His Kindness for the Hurting

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus.  They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.              (Mark 6: 53-56)

Picking up where we left off last week– Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat by themselves while he stayed behind and prayed. A mighty wind arose and the disciples fought it for hours. Finally, Jesus came to them.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida, but they landed in Gennesaret.  If you look at a map of the region, Gennesaret is nowhere near their original destination; the storm had taken them way off course. It’s also interesting to note that when Jesus walked out to them on the water, he went to where they were, not to where he had sent them. In his kindness, he will always meet us where we are, no matter how far off course we may find ourselves.

Once Jesus climbed into the boat with them and calmed the storm, they didn’t head for Bethsaida; they anchored in Gennesaret. Gennesaret is the region where Jesus freed the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. That man, after he was freed, wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus had him stay in Gennesaret  and said to him: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19-20) The man was faithful to what Jesus had asked him to do, so when Jesus and the disciples anchored in that region, they were recognized, and people came to Jesus; they knew he could do miraculous things–one of their own had experienced it and shared his story. 

I wish we could have a timeline–it would appear that Jesus stayed in this region for awhile–he went to villages, to towns, and the countryside and people brought their sick to the marketplaces, the “hub” of town so they could get near Jesus.

Pastor John highlighted three words as he shared this story: all; touched; healed.

All:  It’s important to note that Gennesaret was primarily a Gentile region, so once again, Jesus is breaking proper protocol and ministering to people who aren’t Jewish. Jesus is making himself available to “all”–to those who were “other”.  There is no one who is excluded from the love of God–no one. No person on planet earth who has ever lived, who lives now, or who will ever live is “other” in God’s eyes. We have got to understand this. Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?  Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness leads people to change their minds (repent) and come into a relationship with him, so it would make sense that the kindness of his followers would draw people to God’s unconditional love. ALL. All includes me. All includes you. All includes all.

Touched: It’s interesting in this passage that those in need of healing reached out to touch Jesus. I don’t know how many people were in these marketplaces, but the way Mark relays the story makes it sound like there were a lot. There are a couple of really interesting details to note: One, people who weren’t sick brought people who were sick to Jesus. Those who were well weren’t off doing their own thing. They were concerned about getting those who weren’t well close to Jesus. Two, those who were sick, once they were close to Jesus, had the opportunity to reach out and touch him. The well couldn’t take that step for the sick, but they could get the sick close to Jesus. Three, this is all happening in the center of town. Our relationship with Jesus is not a private matter or a church matter. Are we living in such a way that those around us can sense the nearness of Jesus? Do they know that he is close enough to touch?

Healed: Sometimes our English translations of scripture don’t do us any favors, and this is one of those times. In the book of Luke, chapter 17, there is a story of ten lepers who drew near to Jesus and asked him to heal them. Jesus “cleansed” them all. One of the 10–a Samaritan “other” — saw that he was “healed” and came back to thank Jesus. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well”.  Why the difference between cleansed, healed, and well? What do you think of when you think of the word “well”? You were sick, diseased, and now you are “well”? All the lepers were healed from leprosy–were they not all “well”? In this passage, the word “well” is the Greek word “sozo”.

In the passage in Mark we are looking at today,  healed is the word “sozo”–a verb; it means “to make whole, to keep safe and sound, to rescue from destruction, to save, to heal, to deliver or protect…”

We have a tendency to think of “healing” as only about the physical body. Jesus is concerned with our entire beings, and his “sozo” is about restoring us to wholeness, restoring us to flourishing…

It’s used 118 times in the New Testament:

In Matthew 1:21 we learn that Jesus shall “sozo” people from their sins.

When Peter was walking on the water and began to sink, he cried out for Jesus to “sozo” him.

The Son of Man came to “sozo” that which was lost.

And in John 3:17 we learn that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be “sozo”.

October is the anniversary month of my mother’s death. I was only a child when I lost her, so when I became an adult I asked a close friend of hers to share what my mom was like as a friend. Marie shared many things with me but one story, in particular, stood out. Many people were praying for my mom to be healed from cancer. Marie went to visit my mom in the hospital right as an awkward fellow from our church was wrapping up his visit. Marie asked my mom if it had been hard for her to be trapped and not able to get away from what could have been an uncomfortable visit. My mom shared with Marie–I don’t believe that God is going to cure me, but he is healing me…healing me to see people the way he sees them and love them the way he loves them; today he gave me love for G.

That’s “sozo”. My mother was not cured of her cancer, but she was healed to love well even while she was sick, even while the awkward difficult to be around person was in her room. She experienced, in the “marketplace” of her hospital room, a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.  As her daughter, I will always lament that she wasn’t physically healed. As her sister in Christ, I can rejoice that she experienced Jesus in such a beautiful way even when she was sick. In “sozo” our earthly focus shifts from the things that matter to us, to the things that matter to the heart of God.

In some Christian traditions, the primary focus of faith is getting “saved”. Getting “saved” is often defined as a one-time transaction that gives people a ticket to heaven. Once they have their “ticket”, they can live any way they want to, because their after-life is secure. Sozo does not mean that. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.

I read an account a few months ago that challenged the static definition of salvation. The account used the illustration of the sinking Titanic–lifeboats were available for some, and the people who got into the lifeboats were “saved”.  What would the story have been like if the rescued stayed in the lifeboats and bobbed around in the ocean until they died? They weren’t “saved” to bob around in the ocean. Their salvation led them to new life. They were “saved” from something for something.  So are we.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of his global family. You can be made whole;  you can carry others into his presence so they can be made whole. This is what it means to advance God’s kingdom on earth. We are The Church–the gates of hell will not prevail against us–if we understand our mission. 

We are to experience God’s love and respond by loving God–heart, soul, mind, and strength (entire being). We are to love others. We are to share our stories with those around us–like the man who was set free from demons did. We are to be inclusive, (Samaritans, Romans, lepers, demon-possessed, women, sinners, tax collectors, Jews, Pharisees, poor, rich…everyone). We are to be Spirit-filled vessels who are bringing God’s kingdom to earth (the way Jesus modeled it), so that God’s will, will be done on earth as in heaven. And what is that will?

God wants everyone to know:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, would be “sozo”, made whole, healed.

God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit whose fruit is evident in our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He has asked us to go everywhere and share that God is love and God is near. The ripple effect of God’s sozo can transform the world.

Our challenge: Experience God’s kindness. Reach out, touch him, let him mess in our business and make us whole, then, even while we’re still in process, carry others into his presence so that they too can reach out, touch him and be made whole…this is how it works. Are you in?

–Luanne

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around, no matter the outcome.”

I wonder if Rachel and Luanne’s mom are now friends on the other side… It seems the two of them held very similar beliefs about healing—what it is, and what it’s not. Luanne wrote that her mom experienced “…a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.” I witnessed this kind of phenomenon as my own mom bravely fought a battle that ultimately led her, too, out of our physical world and into the arms of Jesus. I watched as she made peace inwardly with her failing flesh and bones; I stood baffled by her overriding concern for the rest of us, even as she struggled for her own breath. She wanted nothing more than to live for God’s glory—whether here on earth, or with him. She repeated that like a mantra, and she meant it. She knew she’d be healed—one way or the other. But her heart was never more whole than when the rest of her was falling into a million broken pieces. She understood “sozo”, though I doubt she was familiar with the word.

Maybe it’s not until we face our own mortality that we can fully embrace and adapt Jesus’ vision for healing. But I have to believe—because Jesus said over and over again that the Kingdom is here, now—that we can move toward a deeper understanding of this healing, this wholeness now. I love what Luanne wrote about “sozo.” She said, “It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.” We can grow in our ability to experience and extend healing and wholeness right now.

Sarah Bessey, in her gorgeous book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, writes:

“I believe with all of my being that Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s heart is for our wholeness and our healing, for our belovedness and for our salvation, for goodness and mercy to chase after us and shape us. So I pray in that direction and trust that it is enough, that we will be shaped into Christ’s own, that our feet will find the path of peace, that our hearts will be tuned to cocreation and abundance and joy and love.”

But sometimes we get a picture in our minds of what our healing will look like. We tell ourselves, “When God fixes this, then ____________” We fill in that blank with our ideas of what the outcome will look like and why it will happen just that way—all to the glory of God, of course. To that, our friend Sarah adds,

“When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine.”

There’s something else that happens when we try to script our own resurrections… We become so focused on our own brokenness, our own pain, that we shut ourselves off from being those who extend wholeness and healing to others.

And sometimes we prefer it that way…

I heard someone say recently that we avoid the grief of others so that we’re not infected with it. It’s hard to enter into the pain of others in a real, present way. Compassion hurts. When we hear throughout the New Testament that Jesus was “moved with compassion”, it literally means that he felt it in his bowels. His insides lurched at the sight of those in need of healing. He suffered with them, so much that he felt it deep within his body. Is this how we respond when we see people in need of healing? Broken people desperate for wholeness? Maybe we need to back up and ask ourselves, Is this how we respond to our own desperate need for healing and wholeness? Do we regard ourselves with compassion? Shauna Niequist said recently, on The Eternal Current podcast, “I wanted to be part of building his kingdom on earth. But at a certain point I started realizing, I’m a part of that kingdom, too. So, if one little corner of the kingdom is suffering… take care of the whole kingdom, right? In a garden, you would never expect one plant to starve for all the rest. It’s not the right way to think about who we are and what we’ve been created for.”

Maybe we’ve never opened up our whole hearts to the “sozo” we need from Jesus. At a conference I attended recently, one speaker said that we have a God who makes “…redemption out of remnants; wholeness out of scraps.” But we have to choose to open up our broken hearts, to hold with our trembling hand our remnants and scraps, our fears and our scripts of how it’s supposed to be, and trust Jesus to bring the “sozo” we’re most in need of.

Then, as we are in the process of becoming whole, we bring others in. All others. Everyone.

I looked up the definition to “everyone”, just to make extra sure we understand. It does, in fact, mean, “every person.” Period. As Pastor John and Luanne both said, Jesus came for ALL. He made himself available to everyone. No one is excluded from encountering the love of God. No one is denied the experience of being made whole. Jesus’ healing is truly for all. Luanne asked us some probing questions, regarding this, that might make us squirm a little. And they should. She asked,

“Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?”

Can we answer these questions honestly? Whose presence in our sanctuaries would make us feel uncomfortable? Until we can truly answer, “No one would make us uncomfortable—there is no one who is seen as ‘other’ among us,” there is healing to be done within us. As we allow Jesus to save us his way, to cultivate his heart and his eyes within each of us and in all of us collectively, we will find that there is no need for our barriers, our rules, our exclusionary practices. Because seeing with his eyes destroys the dividing walls between “us” and “them”. And we are saved from ourselves and healed into wholeness, for the sake of the kingdom coming in all of its fullness. Here. Now. How beautiful is that picture?

Jesus’ kindness, his compassion for the hurting, the broken—all of us—is extravagant. It’s life-changing. He longs that we all experience it, and then extend it to everyone. Kindness… it’s so much bigger than a nice word we talk about with our toddlers. His kindness changes the world.

–Laura

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Over All: Jesus Said

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been writing about Jesus and the authority that he has over nature, over evil, over sickness, over death–truly over everything. We’ve looked at beautiful encounters in the gospel of Mark between Jesus and people and have focused on what he did. In this post, we are going to go back and focus on what he said.

In Mark 4  Jesus said to the storm “Hush, be still.” (NASB) and to the disciples “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (NASB)

In Mark 5 Jesus told the formerly demon-possessed, but now set free gentleman to  “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”  (NASB)

He said to the courageous woman who secretly reached out and touched his garment in the hope of being healed: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

To Jairus whose daughter died while he was waiting on the sidelines for Jesus to finish giving attention to the woman–Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (NIV)

To the dead body of Jairus’ daughter who Jesus took by the hand, he said: “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”  (ESV) We learned last week that phrase can also mean “Little lamb”.  Either way, we see Jesus gentleness as he exercises great authority.

Pastor John encouraged us to look at these words of Jesus through two lenses–a theological lens, and a personal lens. Both are extremely important.

Theology is the intellectual study of God. Theology leads to many theories about God. There are scholars who believe they’ve got God all figured out. Personally, I don’t believe that’s possible–God is too great. However, I do believe that God has shown us himself and his character–and I believe he has done that most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4, he opened the scroll in the synagogue and read the words of the prophet Isaiah which said:

“The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, Because He did anoint me; To proclaim good news to the poor, Sent me to heal the broken of heart, To proclaim to captives deliverance, And to blind receiving of sight, To send away the bruised with deliverance,  To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Young’s Literal Translation)

If we pay attention to the accounts in Mark, we see Jesus living out his anointing. If we pay attention to the words of Luke 4:18-19 we see the entire Trinity working together. The Spirit of Yahweh is on the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. The mission of the Trinity is to lift up, restore, heal, set free, give sight, deliver, accept–and it’s all about grace bathed in love. He is making all things new.

I don’t know what your theology is–I don’t know how you view God. What I do know is that in a lot of western theology, God the Father is the “mean one”, and Jesus the Christ is the “nice one”.   God is pictured over and over as ready to smite “sinners” with a lightning bolt, he apparently has a pretty out of control temper and Jesus is supposed to pacify that anger by stepping in between. I remember thinking this way myself. It made God distant, caused me to be afraid, and truthfully was not a healthy perspective.

God, in the garden at the beginning, sought out Adam and Eve when they had made a poor choice. He reinitiated a relationship that they thought was broken. Yes, he removed them from the garden, but he went with them. All throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. He let people reap the consequences of their choices, but never abandoned them. His mercy, his loving-kindness, his everlasting love is spoken of even in the Old Testament. He didn’t “punish” them. Their own choices punished them, and he came to them over and over again, and then he came to all of us in the form of Jesus and left us with the gift of his presence through the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that in the Old Testament only a few select people were given the Holy Spirit. They became the prophets. Since most people did not have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as we do now, the revelation of God was incomplete. In the absence of complete information, all of us fill in the blanks with our own thoughts and perceptions. During the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, when God was fairly silent, the religious leaders kept adding law upon law upon law–they were filling in the gaps of silence with attempts to reach God–who was there all along–and creating heavy, joyless weight for the people to bear.

And so Jesus comes to show us what God is like. When he is asked about the greatest commandment–the greatest law, he says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Mt. 22: 37-40). Mic drop. All the man-made attempts to please God, to relate with God, to be acceptable to God come down to one thing–LOVE.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love(1st John 4:8) . God’s very nature and character is love–and Jesus is God. Jesus shows us who God is, how God is, the nature and character of God, the way that God relates with humanity, the way God desires that we relate with humanity–including everyone.

Jesus says:

“The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.” (John 12:45)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”  (John 14:9)

“The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)

Paul says:

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,”  (Col. 1:15 NLT)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  (Col. 1:19)

And the writer of Hebrews tells us:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:3)

Jesus is the EXACT representation of God’s nature, God’s character, God’s heart, God’s being.  Jesus is God, Jesus is Yahweh, Jesus is the full expression of who God is.

In every encounter in Mark that we’ve looked at–God the Trinity was acting to calm the sea, to tell the disciples and Jairus not to be afraid, to set the demon-possessed man free and give him a life of purpose, to commend the woman for her faith and call her “daughter” indicating that she was cherished and belonged to him, to take a dead girl by the hand and speak to her–“little girl, little lamb, rise up”.

In the Trinity, there is no mean one and no nice one. The Trinity, the full expression of God, is love. His way of drawing us into a relationship with him is kindness. His desire is that we be like him, loving everyone and showing them what he is really like.

That’s the theological lens in a nutshell.

The personal lens we each get to wrestle with individually.  Each encounter with God recorded in Mark, each word spoken by God can be spoken to you. Maybe some of them have been.

What storm are you in? Where are you placing your faith in that storm? Jesus asks you (resist the urge to insert an angry tone) “why are you afraid…where is your faith?” He is with us in the storm, and he can calm that storm in a moment.

What is oppressing you? Jesus can/has set you free, and then sends you back to your people to tell them what he’s done for you, to tell them of his mercy, in the hopes that they will be drawn to him. People can debate scripture all day long; however, they can not dispute your personal encounter with God.

Have you lived through years of hardship and then courageously acted in faith? Jesus has time to listen to you tell your whole story, he cares about–and he is delighted with your faith. He calls you daughter (or son), and heals you.

Are you in an impossible situation? Jesus says to you “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”

Are there dead places in you? Jesus takes you by the hand and says to you, “Little lamb, rise up.”  The dead places come back to life, you find nourishment, and you rise up.

I have lived all of these. God has been so merciful and gracious to me over the years–in my grief, in my self-destruction, in my oppression, in storms that were out of my control, in my dead places that needed life breathed back into them, in my courageous “faith” moments–he has been there. He has taken me by the hand and said “rise up”. He has looked at me and called me daughter and said: “you are healed”. He has set me free from too much to go into in this blog post, and, I imagine that as long as I’m on planet earth we will continue the healing and freedom journey together. He has encouraged me to believe, to let go of my fear, and he has given me beautiful opportunity to share with others how merciful he’s been with me.  When fear rears its ugly head, which it does more often than I care to admit, he reminds me to ponder why I’m afraid, and to place myself again into his trustworthy hands. He is better than any of us can begin to fathom, kinder than we can comprehend, and beautiful in every way.

The God of love, the Trinity of love, invites us to enter in…

Luanne

As I read through what Luanne wrote, I am moved to tears over the kindness, the beauty of Jesus that she captured so well in her words. She wrapped up this series so comprehensively, I’m not sure what else I want to add… I think we’ll just linger where she left us, marveling at the wonder of the one who has authority to settle storms with a whisper, the one whose very presence causes evil to fall at his feet, but who is at the same time the most kind, the most tender, the most gentle expression of pure love that there is…

These stories that we’ve lingered in for a while, out of Mark, are some of my favorites because they present to us a picture of Jesus that seems nearly unbelievable–Is he really that powerful, that big, that kind, that near?--and at the same time, so familiar–I know he is, because he has come to me in the very same ways, with the very same kindness, the very same huge smallness.

My lenses have undergone radical adjustments, especially over the last five to ten years. Both the theological and personal lenses I was handed early in my life acted more like blindfolds to the truth of Jesus than anything that could help me see him more clearly. And yet, he was there, with me in my blindness, in my clawing around through what felt like darkness…

I thought about writing more about my experiences with these lenses–I have shared some about my childhood experiences here before–but what feels most important in this moment is to emphasize the with-ness of Jesus, to linger a little longer in the wonder of his perfect goodness.

As I typed those last two words, I felt my heart catch in my throat. Perfect goodness… How can I write that when it doesn’t always go the way it went in these stories we’ve been reading? How can I write that as a devastating hurricane ravages thousands of homes and lives with no end yet in sight? How can I talk about his perfect goodness when so many storms go un-stilled? When so many who are not in their right mind are not freed from the bondage of their suffering, and live their lives terrorizing those closest to them? How can I talk about the perfect goodness of Jesus when I lived with a woman who really believed that one touch from him would heal her, but her healing never came? When children suffer and die from cancer and stay dead, leaving their parents crying in agony, begging for a resurrection that doesn’t come? How can I say Jesus is perfectly good, kind, loving, real… when he doesn’t seem to show up like he did in these stories from long ago?

I hoped that by the time I reached the end of the last paragraph, I would have something profound to write, some encouragement that would resolve the dissonance in the often tragic soundtrack of our lives.

I don’t have anything profound to offer.

All I can offer is what I know to be true from my own experience…

When I was a tiny and vulnerable, and the hands that should have held me hurt me instead, there were other hands holding me, feeling the pain with me, never leaving me alone…

When fear visited and evil was all around, there were hands of comfort and peace that I couldn’t see, but I could feel the safety they offered, and they promised I wasn’t alone…

When I ran from all my pain and tried to find the love and safety I desired in the arms of those who would only further betray and use me, there was another set of arms waiting there to catch me, an embrace that held me with honor and grace, as I crashed over and over again…

In my deepest grief, my most paralyzing fear, my worst choices; in the midst of tragedy and despair, I have never faced any of it alone. There have been hands that have never left me, hands that have held me and rescued me, hands that offered affection that didn’t hurt, and hope in the midst of suffering. These hands are the same hands that endured the twin spikes of violence and pain, that absorbed the full weight of every hurt I’ve ever felt and every hurt I’ve ever caused. Sometimes these hands are a sensed presence–I can feel them even when my eyes can’t see. And sometimes these hands appear through the very real, tangible experience of another person. Arms that have held me tightly and securely until the sobbing subsided, hands that have tenderly held my face as memories of pain moved through my consciousness. Hands that have held mine in prayer, promising presence in the waiting, and arms that have literally held me upright as the crushing weight of loss and grief pressed down into me.

All of these experiences connect my lived reality to the stories we’ve been reading. Jesus, as he walked the earth, loved people through touch. His touch brought comfort, peace, presence, and often healing. His touch was an expression of his love, his with-ness. His touch–whether it comes supernaturally, or through the hands of another who’s willing to be his vessel–is a promise of his perfect goodness today, to us, also. He is perfectly good even when our circumstances are anything but. There’s no way to explain the why questions around who gets “healed” and who doesn’t. There’s no neat and tidy way for me to tell you that he really is all that I’m claiming he is, a way to prove that he is with you right now–no matter where you are–in the very same way.

All I can offer is my own experience with the one who’s never left me alone, the one whose hands are never far from my reach. All I can offer is what the disciples in the boat offered–my story of being saved in the midst of crashing waves; what the man in the tombs offered–my own story of mercy that freed me; what the woman who touched him offered–my story of hearing him call me “daughter” and make space for the story of my life; what the little girl offered–my story of being brought back to life, of finding freedom from the grave clothes that threatened to end me. I can’t prove the presence of Jesus to you–but I can tell you my story.

I hope you can share similar stories, stories of his with-ness during the seasons of your life. Maybe you don’t yet recognize his touch, his presence, but I promise you he’s there. He always has been and he always will be. What if you risked? What if you reached out and found that there’s a hand already reaching back, waiting to draw you into his kindness, his love, his perfect goodness? As Luanne wrote above, this perfect Love is inviting all of us to enter in–may we all have the courage to say yes to his invitation.

–Laura

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Over All…Death & Disease

161CDF9B-4494-44C9-8C1A-1351FB2E872BMark 5:21-43: the story of “a dead girl and a sick woman.” Most bible translations I’ve seen title it something like that. I wish that wasn’t the headline… The story, really, isn’t about the illness or the dying–it’s about a Jesus who sees, names, flips the script on the cultural norms of his day, and restores Shalom–brings wholeness and sets all things right–in every life he touches. But I don’t know how we’d make a neat, succinct title out of all that…

This story has been one of my favorites for a couple of years now. Ever since I heard a brilliant social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland tell it in a way I had never heard it before. There is so much tucked away inside this passage, so much that is easy to miss if we just read the words off the page. As I thought about how to present these things, I felt like the best way to do that is to simply tell the story in expanded form. So, what follows will be a mixture of the story straight out off the pages of scripture, the original Greek words and definitions used, the cultural nuance I have learned from Christena and others, points from Sunday’s sermon, and some of my own thoughts, too. I want you to find yourself in the midst of these people, breathing the same air, watching this beautiful story unfold. So, if you’ll allow me the creative liberty, I am going to write this in story form, without explaining or notating. The expanded definitions of words come from Strong’s Greek Lexicon. Everything else is how I’ve come to understand this passage–with the help of many others–at this point in my life. Without further ado…

News of what had just happened to Legion was spreading like wildfire throughout the region. People have been camped out near the water for days, waiting for Jesus to return. They have all heard the story, and they all have questions. Many have needs, and they are holding on to their last shred of hope… maybe he holds the keys to their miracles, too?

There he is. Jesus and his disciples just got out of the boat. The crowd is growing and pressing in. Everyone is eager to talk to him… So many voices. Suddenly, a surprised hush falls over the group. Someone just fell at Jesus’s feet. It’s Jairus, the synagogue leader! What is he doing? The crowd is appalled at what’s happening. Jairus, along with the other leaders, has been refuting every claim made about Jesus. They’ve been cautioning everyone to stay away from this “teacher”. He’s dangerous… he’s broken with tradition… his claims are heretical… They’ve told the community these things and more. So what is this highly esteemed leader up to? His very name means “whom God enlightens”–doesn’t he know he shouldn’t be doing this?

“My little girl, my daughter–she is dying! Nothing has helped… We’ve tried everything!” His voice is desperate, he’s pleading at the feet of Jesus.

“Please come! Come, touch her, lay your hands on my little girl, so she can be saved and healed–made whole again, brought back to life! Please come with me!”

He’s not the only leader in the crowd… He has to know the others just heard what he said, too. This won’t go well for him in the synagogue… It’s a bit of a surprise that none of them are saying anything to him yet. Maybe they’re waiting to see what happens–or maybe they’re simply too shocked to speak up.

Or… perhaps it’s the look on Jesus’s face that’s stopping them from questioning Jairus just yet… The compassion in his eyes–it’s unnerving. Who is really that kind? Surely he won’t go with him right now. He just returned from crossing through the waves again. He has to be hungry. Probably exhausted. Who could expect him to go anywhere right now? But there’s not even a hint of frustration on his face. 

Only compassion…

Jesus hasn’t said a thing yet. He simply helped Jairus to his feet and now they’re headed off. His followers that were in the boat with him, along with a huge part of the crowd, are following them. 

Jesus stops walking abruptly. “Who just touched me?”

What is he talking about? There’s a massive crowd around him–people are bumping into each other constantly. Everyone is touching everyone else…

“There are people all around you, friend.” It’s one of his disciples talking, giving voice to what everyone is thinking. “Why are you asking who touched you?” 

Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He’s quiet. He is looking all around, intently. But he’s doing more than looking– he’s looking to see, and not just with his eyes… He’s searching with his mind, too. He’s looking with a desire to know, to become acquainted with this person he’s searching for. He’s looking to know them experientially. He wants to care for and pay heed to whoever he’s looking for… That’s the kind of looking he’s doing.

Someone is moving toward him… 

Why is she here? 

The woman moving toward him shouldn’t be here. She knows that. She’s unclean, and according to the synagogue leaders, she has to keep her distance. It’s been twelve years since she’s moved freely among a crowd like this, twelve years since she’s been well. What is she thinking? Surely Jairus will tell her she needs to leave, that her being here puts everyone at risk of being made unclean, too. 

She looks so afraid. She’s trembling. Now she’s huddled at Jesus’s feet, and she’s talking. She’s telling him her story, starting from the beginning…

Jairus looks both annoyed and afraid… He knows his precious daughter may not have much time left. He’s not saying anything–yet. But the look on his face suggests that he might not stay quiet for long. There’s no time for delays or interruptions, especially not when it comes to this woman. She knows she’s not supposed to be here.

The look on Jesus’s face, though… Again, that compassion. What is it with this man?? He doesn’t look even the slightest bit concerned about the interruption. In fact, his eyes are glistening as he listens patiently. He’s leaning in now, getting a little closer so that he can really hear her… 

“Teacher, it’s been twelve years… I’ve lost everything, everyone,” she chokes out, between sobs. “I’ve seen all of the doctors. I’ve asked the synagogue leaders what to do. I’ve been prayed for. Nothing has made any difference at all. Nothing! I couldn’t live like that anymore… I heard about the man they lowered through the roof–how you healed him. I’ve heard other stories, too. But when I heard about the man in the tombs, I knew I had to try to get to you. I-I thought…” she pauses, looking around at all the eyes staring back at her, knowing that her admission could make her situation even worse. Her gaze lingers on Jairus–she can see the impatience on his face, his crossed arms. But he’s not saying anything. Jesus looks straight into her eyes, imploring her to continue. She takes a deep breath and continues, “I thought if I could touch you,” the gasp in the crowd is audible, “even if I just touched your clothes, I could be healed. And… as soon as I touched the hem of your cloak, I felt something change in my body. I don’t know how to explain it–but something moved from you to me and it changed everything…”

She takes a deep breath, pausing, fearing the consequences of her actions…

The enormous crowd had just heard this woman share her whole truth. Jesus was listening, so they did, too. They had never heard her whole story before. Even Jairus, the one “whom God enlightens”, appeared to be listening, surprised by parts of the story she highlighted–things he and the other leaders didn’t know. 

Jesus is smiling now. “Daughter,” he finally says.

Daughter? Jesus often uses the more generic word for “child” when he talks to people. It can mean son or daughter, and it’s the one he chose to use just a little while back when he spoke to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. This word, though, it’s the same one Jairus just used to talk about his daughter. Jesus is speaking to this unclean outcast using the same language this waiting father just used. Her face registers the shock of the moment–She had just endured more than a decade of obscurity, lived a nameless life defined by her disease. And now this teacher, this miracle-worker, was calling her “Daughter?” Who is this man who, with a word, could make her feel immediately loved and safe? Who is this one whose very presence is the embodiment of healing and power and light? 

Jesus continues, “Daughter, you are saved. You are healed and made whole.” Again, Jesus borrows the same word Jairus used when he asked Jesus to “save” his daughter… “Everything has been made right. Shalom has been restored to you–you are free.” Everything about her looks different now. Her face looks peaceful, there’s light in her eyes. The fear is gone. She stands up and is on her way.

While Jesus was talking with her, some people from Jairus’s house pulled the leader aside. “She’s gone. She died. Come home, let the teacher be,” they said.

If only they hadn’t been interrupted–maybe she wouldn’t have died before Jesus could have done something. The woman was healed as soon as she touched him. If only he would have kept walking rather than stopping to engage with her. Why did he have to let her tell her whole story? Now a twelve year old girl was dead…

Jesus must have overheard the people who came to talk to Jairus. He turns in his direction and looks straight at him, paying no attention to the presence of the others in this moment. He walks over, cups the face of the man in front of him, this father’s face that is contorted with pain, and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” Something in his eyes, in his voice, in his touch, maybe–something changed the look on the father’s face. 

Jesus pulls aside three of his friends, and they, along with him and Jairus start off again toward the home of the synagogue leader… No one else is allowed to follow any longer. The crowd disperses, pondering all that they had just seen and heard…

–Laura

Jairus was conflicted. He got to Jesus before this woman did–he was first! He had risked his reputation and fallen on his knees before this man. He knew his daughter was close to death–seeking out Jesus was his last-ditch effort to save her. Other means of medicine had not worked for his family either. It seemed for a moment as if there was a glimmer of hope when Jesus began to accompany Jairus–but then…the audacity! Jairus didn’t know whether to be angry with Jesus, the woman, or both. Who were they to make him wait?

Jairus was the synagogue leader–a man of importance. This woman was the type of person he deemed unclean and an outcast all the time according to the Torah–their holy scriptures. Surely Jesus would not tarry. Surely Jesus would hurry to heal the beloved daughter of the synagogue ruler. Surely when Jesus identified the woman who brazenly touched him, he was going to scold her for breaking the law and then hurry on. But no…Jesus gave her precious time. Jesus gave her his full attention as if Jairus wasn’t even a consideration. Jesus listened to her and let her go on and on about her story; he never cut her off, never told her he was on a different mission when she interrupted him, he acted as if she mattered–did she?

Did this audacious, unclean woman matter more than his daughter? It would appear so and it didn’t make sense!  And then the news came that his daughter had indeed died. What was he supposed to do now that his little girl was dead? His friends were telling him to leave Jesus alone, Jesus was telling him not to fear but to believe. 

Jairus recalled all the things he had heard about Jesus up to this point–the things that caused the religious leaders, including himself,  to squirm because they couldn’t explain or control them. Jesus didn’t bow to their authority.–that was one of the reasons Jairus sought him out–Jesus seemed to be able to think and act outside of their box. Is it possible that there could still be hope? 

Before they even arrived at the house it became clear that his daughter truly was dead–the ruckus of the mourners confirmed it. Now what? There had already been some talk among Jewish religious leaders that Jesus just might be out of his mind, and his next comment certainly seemed to confirm that. He said: “the child is not dead but asleep.”  Everyone knows the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Jairus’ friends laughed at Jesus–Jairus wondered if they were laughing at him too–their synagogue ruler who was desperate enough to consult the rebel who was flipping everything his people believed about God and the Torah on its head. 

But then Jesus sent all of them out. Some of the mourners protested, some of them were slow to leave, but after a few more precious moments ticked off the clock everyone was gone except for Jairus, his wife, Jesus’ three friends, and Jesus. They entered the room where this beloved child lay–Jesus, continuing his law-breaking rebellious ways touched her dead body taking her corpse by the hand. Jairus, again conflicted, wondered if law-breaking in this instance was okay? He desperately wanted it to be.

Jesus spoke to the dead daughter saying, “Talitha koum”–a term of endearment, a phrase meaning little girl or little lamb–get up. Jairus couldn’t help but think about the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Is. 40:11) . His daughter rose,  got out of bed, walked around, and Jesus asked them to get her something to eat. Jairus doesn’t understand what has just happened, he certainly can’t explain it, but all of a sudden he knows that he wants to be a lamb of Jesus too. 

Jairus begins to understand, though not yet clearly,  that everything he’s built his life on is being challenged. He’s beginning to see that all daughters are precious to Jesus, none is unclean, not the dead one, not the one who was bleeding. He remembers how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, how he healed someone on the Sabbath. Could it be that no one is untouchable? Could it be that no one is unimportant or less-than in God’s kingdom? Could it be that their entire understanding of God is skewed–the understanding that leads to people becoming outcasts and being mistreated, the understanding that the people of Israel are superior to other people groups because they are the chosen people of God? He remembers that God told Abraham that through his offspring all people of the earth would be blessed. (Gn. 22:18) What does it all mean?  His twelve-year-old daughter is alive. The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years is healed.  Jairus begins to question his interpretation of the law. What will he do from this point forward, how will he teach, how will he rule, how will he handle the previously “unclean” after what he’s experienced on this day? 

What will we do when Jesus reinterprets our traditions, our understanding? What will we do when he tarries with the oppressed, when he gives us an opportunity to join our stories with the stories of those we’ve previously dismissed or haven’t made time for? In order to receive healing from  Jesus, the woman had to summon up incredible courage and put herself at great risk, Jairus had to humble himself and put himself at great risk. Neither one cared what anyone else thought–they just knew that they needed an encounter with Jesus, and I imagine, once they experienced the authority of Jesus displayed through his healing power, his resurrection power, his compassion, his kindness, his love–the walls fell down and they wanted everyone else to experience Jesus too.

Do we?

–Luanne

 

 

This I Know: Love the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story.

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

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

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

Pastor John began by simply stating:

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

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

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

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

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

Once there was a man who had two sons…

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

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

So he divided up his property between the two of them

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

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

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

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

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

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

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

What about our other main character, the older son?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

This I Know: A Parent’s Priority

Any of us who have raised or are raising children figure out pretty quickly that they don’t come with an instruction manual. If we have more than one child, we figure out that each one is unique, that what works with one doesn’t necessarily work with another one, and that parenting is hard, can be confusing, and many times we are just trying to make it through the day without losing our minds. It’s hard to keep a greater goal or purpose in mind. If you are a parent, and I were to ask you what you want for your children, how would you respond? Many times I hear the response, “I just want my children to be happy.” While I don’t think any of us would say that we want our children to be unhappy, is that the best we can give them?

Pastor John shared that a parent’s priority is to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God He encouraged us to love intently and lead intentionally. He gleaned those truths from Deuteronomy 6:5-9.

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

This I know–God loves us and desires that we respond by loving Him in return. Loving God is also at the heart of transformative parenting. Loving God with all that we are, living that relationship out in front our children, and having God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times helps us in the process of transferring our children’s dependence from ourselves God. Talking about God with our kids doesn’t have to be weird or stilted. Look for opportunities that fit naturally with what is going on in the moment. There are moments in everyday life that lend themselves very easily to conversations about God. For example, spring has finally come to Wyoming; our trees have green leaves on them, as a matter of fact, between trees, grass, border plants, and my herb garden, there are multiple shades of green on display. It’s not hard to talk about God’s creativity just by pointing out the multiple shades of green. We also have lilacs and tulips in bloom. The colors are gorgeous. We are surrounded by beauty that God created for God’s glory and for our delight. Get close to a tree, study the leaves and notice that while each one is similar, no two are alike. Neither are two of us alike. Nature gives us incredible opportunity to discuss God’s love and character.  Ask God to show you how to naturally share God’s attributes and character with your children throughout the day. The ways are endless. Then as they grow, and they begin to have questions about God, listen, converse; if they ask you things that you don’t have answers for, tell them that’s a great question and seek answers together. If the questions are unanswerable because we’re human and God is God, teach about what it means to have faith. If dark seasons come, wrestle openly, let your children see that sometimes life is hard and we adults have questions too. Pray with them. Intercede for others with them. Share with them insights from your personal time with God. Let them see your dependence on God and your relationship with God lived out in real time.

You may be saying to yourself–yes, those are good tips, but the verses above don’t talk about that, they talk about God’s commands. That would be correct, so let’s look at those commands for a moment.

In our modern existence, the concrete display of the ten commandments in public places has become a thing over which people have lawsuits. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind. Others use them as a behavioral litmus test and permission to point fingers at others who “break” a commandment. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind either. I heard a sermon once that reshaped my thoughts around the commandments and made a lot of sense to me which I’ll share below. First,  I’m going to paraphrase the commandments, but feel free to look up them up in Deuteronomy 5 or Exodus 20.

First, God tells us to love Him with all we are (heart, soul and mind) and not to worship any other gods. I think we worship other gods all the time, but don’t recognize it for what it is. We live in a consumeristic society and we worship possessions, wealth, comfort, famous people, politicians, ideologies, sports teams, our own nation, our children, and ourselves.  The things that we pursue often show what we worship. What would our children say we worship based on our priorities and pursuits?

God tells us not to misuse his name. Again, that can happen in many different ways. Obviously, there is cursing which involves the name of God, but God’s name can also be misused by imposing our interpretations of God (which don’t line up with God as revealed in Christ) on others. We can misuse God’s name by misusing scripture to manipulate situations. We can misuse God’s name by portraying images of Him that aren’t accurate such as the man upstairs, the lightening bolt god who’s just waiting to punish every wrong deed, the Santa Claus god who exists to give us everything we ask for, or any other man-made portrayal. How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Near? Caring? Harsh? Authoritarian? Permissive? Uninvolved? Kind? Angry? Punitive? Forgiving? Scripture tells us that God’s nature and character is love, and that God’s boundaries and guidelines are for our good. Would our children know that based on how we parent and how we portray God to be?

God tells us to rest. We’re lousy at this. In the Deuteronomy account of the 10 commandments, God reminds the people that they used to be slaves, but they were brought into freedom; as a reminder of their freedom they can rest. We are free in Christ.  We can rest. We can take a day off. The revolution of the earth is not on our shoulders. Life will continue after we are gone. The world won’t fall apart if we take a day off. Resting, ceasing for awhile, even while there is work still to be done,  is a beautiful declaration of dependence on God. It’s also a reminder of His love for us–it’s good for us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. We are commanded to rest and spend time with those we love.

God tells us to honor our parents. None of us had perfect parents, and that’s not the point. To honor them means to value their role, to have respect toward them in our attitudes and actions, and to respect their position. We can do that even if we have difficult parents. I’m certainly not a perfect parent, and I remember telling my children that we could discuss anything as long as we did so respectfully; if they disagreed with one of my decisions, they could certainly let me know; however, they needed to approach the situation with respect. Parents, it also helps if we are willing to apologize when we need to, to change our minds when we need to, to treat our children with respect and to honor them as image bearers of God.

In the remaining commandments God tells us not to murder people, not to commit adultery, not to steal from others, not to lie about others, and not to want what others have–their spouses or their stuff.

If we take the time to reflect on the theme that runs throughout these commandments, they are all about valuing relationships. Value your relationship with God first and foremost, and then value your relationships with other people. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)

The commandments are all about relationships. So, when we are encouraged in Deuteronomy 6 to repeat them again and again to our children, to talk about them at home and on the road, to tie them on our heads and hands as reminders (could heads be a reminder about our thoughts and hands a reminder about our actions?), to have them on our doorposts and our gates (reminders at our entrances and exits into our homes and into our communities) what is it that we are to repeat again and again? Is it a list of dos and don’ts– or how to love God and others?

If we believe it’s about teaching our children how to love God and others, then we must ask ourselves how we are doing with that in our personal lives?  A long time ago, my husband and I were having a beautiful conversation with a friend, Jeff,  who shared with us, that in our flesh we are incapable of loving God the way he desires, so he prayed that God would love himself through him (Jeff) and love others through him. Try praying that, if you are struggling to love God. If you grew up in an environment where love was manipulative, or withheld, ask God to teach you about His love–Jesus, and the ways that he interacted with people, is a great place to start. If your heritage and lineage is not full of stellar parenting examples, choose to be the one who changes it for the generations that come after you. I’ve learned a lot from other parents along the way. It’s okay to seek help. We need one another. 

My children are all young adults, and John and I did the best we could, but we know that we didn’t parent perfectly. Gratefully, our kids have felt secure in our love despite the times we didn’t measure up. I’ve told all of my children that we know we didn’t do it perfectly and that if they ever need to seek counseling for wounds we may have caused, we won’t feel threatened by that at all. Our desire for them is that they be healthy and whole in all ways, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.   My prayer for each of my children is, and has been, that they fall deeply in love with Jesus and go wherever he leads them. I trust God to meet them where they are, and pray that they discover that God is their source for everything.  God is the best parent of all so teaching our children to love and depend on Him is the best priority we can have as parents–this I know.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “This I know–God loves us and desires that we love Him in return.  I also know that the heart of transformative parenting is for parents to love God with all that we are, to live that relationship out in front our children, and to have God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times.” She also asked us this question:

“How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children…?

How we see God matters. It matters in every area of our lives. The way we view ourselves hinges on how we see God. The way we view the current issues in our world is deeply connected to how we see God. Our understanding of God has been built by those who “parented” us when we were young–for better or for worse. Many of us grew up with mixed messaging about who God is and what he wants for/from us. Some of us grew up with a beautiful picture of a loving God, full of grace. Others grew up under the weight of a punitive, angry, and critical God. All of us are, at least in part, products of the various “parents” in our lives. And we are raising, or have raised, children who are products of our parenting, for better, for worse–and probably a mix of both.

We model and mirror what we believe. The way we understand God, our picture of who he is, is transferred to our kids as they watch us parent them. Our perception of God becomes their truth. Our influence, especially in their younger years, is foundational. Their belief system will, at least initially, mirror what they see in us. What we model to them about the character of God is what they will hold as true about him. Children don’t have another point of reference when they’re young. We are their introduction to authority figures, their first picture of what parents look like. Their picture of God is constructed with the material we give them–what we model and mirror.

Our influence as parents (and simply as adults who “mother” and “father” those around us) is strong. That’s why it is so important that we have an authentic relationship with the God we say we believe in. Going to church every Sunday so we can check it off of our list is not the same as having a living, breathing relationship with our God. If we go for show, we mirror to our children a God who wants our performance rather than our hearts. If we attend a service one day a week but don’t wrestle with or put into practice what we’re learning, and don’t let it make a difference in how we live day-to-day, we model to our kids a God who is uninvolved and doesn’t really care how we live. As I thought through the importance of modeling an authentic relationship with God for our kids, my mind drifted to verses I have been studying in Matthew 23. The language is strong, but the concept is important:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15, NIV)

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.” (Matthew 23:13, MSG, emphasis mine)

Throughout the chapter that these verses come from, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, and pointing out the ways in which they make it difficult for people to come to God. All of us act like Pharisees at some point. We don’t mean to, and honestly, I don’t think the Pharisees meant to most of the time, either. They had been taught the laws and missed the love. They kept the rules, but had no relationship, at least not one that was authentic and growing. And this is what Jesus is talking to them about in the verses above. In the first verse I referenced, he’s talking about the lengths to which they’ll go to win others to their side. When they do, because they model what has been mirrored to them, the new “converts” are even worse off than the Pharisee that brought them in, because they’re one layer further removed from the God they think they’re serving. In the second verse, the Message paraphrase calls these scholars “roadblocks to God’s kingdom”. Regardless of which translation you read, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re not allowed to enter the kingdom. He doesn’t say they won’t eventually enter. He talks to them about their choice not to come in, their refusal to enter, and how that prevents others from entering into the kingdom that is already present among them.

In the past, I’ve read these verses in a detached way, a little taken aback by the language Jesus used to talk to these guys. In more recent years, my understanding has grown and I have heard it differently as I’ve been overwhelmed by the heart and love of God. When the verses came to mind as I listened to this message about parenting, I was a little surprised at first, but I believe there’s much we can glean and apply to our understanding of our influence.

These Pharisees were spiritual “fathers” in their communities. They were the most educated in the ancient scriptures and they were the ones trusted to hand down to the people the truths about God and what he expected of them. What they mirrored and labeled “godly”painted a picture of who God was to those they presided over. But they weren’t living out an authentic, living relationship with God. They believed in a punitive, authoritarian God, and so that is what they showed the people. And beyond that, they performed their “faith” in showy ways that didn’t match their inner lives. They had the same access to the kingdom as everyone else, but they chose not to enter. And because they held those beneath them to the same standards they followed, they didn’t allow them to live according to kingdom ways either.

We have the capacity to live this same way… And to teach our kids to do the same.

If our church attendance is stellar, but our Monday thru Saturday lives don’t match up, if we say the right things, but don’t step into the flow of loving God and others–the kingdom way Jesus modeled, we’re modeling this way of living to our kids. And because their truths are built around what we model, if we do this, we raise kids who are one generation further removed from the truth of who God really is.

But the alternative is also true… If God is our first priority, if we love him and seek him, and continue growing in our relationship with him; if we enter into the kingdom that is here all around us and live with self-emptying love, the way Jesus did, our kids see a very different picture. And rather than being a roadblock that prevents them from entering the kingdom, we become a doorway that introduces them to the reckless, overwhelming love of God–and they get to see that he is the best parent of all.

In order for them to see God in this way, he must be our priority. Is he?

Luanne asked us above what our children would say is our priority. Far too many children grow up in homes where work, substances, media, or prominent social lives are their parents’ dominant priority. But I see another trend as well…

I wonder how many of our kids would say that they are our first priority? I see it all over right now, how so many parents build their schedules and lives around their kids and their activities and desires, how mom’s life or dad’s life-or both-revolve entirely around their kids. It’s tempting to hold on too tightly in this fast-paced world we’re living in, to cling to the moments that are gone all too soon. In these families, it’s clear that the kids come first. God, the parents’ marriage, and everything else comes after. In this model, kids tend to feel very secure in their parents love. They have their full attention. They feel connected and protected and provided for. They don’t want for anything, because they’ve never known a longing that mom or dad hasn’t satisfied. Church and God may be a part of their world, as long as that doesn’t interfere with vacations, activities, sports–and of course, that’s only if the kids want to go. These families often appear to be overflowing with love and joy. It looks like it works. It can feel like it works… Until the day comes when that child experiences a longing mom and dad can’t satisfy. And that day will come. For everyone. Because we were all created in the image of our Creator and there is a bit of the eternal, the divine, in each of our hearts that longs for our true home. There is a craving to discover our ultimate identity, and that is found in our God–not in our parents.

This is why it’s so essential that our priority is to gradually transfer our child’s dependence away from us until it rests solely on God. 

This is impossible to do if our kids are our first priority. We have to learn to let go, so that we’re able to point our kids to the One who can truly meet their every need, reveal to them their true identity, love them perfectly, and hold them securely. When we hold on too tightly and our children depend solely on us to provide for their needs, we assume the role of God–and we cannot love them the way he can, regardless of how hard we try. If we try to fill all of their holes and answer all of their questions, we rob them of the chance to experience their own flourishing as sons and daughters of God. We become roadblocks to God’s kingdom–we don’t enter and we don’t let them in either.

Perhaps we’re tempted to prioritize our kids because our dependence was never transferred to God. Maybe we haven’t experienced the flourishing I described above ourselves. Maybe what was mirrored to us was an authoritarian god who required our performance, and we hopped onto the Pharisee train without even knowing it. The good news is, the story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. God can rewrite all of our old narratives and show us what healthy love looks and feels like. There is always hope for a new day–in our parenting and in everything. May the question “What is your priority?” be the beginning of a brand new chapter for all of us.

–Laura

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This I Know…PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Next Steps: Brokenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

“Are we seeing each other?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

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

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

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

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

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

–Laura

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Advent #1: Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make every effort….

–Luanne

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

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

Frederick Buechner wrote:

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

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