ve written about this every week for a while now… Our relationship with Jesus is not just for us. The result of His life in us, His love for us is that our lives become about sharing that love with others. It’s not about us. The invitation is not to “health and wealth”. The invitation is to die to ourselves so that we can come up out of the water living for others…

Rejoicing is the last ingredient we heard about on Sunday. This rejoicing is a shared joy, a mature joy that is for others. As we grow up in our faith, this joy in being with one another, is a fruit that is produced. Do you share in the ecstatic joy Paul writes about (vs. 17-18), even while he’s in prison? This joy cannot be produced in a life lived for only itself. It’s the product of a life shared, poured out. It’s sharing in the joy that was set before Jesus when He willingly gave His life for us. (Hebrews 12:2)

True salvation, freedom, and healing are found as we let the Spirit work in us to give us the desire and the power to listen and obey, to abandon our rights to ourselves, and to rejoice in the midst of any and every circumstance. Working out our salvation is the process of growing up into this kind of faith. We are invited into this process. What is our response, dear Church?

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1:12-2:20

Last week we looked at Habakkuk crying out to God about the violence and injustice taking place in his own nation—he wondered how long God was going to let it go on. God responded by saying Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. (1:5) And then God goes on to tell Habakkuk that the utterly amazing thing He is going to do is let their enemy, the Babylonians, wipe them out. I don’t know about you, but that’s a hard thing for me to wrestle with. I want God to just fix things and make it easy on us. However, even my own life experience demonstrates that hard things come—sometimes as a consequence of my own choices, sometimes as a result of the choices of others, and sometimes just because we live in a fallen world. It’s never pleasant. It’s never what we hope for. It’s never part of our plan. However, God allows hard things. How we respond to those things shows us a great deal about our relationship with God.

How does Habakkuk respond to this revelation that God is going to allow them to be totally destroyed by their enemy?

He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. In verse 12 he says LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgement; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.

He acknowledges that God is eternal, that God is Holy, that God is judge, that God is his Rock, that God is pure, that God has a plan—and then he, Habakkuk, asks more questions. I love that about Habakkuk. He is not afraid to ask.  He is not asking out of faithlessness, he is asking the God that he trusts to help him understand—he is asking his “why” questions—but again, not out of faithlessness. This is is such an important point for us to think about.

I imagine that all of us have had seasons in our lives when we don’t understand, (or like) what God is allowing. I believe that scripture shows us that it’s absolutely okay to take our very honest questions to God. What’s true is that He knows our thoughts, He knows our hearts, so trying to pretend like we don’t have questions when we do, is an exercise in futility. The most alive, real relationships are honest and authentic. That includes our relationship with God. However, there is a huge difference between asking from a place of faith, and asking  from a place of faithlessness. Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6)…even in our questions. How do we see God? Are we willing to let Him be God and trust that He is working out His plan, even in the devastating moments of life?

I had a long season when I didn’t do this well. My mother died when I was 11. I was raised in a very godly home, and had been taught that God is love (which is true); however, in my mind, a loving God would not have allowed my mother to die, so I spent the next 10 years of my life wrestling against God. I was going to show Him—make Him pay for doing that to me—but all I did was make self destructive and others destructive choices which led me absolutely nowhere good.

God continued to pursue me throughout those years, and at times I would move toward Him, but because I had an inaccurate view of Him, and still harbored resentment toward Him,  I returned over and over to distancing myself from Him. When I was in my early twenties I got held up at gunpoint. I’m going to rewrite that sentence—when I was in my early twenties, God allowed me to be held up at gunpoint. It was a strangely wrapped gift.

The young man who held me up was quickly apprehended. My friend who was with me and I went to night court, identified the young man, and then I headed home. I called my parents (my dad remarried when I was 12), and got into bed replaying the events of the night— remembering the gun against my belly and the fear. All of the “what could have beens” began going through my mind.

In that moment, God spoke to me very clearly.

He asked, “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”

 What a question—and what an easy answer. No. Absolutely not. Self destructive party girl was not the legacy I would have wanted to leave. The following morning I began making different choices—new friends, new place to live, and new pursuit to get to know God.

An accurate view of God is crucial in hard seasons.  My choices, because of my inaccurate view of God, led me to some very dark places.

How do you see Him? When life gets hard do you lean into Him, or push Him away? Do you ask questions or give Him the silent treatment?

Habakkuk asked his questions, and then climbed up on a high place to look and to see what God would say to him. (2:1)

God responded. Not only did he respond, but he asked Habakkuk to write down what He said so that others could also see it. God told Habakkuk that the revelation has an appointed time, that it will happen, and that even though it lingers, Habakkuk is to wait for it because it will come and not delay. (2:2-3)

And then God talks about the enemy—that his desires are not upright, that he is arrogant and never at rest, that he is greedy and never satisfied, that he takes people captive—but the day will come when the enemy will reap the consequences of what he has sown—he will become the prey, he will be plundered, he will come to ruin because of his violence, injustice, bloodshed, exploitation of the vulnerable—the violence he has done will overwhelm him because he has shed human blood and destroyed lands, cities and everyone in them. (2:6-14)

Then God seems to shift gears and asks Habakkuk, Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. (18-19)

And Habakkuk responds: The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.

Pastor John took us to 2nd Thessalonians 1:6 which says, God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you. In this instance, the English word “trouble” doesn’t quite capture the Greek word which means to be totally overwhelmed, under a situation that is so hard to bear that you can’t breathe and aren’t sure that you will survive. So Paul, who lives in a time when Christ’s followers are being burned alive, killed by lions in arenas for sport, imprisoned, beaten, tells the Thessalonians to persevere in Christ—that the day will come when God will trouble the persecutors. Our human response to this is “Yes!” And oftentimes we want to help God trouble those who have troubled us, so much so that those thoughts consume our minds and become destructive idols that we give our hearts and attention to. However, God never gives us permission to hold a grudge, to withhold forgiveness, or to get our own revenge. He wants us free. He wants us to trust Him to be just. He wants us see things His way.

Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God. Wow!

In my own story, I am now able to see that a wiping out is what led to new life. I’ve had more than one wiping out season. I don’t like them, but in retrospect, I can see how God has used them for my good and His glory.

I think part of life on this planet is knowing that hard, sometimes devastating seasons will come. What is our mindset about those seasons? Are we willing to wrestle with, not against, God. Are we willing to represent Christ during those times? Are we willing to handle conflict God’s way? Are we willing to recognize that ultimately our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)   Are we willing to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (Mt. 5:44) 

This is hard stuff…nothing about our human nature will lead us to respond to those who’ve hurt us, or who will hurt us in these ways. It’s a Spirit thing. Are we willing to wrestle honestly with God, climb to a high place to see what He will say to us, and acknowledge that the LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.

He knows what He’s doing and it’s ultimately all about His glory.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Hab. 2:14)

Do we trust Him?

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (Ps. 46:10)

—Luanne

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Wonder of a Counselor

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

-Isaiah 9:6-

Have you ever needed Jesus as a “Wonderful Counselor”? I have. But I didn’t come to Him calling Him by that name, not initially. I came to Jesus because I needed His counsel. The “wonderful” part comes into the picture because He comes and meets us in that space.

He comes…

That alone is enough to inspire wonder in my soul. Our Jesus comes to us…

“While other creeds endeavor to get us out of the world and into heaven, in Christianity, heaven comes down and Christ comes into this world to get us…And your God, He’s coming now, everywhere, for you. In all humanity’s religions, man reaches after God. But in all His relationships, God reaches for man.” (Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift)

He chooses to stop by our wells and offer the living water we’re desperate for. Jesus comes to us and He asks for our honesty. He lifts our faces up, out of the dirt of our messy lives, and lets us see the kindness in His eyes, the twinkle that beckons us to follow Him. He invites us to remove our masks-He’s looking straight through them anyway–and gives us the space to tell Him our whole truth. Space to lay our burdens and confessions at His feet. He listens as we ask our many questions.

And then… He speaks. He speaks to us with thoughts that are higher than our thoughts. And he moves and acts in ways that are higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The Word that spoke light and life and you and me into being speaks directly to our hearts in His perfect, infinite wisdom. And it is wonderfully disarming… As He speaks, His words reveal anything we’ve tried to hide. His words are precise and invasive and we are exposed. And the way He does it-it’s beyond our understanding. It leaves us in awe, full of wonder that he would come. That He keeps coming… 

It is in these moments that we come to know Him by the name, “Wonderful Counselor”. It is during these moments when we are overwhelmed by His coming, by His knowing of us, by His Word so precise and sharp that it divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). He becomes our Wonderful Counselor when we’re filled with wonder at His entering into our stories. That wonder explodes into awestruck worship when we realize Jesus is calling us to be a part of His story…

In order to know Him as our Wonderful Counselor, though, we must first be a sheep. In the animal world, there are many animals I would choose to be before I would pick a sheep…But Jesus calls us sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27) The reason Jesus calls us sheep is that sheep listen. They listen to the voice of their shepherd. They do what he says and they follow him. We aren’t His sheep if we don’t know His voice. Matthew 25:31-36 comes to mind. It is painfully clear in these verses how vital it is to be known as one of His sheep…

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

When Jesus comes again, He will call His sheep to Himself. Those who have heard Him, who know His voice, who have listened to His counsel and done what He says to do. Those whom He knows. Those who know Him. There will be a separating in that moment… I want to be a sheep.

But what if we know Him, we’ve heard Him, we know His voice–and He’s just not speaking? What if we’re in a season of waiting and we’re tempted to just give up because the silence seems more than we can bear? We have asked and pleaded and sought the wonderful counsel of our Savior and what we’ve heard is… nothing. What then?

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT)

We are reminded in these verses that our Savior identifies with us in our struggles. He is sympathetic to our pain, our questions, our frustrations-because He’s faced weakness and pain Himself. He offers us mercy and grace and He encourages us to press on, to persevere. Because He knows what that perseverance will accomplish… Perseverance produces character and character produces hope-a hope that never disappoints. (Romans 5:4-5)

It struck me that today’s advent candle is the candle of hope. It symbolizes the hope we have in the next advent, the second coming of Jesus. That hope is not only for the day of His returning. It is a hope we can carry every moment between now and that day. When we feel hopeless in the midst of the seemingly impossible, Jesus whispers to us, His sheep, “I am your hope”. When the waiting seems endless, He reminds us his first coming seemed slow to so many. Hundreds of years of waiting, of silence…and then, the baby was born in Bethlehem. Hope came to us that night, wearing the skin of a baby boy. And now, we can experience a daily advent of our Savior, because He was born as Emmanuel-God with us. We can live His daily advent, His continual coming to us, this adventure He invites us to be swept up in. And we can live it holding fast to hope-hope that is closer than we know-breathless with wonder. I love the way Frederick Buechner writes of advent:

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

I pray that in this season of Advent, we will come to know, to really know Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor. That we’ll so long to hear His voice, we’ll hold our breath so we don’t miss Him. I pray that as He comes-and He always comes-we will be left breathless, awestruck by the wonder of Him. And I pray that we’ll persevere and hold onto the hope that is found in Jesus alone.

–Laura

Jesus, our Wonderful Counselor.

Wonderful—full of wonder—awe inspiring.

Counselor—one who gives guidance, who gives advice.

Pondering this description of Jesus makes my heart swell with love and with longing. There is so much packed into these two words, and no one else, throughout all of time could live up to this description.

Laura wrote about wanting to be a sheep in the fold of Christ—one who listens to His voice and does what He says. I do too.  I want Him to be my Wonderful Counselor, not just as a title that He holds, but in my daily life on a practical and real level.

John shared with us the very practical pieces of how to benefit from counseling. I, like John,  have had the benefit of having a human counselor join me on a healing journey and I agree wholeheartedly with John’s advice.

In order to reap the full benefits of good counseling…

1. We must be willing to be brutally honest with our counselor. We have to be willing to let our “ugly” parts show. If we don’t expose those places in ourselves, we won’t find healing. Masks and/or self-deception will not serve us well.

2. We must be willing to listen to what our counselor has to say. Have you ever noticed that the words listen and silent are composed of the same six letters? In order to listen, I must be willing to be silent. Listening is more than hearing. A quick Google search of listen versus hear brings up this statement: “Hearing is the physical activity of sound falling on the ears and the biological processes involved in its perception. Listening is the ability to pay attention to what the sound means and understand it.” Pay attention—understand—listen.

3. We must be willing to do what our counselor says. We must recognize that our counselor is for us, not against us. Our counselor is working with us to help us find healing. Sometimes our counselors will give us hard things to do. My counselor, when she suggested something that I wanted  to push back against, would say:  “If it makes you feel like you want to throw up, it probably indicates that you need to do it.” Ugh! I hated that! But,  when I followed her counsel, her guidance, she was right every time, and I grew.

One other thing I’d add—I had to make time to see my counselor, and seeing her cost me. I can say, without a doubt, that it was worth every moment of time and every bit of the cost.

John juxtaposed a couple of different stories as illustrations in his sermon. He reminded us of the Samaritan woman that Jesus talked to at Jacob’s well in John 4. When she asked Him for the water that He offered, He asked her a seemingly unrelated question. He asked her to go get her husband and return with him. She had a choice in this moment. She had no idea that Jesus already knew all about her life. She could have lied, she could have acted like she was going to get someone and not returned, but she chose the brutal honesty: “I have no husband,” she replied. Her honesty in that moment, and Jesus’ further revelation about what he already knew led not only to her own salvation, but to the whole town hearing the message of Jesus and many became believers. She was honest, she listened, she obeyed, and her life was changed.

John also brought up the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10.  I have always found this to be one of the saddest stories in scripture. The young man comes to Jesus feeling pretty good about himself. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life, and Jesus reminds him of the 10 commandments. (Let me throw out the reminder that no one could keep the law…all have fallen short), this young man says he has kept all of these. Hmmm. Maybe he’s genuinely self-deceived, or maybe he’s trying to impress Jesus. Either way,  he’s not being honest with himself or with Jesus.  Verse 21 tells us that “Jesus felt love for him”. (I love that Mark includes that detail—just like the Samaritan woman, Jesus knew all about this young man, and still loved him).  Jesus counsels him to go and sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him.  The very first of the 10 Commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” I believe, that in this moment, Jesus was giving the young man the opportunity to see that his true god was his money, and in this moment, he could trade his false god for a relationship with the one true God; however,  the false god’s hold on him would have to go.   The young man chose to walk away. He was unable to be honest, to see his own area of weakness, he did not take the life-giving counsel of Jesus, so he left empty and unchanged.

Jesus was willing to be the Wonderful Counselor for a woman who knew she was a mess, and a young man who had no idea that he was a mess. Notice that Jesus does not coerce obedience in either story. He just lays His love and His truth out there and lets us choose.

So this first week of advent, the “hope” week, I pray that we recognize that  we have a Wonderful Counselor who holds all that we need for healing, for growth, for wholeness, for transformation. I pray that we will make time for Him.  His heart is for us. He loves us. He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. He knows us better than we know ourselves.  He gives us His attention whether we come with our authentic messy selves, or our masked selves. He speaks, and we get to choose whether to be hearers only or to listen to His heart of love leading us into true life. He guides us, counsels us, shows us what to do,  and we get to decide whether or not to do it. Taking His counsel, doing it His way will absolutely cost us something. Not doing it His way will absolutely cost us something as well. Only one choice will be worth the cost.  This Wonderful Counselor will never force himself on us. He will gently guide us, and He promises to be with us every step of the way. Are we willing to go where He leads?

—Luanne

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