Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

Related image

 

 

An Unusual Couple (Luke 1:5-7)

“We tend to sanitize the birth story of Jesus, fashioning it into a pristine, shimmering nativity scene adorned with gold accents and residing comfortably on a hallway table or atop a fireplace mantle… We do this with our spiritual journeys too, wanting them to be comfortable and clean, desiring something attractive that we can easily accessorize our lives with–but that isn’t reality, is it? Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.”     (Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, John Pavlovitz)

I read the words above in one of my Advent devotionals early Sunday morning–the first day of Advent this year–and I thought of them again hours later, as I listened to the message at church. It can be easy to fall into the trappings of a shiny, sparkly Christmas. It can be tempting to recall the familiar story–whatever version has embedded itself in our consciousness–and stop short of engaging our hearts in the messy and the real of the season.

The real story of Christmas is full of twists and turns. So much of the how, the when, the why just doesn’t make sense. If we look closely, we’ll likely find more questions than answers. Four-hundred years of silence interrupted by an angel visitation? A virgin conception? A dirty, manger birth? Shepherds witnessing the announcement? Wise men from the east? None of this looked the way those awaiting their Messiah expected it to look. We’re familiar with these unusual happenings. They’re part of the story we celebrate each year.

Fascinating as these parts may be, we are not looking at these parts of the story this year. In this year’s Christmas series, Pastor John is walking us through another unusual part of the story, a part often overlooked. We are looking at an unusual couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become the parents of John, the forerunner of Jesus. Their story, like most of the Christmas narrative, doesn’t really make sense. As we take a closer look at them, perhaps we’ll find some hope for when our own seasons don’t make sense.

Pastor John identified four things that made these two an unusual couple. They were:

Unusually Priestly. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were from priestly lines. Luke sets this up in contrast to the political oppression of their day.

Unusually Righteous. They were identified by the way they were rightly related to God, set apart as upright and blameless during political upheaval.

Unusually Barren. Both of them were “well advanced” in years, and without a child of their own–a major blemish in their culture at that time.

Unusually Named. In a time when many women were named “Mary” or “Martha”, both of which mean “rebellion”, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s names reflected something else. Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers”, and Elizabeth means, “God is my oath.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth were an upstanding couple. A couple who could trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning of the priesthood. A couple whose very names were reminders of God’s withness and his faithfulness, who were rightly related to God in every possible way.

And yet, they were barren. 

Barrenness was a blemish they couldn’t escape in their day. Those on the outside looking in likely whispered among themselves, wondering what these two had done to be so cursed by God. They were likely rejected by some, and isolated from their community because they had been refused the blessing of a child. Can you imagine their questions, their wrestling? In a culture that equated children with blessing and identity, as the way to outlive your own life, how must this couple have felt? I imagine they wondered why. I imagine they asked why. They may have spent hours and days on their faces, begging God to bless them with the one thing they didn’t have–a child of their own.

I imagine their pain was deep, their lack of understanding a cloud that wouldn’t leave. And still, they remained rightly related to God, faithful to him.

We’ll dig into the story and see how God showed up for them–when all hope seemed long gone–in the weeks to come. For now, let’s wrestle with the tension this unusual couple likely experienced. Maybe observing theirs can help us identify our own.

What is your blemish? Where is the tension in your life right now? What are the things that make you feel unusual… perhaps even un-chooseable? What part of you makes you feel disqualified?

We have a God who chooses the unusual things, “the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT) “Unusual” is not a disqualification. God still chooses the unlikely ones–and that includes all of us, with all of our many reasons why he shouldn’t. He chooses us because of all that we think stands in the way–not in spite of those things.

We’ll see as we continue this series just how God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth–in the middle of their very real, very hard circumstances. And we will see how Jesus is still coming for us today–if we look for him. Ann Voskamp, in her gorgeous Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, writes,

“This, this, is the love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning. It is possible for you to miss it. To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous–how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait. Wait for the coming of God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved… Mark Advent with a counting, a way of staying awake and not missing… And the heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed. Because each day of Advent, we will actively wait. We will wait knowing that the remaking of everything has already begun.” 

Jesus came, and he comes still. May we stay awake to the wonder in this season. May we look at the unusual with fresh eyes–both the unusual parts of the familiar stories, and the unusual parts of our own…

–Laura

Each advent season, I ask God to show me something new–I ask for fresh revelation in the Christmas story. Each year, God reveals something new. I don’t know what this year’s revelation will be, so I will seek, ask, knock and wait in anticipation until it comes. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. Why? Because I don’t want to lose the wonder, I don’t want to lose the mystery, I don’t want to settle into the familiar story as if I already know it. I don’t want Christmas as usual. God always has new things to show us, new depths to explore, fresh revelation to wrestle with or be awestruck by. Nothing has to be “usual”.

Laura encouraged us to look at the unusual with fresh eyes–the unusual of the familiar stories, and the unusual of our own stories. Where do you find yourself this year? How has your 2019 been? What frame of mind are you in as the advent season begins?

What frame of mind were Zechariah and Elizabeth in? We only looked at a few introductory verses on Sunday, yet they were enough to show us that God’s plan was going to be fulfilled through an unusual set of circumstances.

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7)

Laura highlighted the main points that Pastor John made regarding these verses: Zechariah and Elizabeth were unusually priestly, unusually righteous, unusually barren, and unusually named, and I am going to add that they were unusually beyond child-bearing age. Luke states it pretty bluntly “they were both very old.”  I don’t know how old very old is, but here they were–faithfully serving the Lord, no children to carry on their legacy, and they were old. And God saw them. And God knew them. And God chose to use them. And through them and their son, John (the Baptist),  the four hundred year silence of God was broken.  We will dig into their story and John’s birth in the next few weeks; however, for today, I want to emphasize that God loves to use the unlikely and the unseen.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. They were quietly living out their lives in the days of Roman rule, under Roman oppression as part of a minority people group. They were not trying drawing attention to themselves as they practiced their Jewish faith, consistently serving God in the synagogue, and living blamelessly and righteously according to the law of Moses. I imagine they believed that’s how they would spend the rest of their days. I truly love the fact that even though they were old, they were still actively pursuing and serving God.

Years ago, my family met a man named Buddy Wood. He was old. He was also vivacious, full of life, and children-mine included-flocked to him in droves. Buddy faithfully served the Lord and spent a good bit of his time being invited to speak to groups of senior citizens. He once said something to me in a conversation that will stick me forever. He said that although his body was aging, the Holy Spirit within him would never grow old. He lived with a fresh perspective, a holy “what’s next?” and encouraged others to seek God and choose to love and serve God faithfully as long as they were alive on this planet. Age doesn’t exclude any of us from being used by God.

I get the feeling that Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that.  We don’t get the feeling that they were disgruntled. We don’t get the feeling that they were judgmental and full of themselves. We are told that they walked blamelessly with God, and served faithfully day in and day out. I don’t even get the feeling from these verses that they were waiting for the spectacular. They appear to be content to walk with God, despite life’s hardships, and they loved Him.

I don’t know where you find yourself this season, but I want to encourage you to keep leaning into God. The life of the Holy Spirit is within you. The Spirit does not grow old or weary. God sees you. God knows you, and God loves the things that make you unusual. He is faithful; he wants to use your story in his story. Allow yourself to push beyond Christmas as usual into the wonder of whatever God wants you to see and experience as you walk faithfully with Him.

–Luanne

5602F97E-A72C-4B44-BA76-4C90FD3C5249.jpeg

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

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

Can I Have the Best of Both Worlds?

The “Big Questions” series at church has been excellent, and the question “Can I Have the Best of Both Worlds” was incredibly thought provoking. It was heavy, it was excellent, it was true.  The answer to “can I have the best of both worlds” is no. We can not have the best of both worlds. We have to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I am in a constant wrestling match with that truth. My western mind set is way too focused on the material world. I have weight to lose because of the over-abundance of food that surrounds me; I have to buy new hangers because my closet is full; every few months I take bags of items to the Rescue Mission to donate, and still have way too much.

Twice in my adult life, I have gotten rid of almost all of my worldly possessions, the first time was when we moved overseas to be missionaries, and the second time was when we moved back. There was something so freeing about being rid of all the stuff. It really felt good. However, in both places, I managed to fill my house with stuff. Why?

And then, John’s point about sin being fun. We are drawn to it because it is enticing. Something about it appeals to us or we wouldn’t be tempted. I’m not tempted by things that don’t appeal to me, but other things can really draw me in. And, as is always the case, the end result is regret, or worse–captivity.

When I look at the “more stuff” trap, or the “sin” trap, or the “control” trap or the “safety” trap  it becomes apparent to me that in all of these situations I am trying to bless myself and/or meet my own needs. I am trying to be my own god.  And what is really true, I have no control of anything, but I can certainly live in the deception that I think I do.

Contrast that way of life with the other world–the Kingdom of Heaven world in which the One True God is King and it looks completely different.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 16  “If any of  you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

And in Matthew 6 verses 19-33 Jesus tells us not to worry about what we’re going to wear, what we’re going to eat–he reminds us that the stuff of this world is temporary, it rusts, it gets destroyed–he reminds us that our Father knows what we need and He will provide as we seek His Kingdom first.

In John 16:33 Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble, but not to be dismayed because he has overcome the world. And he is pretty frank about the fact that we will suffer for his name’s sake.  All of this is only temporary as well, yet  it is a temporary that is worth something for eternity.

In addition, Jesus also tells us that only in him do we have life (John 14:6), only in Him is that life abundant (John 10:10) only in him do we have the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control), only in him do our lives have purpose and meaning, only in him will we be able to bear fruit that will last (John 15:16), and only in him are we freed from the smallness of living for self.

I loved the list that John ended his sermon with–it went something like this:

There is only One who is our refuge, only One who comes toward us when everyone else is moving away, only One who saves us, only One who will not condemn, only One who transforms our lives, only One who gives us life eternal, only One who fills us with purpose, only One who is trustworthy, only One who is constant, only One who is always present, only One whose name is Love. He is where true life is found.

And what’s true is that I have experienced this. I know that it is true, and that nothing in this world compares. I know that simple living and simply following Jesus is freeing and fulfilling. Yet still I wrestle. Ugh! Thank you, Paul, for letting me know in Romans 7:24 that you struggled too: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin…  Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So, where does this bring me? I find myself again facing the challenge that Joshua laid out before the Israelites:

..Fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped… Serve the Lord alone. 15 But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15 NLT)

Will I serve the false, lying gods of self, of selfishness, self preservation, self protection, of stuff, of trying to control my own life, my own destiny…or will I choose total surrender to His way? I can’t have both. Either He is God, or I am god. Today, I repent of how out of balance I have become and am making the choice to choose Him, His kingdom,  and His ways again.  I feel some purging coming on….

How about you? Is this a struggle for you as well? If it is not a struggle for you, how do you maintain proper perspective and balance in this materialistic, self-sufficient society of ours?

–Luanne

I wish I didn’t share this struggle. It would be lovely to be able to say that I have great perspective and balance and that the temptation to live with one foot in each world is not a problem I can relate to. But the truth is, this is an ongoing wrestling match in my life. Luanne wrote,

“Will I serve the false, lying gods of self, of selfishness, self preservation, self protection, of stuff, of trying to control my own life, my own destiny…or will I choose total surrender to His way?”

I want to always choose surrender to His way. I know what happens when I choose otherwise. Yet, I find myself choosing myself over and over again. Why?? Because these false gods whisper lies that sound like promises. These “promises” speak to the places in me that long for fairness. For safety. For stability. The places that are afraid of change, tired of grieving and desperate for control.

These “promises” are skillfully worded to hit each of us where we are the most vulnerable, the most desperate. And, unfortunately, sometimes I buy it. I believe the hissing lies and I white-knuckle them. I hang on until, inevitably, the lies are exposed as such and I’m left disappointed, brokenhearted and, again, asking why.

John talked about one lie that targets our desire for fairness, the one that says if we follow God, if we do what He asks, if we’re good, we’ll be “healthy, wealthy and wise”. And he also identified that we all know that isn’t true. We all know someone whose story defies this lie. Friends who love Jesus-and are battling cancer. Family members who have done everything right-and find themselves in a state of financial ruin. For me, I think of my mama. She lived her life for her kids, for others, most of all for Jesus-and she died of a terrible disease in her mid-fifties.

So what do we do with all of that? John asked us these questions regarding the unfairness of life:

“Where can you run? When it’s you? When it’s someone you love? Who will be with you then? Who will be your refuge?

And as I pondered his words, these words came to mind:

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”  Psalm 139:7-10

When the promises this world makes are exposed, when we find ourselves trapped in a cage built by our own hands, when we experience the unfairness and instability of our ever-changing world and we find ourselves all alone… He is there. Not to shame us for being so stupid, not to mock our lack of self-control, not to condemn us for foolishly running after idols. No. He is there to remind us that there is nowhere we can go that He won’t find us. Nowhere too dark that He won’t stoop low to meet us. As John said, Jesus is the only one who wants to be a part of our world when it’s unfair, unsafe and fading away, when our dreams and hopes are dying. He’s the one who will wait for us, walk with us, stay with us. In Hebrews 13:5, we are reminded of His promise to be with us:

Let your character [your moral essence, your inner nature] be free from the love of money [shun greed—be financially ethical], being content with what you have; for He has said, “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” (AMP Bible)

Can we have the best of both worlds? No. We can’t serve both God and ourselves. Will life be hard? Yes. Whether we do it God’s way or our way, we are guaranteed that life will sometimes be unfair and unsafe and we will have trouble. But we have a God who says He will never, under any circumstances leave us or relax His grip on us. Even when we fail. Even when we buy the lies and find ourselves in a pit we created. Even there, in our brokenness, His hand will guide us and hold us fast. I am so grateful for His promise of “withness”. And I know that as I continue to find Him faithful and as I trust Him to lead me, my grip on the things of this world will loosen more and more each day.

Where do you run when life turns out to be unfair and unsafe? What do you cling to for stability, for control? Do the promises in the verses from Psalm 139 and Hebrews 13:5 comfort your heart? We would love to read your thoughts and questions!

–Laura

corrie ten boom

More thoughts on prayer…

The mysteries of prayer…and there are many…. can boggle my mind. At a conference a few years ago, I was introduced to this quote by Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer in order to lend His creatures the dignity of causality.” For whatever reason, God, in His incredible wisdom and grace allows us to connect in a deeply personal way with Him through prayer. He not only allows it, He desires it—and then the craziest thing of all– He moves, He acts through our prayers. That fact alone is mind boggling. So, when I think through this series of Big Questions, and ponder Beau’s sermon on prayer, the seemingly unanswered ones, and the answered ones, it brings me to the mystery all over again.

Beau highlighted, and I agree wholeheartedly, that prayer has very little to do with the actual words we say; it is more about our heart condition; it is about connecting with God; it is about bringing everything in our lives to the God of the universe who is also our intimate loving Father; it is about conversing with Him. He loves to hear about our victories, our defeats, our concerns for others, our love for the world, our desire to see Him move in mighty ways and make His name known, and He loves for us to be still in His presence and hear from Him, rest in Him, and trust Him.

Confession: I used to stress out over prayer. I knew its importance and was afraid that I would mess it up somehow. To be asked to pray out loud was horrifying. I was sure that I wasn’t doing it well enough. I read books on prayer, went to seminars on prayer, tried various formulas, various outlines, various methods, and eventually came to the conclusion that the only way I can mess up prayer is not to pray. God is absolutely not after formulas and polished phrases. He is truly after connection with us–me bringing all of myself to Him. You bringing all of yourself to Him.

Jesus gave us a beautiful example of what kinds of elements to include in our prayer lives when He taught us to “pray in the manner of” The Lord’s Prayer– elements that include greeting our Father, lifting Him up, praying for the things of His kingdom, and for His will to be done, asking for personal provision, for the grace to forgive others, for deliverance from temptation, for protection from the evil one, and acknowledging His greatness and authority over all. These are good things to include, AND I believe that God is just as interested in a quick sentence prayer in the middle of the day, or a “wow” prayer when He blows our minds with something beautiful, or a heart broken “why” prayer when hard things come our way–. Prayer is all about connection. Period.

So, maybe our biggest challenge in prayer is trusting God completely with however He chooses to move. Nowhere in scripture does God promise to give us everything we want. Nowhere in scripture does God say that He is obligated to us and our will. What He does say is “pray always and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1) and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). He tells us that He hears our prayers (Ps. 66:19), that they are before His throne (Rev. 8:4) and that they are powerful and effective (James 5:16). God delights in us coming to Him with our hearts and our desires, but He is not a genie in a bottle. We know from the story of Job that God heard Job’s prayers for deliverance, yet God was doing a greater work than Job could see. God used Job’s season of suffering to give Job a new perspective on who God is–the end result of Job’s story is that Job experienced God in an incredible way. Job says in chapter 42 verse 5, “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You.” Job experienced a new level of intimacy with the Lord through his season of suffering and his prayer relationship with God during that season.

I have had a season where I responded to what God was allowing in my life in a similar way to Job. At first I wanted a way out, an escape. God said no. Then I asked God to take my life. He said no. I was going to have to go through that season. God was with me through it all. I am on the other side of that season now, with a deep, deep reverence and deeper love for God than I knew was possible. He stripped me of my false idols and taught me that He truly is enough. He is more than enough. He handled all of my questions, all of my rants, all of my despair, and loved me ferociously in the midst of the swirling chaos. I could not see where I would end up. I was devastated and terrified, and I knew that there was nowhere to turn except for to God. He met me in the pit and did abundantly more than I could have asked or imagined.

Coming to God as if He is a genie in a bottle, there to give us whatever we pray for, is not the goal and will lead to much disappointment. Prayer is about honesty before God, about connection with God, about walking with God, trusting God and ultimately experiencing God in every circumstance and season of life, no matter how He chooses to move. He is the artist weaving the tapestry. He alone knows what we truly need. He knows the beautiful work that He is doing. He can be trusted. His view is eternal. His ways are higher. And His heart is full of love toward us. Always. To connect with Him in prayer is one of the greatest gifts He has given us. It is our spiritual lifeline. We will wither without it. And, He changes us, and the world as we enter in with Him.

How has God met you in prayer? What does your prayer life look like? I’d love to learn from you.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “To connect with Him in prayer is one of the greatest gifts He has given us”. I agree with that statement completely. Prayer is not a duty, a means to an end or something to cross off my to-do list. It is a gift. God already sees the end from the beginning. He knows what we need and want before we ask. He knows how He intends to answer every prayer before we pray it. And yet, He invites us to talk to Him-anytime, anyplace, about everything. I can’t imagine the cacophony that fills His ears at any given moment… It has to be loud. But He desires to hear from us. He didn’t have to give us the gift of communication with Him. But, because “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11b), He made a way for the eternal part of us-our spirits-to connect to that which we long for.

I recently read this quote from Brother Lawrence,

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God”.

I would offer that what we say in this continual conversation is not always sweet and delightful. In fact, an honest prayer life will always include questions, lament, sorrow, pleading… sometimes even yelling and, often (in my case) ugly crying. But a life of continual conversation with God, regardless of circumstances, is sweet. And it is delightful. Because it is the way we connect the earthly and eternal. The way we can pass through the separating veil during our time on earth.

Beau highlighted Hebrews 13:14 in his sermon: “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”

I am currently participating in a study that focuses on different disciplines that draw us closer to Jesus. The first discipline we studied was prayer. In that study, I read this:

“You feel the ache at the most unexpected moments… It’s the ache of a memory, planted deep in our souls, of a different world-a better, holier, happier world where no illness strikes, no tear falls and death is but an old recollection. It is eternity lodged in each human heart. It is the deep, unquenchable homesickness for God.”

That ache is what reminds us that there is more. That the storms and trials of this life are, indeed, temporary. Beau reminded us of Jesus’ words from John 16:33,

“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world!”

Jesus overcame the world so that this world would not be the end of our stories. So that we could say, “This world is not my home”, knowing that the ache within us will one day be forever satisfied.

The ache that proves that God really did “set eternity in the human heart” would be unbearably heavy if there were no way to soothe it. It won’t be fully relieved until we reach our home in Heaven. But prayer is the way the ache is soothed here on earth. God, in His goodness and grace, gave us a way to connect beyond the constraints of this world. That’s prayer.

I have always talked with God fairly easily. But I didn’t begin to understand the deep connection that happens in the spiritual realm when I pray until a few years ago. When I began to understand that my prayers allow my spirit to transcend the earthly and meet God in heavenly realms, it changed my perspective dramatically. And you know what? Brother Lawrence was right. The sweetest and most delightful life is the one that is continually conversing with the One who created it. It is only through connecting with God constantly that we are fully alive, that our spirits can breathe and expand and grow us into all God intends for us to be. Our prayers don’t change God. But praying continually, authentically–it changes us.

How has God changed you as you’ve met Him through prayer? We would love to continue this conversation with you. Please comment with your thoughts and questions!

–Laura

prayer

Daily Chasing After God

When John shared Isaiah 58:2  in his sermon yesterday: “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways” at first glance that verse appeared to be indicating that God’s people were getting it right, but then John pointed out the word “seem”.  As I pondered that word, I realized that it always leaves room for doubt. That one word opened up a plethora of thoughts for me.

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Isaiah 29:13 NIV)

Jesus quotes this Isaiah passage in Matthew 15 by saying:  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

To be a hypocrite means to be an actor; to play a role. I have to admit that for a number of years, my Christianity was a religion that looked much like that. I went through the motions, but my heart was not in it. I wanted my heart to be in it, but striving and “doing” to create a relationship with God will never work. Striving and “doing” can not bring life.  I was going after approval, I was going after reward from God, I was going through my checklist–quiet time, check; said a prayer, check; went to church, check; but it was dead. It was religion. It was a heavy weight. It did not produce the fruit of the Spirit. It did not produce transformation.  It was exhausting, and it was unsustainable. So, when John was talking about daily chasing after God, and differentiating between religion and relationship, the importance of the order of things began to take shape in my mind.

In John 14:15 Jesus says:  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (ESV)

I used to look at that verse and interpret it as meaning “prove you love me by keeping my commandments”; however,  I now see it as saying if I love Jesus, truly love him, the natural outflow of that love will be keeping his commandments. It’s not a heavy weight to bear. It’s a beautiful relationship based on His love for me and my love for Him in return. Here’s the order: “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Therefore, knowing that He pursues me, and then pursuing Him, chasing after Him daily, produces exactly what John said.

Chasing after God daily creates obedience–not out of “have to” but out of “want to”.  Like David, I long for my heart to beat in time with  the heartbeat of God (Acts 13:22 MSG).  I’m continuing to discover that doing life His way is a delight. The transformation and fruit that come from delighting in God and seeking His kingdom first have no equal in this world. When I stop seeking His “stuff” and just seek “Him”, I learn that He truly is the reward, He is the treasure, He is the prize. Again–the order of things–“Seek first the Kingdom of God…”(Matthew 6:33)”

Chasing after God daily creates longing–I found the words “soul and spirit” in Isaiah 26:9a worthy of a second glance. “At night my soul longs for You. Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently.”  I believe that the soul is the part of us that houses our emotions, our will, our personality, in other words it is the intangible part of us that makes us who we are. I believe that  the spirit part of us is what God breathes life into when we come into relationship with Christ, and is therefore the part of us that connects with Him; my spirit connected to His Spirit. When Jesus tells the woman at the well that the Father longs for worshipers who will worship in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), He is saying–come to me with your soul bared, come honestly, come transparently, come authentically, come ready to connect your spirit to mine. Don’t come as an “actor”, don’t come because you “should”. Come, every day because I love you, and you love me.  Bring every feeling, every doubt, every celebration, every decision, all of you to me, and I will meet you there. He tells us: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah. 29:13)  Nothing could be better!   The daily dependency, the daily chase–this is where life is found. He alone is life.

Have you learned to chase Him daily? Tell us about your journey from “have to” to “want to” and the fruit that has come from it.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I spent many years “doing” religion rather than pursuing Jesus in relationship. My checklist was long. My smile was plastic. My heart was hard, but longing to be soft–even though I didn’t yet know what that meant. I lived fake-and, for a very long time, I wasn’t even aware of it.

Contained within the inauthentic faith I was living was the lie that I had to mute my questions, manage my emotions and protect my heart-even from God. Especially from Him… Because I flat out did not trust Him.

John talked about asking the questions and fully feeling our emotions in an authentic way. He talked about this in the same part of the message where he talked about our longing for God, the depths of that longing, the seeking in the morning and at night and in every moment. This is not a direct quote, but this is what I heard and wrote in my notes:

“God is big enough to handle every emotion contained within our longing”.

I believe our longing for God is ultimately what drives us to keep chasing after that something we are seeking to fulfill us. We don’t always know that it’s God we’re longing for, but we all have that thing that drives us, that thing we need to find fulfillment.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, out of the Amplified Bible, it says, He [God] has also planted eternity [a sense of divine purpose] in the human heart [a mysterious longing which nothing under the sun can satisfy, except God]…

So our deepest longing, whether we recognize it as such or not, is actually to know God and live out of the eternal rather than the temporal. And that longing, it contains every emotion we feel. Because God created us that way. Our deepest sorrow, our richest joy, our frustration and anger and all of the “why” questions that flow from that place–they live within our ultimate longing for what we were actually created for. Our longing is bursting at the seams with emotion because our longing is actually for the eternal–and only the eternal can handle the full weight of our God-given emotions.

So this longing where our wildest emotions live, it leads us one of two ways–either we seek to fulfill it in everything but God, to no avail, or we find it satisfied in God, as we daily chase after Him. And I have found that the crazy thing about finding that fulfillment in God is that it then produces something–a greater longing. Because experiencing Him always leaves us wanting more, this side of Heaven. While we’re living broken lives on a broken, fallen planet, our longing will never feel fully fulfilled. But as we get to know Him more, it’s not so much a restless, searching kind of longing. It becomes, instead, a longing pregnant with anticipation, anxiously awaiting the day when we will know fully as we are fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

So, I’m asking myself again, and I’ll ask you, too: What are you chasing? What are you longing for? Is it God? What questions are you afraid to ask Him? What emotions do you try to hide from Him? He can handle all of the emotions contained within our longing. He gave them to us. Can we trust Him enough to give them back to Him in an authentic way?

-Laura

 

a8202f233a29557548bbd320be2ea093