This I Know…PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Next Steps: Brokenness

Brokenness. It’s all around us. It’s in us. None of us will escape it, yet it doesn’t have to be our forever. We can seek personal healing, and we can help others find healing–which may just be the mission of our church.

Pastor John began on Sunday by showing us a series of paintings, painted by his mother, that hang in his office. Each one has a path as the central element. One path leads to a house, two lead into the woods, one of those is heading toward a sunset, one path leads through the snow. Each one looks different, yet each path beckons the viewer to take a step. It’s hard to look at those paintings and not feel some sense of longing–some sense of yearning to move down one of the paths.  I suppose one could casually observe the paintings and move on; however, when one takes a moment to “see” the paintings, the desire to move, to take a step, overtakes the viewer.

The paintings serve as a metaphor. Are we casual observers of what’s going on around us, or are we seeing? If we are seeing, what steps are we taking to enter in?

In the Old Testament account of Nehemiah, he asked one of his brothers about the condition of Jerusalem and those who lived there. His brother replied: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3). 

In this moment, Nehemiah has a path before him. He had asked about the Jerusalem and learned that it was in a desperate state. He could have responded with something like, “Well that’s too bad, I’m sorry to hear that”,  and moved on. That’s not what he did. Instead, scripture records his response: When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.(Neh 1:4). The broken condition of the city that was the heart of his nation and the despair of his people mattered deeply to him. He cried out to God, confessing his sins and the sins of his nation, reminding God of his promises, and asking God to grant him the possibility to head straight toward the brokenness–broken walls, vulnerable people, despair.

Pastor John highlighted three categories of brokenness that are all around us: broken lives, a broken nation, and broken churches. Are we “seeing”? If so, how are we responding?

Last weekend, there was another synagogue shooting by a man with white supremacist ideology. Another place of sanctuary invaded by violence. In the school where I work, anxiety is off the charts–each lockdown drill, each real lockdown, each active shooter training, each incidence of a school shooting in another town rocks the core of our students. I grew up in another generation and never considered the thought that I might die just by going to school. Our society is broken. Are we seeing?

Brokenness takes many forms, and comparing one person’s brokenness to someone else’s is not beneficial. We get hurt by what others have done to us, we get hurt by choices we’ve made, we hurt others by being insensitive or even cruel, sometimes tragedy strikes, illness strikes, relationships end, and on and on I could go. I don’t imagine anyone reading these words responds with the notion that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Are we “seeing” each other?

Our nation is a mess. Our politicians are a mess. Pastor John said that if our government leaders would remember the rules we learned in kindergarten about how to get along and be kind, we might actually get somewhere. I agree with him. The lack of civility, the name calling, the power mongering and position protecting, the lack of listening or cooperating is off the charts, and it is being publicly modeled for our children to see.

The “ethos” of our nation–the cultural spirit that oozes out of us as citizens–is primarily “it’s all about me”.  We are people who value the individual. Our American dream ideology has swung too far, and instead of becoming anything we want to be for the sake of community, we’ve become anything we want to be for the sake of self and at the expense of others.

Where are many churches in all of this? Sadly, many are just as broken. Speaking in generalizations, there are two primary mindsets. One is the mindset that “our church will survive”, and many of this type of church tries to survive by holding on to what they’ve always done. It worked in the past, it will work in the future.  They cling to tradition and hunker down. The other generalization are the churches that have become so intertwined with the principality of nationalism that they believe worshiping country is synonymous with worshiping God and they will protect country and leaders over and above the real message of Jesus which is about love, about unity, about healing. The sad fact is that 100-200 churches close their doors for the last time in this nation every week. 6000-10,000 churches dying each year.

Are we “seeing”? And if so, how are we responding? Are we pointing fingers at others placing the blame on them? Or are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us? (Just for the record, I’m writing to myself too.)

The mission of the church is to advance the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the love of God, the awareness of the nearness of God, to those we encounter. It is to build a community that “sees” the oppressed, the broken, the hurting, the sick, the outsiders and to bring them into the family. It is to be part of the family, using the gifts and talents we’ve been given to serve God and one another. It is to forgive offenses, to live a counter-cultural type of life that is about the greater good and not about self. Jesus models this type of life.

Here’s the part where we (I) struggle. Nehemiah was the cup-bearer for the king in the citadel of Susa. He was a servant, possibly even a slave– he was in a position to be able to insulate himself from the despair of his people. When he learned about the condition of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for him to excuse himself from doing anything because he had a “job” in Susa. But that’s not what he did. He was willing to give some things up, to do some things differently, in order to make a difference. It was going to cost him something–and he was willing.

Are we willing to “see”? Are we willing to sacrifice some things for others? Are we willing to reach beyond ourselves, our families, our friends, our comfort, our traditions, and begin to engage the brokenness of the world? Do God’s image bearers who live in brokenness know how precious they are? Are we willing to see them, to love them, to embrace them? Will we head toward the devastation and let Jesus live His life through us as we encounter the world?

–Luanne

Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3).

Those who survived are in trouble. Disgraced. Their walls are broken down and their gates have been burned…

Luanne asked us a couple of questions that I want to reiterate here:

“Are we seeing each other?”

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

When we ask ourselves if we’re seeing one another, we have to evaluate what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing. Our “ethos” of individuality, for those of us who live in the United States, clouds our vision and blinds us to the actual realities of those around us. We have a tendency to play the victim–and to get defensive when someone calls out that tendency in us. (Like Luanne said, we are talking about ourselves and the things we struggle with, too.) It’s why, when we read the bible, we tend to see ourselves in the stories of the Israelites, and not the Canaanites, Babylonians, Romans, etc… But most of us have never been the oppressed. Most of our lives are marked with privilege. Power. Wealth (at least relative wealth, compared to the rest of the world). Opportunity. Most of us look a lot more like those who, historically, played the role of the oppressor. It’s so important that we take an honest look at who we are in the story.

Why am I bringing this up? I bring it up because it’s easy to look at the verse I opened with and think about what I have survived. What my trouble and disgrace feels like. Where my walls are broken and where my gates have burned. And these thoughts are valid and they are where our minds naturally go when we’ve grown up in a culture that glorifies individuality. Having these thoughts doesn’t make us bad people. It’s the way most of us read scripture–until we learn to see each other rightly.

Do we all have brokenness? Yes. Absolutely. No one gets out of this life unscathed. But can we look beyond ourselves and ask: Who’s really in trouble? Whose walls and gates have been demolished to the point that they are now utterly defenseless? Who is trying to survive an involuntary vulnerability? Can we see them? It may take some time, a change in focus, a new perspective, an honest assessment of ourselves before we can see those around us–and then, it matters how we see them and what we do with what we’ve seen. Again, here is Luanne’s question for all of us to consider:

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

Once we see, what do we do about it? Do we move toward the brokenness in our world with humility, hearts that are willing to listen–to be a safe place for the vulnerable? John said on Sunday, “You make a difference when you do something different.” What do we do differently when we encounter broken things, broken people? Maybe it begins with looking again. Not just seeing once and moving on, but choosing to look, to see until we feel something. None of us like to feel pain. It’s so tempting to look away. But what if we choose to lock our gaze on what’s broken until the walls around our own hearts break? We just might find that entering into the brokenness around us is what frees us from ourselves and invites us to adopt the ethos of the Kingdom of God…

What oozes from kingdom-minded people? Rather than individuality, the spirit of the kingdom is grounded in community. It looks like self-emptying love for the sake of the other–all others. In the kingdom, brokenness is transformed into blessing. This modern take on the Beatitudes captures Jesus’ heart toward the broken:

Blessed are the ones who do not bury all the broken pieces of their heart

Blessed are the tears of all the weary, pouring like a sky of falling stars

Blessed are the wounded ones in mourning, brave enough to show the Lord their scars

Blessed are the hurts that are not hidden, open to the healing touch of God

Blessed are the ones who walk in kindness even in the face of great abuse

Blessed are the deeds that go unnoticed, serving with unguarded gratitude

Blessed are the ones who fight for justice, longing for the coming day of peace

Blessed is the soul that thirsts for righteousness, welcoming the last, the lost, the least

Blessed are the ones who suffer violence and still have strength to love their enemies

Blessed is the faith of those who persevere–though they fall, they’ll never know defeat

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

Hope is in the Lord, keep your eyes on him…

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

The words of this beautiful song call us to see differently. To become people who honor the brokenness in others rather than hiding from it, belittling it, exposing it, and exploiting it. When we look long enough to really see those around us, a path appears. This path is an invitation, a beckoning toward change. And that change will cost us something–change always comes with a cost–but choosing to take the step will impact lives.

And among those impacted by the steps we take together in community, the steps we take in the direction of the brokenness around us, we will find ourselves. Working together for the healing, the restoration of the faces around us is where we often find the healing our own hearts are desperate for. It’s not the reason to move toward brokenness–but it is a byproduct of entering into the lives of others. It is cyclical. We engage brokenness as a community, and as one finds healing, it leads to the healing of another… and then another… and so on. It is contagious. And it is beautiful. It stands in opposition to the way of self, the way of the individual. It is a path that beckons us to take another step, to keep going, because brokenness abounds. Will we take the next step? Will we keep moving down the path without knowing where it will take us, trusting that when Jesus called all the “broken” things “blessed”, he actually meant it?

This week, as we encounter brokenness around us, I pray we will slow down enough to look. To really see. To feel deeply the pain of another, and take a step toward that pain. I pray we’ll lay aside the ethos of our nation for the ethos of the kingdom, and take that path–wherever it may lead.

–Laura

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Advent #1: Hope

Advent. The word literally means “arrival; an appearing; coming into place”. In Christianity it has come to mean the season leading up to Christmas Day, beginning four Sundays before.  For Christians all over the world, advent combines two things:

1. Remembering the birth of Jesus and taking time to ponder that arrival and all that it means.

2.  Jesus told us that He is coming again–there will be a second arrival, and we ponder that as well. And just as we anticipate and prepare for the Christmas season, we are reminded to anticipate and prepare for His second advent.

Each Sunday leading up to Advent has a different theme. The first Sunday’s theme is “hope”.

Hope. Anticipation. Waiting for something to happen. Desiring to see something take place. Longing. For Jesus followers hope is much more than wishful thinking, it is the confident expectation of what God has promised and its strength is in His faithfulness. (Wiley On-Line Library)

I love that definition. Confident expectation of what God has promised and its strength is in His faithfulness.  Christmas is the perfect season to be reminded of God’s promises and His faithfulness. The first advent of Jesus fulfilled more than 300 prophecies–promises that the people of Israel held on to–longed for. God was faithful to fulfill those promises, and He remains faithful today.

So, as we ponder, as we anticipate, as we hope for his second advent–how do we prepare?

The Apostle Peter tells us as we  look forward to this (Jesus’ return) to make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. (2 Peter 3:14). 

This verse implies a future focus as we live in the now. As we look forward…that’s future …, we make every effort to be found...that’s present…

So the question for today becomes what does it mean to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him?

In 2 Peter 2:13, Peter identifies false teachers as “blots, blemishes”. To be spotless is to be without blemish..  1st Peter 1:19 tells us that Christ was a lamb without blemish or defect, and we learn in John 14:6 that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life…Jesus was not a false teacher, he is the embodiment of truth, he was without blemish in all of his ways.

The Apostle John wrote I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3rd John 1:4)

Could it be that being spotless means we live and walk in the truth of Christ? Paul tells us not to be corrupted by the world (blemished, spotted, entrenched in the world’s mindset), but we are to be lights, shining like stars in the midst of the world’s corrupt systems and structures (Phil 2:15). Pastor John pointed out that Jesus prayed we would not be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected from the evil one (John 17). We are to remain in the world and take Jesus, who lives in us, and shines through us to the world.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to think about being spotless as being perfect–having it all together.  That thought immediately disqualifies me from this verse. I am nowhere near spotless, if that’s what it means. However, to be one who is connected to Jesus, who loves Him and truly believes that He is the hope for the world, to be one who knows that I am a total mess without Him and who knows that He has totally transformed my life,  to be one who tries to be grounded in His truth and through the power of His Spirit to live by His principles, to own it when I fall short, and to let others know who He is and how much He loves them–I can do that. And at the end of the day, Jesus is the one who gives us the ability to be spotless. (Eph 5:27).

Jesus is also the one who makes us blameless. Again, if I look at myself, my own story, my own shortcomings–blameless disqualifies me. But I don’t look to myself for my identity. It is Jesus who, by His death on the cross, has purified me from my sins and made me righteous and blameless before God. That goes for you too. 1st John 1:9 tells us that If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. And 2nd Corinthians 5:21 tells us that (God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  God sees us as blameless because of what Jesus did in order to reconcile us to God.  His sacrifice on our behalf makes us blameless.  What an incredible gift! 

The third thing Peter asks us to make every effort to do is to be at peace with Christ. Make every effort to be at peace with Christ. Peace and Jesus go together. One of the prophecies about Jesus gave him the title “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). When the angels announced his birth to the shepherds the multitude of them said “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will, toward men.” (Luke 2:14). Colossians 3:15 encourages us to Let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.

I’m not sure that we will ever fully grasp the magnitude of what peace means to God. The Old Testament word is “Shalom”, the Greek word is “Eirene”, and the Garden of Eden, before the fall is the example of what Shalom looks like. All of creation was flourishing, There was no violence, no death, there was no conflict between people, and the presence of God–close,  intimate unbroken relationship with Him was the life-force of it all. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the remedy for the destruction and separation that occurred in the garden. Jesus is the one who is returning Shalom to us and making all things new (Rev. 2:15).

We have a tendency to think of the peace of Jesus as an individual thing–my own inner peace–and that’s part of it, but only part. Once our relationship with God is restored through Christ, we become citizens of His kingdom which is about the restoration of all things. Shalom means wholeness, not just for me, but for all of creation—everyone everywhere flourishing; God’s creation flourishing in every way. We get to be part of making all things new, of bringing His kingdom and its principles to earth. Yes, it begins with a personal relationship and personal peace with Christ, but it doesn’t stop there.  The message of the angels–peace, good will for all humankind (good will means kindness–my will is for your good) is a global message for everyone everywhere, and in Colossians, Paul reminds us that as God’s people, we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, because we are called to peace.

So, as we anticipate the second advent of Jesus, and long for that day with confident expectation, let’s remember that in addition to being spotless, blameless, and at peace with Christ, Peter also wrote, the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (3:9).  

The desire of God’s heart is that everyone everywhere experience His love, His kindness, His good will toward them, leading them to repent, so that they can experience personal peace with Him, and then carry His peace to the world–the peace that leads to the transformation of our lives, that leads to our flourishing as we become all that He made us to be, that leads us to see others and love others and  carry His good will, His kindness to those around us so that they too may experience peace with Christ, and become spotless and blameless, and part of His kingdom of love that desires and lives for the flourishing of all…

Make every effort….

–Luanne

I love the definition of Advent that Luanne opened with, especially the last phrase, “coming into place”. Those three little words are kind of overwhelming me as I ponder them… The Advent, the arrival of Jesus can also be defined as Him “coming into place”. I think what’s so mind-blowing about that to me is that Jesus left His place in the heavens, left the physical interaction with the Father and the Spirit, and came to our place. The place He spoke into being, breathed into existence. And for Him, this wasn’t moving out of place, but into the space He knew He would occupy back when the universe took shape under the sound of His voice. Take a moment and bask in the awe of that with me… He was moving into place as a fragile, human baby so that His Kingdom of love could invade our atmosphere with a new way of living. He came, because, as Luanne wrote above, our Creator is restorative by nature. He desires the flourishing of all, and we were clearly not going to figure out how to do that on our own. Our ways of living had led us to “go against the grain of love”, as Brian Zahnd puts it, and Jesus knew we would. He knew He would need to come set things right again, because those He created would depart from the Shalom, the wholeness, that He desires for all to experience and propagate.

He knew. At the Advent of humankind, Jesus knew there would one day be another Advent. A moment when the Kingdom of the heavens would be made visible here on earth… in the form of a newborn baby born to one willing peasant girl. He knew that when He came as God with skin on, as the image of the invisible God, it would change everything. He knew He would suffer. But it was worth it to Him… because He also knew that, through Him, we would be restored. He would remove the walls we had built, and He would tear down the barriers that had kept us from Him.

Frederick Buechner wrote:

“The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.”

When Jesus came, He brought with Him a new way of understanding life AND a new way to live it. Pastor John included Colossians 1:17-21 in his message on Sunday. I heard something in verse 21 that I hadn’t paid attention to before. It reads,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.
The phrase “enemies in your minds” caught my attention. When I looked up the Greek for the word “minds” in this verse, I found that it also means “thoughts, imagination”. I am not a theologian, and I can’t prove what I’m about to say. But it struck me in a deep place, so I’m sharing it with you anyway…
The verse says we were enemies in our minds. In our thoughts and imaginations. It doesn’t suggest that God thought of us as His enemies. But we assumed that He did. We assume that He does. We are conditioned, somewhere along the way, to believe that our God is a God of wrath and vengeance. But, remember, Jesus knew He would be coming and dying before humanity was breathed into existence. Before the foundation of the world. Love created us. Love prepared the way for His coming. And then love came down to rescue and restore us into the arms of…Love. In God’s mind, we’ve always been His. Worth creating. Worth redeeming. That doesn’t sound like He’s ever thought of us as His enemies. We are His children. And so, Jesus came and made a way.
Maybe this is why Proverbs tell us,
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track. (Prov. 3:5-6, Message)
Maybe it’s when we try to figure everything out on our own that we imagine and think we are enemies of God. It’s then that we see the command to be spotless and blameless and at peace with Him as something we have to work to attain. Believing that we are enemies of God keeps us striving and prevents us from considering the question Luanne wrote above:
“Could it be that being spotless [and blameless, and at peace with Him] means we live and walk in the truth of Christ?”
Proverbs exhorts us to “listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go”. Other translations say “in all your ways acknowledge Him”. To acknowledge something, we have to see it, to hear it. To see something, we have to look for it. Pastor John told us that to look means to “earnestly wait for with sincere and unrelenting conviction; constant awareness“.
To show us Himself, to show us His way of love, Jesus came in the smallest, biggest way. He came as one of us, born into history to fulfill everything that had been foretold, and to write a new story for each one of us. He came the way that the prophecies said He would–so that we couldn’t miss Him.
But so many did. So many missed it, missed Him. Those who missed Him were those who thought they were most prepared for His coming. They were earnestly awaiting their Messiah “with sincere and unrelenting conviction”. They knew the ancient prophecies and thought they were the most qualified to recognize Him when He came. They knew the law–so well that they were self-proclaimed masters of spotless, blameless living. So, how did they miss Him? Their own feeble attempts at spotless, blameless living had taken the place of the “constant awareness” piece. They weren’t listening for God’s voice in everything they did, everywhere they went. Their god was contained within their own “goodness”. They had tried to box God into their expectations of Him. Jesus entered our space outside of that box. And they missed Him... It’s heartbreaking to think about. To live in the days Jesus walked the earth, to be close enough to touch Him, and to miss Him…
We often miss Him, too. Even in this season of Advent, when Christ is mentioned and thought of more often than usual, we can miss His coming. J.F. Wilson says we get a “daily advent of Emmanuel”. But if we focus on being spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him without understanding that all three are only possible in and through Christ alive in us, we will miss the daily coming of our Messiah. Every day, every moment, Jesus desires to “come into place” on the throne of our hearts. He desires to find us looking for Him, listening to His voice and inviting His moment-by-moment advent to invade our consciousness. Because our understanding is so limited. But He came to bring us a new understanding–and a new way of living. I pray that as this season unfolds, our Savior will find us looking for Him, preparing space for the “daily advent of Emmanuel”
–Laura
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Fan the Flame #3: Fear of Love

A few years ago, my 89 year old father showed me a “run-away” note that I wrote when I was 8 years old. We laughed. I wrote: I am running away. Nobody loves me. Luanne.  P.S. I might be hiding in the house.  

I remember that moment. While I don’t remember what led to feeling unloved, I do remember hiding in the house, waiting for someone to search for me. I wanted to know that I mattered. My dad did search for me. I could hear him talking to my mom in the kitchen. I could hear his footsteps as he went to different rooms in the house. When he finally entered the laundry room where I was hiding, I could hardly wait for him to discover my spot. Unfortunately, I was good at hiding, and he didn’t locate me, so I had to reveal myself.

I can still be good at hiding. I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire. It’s a desire for all of us, but we’re afraid to show up. We’re afraid to reveal our true selves. And we’re afraid to love and be loved.

Two weeks ago in our Fan into Flame series,  we talked about the fear of rejection, last week we talked about the fear of failure, and this week we’re talking about the fear of love.

In our American culture, our fear of love, of intimacy is epidemic. Pastor John shared with us statistics from some recent studies that he came across:

*22% of Americans feel lonely and feel a lack companionship.

*1 in 4 Americans never feel like people understand them.

*American men ages 45-55 feel disconnected from their families and feel more alone than during any other time period historically.

*American women ages 45-55 feel significant disconnect in their marriages.

*Generation Z (those 22 and younger) feel significant loneliness and may be the loneliest generation ever.

Look at that list. It doesn’t leave any of us out. I’m afraid that disconnect is our normal. The sad fact is that not only does this disconnect have emotional consequences, it has very physical consequences as well. Loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues, anxiety, and depression. Even the US National Library of Medicine discusses the danger of loneliness:  “Isolation is a serious health risk…. It contributes to everything from depression to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

And it all boils down to a fear of love.

I was deeply blessed with the opportunity to live in Brazil for ten years. A group of folks from our church just returned from a trip there. Many of them commented about the culture, the heart of the people, the emphasis on relationships. It’s one of the things that I miss the most. My 29 year old daughter, who left Brazil when she was 16, served as a translator for this team. I was able to watch one of their church services through Facebook live and she translated from English to Portuguese and back again. She did a fabulous job, but every once in a while she wouldn’t know a word. The Brazilians around her offered assistance and she moved on. When she came home, we were talking about the trip and I told her what a good job she had done translating. As we were having that conversation, she said that she had no fear of messing up, that she felt safe in that environment.

No country is perfect, but one thing that Brazilians, for the most part, get right is that people are always more important than things. Relationships are valued. People are valued. Connection is valued. And people feel safe to be who they are, even to mess up in that environment. My heart aches for that here. Our individualism, our competitive nature, our constant comparisons, our labels, our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” or “don’t let anyone see you cry”, mentalities all hinder connection and community, and it is slowly killing us.

During this series we’ve been looking at 2nd Timothy 1:6-7… For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.  For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

The Spirit God gave us gives us…love. The gift of God, which is in us, includes love. Agape love. The kind of love that is unconditional, undeserved, not earned, just given. The kind of love we’ve received from God. The kind of love that is listed first in the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of love that changes lives. The kind of love that Jesus references when He tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22). The kind of love with which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. (Mt 5: 44). The kind of love that Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians chapter 13–the love that is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered…

So how do we fan into flame this gift of love?

Pastor John pointed out two things that we do in order to isolate; I think it’s important to recognize these tendencies in order to push through them and get on to fanning love into flame.

  1. We distance ourselves from others. We hide behind masks. We refuse to get close.
  2. We get defensive. We blame others for our disconnect. All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were hiding from God, God went to them in order to restore the relationship. When God asked Adam what he had done, Adam blamed Eve, then Eve blamed the serpent. Neither one was willing to take responsibility for their own choices, which leads to further disconnect.

I wish I could say that I have no idea what that feels like, but I would be totally lying. Pride gets in my way. What I think I deserve gets in my way. My desire to self-protect gets in my way. And it never leads anywhere good. It leads to further disconnect and isolation. Ugh! Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.

Pastor John pointed out that our defensiveness keeps us stuck. Our “they did it”, “it’s their fault”, “I’m fine by myself” attitude keeps us from moving forward. And, it is totally opposite of the Spirit that God has given to us. God is relational and He created us for relationships.

So what do we do? How do we push past the fear and connect with others?

We choose to take a prayerful relational risk for an intimate relational return.

We choose to take the first step to love others well. We acknowledge that we can’t do this well and ask the Lord to help us. We acknowledge what God has done for us. Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.

He came to us first and said “This is who I am”;

therefore, my mindset is:

Jesus loves me, I’m going to love you.

Jesus forgives me, I’m going to forgive you.

Jesus accepts me, I’m going to accept you.

We’ve been given the Spirit that allows us to testify about who God is by how we love others. We’ve been given the invitation to let others see the real us, to show up, because we each bear the image of God.  God fully knows us, He fully loves us, we are totally secure in His love, and He wants us to offer His love to others.

Being connected with Jesus gives us the ability to connect with others. We can come out of hiding, take off our masks, take the time to listen, to engage, to know, trusting that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome our fear of intimacy and love others well. I think we’ll discover that it leads to a much more fulfilling life.

Begin with prayer, and then pay attention. If you are distancing yourself, explore why. If you are defensive, explore why. And then, as He empowers you, push through the fear and fan this gift of love into flame.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote: “Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.”

We cannot love others until we get this. It’s impossible to move out in authentic love for others until we can embrace our own belovedness in Christ. But how do we really know that we are fully loved by Him?

There’s a song by Steffany Gretzinger that played through my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and the words keep cycling through my consciousness. The song is called “Out of Hiding”. These are the words:

Come out of hiding, you’re safe here with Me. There’s no need to cover what I already see.

You’ve got your reasons, but I hold your peace. You’ve been on lock-down and I hold the key…

‘Cause I loved you before you knew it was love, and I saw it all, still I chose the cross.
And you were the one that I was thinking of when I rose from the grave…

Now rid of the shackles, My victory’s yours. I tore the veil for you to come close.
There’s no reason to stand at a distance anymore–you’re not far from home.

And now I’ll be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea, and I will illuminate everything.

No need to be frightened by intimacy–No, just throw off your fear and come running to Me.

And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…

How can we know that we are fully seen and fully loved by Christ? He sees all of us, our whole selves, the parts we put on display and those we attempt to hide… He knew us before we came to be. And he chose to give His life to show us the depths of His love. He overcame fear, death, and the grave so we could be free from all of our fear, too. There is no more veil, no more separation. We can be confident that we are always in His Presence. Always. There’s no distance–even when we try to create it ourselves… Intimacy is the natural result of a relationship with Jesus–walls or not, He sees us. You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… you are familiar with all my ways… I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in! (Psalm 139:1, 3b NIV, 5-6 MSG)

We can’t get away from His love. James Bryan Smith said this recently about God’s love:

“God loves us first and loves us always and in every moment – with a passionate love because God is for us, God longs to be with us, and God wants what is best for us. And in every moment of every day, He finds us delightful.” (James Bryan Smith, Things Above Podcast, Episode 9: “God’s Love”)

I love that… God is always loving us first. Jesus proved the depths of that love when he bore the cross and, through His death and resurrection, tore the veil so that we could have access to the Presence of God. There’s nowhere we can go where He hasn’t already been there waiting for us. There is nothing we can hide from His sight–and yet, no matter what He sees, He keeps coming. Keeps loving. We are fully known and fully loved. We can hang onto that as the Truth that it is.

Okay… Jesus knows me fully and loves me completely. I can go there. I can believe that, and I can let it wash over me. I can enter into the intimacy of communion with my Lord and feel His embrace and His delight transform my heart…

But… to be fully known and fully loved by people? And to extend that kind of love to those around me? That’s a whole different story. Right? Just me? I don’t think so…

Luanne highlighted the statistics that Pastor John presented to us on Sunday. I don’t have to wonder if I’m alone in my fear of intimacy with people. The numbers tell the story. We’re all afraid. We’re all hiding.

I came across this quote this morning:

“…love is the most characteristic and comprehensive act of the human being. We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” (Eugene Peterson, “Introduction to the Books of Moses,” in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language)

We are most ourselves when we love… yet, it appears we’re all afraid to give it and to receive it.

Why is it so difficult to give love to others? What is it that makes us afraid to step out and offer the real Love that we’ve been given by our God? Luanne wrote about the distance we keep and the defensive posture our hearts hide behind, but why are we afraid? Why don’t we reach out? Why do we hold back our words for another time–only to find that time ran out and we never said what we meant to say? I think that our fear of loving, of putting ourselves in a position to risk intimacy with another, is integrally connected with the other fears that have been highlighted in this series: fear of rejection and fear of failure. I think that when we stop short of reaching out in love, it’s the “what ifs” that stop us.

What if we take the risk and love big, open ourselves up and pour out—open ourselves up to also receive what we’re given in return—and we’re met with rejection?

Loving big is never a mistake—what may feel like rejection of our attempts to love might instead be the clang of the reinforced walls that are keeping the one we’re trying to love imprisoned. Maybe they will only be able to feel our love after what feels like a hundred failed attempts on our part, because it takes that many attempts to crack the wall…

But what about when we’re on the receiving end, when it’s our walls that need to be cracked and broken down? Ann Voskamp writes in The Broken Way:

“Letting yourself be loved is an act of terrifying vulnerability and surrender. Letting yourself be loved is its own kind of givenness. Letting yourself be loved gives you over to someone’s mercy and leaves you trusting that they will keep loving you, that they will love you the way you want to be loved, that they won’t break your given heart… And to let yourself be loved means breaking down your walls of self-sufficiency and letting yourself need and opening your hands to receive. Letting yourself receive love means trusting you will be loved in your vulnerable need; it means believing you are worthy of being loved. Why can that be so heartbreakingly hard?”

It is so heartbreakingly hard. This is where my throat tightens up and I want to stop writing and walk away… Luanne wrote:

“I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire…”

Her words resonate deep within me. I can hide in plain sight, too. But, like her, I also deeply desire to be seen and known and loved…

I’ve felt the pangs of loneliness, of need, in a sharper way the further I’ve gotten from the day I said goodbye to my mom. I didn’t have a perfect mom, but I did have a very loving one. She was great at sensing when I needed to be hugged and held a little longer, when I needed to sit with her and cry. I didn’t have to ask her for those moments. Most of the time, she just knew. I don’t think I realized until last week how deep this particular hole in my heart has become…

I received a phone call that shook the floors I stood on. It ripped open not-so-old wounds and traumatic memories, because it took me straight back to my mom’s last days. Fear gripped my throat, my heart, my balance… The call itself wouldn’t have been so difficult if it weren’t for having lost her four years ago, but it hit me hard. All I wanted was to curl up next to Mom and cry, but I couldn’t do that. She’s not here anymore. And as I sat alone and sobbed–both over the call and the reminder of my loss–I realized that I’m terrified to need. I’m much more comfortable being there for those I love when they’re in crisis. But when it’s me, I feel needy. I feel like I’m a burden. I feel like I’m too much. I have people in my life who I know love me deeply… but I don’t know how to ask them to love me in these broken places. I longed for a friend to sit with me a week ago, not to fill the void my mom left behind–that’s not something anyone can do–but simply so I wouldn’t be crying alone. I had no idea how to ask for that. I could hardly speak the words I’d just heard out loud, let alone articulate the ache of my heart. I’m a grown woman, not a little girl. How do I ask someone to come into the ache and let me lay my head on her shoulder and just cry? I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do it. Why?

Because… what if it’s too much to ask? What if I muster up the courage and pick up the phone, and the answer is, “No. I can’t be there for you.” Or worse, “I won’t be there for you. It’s too much. You’re too much.” 

It’s the fear of being rejected. Andit’s not knowing how to ask. My mom intuitively knew when I needed to just simply be me. Not tough or brave or anything other than exactly who I was in that moment. She had no problem with personal space, with “bubbles” (even when I did…). And, usually, she knew that I needed the comfort of her presence, her arms, her shoulder to cry on, well before I knew I needed those things. I didn’t have to ask for it. But like Luanne mentioned above, we live isolated lives here. Individualism is a badge of honor, personal space is expected, toughness is part of the deal. We’re not taught well about vulnerability, if we’re taught anything about it at all. So we move through life unable to identify our own needs, and that can make it very challenging to notice and respond to the needs of others…

Luanne identified, “Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.” Being disconnected IS harder. Staying disconnected, isolated, it’s not worth the risk to our bodies, our hearts, our minds. Love, however, is always worth the risk. Because, like the late Eugene Peterson wrote, “We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” We were made by love, to love, and for love. We were not created for fear. So we have to push through the walls of fear. We have to run toward vulnerability rather than away from it. And we never have to do it alone. We get to choose which spirit leads us. We were given the Spirit of love, and the power to live it out. If we let our hearts rest in the truth that we are fully loved by Christ, we can take the risk to love and let ourselves be loved in return. We can come out of hiding, and we can keep loving, even when the walls are formidable. Because you never know which pebble of love will be the one that finally cracks the wall. And even if the wall never does break, our attempts at love are never failures. They just become part of the story…

“And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…” 

Who is writing your story? Love? Or fear? What will you leave behind? My mom left a legacy of love that drove out her fear. I want to learn to live a life like that, too. Let’s risk it friends. Prayerfully, yes. But boldly, too. Let’s help one another fan the flame of love, starting today.

–Laura

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Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

There are some messages that I believe are of such dire importance that my heart burns within me and I want to burst into tears over the gravity and importance of us–the people who belong to Jesus and His Kingdom– really getting it. This is one of those messages.

Jesus prayed in John 17:14 …I have given them your word and the world has hated them…,

and in John 15:18 he tells his disciples …if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…

Paul wrote the book of Philippians while he was in prison. Prisons were not unfamiliar territory to Paul. Beatings, floggings, stoning–these were not unfamiliar to Paul. They were not unfamiliar to Jesus and many of Jesus’ early followers, including the apostles who walked with Him. The world and its system hated them.

Why?

Paul himself hated them before he came to know Jesus.  The followers of Jesus threatened the status quo of the religious community, and they threatened the status quo of the Roman government. Their message of love, of inclusion, of grace, of dignity for all people, of Jesus as Lord was threatening to those who held power–they might have to relinquish some of that power to do life Jesus’ way.

Paul, after his encounter with Jesus, was radically transformed. Once he met  Jesus his life became all about other people meeting  Jesus, and as a result, he became one of the hated. But he didn’t hate in return. Instead he used every opportunity given him to share Jesus. In Philippians 1:12 he writes: …what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

Speaking of the modern American, primarily white evangelical church…what are we known for? What does the world hate us for?  Is it because we look too much like Jesus? Or is it because we look too little like Jesus? Are we hated for the right reasons?

I once read that today’s Christians are discipled more by Fox News, CNN, or other media outlets than by Jesus. It’s important for each of us to ask ourselves who we are giving permission to shape our minds, our thought processes, our hearts, our “fors” and “againsts”.

Each of us needs to know who Jesus is and what the whole context of the word of God says. In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Let’s choose to be of noble character, ask the Holy Spirit to teach us,  and each take responsibility for searching the scriptures, beginning with the four gospels and then reading and studying the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus and the new covenant established in His blood.

John wrote in John 3:16 that…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Many of us know this verse by heart and it is precious to us. But how many of us know the verse that comes directly after? John 3:17 says…for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  We personalize verse 16- thank you God for loving me and giving Jesus for me and giving me eternal life–and ignore verse 17. We go about condemning and “othering” those different from us forgetting that God so loved the world means everyone.

Author Anne Lamott writes: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Ouch!

Let’s do some holy squirming and look more closely at who God loves and who He wants to have a relationship with. (Just know–I’m squirming too.)

God loves every tribe, nation, and people group across the face of the globe.

God loves men. God loves women.

God loves Muslims. God loves Buddhists. God loves Atheists.

God loves Fundamentalists. God loves Conservatives. God loves Liberals.

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

God loves Donald Trump, God loves Barack Obama, God loves Hilary Clinton, God loves Bernie Sanders, God loves Vladimir Putin, God loves Kim Jong Un and every other government leader past, present, future.

God loves unborn babies, God loves doctors who perform abortions, God loves women who have had abortions. (14 or so years ago, the Focus on the Family statistic of Christian women who have had abortions was one out of three. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves victims of human trafficking. God loves human traffickers.

God loves porn actors and actresses. God loves the people who exploit them, God loves the people who support the industry by watching, spending their money, and gratifying the flesh.  (According to Barna research 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves those who have been betrayed. God loves those who have committed adultery.

God loves those who have been divorced. (Before and including the 1970’s, divorced people were excluded from many churches, barred from being in church leadership including lay leadership, and could not serve as pastors. Some churches still hold to this today. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, + person. (Many churches exclude and send messages of hate to the LGBTQ+ community. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every person who adamantly opposes the LGBTQ+ community. God loves every person who wholly affirms the LGBTQ+ community.

God loves every unarmed black man/boy/woman shot by a police officer. God loves every police officer who shot an unarmed black man/boy/woman.

God loves every police officer shot by an angry anti-police protester. God loves every angry anti-police protester who shot a police officer.

God loves every person who peacefully protests inequality and police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem. God loves every person who believes kneeling is disrespectful to the military and the flag.

God loves every immigrant–documented or not. God loves every refugee seeking asylum at the border.

God loves each member of every family being separated by the government at the border. God loves every ICE officer, every border patrol officer, every policy maker whether those policies are good or harmful.

God loves those who believe the right to bear arms includes all arms. God loves those who believe gun control needs to be legislated.

God loves all those on death row. God loves the professional executioners.

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

No matter who you come across, or what story you read or hear–God loves all parties involved and He is for each of them.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. (John 3:16-17)   

And Jesus says to us: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  “As” means in the same way.

We have some things to wrestle with, don’t we? Here’s further food for thought:

Do we agree that “Jesus wasn’t rejected by the hurting, he was rejected by the religious.” (Pastor John Marshall)

Do we agree that “those who follow Jesus should attract the same people Jesus attracted and frustrate the same people Jesus frustrated.”? (Shane Claiborne)

Do we agree that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”? (Thomas Merton)

Do we agree to, “Be like Jesus: Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”? (Josh Harris)

And do we agree that, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”? (C. S. Lewis)

Do we sit in judgment like Simon the Pharisee who didn’t understand Jesus and judged Jesus by saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)?

Would we allow Jesus to teach us about love through the sinner as Jesus wanted to do with Simon when he said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears an wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little…(44-48)?

Have we been forgiven much? Do we love much? Does our love reflect our gratitude? Does our love reflect God’s heart for the world? Does our love recognize God’s image in everyone? Does our love compel us to love others well, no matter who they are?

Some of you may be thinking that Paul reminds us in Ephesians and Colossians to speak the truth in love, and you are correct. The love he is talking about is agape–the undeserved, all encompassing, unconditional love of God that we wrote about last week. The love that Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9 would grow and grow and grow in us. The love we give others that then opens the door for the truth to be spoken in a non-threatening manner. The love that continues, no matter what choices are made. The love that continues no matter what consequences result. The love that agrees to disagree for the sake of relationship. The love that unifies around the person of Jesus, not side issues.

Jesus came full of grace and truth. We are sent in the same way–full of grace and truth remembering that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  We don’t have the power to transform any life, including our own. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to share our own stories of how Jesus loves us, how we love Him, how He has made a difference in our lives, and how He loves them. So like the early church leaders concluded in Acts…“we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are…it is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (or anyone) who are turning to God.” (Acts 15: 11 & 19) 

Our lives have to be bathed in agape. Jesus modeled sharing God’s love through personal relationships. I believe it still works best that way. Who does God have in your life? Who do you see on a regular basis?

Paul, who was hated enough for the sake of Jesus to be in prison, used that opportunity to share Christ with those he was in relationship with–the Palace Guard and his fellow prisoners. Paul continues his letter to the Philippians by acknowledging that his imprisonment for the cause of Christ has resulted in others being more bold in sharing Jesus fearlessly. He goes on to say, it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Ph. 1: 15-18)

Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all? Do we rejoice, even when those we don’t agree with are sharing Him, because the ultimate desire of our hearts is that Jesus be made known? Do we need to spend some time in the presence of God recognizing who we “other”,  repenting and allowing God to reorder our lives and priorities?

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

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The Battle FOR You

Have you felt it? The battle pressing in? I know many of us have felt the battle raging with increased intensity as we have leaned into this spiritual warfare series. Perhaps it’s simply that our awareness of the ongoing battle has increased, not that the battles have actually gotten worse. Either way, I know I’m not the only one who has been feeling a little (or a lot…) weary. Heading into the fourth week of the series, I felt exhausted, a little beaten down, and definitely ready for fresh hope and energy for the journey.

Gratefully, that’s exactly what we received in Sunday’s message. Our series has turned a corner. During the first three weeks, we discovered, or were reminded, that the battle is real. We have an enemy and he hates God, and he hates us: all of humanity, God’s Image-bearers. And our enemy has a battle plan. He has perfected it. He uses it against every single one of us. He is emphatically, 100% against us. BUT… 

“…If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b)

Here’s the thing… the One who cast our enemy out of heaven like a bolt of lightning, He’s already won. We have talked about this every week, how we fight from victory, not for it. And while we feel the spiritual battle raging around us, we can rest in the truth that as much as our enemy is against us, our God is equally for us. And the proof of how for us our God is? The gift He’s given to us, the friend we have in the midst of the battle: His Holy Spirit. This is very welcome, hopeful, refreshing news–it’s extravagant, really–when the battle has left us feeling weary…

And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby), that He may remain with you forever—The Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot receive (welcome, take to its heart), because it does not see Him or know and recognize Him. But you know and recognize Him, for He lives with you [constantly] and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans [comfortless, desolate, bereaved, forlorn, helpless]; I will come [back] to you. (John 14:16-18 AMPC)

Jesus said these words to His disciples as He was preparing them for what was to come. A few verses later, He talks about the Spirit again. Here are verses 26-27 from the Message paraphrase:

 The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.

I love that this version tells us that Jesus was leaving them “well and whole”. Spiritual wellness and wholeness are impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit living within us and transforming us. Pastor John told us that the Spirit provides us with correction (John 16:13), constant wisdom (John 14:26), connection (John 15:26), courage (Acts 4:31), and companionship (John 14:27). I would offer one more “c” word that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit within us: completion.

“…He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

How are we brought to completion on the day of Christ Jesus? Perhaps it’s through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit’s correction, constant wisdom, connection, courage and companionship… He desires to guide us, to remind us of all that Jesus said, to empower us, to set us free, and, ultimately, to give us life. To bring us into the fullness of life that we were created for, and to empower us to bring as many people as we can into that life with us. And it’s so obvious here… Satan’s entire battle plan is a counter-attack. He’s not on the offensive. He’s on the defensive, pushing back against every detail of our Father’s calculated and intricate plan for us. He knows what it means for him if we fully live into God’s plan–it means that his utter defeat is exposed to all. And our pride-filled enemy can’t stand the thought of that. The victory has already been won. Jesus sealed that up a long time ago. But while there are still people to deceive and hurt, our enemy will prowl around with the best battle plan he can come up with–a counter-attack to the way of the Spirit. So he seeks to blind us, steal the Word from us, stop us, set traps for us and, ultimately, destroy the life that the Spirit is cultivating within us.

It is vitally important that we see this accurately. The gift we’ve been given in the Holy Spirit, it’s mind-blowing. God Himself, not only with us, but in us. The beauty, the mystery, the power of this truth for us-I can’t quite find words to articulate the way my heart burns.

I don’t think I’ve ever understood this the way I do right now, in this moment… I was raised in an environment where I was painfully aware of the darkness, of the evil. I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago. I also wrote about how God revealed His light and His goodness to me. But I think I had this backwards in my mind… Like somehow, God was building a defense against the enemy’s attack. That’s not true at all. God has never been on the defensive. Every move has been calculated since the beginning of time, with the power of the Creator and the heart of a Father. And our enemy, he’s been scrambling to keep up. He does have power… and he does come against us. But I think I’ve credited him with far more ability and battle-savvy than he actually has. When I do that–when any of us do that–it puffs his ego and makes him seem like he’s more powerful than he actually is… And that’s what this warfare is all about when we boil it down. Our enemy doesn’t want us to know how much God is for us-how He’s always been for us. So he tries to keep us from discovering the truth for ourselves… I’ve taken the bait so many times… No more, Satan. Not today!

We stand in victory, on the power of Jesus’ Name, over a defeated enemy. It would serve me-and all of us-well to start seeing him differently, in light of the Truth. In reality, Satan is on life-support and our God is in control of the plug. One day He’ll pull it. And it will be over. But until then, we get to choose how much power we give him over our lives. Every time we lean into the power of the Holy Spirit living within us, we diminish Satan’s power a little more. When we commune with Him, trust His wisdom, His leading, and step out courageously, speaking as He gives us words, we take back ground we’ve handed over to our enemy. Pastor John said, “Your story is the truth and proof that Jesus is who He says He is“. When we speak up, not relying on ourselves but on the Spirit, and share our transformation stories, we assume our role as “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) that will draw others to the life Jesus offers.

Pastor John told us that, “His Life is our light”. He read to us John 1:1-4. It says this:

 In the beginning [before all time] was the Word (Christ), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself. He was present originally with God. All things were made and came into existence through Him; and without Him was not even one thing made that has come into being. In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men. 

The life of Jesus is our light. Literally. The word translated “light” in John 1:4 is the very same word used in Matthew 5:14. His life is our light, as Pastor John said. And when we think about being the light of the world, we can flip the words: Our light is His life. We aren’t simply the “light of the world”. We are “His life to the world”. We carry His life within us in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s power. Power enough to scatter every last remnant of darkness, if only we’ll live into God’s plan instead of playing into our enemy’s (terminal) hand…

–Laura

Creator God. Almighty God. Omniscient God. The One True God, The “God is love” God. The victorious God. The Trinitarian God. If you have a relationship with Jesus, 100% of God lives in you.  He doesn’t give Himself in pieces—it’s an unfathomable mystery. Even as I type those words, I have to sit, ponder, and let it sink in all over again. I often forget how highly esteemed we are and how the living God chooses to dwell within us. We are loved beyond our ability to comprehend, and in Him we have everything we need.

He is for us. He is for us. He is for us. He is for us.  

And if God is for us–who can be against us? (Romans 8:31b)  Greater is He who is IN you than he who is in the world. (1st John 4:4)

Laura reminded us of who the Holy Spirit is.  It is imperative that we acknowledge and rely upon His presence and gifts. We must lean into Him to understand truth, to be comforted, to be convicted when we are off base, to be restored, to be strengthened and empowered to be the light of Christ; the life of Christ to the world.

Contrasting the enemy with the Holy Spirit we see:

The enemy wants to blind us,  the Spirit wants to guide us.

The enemy wants to snatch God’s word from us–the Spirit wants to remind us of what Jesus taught.

The enemy (father of lies) wants to deceive us-the Spirit (of truth) wants to guide us into all truth.

The enemy sets traps for us to take us captive–The Spirit wants to connect us with God and set us free.

The enemy wants to stop us–The Spirit wants to empower us.

The enemy wants to destroy us–The Spirit wants to give us life.

Why on earth do we, do I, forget this?  Why do we keep falling for the traps?  Ugh!

I hate to admit it, but what Stephen said to the Pharisees can be true of us (me):

You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! (Acts 7:51)  Ouch!!

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Paul gives us a beautifully simple reminder of how to to follow Christ when he says :

Rejoice always, pray continually,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt  but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil...May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1st Thess. 5:16-24)

I love those verses. It promises that God is faithful, and that He will work from the inside out in our lives transforming us into people who live in a way that bring glory to Him. Part of that plan is to reject evil and keep the flame of the Holy Spirit burning within us. Without the Holy Spirit, our lives will never be transformed. At the very best we can modify our own behavior to make it look like we’re “doing” the right thing (which typically leads to comparison and judgment, those in and those out), but true transformation and Christlikeness comes from within as we submit to the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the process is a mystery.

I have a dear friend who was in a battle for his life last year. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia; within hours he was in a hospital four hours away from home fighting for his life. Two days prior, he had been at church worshipping with us like normal. We could not “see” the disease or the regeneration of disease ridden cells in his body, but they were there looping toxicity throughout his body over and over and over. His only hope for survival was a set of healthy blood cells that would take over and produce life giving cells in him. In order to get to the point where he could receive the new cells, his own diseased cells had to be destroyed. It was a hard and excruciating process-a death. Other life-threatening illnesses attacked his body while he was in his weakened state. He had to receive blood transfusions from time to time in order to remain alive, and a perfect donor match had to be found.

His brother ended up being the perfect donor, so on the day that my friend’s own cell count was at zero, some of his brother’s stem cells were injected into him. My friend had to remain close to the hospital four hours away from home for months. The medical staff checked him regularly to see if his body would reject the new stem cells or start reproducing the new life giving stem cells that he had received. We all rejoiced when he was finally able to come home.

Over the last half year, we have all been amazed at some of the things that have happened that none of us expected– one of which is as his hair has grown back in, it is the color of his brother’s hair. We laugh about that a good bit. He’s being transformed from the inside out, and there is outward evidence of the inner transformation.

Last week he got the results of his one year biopsy. He has none of his own original cells, all of his cells are his brother’s. He is cancer free! I was asking him about the process last Sunday; he told me that he can explain some of it, but the rest is mystery.

What a perfect illustration for us. We are spiritually dead and separated from God with  death coursing through our veins and no hope of healing ourselves. Jesus came to be with us and to be in us. When we come into relationship with Him, He gives us His Holy Spirit to dwell within us. It’s our spiritual stem cell transplant. As we surrender to the work of the Spirit in our lives, more and more of His “cells” multiply in us.  Our goal is to be crucified with Christ (so that) it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal. 2:20)  

Can we reject? Can we resist? Can we fight against? Can we quench? Yes. And we all do sometimes. We can all be stiff-necked. We can all be buried in self-centeredness. We can all be blinded by culture and tradition and religion over relationship. But just like my friend, when we surrender to the work of the Spirit within us, when we are being healed from within, there will be outward evidence and it looks like this…

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (Phil. 2:13 NLT)

And the key:

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

The strength is the Lord’s. The battle is the Lord’s. The victory is the Lord’s. He is IN us. He is FOR us. He is WITH us. And part of the evidence of His presence in our lives is knowing that He is for everyone else too. The ultimate battle is about making His love known. The enemy, our accuser, wants to keep us from from that; he wants us sidetracked and defeated…but guess what? He is defeated by your story with Jesus:

 “Your story is the truth and proof that Jesus is who He says He is“.

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony... (Rev. 12:10-11)

What has God done for you? Can you look back and see that you are not who you used to be? Have you surrendered your ways to the working of the Holy Spirit within you? Is there outward evidence of the inner working of the Holy Spirit in your life? Are you willing to share your story in order to defeat the enemy and bring glory to God? Will you carry His light, His life to those around you? It’s the only way the world will be changed. Are you in?

–Luanne

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A Father That Lasts

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

As we’ve explored the names of Jesus in this familiar passage, we have encountered Him as our “Wonder of a Counselor” and our “God of Might”. This week, John introduced Jesus to us as “A Father that lasts”. As I read through this list in Isaiah, it’s not difficult to attribute the names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” to Jesus. Those make sense to my heart-they always have to some degree. I think that, because this is a very familiar passage-especially this time of year, I’ve skimmed over the two words “Everlasting Father”. I have understood it as a name that establishes His oneness with God, as we tend to refer to God as our Father more than we do the Son, Jesus. But I have stopped there and not stepped deeper into the concept of Jesus as my Everlasting Father. Until last Sunday…

John presented Jesus our Savior as a Father that lasts… a Father who is for us, who loves us, who is Emmanuel-God with us. What do you think of when you read the words A Father that lasts?

John recounted his recent experience of the loss of his own earthly father-an experience I know many of us can identify with.

This name of Jesus strikes me in two different places, one I’ll mention briefly and the other I’ll dig into…

Thinking of Jesus as a Father who is for me-One who watches over me, protects me, walks with me-pricks my heart for what I longed for as a child, what I didn’t receive when I needed it most. It stirs murky waters deep in my soul that cause me to ache a bit for the loss of what I didn’t believe I had. I’m only recently beginning to understand that in those moments when my earthly father fell short of what I needed, I had a Father that was there in the dark with me, One who never left me, One who has always been for me in every way, loving me from before my earliest memories.

Understanding Jesus as a Father that lasts is especially difficult because we live on this side of eternity, and we experience loss. In The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp writes “We all lose every single person we love. There is never another way”. These losses rock us, challenge our faith and our trust, and cause deep pain and grief. Christmastime can amplify the grief in our hearts. No human being in our lives-including ourselves-will last. Not in the physical sense. So wrapping our heads and hearts around the concept of an Everlasting Father can prove challenging.

I haven’t lost my earthly father, as many of you have, and as John spoke of. But I have lost my mother-and I know I’m not alone. Many of you have buried your mamas as well. I want to remind us here that our God is neither male nor female, but embodies the fullness of both sets of attributes. Isaiah 66:13 tells us, As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted…” . If you, like me, have lost your mama, our Everlasting Father also promises the comfort of a mother, and can fill that emptiness with all of His fullness-His Everlasting mothering-as well. 

John mentioned to us that when we experience loss, what remains is a memory reel. Pictures, moments, words that are captured in our minds and hearts–once fresh and vibrant, but fading with time. This has been both a beautiful and painful part of my own grief journey. I have found myself deeply grateful that God created us with the capacity to remember-to put the pieces of our stories, our lives, back together over and over again so that we can stay connected to the beauty of the past, to the love of those we have lost. But it’s getting harder to see, to hear, to relive those moments with clarity. Time dims the memories, layers of dust make it difficult to go back easily. And I hate it. I hate that remembering the distinct tone of my mom’s voice as she called my name is getting harder and harder. That her features, once chiseled into my mind’s eye, have begun to blur with the passing of time. It makes me ache that the remembering doesn’t come as easily as it did at first… It reinforces the finality of death, the reality of our earthly experience.

But it also makes space for this thought, this understanding to grow and expand into my consciousness:

We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

He is never dead to us-and we’re never dead to Him. This one relationship will never ever taste the sting of death, because our Everlasting Father became the Son of Man to endure the soul-crushing sting of everything that could have separated us from His love. And now we can be grafted into the love story that will take us from life to life. There’s no painful goodbye to dread between us and Jesus. He was always with us, He’s with us now and He will be with us forever. And in that withness, He is always for us, always loving us. The truth of that is what we find when we look at the memory reel of our lives. In the midst of every heartache, every disappointment, every failure; in our darkest, grief-filled moments and in our brightest joys, Emmanuel was with us. And this memory reel of Jesus–rather than fading with time, it explodes into our consciousness the reality of His constancy with us, His faithfulness to us, and it stirs our eyes and our hearts to see Him where we didn’t think He could be. Because we realize in the looking back that there has never been a place we were where He wasn’t also there. As a Father that lasts-for us, loving us, with us.

–Laura

Laura wrote: We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

How grateful I am for that truth! Like Laura, my mom is with Jesus. She has been with him for 44 years, and the sting of that loss can still sometimes sneak up and surprise me with its intensity. I cannot remember her voice; however, I can remember her smile, her kindness, her essence and am grateful that I have never doubted her love for me.

As far as dads go, I am one of the most blessed people on the planet, and I am fully aware of that. My dad celebrated his 88th birthday last month. He is in excellent health, we have wonderful conversations, he sends me books and articles that he knows would interest me, and we talk about real things, deep things. I learn so much from him– the way he relates to God, the way he still volunteers and ministers to those less fortunate, the way he navigates the difficult seasons of life, the way he continues to read, to grow, to learn, the way he wrestles with things that he doesn’t understand, and of course, his gentle, patient, grace-filled, shepherding nature has profoundly impacted my life. He still goes to the gym three times a week, eats healthily.  He is a fantastic example of one who nurtures his soul and spirit and takes care of the physical tent that houses that soul and spirit. He is not perfect, but he’s pretty darn close! I remember asking him when I was a teenager if he ever sinned. His face contorted in pain and he said, “Oh yes! I battle my pride!” Who knew? Knowing full well that he will not last on this planet forever, I have kept a voicemail from him on my phone. It’s not “meaningful”. He is basically asking me to call him when I get a chance; however, it’s his voice that I don’t want to be without. And just like with my mom–I have never doubted my dad’s love–never. 

So, when John was making his points about our Father who lasts–that He is for us  that He is with us, and that He loves us, my mind stopped on the love portion. I know many people who struggle with the concept that God loves them. Many friends have different “dad” experiences than I have.

John reminded us that we often relate to our heavenly Father as if He were our earthly father. He’s not. He is our one of a kind, all loving, all gracious, always on our side Father.

There was a season in my life, when I was pretty convinced that I had sinned myself out of God’s love. I hadn’t, and neither have you. We can’t. His love for us is not dependent upon us, it is not conditional.  He chooses to love us, and He chooses it always. (It’s His very nature—“God is love” (1st John 4:8).

He delights to show us His love in millions of ways. Yes, millions, if we are willing to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to see His gifts. Ann Voskamp’s book “One Thousand Gifts”  encourages us to begin writing down three things a day that we are grateful for. It’s life-changing, and it is an exercise in beginning to recognize the God-given gifts all around us, all of the time.  Big things like sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, other natural things like yellow butterflies, wild flowers, heart shaped rocks, spring blooms, fall colors, sparkling snow–fragrances like brownies in the oven, sea salt laden beach air, honeysuckle–delightful things like puppies, kittens, giggling toddlers–things of wonder like the birth of babies, the stars in the heavens, the Grand Canyon–personal things like our five senses through which we experience the world–man made things like electricity, running water, automobiles-so many other things like the ability to read, the ability to think, the ability to converse. And relationships-being able to love and to be loved. So many things all the time–all gifts from a loving Father.

And if all of that doesn’t convince you of His love, let me throw another couple of thoughts out there. John’s mom gave him a couple of things that had belonged to his dad. She gave him his dad’s wedding ring, which he now wears on his right hand, and she gave him his dad’s long wool coat. A ring and a “robe”.

A ring and a robe. In the story of the prodigal son, after he has made a total wreck of his life and has returned home hoping to be a servant in his father’s house, the father unexpectedly embraces him and gives to him a ring and a robe (Luke 15:22) These are not meaningless gifts. In the Old Testament, Joseph receives Pharaoh’s ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. Mordecai receives King Xerxes ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. And the high priest, Joshua, in Zechariah 3 is being accused by Satan before the Lord. The Lord rebukes Satan and in verse 3 of that chapter we learn that “Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes’.  Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’  God clothes Joshua in new garments to indicate that his sins are forgiven. The ring and robe received by the prodigal son is the father’s message of complete restoration, of full acceptance, of new beginning.

So, this God who loved the whole world so much that He gave His one and only son (sit with that phrase for a minute–do you love anyone so much that you’d allow one of your own children to be tortured and put to death so that you could be in a relationship with that other person? When we think about God’s love and what it cost him–why do we doubt it?)

So, this God who loved the whole world so much gives us opportunity to enter into relationship with Him through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the scripture tells us in Galatians 3, that when we are baptized into Christ then we are clothed with Christ–full restoration, full acceptance, new identity–and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) meaning that we get the honor of representing Him to the world. Our ring, our robe, gifts from our loving Father who lasts.

Do you know the love of our Father who lasts– the love of the Father who thinks highly of you, the love of the Father who is for you, who is with you, who restores you, who uses you, who gifts you with blessings, but most of all who gifts us with Himself? His love is real, is life changing, and can be experienced right now. Ask Him to let you see His love gifts. They are all around, loudly proclaiming “You, yes you,  are forever loved!”

–Luanne

 

What About Me?

“The gospel isn’t just for abortionists, prostitutes, homosexuals; but for porn-addicted pastors, unconverted elders and self-righteous churchgoers.” -Burk Parsons

“Grace is not just ridiculous, it’s unfair–but somehow the Righteous Judge makes it work. Like the Bible says, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people‘ (Titus 2:11). For you. For me. For them. So (beautifully) unfair.”                                                   -Carlos Rodriguez, Drop the Stones

Michael reminded us this Sunday that the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is actually the story of two sons. Two very different sons who needed the very same grace. They were both consumed with self, as Michael pointed out. The younger with self-discovery, the older with self-salvation.

Michael spent the majority of the message on the older, less talked about son, and how resentment actually kept him from sharing in the heart of the father and the joy of the celebration.

What we don’t often talk about when we discuss this story is how the father had, in essence, lost both sons. One took his inheritance (which the father was under no obligation to give him, by the way, but gave him anyway…) and physically left. The other stayed, but relied upon his own obedience and righteousness, and served from a place of obligation rather than love.

And yet… the heart of the father runs after both sons. He breaks all cultural standards by literally running out to embrace his unclean, broken younger son; and again when he leaves his own party to go out and plead with his angry, entitled older son to come join the celebration. He chooses to go against the acceptable standards of his time and culture in order to display the wild, ridiculousness of grace and the extravagant love of a father toward all of his kids.

Michael said, “We can identify with both brothers at certain points, but we can develop the heart of the father. I think for many of us, we come to Jesus understanding our own “prodigalness”. We come hoping to be accepted-at least accepted enough to be saved-but what we receive is more than simply acceptance-it’s exactly what the younger brother received: sonship. We find ourselves welcomed into the family, as honored, beloved sons and daughters. Sometimes, we are met with the cold shoulder of older brothers among us. And sometimes, once we’re part of the family, we become the older brother. We can become defenders of fairness and righteousness, forgetting that it was the perfect justice–the setting-things-right heart–of our Father, not our own righteousness, that saved us in the first place. We grab onto self-righteousness and forget the extravagant grace that drew us into our Father’s arms. We begin to scream for fairness, forgetting that the grace that bought our salvation was anything but fair. That it was the ultimate unfairness that our perfect, sinless Jesus was murdered so that his murderers could have life.

I think maybe we waffle between identifying with the younger and older sons because we don’t quite understand what we’ve been invited into…

Once we’ve been given sonship, once extravagant grace has drawn us into the family, we no longer have to identify with either brother. Once we’re part of the family, the Father invites us to help Him host the party. To become vessels that carry the same love and grace we’ve received to the lost ones around us and among us. Our identity no longer has to come from which brother we most see ourselves in-it can now be rooted in the Father Himself.

So we get to choose. We get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace. We can choose to celebrate, to enter into Kingdom-minded, grateful, humble service-in the way of Jesus. Or, we can choose to hoard what we’ve received, to buy the deception that we’ve somehow earned our “place”. That we’re somehow entitled to grace. The decision we make matters more than we know. What are we modeling to those who feel unworthy of sonship? To those who have wasted time and money on wild, sinful living? To those who have been deceived by the lie that they can be good enough on their own and have no need for grace? The Father’s heart runs after ALL of His lost sons and daughters. Will we?

–Laura

Laura wrote, we get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace.

I think we all want to respond well, but it doesn’t take too much scrolling through comments on social media or news articles to realize that as a corporate society, we have real problems with grace, and a good bit of that comes from the Christian community.

I love that Michael pointed out that the biblical heading “The Prodigal Son” was a manmade construct. Jesus doesn’t use the word prodigal in the parable, and like Laura pointed out, Jesus begins the story by saying in Luke 15:11 “There was a man who had two sons…”  Going back to the beginning of chapter 15, we see that Jesus is speaking to tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2) It is in response to their muttering that Jesus begins to tell the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two sons.

The tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus. They sense his acceptance of them, his embrace, his love.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law are annoyed with Jesus. They can’t stand the fact that he fellowships with tax collectors and sinners, and they constantly criticize him. So in the context of these two groups, Jesus tells the story.

I have been both sons. I was the child who wandered far away, made self-destructive choices, knew that I deserved absolutely nothing, came crawling back to Jesus and he offered me his unfair grace. Where would I be without it! I’m so grateful!

However, knowing that I didn’t deserve that grace, I became performance driven. I was trying to make up for all the years that I’d messed up; therefore,  I wanted to be the perfect Christian.  Things got out of whack on the other end of the spectrum. I was doing a lot of comparing and was judging myself quite harshly. I couldn’t live up to my own standards, was upset with others who couldn’t live up to my standards, and I was pretty darn miserable.

God met me there as well. I was doing a Bible study called “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby, and came to a point in that study where God revealed to me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him on a barter system. “God, I’ll do such and such for you if you’ll guarantee me some things…”. Some of those things  were not dying while my children were young (like my mom did), not getting cancer, always having John to take care of me, that nothing bad would happen to my kids, financial security, and the like. God was very gentle, but very direct and said to me, “Suffering is part of living in a fallen world, but I am with you, I will always be with you, and I love you. You have to surrender and trust me if you’re not going to stay stuck.”

Can I just say, ugh!!  I knew He was right, and I didn’t like it. Michael said in his sermon that the older brother tried to control the father through his obedience and righteousness. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to control God. I wouldn’t have worded it that way, but that was it exactly.  I wish I could tell you that I surrendered in that moment, but it took about ten days of wrestling, not sleeping, not eating, and not wanting to do life God’s way with no guarantees other than He loves me, and He is with me. I really wanted Him to do it my way, but was finally exhausted and gave in. And when I gave in, the peace that flooded my life and the joy were indescribable. The burden of obligation was lifted and my relationship with Him has been real, and relevant, and growing, and powerful since that time. Some life crushing events have happened since that Bible study 25 years ago, and He has shown me over and over that He is God and He is enough.

Like the older son, I learned that obedience out of obligation and moral conformity leads to resentment. I feel like that’s where a lot of society lands right now, and resentment makes us mean.  So while we’re refusing to join the celebration, the Father comes to us and says, “will you surrender wanting to do this your way?”  He invites us to the feast.

When we live in the mindset of the older brother, our relationship with the Father becomes about us. He says to his father in verse 29…”all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” The emphasis is all on himself, what he thinks he deserves, what he thinks he’s entitled to,  and what he thinks his brother is not entitled to.

And the father gently reminds him that he has always been with him, that everything he owns is shared with his son, and then says, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” (31)

In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that He has come to give us life to the full. And in Luke 19:10, Jesus tells us that He has come to seek and save the lost.

Both sons have lived on the thief side of John 10:10. The youngest son has returned and is experiencing the Jesus side of that verse.  And the Father has demonstrated Luke 19:10 to both sons. He ran to the youngest, and has gone out to the oldest.

He is offering his oldest son grace. Grace to come in, to participate in the celebration, to be part of the rejoicing in heaven because a sinner has repented and come home.  He is offering his oldest the chance to also repent and come home. Jesus leaves us hanging at the end of the story. We don’t know what the oldest son decides. The Pharisees and teachers of the law have heard the story with their ears. Have they heard it with their hearts? Have we?

The Father stands in the middle between both sides, the broken, fallen, destitute son, and the self-righteous son and says “come”.  May we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as He works to develop  the heart of the Father in us, so that we can set aside “fair” and fully embrace the world with His unfair grace and love.

—Luanne

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Why Is It…?

Why is it so hard to love others?

Ron opened this week’s message with this question. Scripture is full of the Jesus’ mandate to love each other. In Mark 12:31, He tells us that after loving God, there is only one other commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself”. In John 13:34-35, He tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another“. And in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. And in John 15:12, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we get the idea. Jesus was pretty clear. We are to love one another.

So, why is it so hard? Ron gave us four reasons why it is challenging to love others:

We have to become vulnerable. 

We risk being rejected

It requires removing conditional barriers.

Some have never experienced authentic love.

When we choose vulnerability, we put our well-being in someone else’s hands. Becoming vulnerable not only requires lowering our defenses–it requires us to completely lay them aside, to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. One way we can be wounded in our vulnerability comes in the form of rejection. I don’t know about you, but there is little else that has wounded me as deeply as being rejected for who I am. The pain is deep, and when we’ve experienced it once, we become wary of putting ourselves in any position where it could happen again.

But this is what love requires of us…

Choosing to love the way that Jesus calls us to love requires a willing vulnerability. A vulnerability that is keenly aware of the potential for rejection–but chooses to love anyway.

What does this Jesus way look like? Ron gave us some examples. Jesus love looks like…

…reaching out to touch the leper that society-and the law-had deemed “unclean”. (Matthew 8)

…choosing mercy over judgement when the law of the land required stoning the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:2-11)

Jesus stood in the gap for these two–and so many others that we meet on the pages of Scripture. He put Himself in vulnerable positions over and over and over again to align Himself with those who were even more vulnerable in society. He willingly stepped into situations where He would find Himself accused, mocked, rejected, hated. And He tells us to love others in the very same way. He asks us to lay down our defenses and stand in the gap in the name of loving one another,  loving our neighbor. And our neighbor is everyone. Everyone that bears the image of God.

As I listened to the message, I remembered a story from scripture that we don’t talk about all that often. But it is quite possibly the key moment in our even having most of the New Testament available to us today…

Not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. Here is the account from Acts 9:26-29, out of the Message:

Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name.

Saul had arrested, persecuted and sanctioned the murder of countless Jesus followers. He had a past. People were afraid of him-so much so, that many were unwilling to give him a chance. This is what he faced when he came to Jerusalem. His reputation preceded him.

But someone stood in the gap… 

What would have happened if Barnabas had been unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to risk his own reputation to vouch for Saul? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Because after Barnabas spoke up and stood in the gap for Saul (who would become Paul), Saul was “accepted as one of them” and he went on to plant churches and preach the Kingdom of Heaven and write a massive portion of our New Testament. All because someone was willing to oppose popular opinion.

Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to vouch for the humanity of another when it means we may be criticized, rejected, even hated? To push back against the labels society has given–the way that Jesus did over and over again? So that someone who is even more vulnerable than we are might be given a chance, a fresh start? Will we choose to love by looking beyond the dirty exterior into the Image of God that all of humanity bears–the way that God looks beyond our own dirtiness to see His own image in each of us? I hope that we can say yes. Yes, we will choose to love the way that Jesus loved us-by laying our lives down for one another. By choosing vulnerability and risking rejection because we know that God’s love is the only thing that ever changes anyone. May we be vessels that His life-changing love can flow through to change the world…

–Laura

Ron’s question–Why is it so hard to love?  My answer–Because it’s stinking hard!

Loving God’s way is impossible apart from the Spirit of God. God’s very essence is love, so in order to be able to have godly love, His essence, His character must dwell in me, and in order for His character to dwell in me, I must be filled with Him. How I would love to say that I  live this way consistently–but I can’t.

I love that Laura brought up Barnabas and his vulnerability in being obedient to God by befriending Saul of Tarsus.   Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’. In Acts 11:24 we learn that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith

I sometimes ponder, if my life was summed up in a couple of phrases–would full of the Holy Spirit be one of them?  Full of the Holy Spirit indicates full of love.

None of the verses Ron used in his sermon were unfamiliar, none of the verses Laura references above are unfamiliar, “God is love” is not unfamiliar. We know this in our heads, but living it out in our lives becomes intrinsically more difficult. When Ron talked about the way Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that Judas was going to betray him, it pierced my heart.  I pray for God’s love to reach members of ISIS, of world leaders, of human traffickers, but Jesus shared life with Judas, shared bread with Judas, didn’t talk negatively about him to the other disciples. He loved him. And I feel sure, if Judas hadn’t taken his own life, that Jesus would have gone to him after his resurrection and loved him then too–just like He did with Peter. It’s the close proximity people who challenge my loving well. If I think someone might hurt me, my self-protective barrier goes up, my wall goes up–and that’s not loving the Jesus way.

I think there’s an important nugget for us in the story of Judas.  Luke 22:3 makes it clear that “Satan entered Judas”, but what made Judas susceptible to that attack?  Was it a love of money? Was it frustration that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom? Was he mad about not being part of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? We don’t know. What we do know is that he separated himself from the rest of the disciples for a time. What were the disciples doing that day? Preparing for the Passover. What was Judas doing? Visiting with the Chief Priest and coming up with a betrayal plan, which ultimately destroyed his own life.

Here’s the nugget. We have got to guard our hearts fiercely! We have to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to search us daily, and confess those areas that don’t line up with God’s desire, and we have to choose to love.  We have an enemy who is seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), and the moment we let our guard down, we are susceptible to all kinds of destructive things.  Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.

So, how do we choose love? How do we truly love God and love others–even our enemies?

I once sat across the table from a man who was going to lead a student conference for us in Brazil. While we were discussing things, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that we are not capable of loving God the way God wants to be loved, so we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God well–to love Himself through us. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked God to love Himself through you? I never had, but I think this man is right. God makes it clear that He loves us. Responding to that love with love is where it all begins–and it’s a Spirit thing…the fruit of the Spirit is love….(Gal 5:22) . 

So how does it happen? No doubt, there is mystery involved, but God tells us that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we receive Christ (Romans 8:9). We learn that the Spirit can be quenched (1st Th. 5;19) that He can be grieved (Eph 4:30),  that we can ask for Him (Luke 11:13), and that being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is what we are to be about.   And the evidence that we are filled goes back to Galatians 5:22–His fruit will be evident in our lives, it will be the natural outflow–and Jesus tells his followers in Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-19 that we will be recognized as His followers, or not,  by our fruit.

Paul tells us, in the famous “love” chapter (1st Corinthians 13) that it is possible for us to do all kinds of things, like speak in tongues, prophesy, fathom mysteries and knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, give everything we have to the poor, allow ourselves to go through hardship  but if we have not love…we are nothing. 

Then Paul describes what love in action looks like–patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs, doesn’t delight in evil, rejoices with truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,  – love never fails.  

Do we believe this to be true? Are we willing to step out of the self-righteous, hate spewing, grudge bearing culture that we live in–humble ourselves, choose the Jesus way, and let Him love through us, even if it costs us dearly?

Holy Spirit, we need your help! In this day of division, labels, hate, vitriolic  comments, may we, Your people, choose a different way by choosing to allow you to fill us and choosing to allow You to love others through us–all others. Your love is the only thing that will change this world. May we allow you to change us, and use us to love others well.

–Luanne