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

Image result for prodigal son

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

Colossians 3:12-14

Last week, we talked about “putting to death” and “taking off” our old selves (Colossians 3:5-9) so that we could “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (vs. 10). The “new self” begins on the inside. It’s a core change. One that we cannot effect on our own. As John said last week, this kind of change happens when we make “a choice to yield, not to do more”. We can’t “do” our way into the “new self”. It doesn’t happen by our striving or in our own strength. Ephesians 2:8-9 describes it this way:  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. The new self has its origin at the moment of salvation and continues to be made into the image of Christ through the lifelong process of sanctification, becoming like Him. When verse 10 admonishes us to “put on” the new self, the Greek word that is translated is “endyo”. The first definition given is “to sink into” as into a garment. Hang onto that for a minute…

This week’s sermon covered three verses. These verses detailed what we are to “clothe ourselves” with as we live from our new self, having taken off the old.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Confession… the words “clothe yourselves” in this passage tripped me up. A lot. I struggled with the wording and the feeling that I am weak in so many of these areas, especially as we explored what these 7 (or 8, depending on how you count them…) “garments” actually mean when applied as intended. Here’s the truth: I am weak in most-if not all-of the seven areas. Here’s what’s also true: I don’t have to do this by myself. None of us do.

The following is a mixture of facts I’ve learned as I’ve studied and thoughts that I absolutely can’t prove, but they make sense to me. I am no theologian and some of this is, admittedly, over my head. So I invite you to take this journey with me and also to comment with your own thoughts, insights and questions. I would love to learn from all of you!!

Okay, remember that Greek word, “endyo”, from last week’s passage? It’s the same word that is translated “clothe yourselves” in verse 12. When I use what I know to define “clothe yourselves”, it absolutely leads me to believe this is something I must do. In my own power. I wrestled with this, and came really close to shaming myself for my shortcomings all afternoon and evening after listening to the sermon. But if we look at the definition given for “endyo” being “to sink into” as into a garment, the whole passage lands a little differently…

First, we have to remember that, as John presented last week, neither salvation nor the sanctification process are things we “do” in our own strength. We do have to cooperate in the process, but it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that we are saved and by His Spirit working within us that we are continually changed and made into His image. This week’s passage is not a brand new thought, but rather a continuation and further explanation of what we explored last week. The moment we put off the old self and “put on” the new self, we are covered by the blood of Jesus. It is the blood of His sacrifice that identifies us “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (verse 12). This is our core identity. Everything we do flows out of this core of knowing who we are. This concept is foundational to our understanding of the next piece…

The “garments”–compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness,  patience, forbearing & forgiving, and love–are not articles of clothing we can manufacture on our own. Interestingly, five of these words share the exact same root word in the Greek as five of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and a strong case could be made connecting two more sets of the words. We know that these “fruits” are the outward production of work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our core as He transforms us into the image of Christ, piece by piece. That’s why they are fruits of the Spirit–not fruits of hard work, rule-following or righteous living. The fruit is not produced by our doing anything-other than cooperating with the movement of the Spirit within us. So it would make sense to me that these garments are also not things we can clothe ourselves with in our own power. Rather, I see it this way: Just as a parent would do for a small child, God has both provided and laid out for us an outfit that He has deemed appropriate. It is beautiful. It is the right size. When worn as intended, it’s not cumbersome. In fact, it’s an outfit that is so comfortable that, when it is worn correctly, we can sink into it. It feels good on-because it is royal clothing, made of the finest thread and highest quality materials. But we need help to put it on. It has many pieces and layers. And only the Designer knows how to put it on perfectly, with all of the pieces in place.

Like a toddler, we can choose to run away and refuse to dress in what has been provided. We always have the choice to cooperate with God’s work in us or not. He will not hold us down and dress us if we’re acting like rebellious toddlers. Nope. He’ll let us run around in our diapers making spectacles of ourselves. He doesn’t stop us from acting unruly or even from misrepresenting Him in what we choose to wear-or not wear. He will continue to hold in front of us the beautiful garments He has designed, always beckoning us back to Him and His way.

However, if we choose to yield–to allow the Designer to dress us in His perfect garments, outer manifestations of deep inner work–we will find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into Jesus Himself. Because, what don’t you see when you’ve put on seven pieces of clothing and wrapped them all in a cloak…? You can’t really see you anymore, can you? That’s the picture I’m left with at the end of all of this…

If we cooperate with God to dress our new selves in the garments He has chosen for us–these attributes the Spirit has worked from the depth of our core outward–and we wrap our whole selves in a cloak of love, which “binds them all together”, then we don’t really look like ourselves anymore. Because we become hidden in the likeness of Jesus. It changes the way I read these two verses:

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:3 NIV

 My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20 NLT

I want to wear the royal garments that come with being a holy and beloved child of God. I want to cooperate as He dresses me in His attributes. I don’t want to fight that process. And I am so thankful that I don’t have to do it on my own… That this daughter that can sometimes act like an unruly toddler has a Daddy who is willing to help her get dressed the right way–His way.

–Laura

Laura wrote: “This week’s passage is not a brand new thought, but rather a continuation and further explanation of what we explored last week. The moment we put off the old self and “put on” the new self, we are covered by the blood of Jesus. It is the blood of His sacrifice that identifies us “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (verse 12). This is our core identity. Everything we do flows out of this core of knowing who we are

I agree with Laura. When we are faced with the virtues that Paul is encouraging us to “put on”,  I am fully aware that in my own strength I can do some of them some of the time…all of them all of the time–not so much. That’s frustrating and defeating if all I choose to look at is how I continually fall short.  But here’s what’s true: my identity isn’t based on what I believe about myself. My identity is based on the completed work of Jesus, and on who He says I am.

In verse 12 Paul says that I am one of God’s chosen people, not in a superior way as if another is left out, but because I responded to His choosing by coming into a relationship with God through Christ.  Ephesians 3:6 in the NLT version states it like this: “And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children…”  Jesus made a way for us to become part of the chosen people of God. I am so grateful!

In verse 12, Paul says that I am holy. Again, this doesn’t indicate superiority to anyone in any way, because it too is a work of God through Christ. Speaking of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews says “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.” (Verse 10).  So, we are holy. However, we also grow in holiness. The apostle Peter reminds us to “Be holy, because I (God) am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16)  I think we have a tendency to mystify this word, but in its most simple form it means to be different. The definition means “set apart”. In a Bible study I participated in a few years ago, the teacher said that to be holy is to be “other”.  She referred to the holiness of God as the “otherness” of God. No one else is like Him. We who are in Christ have the Holy Spirit living in us, and He equips us to live differently. Just like Laura said above, as we surrender to the work that God wants to do in our lives, as we draw close to Jesus and let the Spirit have His way, the fruit that is produced is different from the fruit produced by our flesh. We are “different”, we are (and are becoming more) compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, and loving as we let the Spirit have His way.

And in verse 12, Paul calls us dearly loved–beloved.  “Be” is a state of being, so when God says I’m beloved, loved is my state of being. We are loved. Period. And Paul lets us know in Romans 8 that nothing  will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)

In Romans 13:14 Paul tells us to “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” 

I truly believe that the key to all of the virtues that Paul is encouraging us to put on, the key to the fruit of the Spirit flowing organically out of our lives, is to respond to God’s love for us with deep love for Him. We must understand that Jesus is not only Savior, but He is Lord.  He is also our treasure. Once we get that figured out, being in love with Him, choosing to love Him becomes our desire. And then, we want others to experience it too. We want to leverage our lives so that others can know that they are chosen, holy, and dearly loved. It ALL starts with our true identity. Believing it, choosing to live from it, and staying connected to Christ. As we allow Him to do His work in us, He changes us. I don’t know how He does it, but He does. I know this because I’m not who I used to be. So…on this side of heaven we may not do it perfectly, but are we growing in Christ? Look back over your life. Are you different than you used to be? If so, you can know that Jesus is transforming you and His fruit is flowing out of you. It may not be a bumper crop yet, but persevere! He’s not finished yet!

–Luanne

love-25-600

God’s Answer to Our Deepest Needs (Colossians 2:10-19)

Beau articulated this weekend that we all share four core needs that are met in the cross of Christ. Those needs are: love, forgiveness, community, and a cause worth living and dying for.

In this passage of Colossians, Paul deconstructs the tradition of circumcision as the people to whom he was writing understood it, and replaced it with a fresh view on the subject–that the new circumcision was of a spiritual nature. It was a cutting away of the old sinful nature in order that we might be raised to new life in Christ.

Circumcision under the law proved that they belonged in their community. But this new circumcision, the circumcision of Christ, did away with the separation-inducing effect of its predecessor. This new way extended an invitation, one we can both respond to and extend today–the invitation into Christ’s community, the community of Heaven. This invitation is for everyone. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. The invitation is for each and every person of every tribe and tongue. There are no lines of division at the foot of the cross-only unity under the Head, which is Christ Himself.

When we understand the gift of community that this new circumcision provides–community Jesus’s way, community that places each of us on equal ground where we believe in the chosen-ness of every single human being–when this clicks in our hearts, we find a cause worth living and dying for. And we become willing to embrace it.

Seeing all of humanity as chosen by Christ seems simple enough in concept… but in reality, we all have inherited some beliefs and narratives that can make this difficult to put into practice. I could list many examples, but there is one that is especially striking this weekend. We, as Americans, are about to celebrate the 4th of July, our nation’s Independence Day. Like me, you have probably seen displays of American pride on social media, billboards, television, etc… I don’t believe there is anything wrong with celebrating the freedoms that are ours because of where we happened to be born, or being grateful for the blessings that are ours. I do think, however, that this particular holiday can reveal heart attitudes that, knowingly or not, equate nationalism with Christianity. The danger of this, outside of the propensity for idol worship, is that a narrative can form in our minds. One that says that we, as American Christians, have it right. That our way is the best way. That we have the answers. This kind of heart attitude separates us from other believers–and from Christ Himself.

Remember, the ground at the foot of the cross is level. There is no elevating of self in this place. No way to earn the chosenness that Christ extends to all people. Any sense of elevation or separation is not Jesus’s way. Colossians 2:16-19 makes this clear:

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

Regardless of what it is–be it false humility, pride, legalism, nationalism–anything that seeks to separate and divide rather that connect and unify is something that is not connected to Christ.

Jesus saw all of humanity-each and every one of us-as a cause worth living and dying for. And when we truly grasp the community that is offered at the foot of the cross, we will want to carry the open invitation to absolutely everyone. It will become a cause we are willing to live and die for as well, because the cause is not an “it”. It’s a “who”. And that “who” is everyone. When we grasp the love, forgiveness and community we receive at the cross, we become willing to imitate the love that we could never duplicate–a love that chose death so that we could have life. I want to carry that invitation to the ends of the earth until the day that we see …a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9a)

Have you found your deepest needs met at the foot of the cross of Jesus? Does your heart desire to grab onto a cause worth living and dying for? What stands in the way of living out community Jesus’s way? I would love to hear your thoughts…

–Laura

(Luanne will be back and contributing in a couple of weeks!)

foot of the cross

What is God Really Like?

God is really big. God can be really scary. God can be really confusing. God is in control. 

I am thankful that this week’s sermon didn’t end there. There was a fifth point that is both the foundation of and the umbrella over these attributes.

God is a loving God.

John used Zephaniah 3:17 to illustrate this point:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

I love that this is the verse he used. There are many others that come quickly to mind when I hear the words “God is love”. But this one paints a beautiful picture that struck me when I thought it through…

When life and circumstances loom large and we feel so small, when fears assault our hearts and confusion clouds our minds, when everything feels out of control…

Shh… listen…

Our God–who is bigger than our biggest struggles, who understands all things infinitely, who holds all of time-and all of us-in His very capable hands–comes to quiet us with His love.

Not with judgement or thundering condemnation, though it would be within His rights to come and quiet us in these ways. No, this very big, sometimes scary and confusing God who controls all things comes to quiet us with His love. The fact that He comes to us at all is evidence of His great love for us. It blows my mind that He comes to me… I’ve experienced His presence so many times, and every time I’m left feeling a little more undone… in awe of His greatness, His big-ness that chooses to come into the small space of my life. He doesn’t have to come. He could leave us as we are–small, afraid, confused and out of control. But He doesn’t. Because God is love.

The verse doesn’t only tell us that God quiets us with His love, it also tells us how. He quiets what is loud around and inside of us by the sound of His own voice. He quiets us with singing. He rejoices over us with gladness. And he exults over us with loud singing. This is the definition of “exult”:

“to show or feel a lively or triumphant joy; rejoice exceedingly; be highly elated or jubilant”

Truthfully, I can’t wrap my mind around this concept. That His singing over me is triumphant, joyful, jubilant, elated… It’s more than I can fully comprehend. I’m still working it through. But I know it to be true. While I have never audibly heard God sing over me, I have experienced being quieted by His love…

There are times I have been left speechless, in awe of His big-ness. I have been afraid to speak, reverent in His presence. I have given Him the silent treatment in my confusion and lack of understanding. And I have run from Him, refusing to speak or listen when I wanted to control my own life. I have been quiet in these ways. But there is only one thing that can quiet my heart, my innermost thoughts and fears, my wonderings and wanderings. Only one thing that can cause the inner clamor to cease. That one thing is His love. There’s nothing like it.

I am thankful for the enormity of my God. I am grateful that there are things I don’t understand, even if it leaves me feeling confused sometimes. I am so, so glad that He is in control-because I know my own lack, and I don’t want that responsibility… even when I do. And I’m glad my God can be scary, because so is my enemy. So are many of the things I face on this earth. But if I didn’t know that He defines Himself as love, these attributes wouldn’t produce worship in my heart. Because I know Him, because I’ve experienced His love that quiets what wars inside of me, I can praise Him in all of His big, scary, confusing, controlling Glory. Even if I don’t always like it. Even if I don’t understand. Because no one loves me like He does. No one ever will. So I trust Him with the rest.

How about you? How do you see God? How does it make you feel to know that our big, scary, confusing, in control of everything God sings over you with love?

–Laura

Laura wrote,

“There is a fifth point that is both the foundation of and the umbrella over these attributes: God is a loving God.”

We have to know that. We have to trust that it is true. John reminded us of the Charles Spurgeon quote that encourages us to trust God’s heart when we can’t trace God’s hand. In other words, when we don’t understand what God is doing, what God is allowing, we still trust that He is good, that He is for us, that He knows what He is doing, and that we are completely surrounded by and filled with His love for us. Those moments when He seems scary, when He seems confusing, when He seems controlling, we have to know that He is a loving God and that we can trust His heart.

I had not experienced the “scary” part of God until a few years ago. I was a chaperone on a youth mission trip to Costa Rica. We were staying in a remote location—our “home” for the week was across a dirt street and through a small swath of rain forest from a thin strip of beach–very remote.

One morning before heading to the worksite, we had a few minutes to go to the beach. I was already dressed and chose not to get in the water, but most of the rest of the group did. The water was a little rough, so the group went in about thigh deep, held onto each other in one long line and jumped together as the waves came in. All of a sudden, it was as if someone had thrown a bowling ball at the group and our youth and adults were scattered in all directions. I counted heads and we were missing one. I shouted in a panic to our youth leader that we were missing one, and then  saw the head of that young man so far out in the water that I feared we would not get him back.

Even the kids and adults close to the shore were having difficulty getting to the beach. I ran for help. I came upon a Costa Rican lady and communicated with her that we needed help. She told me that there was no help. I ran back to our group and told the two youth leaders, who were still struggling in the water, that there was no help. A few kids were making it to shore and I screamed at them, “PRAY, PRAY, PRAY!!”  They dropped to their knees and prayed. One of the other leaders who, like me, had chosen not to enter the water was a Marine. He swam out to the young man who had been carried the farthest, but knew he would not be able to bring him in. He chose to stay with him until he went under. The situation was terrifying, life threatening, and impossible.

As we were crying out, God provided us an angel. She came out of the rain forest dressed in a red bathing suit, walked to me, told me her name was Bridget (which I looked up later and it means, “power, strength, vigor, virtue, or exalted one”), had me point out the young man in the water and then entered the water. Not one of us can explain what happened next, but all of a sudden every person in our group, including our marine and the young man who was close to drowning at that point, were on the shore, and Bridget was gone. There is no explanation for any of this except God’s intervention.

The previous morning, in my time with the Lord, he had led me to Psalm 18. I didn’t know why until the following morning, and I read this passage to the group:

… I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies.  The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
 In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears… The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded… He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me…. 

For the next 24 hours the sea was angry. It was churning and there was a moaning, creaking, groaning sound that I had never heard the ocean make. It was very eerie, and it left me frightened. The whole experience had left me frightened.  We had experienced a terrifying event that we had absolutely no control over. We were up against a power too great for us.  And even our relief, our incredible gratitude at God’s intervention was tinged with the thought of “Who are You, God?”. Mark 4:41 tells us that  The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!”  (NLT)  I get that, and truthfully, I needed to get that.

The following morning, I took my Bible and walked over to that strip of beach by myself. The sea was still churning and wild. I sat on a log and said to God, “I feel afraid of You. I have never seen You in this way, and I am frightened.  I don’t want to be afraid of You, but that’s how I feel.”  Then I looked to my right, and just a few feet from me was a puppy trying to pounce on insects. It made me laugh. In that moment God spoke to my heart. He confirmed that He is big, powerful, scary AND that He is also the God who created puppies for my delight. My heart calmed as I began to wrap my mind around this new revelation of God.

I learned later, that the young man whose life was in danger had asked God to show him if He was real. May I say–God left no doubt. God, in answer to a young man’s prayer, allowed all of us to experience a situation that not one of us was powerful enough to do anything about. We could not control one teeny piece of what happened that morning, and God blew our minds with His provision, His power, and His greatness, and gave us an entirely new vision of who He is. I needed to be reminded, even though I have a close, precious, intimate relationship with God, that He is still a God to be revered, He is still an awe-inspiring sometimes fear-inducing God, He is huge, AND I can trust His heart because I know that He IS love

So when the waves are churning, when the sea is angry, when the storms are raging, when life is hard and you feel like you are going under, do you trust His heart? Do you know that you know that you know that He IS love? That He is ALWAYS love? We will never fully understand all of God. If we could, He would not be God. But we can know that He is love and that we are loved. I’d love to hear how He has blown your mind with His greatness and His love.

-Luanne

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How Do You Know What Love Is?

I thought I knew love…but I didn’t.

This weekend’s message began with these words. And my head nodded a silent “Me, too”. As John shared parts of his story, details of my own swirled in my mind. Along with a few familiar lines…

                        “What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more…”                                                      “I wanna know what love is…I want you to show me…”

These aren’t the usual songs that run through my head during church. It was a little distracting, because once the tunes started, it was hard to turn them off. But, as I did my best to not break out into 80’s rock ballad glory, I did think about how many songs have been written that relate to the question of the day,

How do you know what love is?

In a culture where we use the same word to describe our affinity for chocolate, our favorite jeans, our spouses and God, how do we begin to define what “love” actually is?

I was told “God is love” from a very young age. But what I saw and heard and felt from people who “loved” God didn’t seem very loving. And the God that was presented to me as a child wasn’t nearly as lovable as my favorite dessert. I sang “Jesus Loves Me” countless times. People I trusted told me God loved me, but the religious system I grew up in emphasized a big IF. I believed a lie as a toddler that grew deep roots all the way into my twenties.

God loves me IF I’m good enough

But “good enough” is a moving target, isn’t it? I began to strive for perfection as a little girl–not only for God’s approval and love, but for everyone’s. I had bought the lie that had been modeled for me. One of John’s points in this weekend’s message was,

I thought I had to earn love…I don’t.

Believing the lie that I had to earn love wrote every page of my life story until God Himself took over control of the pen. I say “took over control”, but it wasn’t a hostile takeover. He didn’t get sick of me, sigh in exasperation and grab the pen from my hand. He only took over control when I released my grip and handed it over to Him. And that didn’t happen because He was persuasive, manipulative or domineering. He didn’t scare me into giving Him control. He loved me in the ways John put before us this weekend. He came for me the same way He instructed Hosea to go after Gomer (Hosea 3:1), the same way He went after His rebellious Israelite children (Hosea 11:1-4). I was the prostitute chasing other lovers, looking for approval and searching for love all the wrong ways and in all the wrong places. And He came for me not with judgement, not with condemnation, not even with a scolding tone. He came for me in subtleties. He didn’t chase me, He wooed me. He didn’t demand control of my life-He did request it. He didn’t shout, he whispered. He pursued my wandering heart this way until I realized that I had always been chosen by Him-and I now had the choice to choose Him in return.  In the middle of the mess I had created with my life, He came for me.

In the middle of our mess, we need the message of the Messiah.

Not the message of “pray this prayer so you don’t go to hell”. Not the message of “clean up your life and then you’ll be acceptable”. Not the message of “try a little harder, do a little more”, or any of the other lies that have been embedded in our hearts. No, the message of the Messiah is a message of hope, grace, forgiveness, redemption and love. Real love. The love we’re aching for, even if we don’t know it yet. The love that Ephesians 2:4-6 so beautifully illustrates. I love the way it’s written in the the Amplified Bible:

“But God-so rich is He in His mercy! Because of and in order to satisfy the great and wonderful and intense love with which He loved us; Even when we were dead (slain) by [our own] shortcomings and trespasses, He made us alive together in fellowship and in union with Christ; [He gave us the very life of Christ Himself, the same new life with which He quickened Him, for] it is by grace (His favor and mercy which you did not deserve) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation). And He raised us up together with Him and made us sit down together [giving us joint seating with Him] in the heavenly sphere [by virtue of our being] in Christ Jesus (the Messiah, the Anointed One).

Because of and in order to satisfy His great, wonderful, intense love for me… even while I was dead, before I could choose anything for myself (because dead people don’t have choices), He gave me the same resurrecting life that raised Jesus from the dead. He came for me. And even after I received the life He offered (and really, the offer is to exchange death for life-my bad for His good-so why in the world do any of us wait to engage in that transaction???), He came for me. And He comes still. Because Love wants me to experience the fullest life-not only salvation from death. Love is stronger than my doubts, my fears, my unfaithfulness. Love rescues me from myself. Love rescues me from my enemies. Love is patient, kind, long-suffering.

The reason love is so strong is because love isn’t a thing that it is contingent or dependent on me, on us, on anything we can do. Love is found in the scars of Jesus. Scars that remain on a body that was willing to call us friends while we were still enemies, that sought us while we were strangers. A body that saw a beloved bride while she was still in the brothel. A body that was given in order to satisfy the love of a Father for all of His children.

How do I know what love is? I lean into the heart that has pursued mine since before He formed it. I meet love in the person of Jesus. I don’t believe I’ll “know” it fully until I’m forever in the presence of Love, Himself. Because this love, it’s too big to grasp. And that is okay with me. Because I didn’t come to the understanding of love that I have today all at once. It has taken time and patience and the relentless pursuit of a God that will never stop revealing His heart to me. My whole life is a love story being written moment by moment. I hope I’ll know more of His love tomorrow than I do today. That’s the beauty of relationship–it grows over time. And the journey is a passionate adventure of being pursued by a love that will not let me go.

How do you know what love is? Do you? What keeps you from knowing God’s love for you?

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote, her vulnerability, her personal story, and will reiterate many of her points, but in a different way.

“I Want to Know What Love Is” by the band Foreigner was also going through my head, and I couldn’t shake it after church, so I went looking for what I could find.  For those unfamiliar with the song, or needing a refresher, some of the lyrics are:

I gotta take a little time, a little time to think things over.  I better read between the lines, in case I need it when I’m older. Now this mountain I must climb, feels like a world upon my shoulders. Through the clouds I see love shine. It keeps me warm as life grows colder. In my life, there’s been heartache and pain, I don’t know if I can face it again. Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life.

I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me. I wanna feel what love is. I know you can show me.

I’m gonna take a little time, a little time to look around me. I’ve got nowhere left to hide, it looks like love has finally found me…

This song, written by Mick Jones and Lou Gramm in 1984,  hit the #1 spot in the UK, the USA, Australia, topped charts in South Africa, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, was in the top 25 on Contemporary recurrent charts in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and is on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of one of the greatest songs of all time. Why?

The song mentions a “you”, but it is definitely not a typical “love” song. It is a plea. It is a journey. It is a search for real love.  I don’t even know if the writer knows who the “you” is that he’s crying out to. In my view, it could very easily be a prayer-the desperate cry of someone who is lost, who is lonely, who knows that love exists but doesn’t know how to access it. It could be you. It has been me.   I believe that we are all created with a deep hunger to know what love is, and John beautifully pointed out in his sermon that Love is a person. Love of objects, love of only the physical realm will always fall short. But the Love of God–nothing compares. Even as I typed that last sentence, I went back and capitalized the word “Love”–the Love of God is Jesus.  God demonstrates His love for us through Jesus.

When John was making the point that God’s love is not weak, that it is powerful–I was struck by a phrase in the scripture 2 Corinthians 5:14-15  For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

A quick glance at that scripture would lead us to believe that Paul is saying that every person with breath in their lungs and a beating heart should be compelled to live for God. However, the wording of the phrase that those who live should no longer live for themselves” gives the verse another layer.

Ephesians 2:1-6 that Laura highlighted above reminds us that we were all dead. It reads like this in the NLT:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God.  All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)  For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.”

In the 2nd Corinthians passage, Paul is saying–those of you who are now alive because you have a relationship with Christ, those of you who have experienced His love in a personal way, will now be unablebecause of that powerful love- to live the way you did before. His LOVE–He, Jesus, through the power of His Holy Spirit will compel you to live for Him and join Him in His mission to take His love to everyone.  Every person on the face of the planet is already loved by God; however, they don’t all have relationship with God, they are not yet alive, but they don’t know it. They do not know that they are loved. They do not know what real love is.  And we do. And we used to be just like them–dead–and now we’re alive…

So what do we do– how do we show them? First, we have to have received God’s love ourselves. Do you know that you are truly, completely, totally, loved by God? Do you know that He proved that love for you by sending Jesus to take the condemnation that your sins deserved so that you don’t ever have to be condemned, and so that you can live in freedom, no guilt, live with incredible purpose, and live full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Do you know in the core of your being, not just in your head, that you are loved? I hope so, because it’s true, and it is the starting point and the fuel for an ongoing adventure with God and the abundant life that Jesus promises. It’s that love that makes us hunger to spend time with God, it’s that love that opens our eyes to the needs of others around us, it’s that love that changes and transforms our lives, it’s that love that makes us fall in love with Him in return, it’s that love that keeps us out of duty bound religion and living in a more beautiful relationship than we ever thought possible. Have you received, embraced, accepted His love? Is that the place from which you live? I remember after my season of self-destruction, that in my return to God I thought I would always be a second class citizen in the Kingdom because I had screwed up so badly. I thought that He would never really be able to, or want to use me. That’s a lie. And when I finally began to embrace the truth of how incredible His love is, how all encompassing His love is, how powerful His love is, how forgiving His love is,  and let that sink in–it changed me forever; it is still changing me. Knowing -in the intimate sense- His love– that’s first.

Second, we love the world the way that we are loved by God–gently, subtly, by wooing through acts of kindness and care rather than chasing; by requesting and inviting rather than demanding and placing expectations and obligations upon others; by whispering rather than shouting, by choosing to love rather than making people earn it; and by showing the power and strength of the love of God by being willing to share our stories and show our scars, just like Jesus did– remembering that our scars are evidence that a Healer exists.

Many are crying out– “I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.”  

If you are the one crying out, I want to show you!  God, through His love has changed my life! If you are not the one crying out, are you willing to be the “you”?  Are you willing to share your story, show your scars, and be an instrument of love in the hands of the LOVE of God? Have you already had opportunity to do that? We’d love to hear your story!

-Luanne

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