JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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Like Never Before-Week 1

The first Sunday after Christmas marked a turning point, a launching-type moment. You could sense it in the air at church, feel it as we worshiped together, and hear it in the words Pastor John spoke to us. I’ve felt the stirring of the Spirit within me and I know I’m not the only one. God is shaking things up–so it’s fitting that our new series will take us down an old path… but through new eyes and with a new vision.

Our new series will take us through a good portion of the book of Mark. Pastor John has titled it “Like Never Before”, and those words carry a dual meaning. We will look at the ministry of Jesus–how He came and lived like no one ever had before. And we will be invited into becoming like this One we follow–letting His life indwell and transform us–in ways that we never have before, as we follow His lead to become the Church that He has always desired that we be.

This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible, the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters, Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none. (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 VOICE)

I came across this paraphrase of these verses this morning, and it felt so appropriate to include it here. When Jesus came to us with skin on–Emmanuel, God with us–He ushered in the new. He came as the answer, the fulfillment to the old covenant and the King of this new way that we’ll hear Him speak of over and over and over again–the way of the kingdom. His kingdom.

This week’s passage took us into the middle of the first chapter of Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

Before we launch into these two rich verses, I want to touch on the first thirteen verses of this book. The very first words of the book of Mark, according to the NIV, read like this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” I want to note here–because we’ll come back to it later–that “good news” in this verse as well as in verse 14 above is translated from the Greek word “euaggelion”. This is the same word that is translated “gospel” at least 67 throughout what we call our new testament. Hang onto that and we’ll come back…

Mark 1: 2-8 chronicles the work of John the baptizer, the one who some thought was the Messiah, but who was actually the forerunner–the one who prepared the way for Jesus. Verses 9-11 record Jesus’ baptism by John, and verses 12 & 13 tell us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Our series begins after that, as Jesus launches His ministry with bold, authoritative words. I included the NIV translation of these verses above; here is how J.B. Phillips says it:

It was after John’s arrest that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, saying, “The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.” (J.B. Phillips)

Jesus came proclaiming the “gospel”, the “good news”. The good news of what? Himself. Look back at Mark 1:1. Mark wrote “…the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah…” The good news was about Jesus.  What was it? Simply, He is here. Now. Messiah, God with us. The answer. The prophecy fulfilled. The King who had finally come to change everything and bring His kingdom to bear here, among us.

The “Gospel” was never meant to be a “sinner’s prayer”, a ticket to heaven or even, solely, our salvation. The Gospel, the good news, is: Jesus, the image of invisible God, God in the flesh came to us. He so loved us, valued us, desired relationship with us, that He came down into our grimy, broken existence to change everything. He, himself, IS salvation. To know Him is to experience salvation. But it doesn’t stop there–and that is what Pastor John brought to us on Sunday. Jesus absolutely saves us–no question about that. My life has been saved because I encountered this One who pursued me in my brokenness and won my heart with His extravagant love. But He does more than save us. He transforms us–from the inside out.

Mark 1:7-8 out of the Message paraphrase translates John the baptizer’s words like this:

As he [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (emphasis mine)

When Jesus says in verse 15, “Repent and believe the good news!”, He is not saying, as we’ve so often been told, “Stop sinning and say the sinner’s prayer so you don’t go to hell!” No. He is inviting us into the process of transformation. As we study and search the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’ll find many things, many different ways of doing things, and much that challenges us to do the seemingly impossible. What we won’t find anywhere in the story of His life on earth is Him offering a one-time salvation experience that stops with that moment. He wasn’t satisfied with a statement of belief that went nowhere. He wasn’t looking for the masses to declare that they’d accepted Him as Lord on the temple steps and then go home to return to life as usual. There are many mentions of the word “salvation” in various forms in our new testament, but most of those occurrences were post-resurrection, and not said by Jesus. In fact, if you read the words of Jesus, you’ll find that He speaks of “salvation” very few times. What He can’t stop talking about is the kingdom.

What is the kingdom? We could try to define it many different ways, and they would all probably be part of the whole picture. But the original Greek word is defined like this:

royal power, kingship, dominion, rule; not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom–the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah

This is the kingdom Jesus speaks of in Mark chapter 1… His authority as God, His right to rule, and the power to do so. And He will spend the rest of His time on earth showing us what that kingdom looks like, and how it operates. And it’s like nothing anyone had seen before. His is an altogether different kingdom, unlike any that came before or any that would come after.

We’ll see the picture of this kingdom develop as our series continues. For now, in this week’s passage, Jesus tells us that this kingdom is “at hand”. I could jump up and down over what these words mean in the Greek!!! The word translated “at hand” is “eggizo“. It means, “to bring near, to join one thing to another“. It comes from the root word “eggys”, which means, “near: of place, position, and time”. And the root word of this word means, “to squeeze”.

So, if you’ll allow me to take a little bit of creative liberty, we could put it together like this:

“The kingdom, the triumphant rule of Jesus our Messiah, has been brought near. So near, in fact, that it has squeezed into our place, position and time to join together what had been previously separated–that is, the heavens and the earth.”

Jesus came as fully God and fully man, as one born of both heaven and earth, that the two realms might be joined together under His Lordship. “To join one thing to another” is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the union between husband and wife. It is an intimate oneness. This is the language Jesus used to talk about this kingdom that is now available to us through Him.

But He said something else right before he spoke this declaration about the Kingdom. He said, “Repent.” Earlier, I included the J.B. Phillips translation of our key verses. The word “repent” shows up differently in this translation. These are the words used in place of “repent”: “change your hearts and minds”. This is actually a far more accurate translation of what Jesus was saying than what we have come to understand the word repent to mean. To repent is to change the way we think. This is what Jesus was offering to His listeners in these verses. An invitation to change the way they thought about Him, about the prophecies of old and their expectations of how they would be fulfilled, and about what this new kingdom would look like.

Jesus is offering us the same invitation today…

Many of us have gotten stuck somewhere on our journey. Maybe we said the sinner’s prayer and stopped there. Maybe we learned a little and grew to a point, but life got in the way. Whatever our individual stories may be, we are all invited to change the way we think, to let Jesus transform our minds and grow us like never before. Transformation is always a product of the renewal of our minds. And it is essential to our becoming kingdom people who actually are growing into the image of the Jesus we follow…

William Paul Young writes in the Foreword to the book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,

“If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. But it is hard work to change, to be open, to take the risk of trust. Change always involves death and resurrection, and both are uncomfortable. Death because it involves letting go of old ways of seeing, of abandoning sometimes precious prejudices. It means having to ask for forgiveness and humble ourselves. And resurrection is no easy process either; having to take risks of trust that were not required when everything seemed certain, agreeing with the new ways of seeing while not obliterating the people around you, some who told you what they thought was true but isn’t after all. Transformation is not easy; ask any butterfly.”

Transformation is not easy, that much is certainly true. But it is essential to our growth, to our learning to thrive, and to our becoming the people–and the Church–that actually look like the Jesus we say we follow. Transformation is at least as important as our initial salvation experience, if not more so–because transformation is the process in which we are joined so intimately with our King that his kingdom is conceived in and then born through us.

Church, are we willing to do things in a new way, in a way like never before, so that the world around us might see the Jesus that they’ve never been able to see before?

–Laura

I am very excited about this series, and I’m also very aware that those of us who know the stories of Christ can have a tendency to glaze over a bit and sit back comfortably thinking we’ve heard it before. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be “wowed”, to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new, to be awestruck and further transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  I agree with Laura–we can all get a little stuck. Our Christianity becomes formulaic, it becomes about church attendance and Bible study, so, I too want to reiterate that  Christianity is about transformation (personal, corporate, societal etc.)–a beautiful process that will continue as long as we’re on planet earth, if we’ll let it.

I imagine most of you will agree with me, that these are difficult days in our nation. We are divided, polarized, angry, and hateful. Unfortunately, the church, primarily the white evangelical church is right in the middle of the “ugly”.  How did this happen? I think Brian McLaren is right when he says we reflect the image of the God we believe in. Who is God? What is He like? How does He treat you? How does He treat the people you don’t care for? Does He have favorites? Is He loving? Is He angry? Is He kind? Is He mean?

Your answers to these questions, and many others like them, will reveal what you believe about God. The question then becomes are you believing in the God who is fully revealed in Jesus. Does your view of God look like Jesus?  Because if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) Does your God look like Jesus? Does your reflection of God look like Jesus? Is the image of God in you the image of Jesus? It’s key that we get this right.

As we head into this series “Like Never Before”,  let’s pay close attention to the God revealed in Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ words in Mark 1.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

The time has come...  God designed that planet earth would be governed by time. We all understand our lives in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. God, who knows what He’s doing,  has designated times and seasons with specific purposes in mind. In the scriptural accounts of Jesus, we see many references to the time had come, or the time had not yet come…etc.  In Luke 2, we read about the birth of Christ and the time came for Mary to give birth. In her case, it meant that the months of pregnancy– of waiting –were over. She was going to get to see the face of her sweet baby, the face of God.  Jesus was ready to be born–it was time. God’s ordained time.

When Jesus proclaims “The time has come”…He is saying your long season of waiting is over. This is the birth of a new thing. I am going to show you the very face of God. All of time has been pointing to this moment. You will see His face in me. You will get to know Him in me. You will experience His heart in me. He will be fully revealed in me. THE time where everything changes forever has come. This simple statement is huge. Jesus is announcing a world altering event. Huge.

The kingdom of God has come near...I like the translations that say, The kingdom of God is at hand…. I like that because “near” can still be distant. I live near my place of work, but I drive to get there. At hand signifies I can reach out and grasp it right now. I currently have notebooks, pens, a throw pillow, my phone, my computer, lots of books, a lamp, and some Kleenex “at hand”.  The kingdom of God is at hand. It is readily available. You can reach out right where you are and grasp it. The dominion of God is here, available to you.

Jesus taught us to pray may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt. 6:10), giving us the key as to what it looks like for His “at hand” Kingdom to be present here. When God’s will is being done, His Kingdom is here. I’m almost afraid to write that because His will has been interpreted so many different ways and many atrocities have happened/are happening in His name.  That’s why it is imperative that we know Jesus, the full revelation of God, who makes the ways and will of God very clear. Pastor John broke it down into very simple terms in our first service when he told us that  to pray “your Kingdom come” means that we want God’s love, grace, and mercy here, on planet earth--and I’ll add that it’s for everyone. We want God’s love, grace and mercy here, for everyone.

Repent. Laura wrote above that “repent” means to change your mind. It is the Greek word metanoia– which literally means to change one’s mind, a transformative change of heart, a conversion. Think about the process of the butterfly that Laura wrote about above…it goes through meta-morphasis. Total change. The Oxford dictionary says that the word conversion is “The process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. ‘the conversion of food into body tissues'”.    

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  The NLT version translates the phrase “renewing of your mind” to “by changing the way you think”.   And the result of not following the world’s ways by thinking a new way is that we’ll know God’s will–the ways of His Kingdom, His dominion, His reign–and we will be transformed and transforming into something new.

Believe the good news: What good news? Everything that Jesus has just said. Believe that the time is here, God’s Kingdom is here, you can be part of it–

You can be part of it. This is good news. In that day, the religious elite kept everyone else out. According to them, unless you looked like them, acted like them, had their education, were their gender (male), were part of their ethnic group, you were out. And they put all kind of demands on the “commoners” who wanted to be close to God, making it impossible, in their system, to be close. Jesus said—those days are over. God has come to you–the commoners. God loves you…you who think you’re not worthy of God’s love. He loves you. You who have been told you’re unclean–He loves you. You who have nothing to offer–He loves you. You who have made horrible choices and have tremendous regrets–He loves you. You who don’t really want anything to do with Him–He loves you.

Believe the good news–the gospel—the kingdom of God is here and Jesus is what God looks like. The time has come. Believe Him and then join Him in bringing His love, His grace, His mercy here…everywhere to everyone.

–Luanne

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When the Enemy Comes: Return to Me

Have you ever experienced a season of devastation? A season so seemingly hopeless that you wonder if God is even there–and if He is, why won’t He intervene?

My guess is that most of us have been there. Times when our lives have felt attacked and invaded… Times of loss and crisis…

Our new series comes out of the book of Joel, when the people of God were facing such a time. Locusts had invaded their land, and they didn’t only come once. Swarms of them came upon the land, over and over again, until absolutely everything was devastated. All of the crops were gone. They had nothing. And then, after all seemed lost, a fire and a drought came…

I can’t relate to this on an agricultural level. I’ve never farmed or relied on my own land to provide for myself and my family. But I know what devastation and loss feel like. I have experienced attacks and invasions in my own life–and it’s probably safe to assume that you have, too.

In this new series, Pastor John will give us five things we can do when the enemy shows up on our doorsteps, adapted from the book of Joel. We’ll look at how God, through the prophet Joel, invited His people to respond to the calamities they faced. And we will see that His invitation to them is the same one He extends to us today.

It’s important to note that the “enemy” can show up in a few different ways… It can be in the form of Satan, who is always aiming to steal, kill and destroy. But we can’t blame every storm we face on Satan. Our enemy can also be seen in the things that have been done to us, people coming against us in one way or another. It could be circumstances outside of our control, devastation that–like the locusts–appears and invades every corner of our lives. And sometimes, what is wreaking havoc in our lives is ourselves, our own choices. All of these are “enemies” that can land us in seasons of crisis.

Before I write any further, I want to acknowledge that this is hard. Devastation, hopelessness, loss–these aren’t easy or fun things to think about, much less talk about. If you, like me, have experienced seasons of trauma and loss, I know that the last thing you may want to do is remember and relive those times. You may be in a season like what I’m describing right now. Your world may be in a state of utter chaos and despair. Wherever you find yourself as you read our words, I hope that you’ll hang on. Keep reading–there is hope to be found. I don’t say that lightly. I know that when we’re in the midst of the pain and the struggle, the last thing we want to hear is a sunny platitude that seems beyond our reach. This is not that. What Joel offered to his people–what Pastor John presented to us, and what we’re now presenting to you–is a lifeline that will keep us above water even as it churns and slams against us.

So…what do we do? When our lives are invaded and devastated, whether by our own choices or not, where do we turn?

Chapter one in Joel details what the people were experiencing. And then in the beginning of verse 19, Joel cries, “To you, Lord, I call…”  Step one: Cry out to God. Even if you’re not sure He’s listening. Even when you’re doubting His goodness. Even when it’s your own choices that have led you to a place of devastation and you feel too ashamed and unworthy to even speak His name…. Cry out to Him.

In Joel 2:12, God responds: “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now… no matter whose fault it is, no matter how far away you might be… return. The word return is an interesting one. It means to turn back, like we assume it does. But there is an undercurrent to the word in this context that I find so beautiful–and so telling of the heart of our God. It carries an implied meaning of being brought back, or being restored. Those aren’t things we do for ourselves. This changes the way I understand the call to return. Because sometimes, crying out takes all I have left. The energy required to turn back and move toward God is more than I can muster. And He knows that. He knows that He’s the one that does the moving. We see it throughout the whole of scripture–this God that runs. This father that gets to where we’re going before we do and meets us there–wherever “there” might be. We see it in the stories of Gomer & Hosea and the prodigal son & his father that John referenced on Sunday. Both Hosea and the father went after–ran toward–the one they loved that had wandered from them. Both represent the heart of our God, though He goes even further. These stories paint a picture of love, forgiveness and restoration. A love that says “Return to me”, and doesn’t wait until they find their way back, but goes after them and actually brings them back home. 

God does the same for us… and more. I can’t help but think of the psalmist, David, and the words he penned that we find in Psalm 139…

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

(Psalm 139:7-10)

There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run to, where God isn’t already there waiting. There is a song that was penned recently, based on the words from this Psalm. This is part of it:

“You meet me there, Spirit you meet me there. You go before me, Your love surrounds me, Spirit you meet me there…

You don’t give up, even when I do. You don’t walk out when I threaten to. You are steady when I can’t be still, Your love finds me, and it always will.”

Returning to God is not an intimidating, tedious process. It doesn’t begin with a long, lonely walk of shame. it begins with simply realizing that He is already there–wherever our “there” is. He’s there, and He’s waiting for us to open our eyes and look up and find His love staring back at us. His face doesn’t hold judgement or condemnation. He’s not ready to scold our lack of faith or belittle our weakness. He is, as Joel 2:13 describes,

“…kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” (Joel 2:13b, Message) 

Kind. Merciful. Patient. Extravagant in His love… The God described in Joel is the same God David wrote about in the Psalms. The same God whose character and heart were made visible in the person of Jesus when He came and walked the earth as the exact physical manifestation of God the Father. (Colossians 1:15) That’s who we see when we open our eyes and find Him already there looking back at us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a long road to walk–but it does mean that we never have to walk it alone.

But what about the “…always ready to cancel catastrophe…” part? This line slammed into my heart like a wrecking ball on Sunday. I found myself asking, “Then why didn’t you, God? If you’re always ready to cancel catastrophe, why haven’t you done that? Why have so many of my pleas for you to do exactly that gone unanswered?”

The very next line of Joel goes on to say this: Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. (Joel 2:14a, NLT)

Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t like this part. We have a God who is always ready and able to “cancel catastrophe”… but sometimes He doesn’t. Why?

I don’t know.

I hate typing those words. For myself and for you. Because I told you to hang on, that there was hope coming. And I want to be able to say that your reprieve is coming. That circumstances are about to change and it’s all going to get better. You and I both know I can’t say that, though.

But here is what I can say… The “enemy” has come and taken a lot from my life. I wouldn’t choose to relive the storms that left me devastated and barely hanging onto hope–except for the part where I discovered the truth that I wrote about above…

God, my good, gracious Father, was with me in every moment. He met me in every hell I found myself in. There was nowhere too far, nowhere too dark, that He wasn’t already there waiting for me. I used to say that all of my life, Jesus has pursued me and gone after me when I’ve run from Him. But it’s even better than that… As I’ve grown and changed and looked back, I’ve realized that yes, He’s always pursued me. But not from behind me, like an animal chasing it’s prey. No. He’s pursued me from the places I’ve run into-He was there waiting, loving me back to Him, before I could even get there… In the deep darkness of the cult I was born into, in the fear of my very heavy-handed earthly father… In the rooms of my teenage promiscuity, and the hangovers from nights of being used… In the real possibility of burying my baby-more than once… In the weeks my marriage felt hopeless and in the loss of my presumed identity… In the room where my mama took her last breath, and in the terror at the thought that maybe her death was my fault… In unemployment and moves that knocked the wind out of me and in callings that seem far beyond my reach… In betrayal and accusation… In my own webs of lies and unforgiveness… He has been there. There is nowhere I’ve been that I haven’t been in His presence. No choice I’ve made that is so ugly He’s turned his face away. No moment that I’ve ever been alone.

Would I have loved for God to cancel some (or all…) of these catastrophes? Of course. Some of them left me reeling and believing I would never recover. I wouldn’t choose to walk these roads. But it’s been on these roads that I encountered the power of the love that didn’t look away. Didn’t walk away. Didn’t accuse me. Didn’t use me. But brought me back home to the arms that have never stopped holding me…

These seasons have taught me to cry out, and to turn my eyes to the One who can restore everything. The One who can re-story my story–and has, in so many ways. He’s the same One who can re-story yours… fix your eyes on the eyes that have never looked away from you, cry out to Him, and let His love bring you home…

–Laura

 

I looked out my window early today

I saw a big gray blanket

When I walked into it, it opened so that I could pass through

Then closed again behind me

Leaving me surrounded

In a cold, gray world

I wrote those words in my 8th grade English class. It was a poetry assignment that unbeknownst to me would be entered in a city wide poetry contest. I won the contest. My poem was published in the newspaper, my dad used it in one of his sermons, but I didn’t care. I didn’t make the poem up out of thin air– I was describing my life at the time. I was three years into ongoing “locust” devastation and could not see an end in sight. My mother had died from cancer when I was in the fifth grade-eleven years old. In the midst of that storm, just a year later, sixth grade, my dad married a widow with four children of her own. I finished out my sixth grade year with all of the kids I’d been in school with since first grade, but we had moved to a larger house to accommodate our larger family, so seventh grade I began junior high in a school with no friends. I was sharing a bedroom with a step-sister who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I never felt safe at home. I discovered the hard truth in my new school that “good” kids who’ve been together for a long time don’t embrace new kids very well. I was accepted into the group of other hurting kids; we were all trying to numb our pain without knowing that’s what we were doing–we called it “partying” but there was no joy. I would continue making increasingly self destructive and others destructive choices until I was in my early twenties. Many times during those years, I would sense the voice of God drawing me back, and sometimes I would come, but I’d never stay long.

Laura wrote above that sometimes our “locust” seasons are the result of a direct attack from Satan, sometimes they are because of something done to us by someone else, sometimes they are the consequence of our own choices. In my above season, I felt like God had done something to me. I was so, so, so angry with Him. In my understanding, a God of love would not have allowed my mother to die, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed life to have stayed so hard for so long afterward. In my anger, I turned my back on Him with an “I’ll show you that I don’t need you” attitude, and then reaped the consequences of my own poor choices. It brings up a great deal of emotion just writing about it.

How did I get back?  Joel 2:12– “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now. Right now. Today.

I was twenty-two years old and was with a friend leaving a night club at closing. We were held up at gunpoint as we headed to her car. She managed to get in the car–I didn’t. The gun was held to my stomach. In the end, my purse was taken and I was not physically harmed. There were police close by who caught the young man with my purse. My friend and I went to night court to positively identify him, and then I went home and got in bed. While lying in bed, I heard God ask me “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”  His voice wasn’t angry or scary, but it was very direct. My answer was “No. This is not the legacy I want to leave.”

Even now, return to me…Like Joel, I cried out and asked God what I needed to do. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, it was summer so I wasn’t in school. I asked my manager at work if I could take a leave of absence, and he said yes, so I moved home to Missouri for a couple of months. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing Joel 2:12–fasting, weeping, mourning…

I was welcomed home with love and given lots of space and time to process what I needed to.

I was “fasting” without knowing that’s what I was doing. Pastor John defines fasting as giving something up so that our focus can be on God–not trying to get His attention, but giving Him ours.  I sought Him for those two months. I didn’t do anything with friends. I stayed home, spent a lot of time on the back patio with my Bible and a study on how to forgive yourself (I’d made some horrific choices), and dug in with God.

There was a great deal of “weeping”, which Pastor John defined as the outward evidence that something is going on inwardly.

And mourning…acknowledging loss. There were so many things lost that needed to be acknowledged, brought into the light and mourned.

The hard thing for me to grasp, is that God’s embrace happened instantaneously. I kept acknowledging that I didn’t deserve anything from Him, and felt as though I should be  “lesser than” in His kingdom work. I felt that way for a long time.

Grace is powerful, and so difficult for us to understand, but what’s true, is just like Hosea’s wife, just like the prodigal son, God met me when I chose to rend my heart and not my garments”and I  returned to the Lord my God and found Him to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13). I was fully restored, even though I didn’t “feel” it.  Over time (years) I began to “believe” it.

I won’t say that I was completely healed in my two months home, but I was deeply in love with God and knew that my life was much better in His hands. When I returned to college, I moved out of the house I’d been living in, moved back into the dorm, began attending a small group Bible study and was fully embraced there, which  led to attending a church where I learned how to worship in a new way. I left my old “friend” group behind and found new friends, one of whom became my husband.

I don’t know what season of life you are in. If locusts have come to devastate you, even now,  in this very moment, God is with you. His grace, His compassion, His love will meet you right where you are. Cry out, return to Him with all your heart–He will meet you there.

The “locust” season may not come to an immediate end, it might still be really hard-but you won’t face it alone, and in the words of an old Steven Curtis Chapman song:

His strength is perfect when our strength is gone.                                                                           He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on.                                                                                         Raised in His power, the weak become strong.                                                                                His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect. 

He is a good God. Life on a fallen planet is not always good, but God is always good–always full of love, always for us. Turn your attention to Him, take your questions, your mourning, your weeping to Him,  and let Him meet you where you are.

–Luanne

 

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Dear Church #7: Philippians 3:12-14

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What does it mean to “obtain” something? In this case, it means “to lay hold of” or ‘”to make as your own”. So Paul begins this passage by pausing in his exhortations to the Church, and letting his readers know that he hasn’t yet made “all this” his own. What is the “all this” he is referring to? It is everything he has written about to this point, everything we’ve covered in the first six messages of this series. By this point in the book of Philippians, Paul has encouraged the Church to begin where we are right now, to love those around us with the love of Jesus, to take the story of what Jesus has done in our lives everywhere, to “live as Christ” which is to die to ourselves, to model humility, to abandon ourselves and embrace Christ’s life in us as we focus on Him as our Lord–as the One thing that really matters. He outlines all of these things (and more), and then in the middle of chapter 3, he pauses. He stops to say that he hasn’t yet obtained these things, he hasn’t made them his own. And that pause is an invitation to stop and take a breath, to reflect and consider all that we’ve heard thus far. And to remember that, once again, this walk is not something we do in our own strength.

This passage highlights the tension between the now and the not yet. There is this picture of the ideal walk of faith that Paul has been painting for us, what it looks like to die to ourselves and live fully for Christ. And then there is the reality that we all-including Paul-fall short of that ideal. But rather than allow the truth that we’re not there yet to make us feel defeated or to cause us to lose hope in the process, Paul encourages us once again to remember that we are not the ones holding our lives together. He reminds us that we are not actually in control–and that is precisely why we can breathe and just keep going.

Where am I getting that? Paul says that he has not obtained all this, he hasn’t arrived, hasn’t yet taken hold of “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”In these few verses, he is contrasting his own shortcomings-he hasn’t yet made all of this his own-with the surpassing power of Christ, who has already made him (and us) His own. The crux of verse 12 is not that we keep pressing on in order to take hold of Jesus, to cling to Him, to make Him our own. It is that we can keep moving toward Him, because He’s already holding onto us. It’s imperative that we see this rightly, or we live a life of striving, of attempting to grab hold of Jesus, but always falling short in our own strength.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.   (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Just as dead people can’t make themselves alive on their own, humanity can’t manufacture the strength to hold onto the Divine, to the eternal. But because Jesus first took hold of us, we can now, in His strength, reach back to Him. This reaching, though, is not what we might think of when we think about “holding on” to something. It is not a white-knuckled grasp, a secure grip so as not to lose what we’re holding onto. Because it’s impossible to lose something that has taken hold of you-unless that thing lets go. We have zero control of our ability to hold onto Jesus. And realizing that is pure grace. What we may have perceived as a need to “hold on tight” becomes an invitation to completely let go. Because that which is holding onto us is Jesus himself. And He will never let go. There is nowhere we could go that He wouldn’t already be there waiting for us. We cannot lose Him, because He’s grafted us into the vine of Himself and placed His very life into us who were dead, and there’s no separating our life from His. It is a sheer impossibility. Inhale. Exhale. And find yourself completely safe within the hands that knit each one of us together and put His own breath in our lungs.

So what is the “pressing on” that Paul writes of, then? It’s an invitation to keep going. Understanding that Jesus has already made us His own, that we are forever held by Him, we can take the next step. We can stop worrying about all that we have to “do” to cling to Jesus and live present to His leading today, in this moment. Our “pressing on” is simply taking one step at a time on our journey of being made like Christ and living for Him.

If we see ourselves as responsible for holding onto Jesus, we’ll find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences of Him–and we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. In verse 13, Paul writes of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. Straining, in this context, means “to stretch out in the direction of something”. It is less about straining in the way we think of strenuous exercise or effort and more about which direction we’re going

When I ponder this section, I can’t help but think of Isaiah 43, where God, through Isaiah, instructs the people to simultaneously remember and forget. Considering the two passages together, I believe the point is our orientation to time, because it determines what and how we see what’s happening in the now. In the beginning of Isaiah 43, and more specifically in verses 16-17, God reminds the people of all He has done, of how He has been their Deliverer, their Savior. And then, in verses 18-19, He says this:

Forget about what’s happened;
    don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
    rivers in the badlands.” (MSG)

So God tells the people first to remember, then to forget. Why?

Sometimes, we get fixated on what God did then, and how He did it before. Maybe the remembering is to remind us that God is and always has been, in the case of this particular passage, our Deliverer. But the forgetting is about the way He delivered then. It is a laying down of our expectations of how He will show up this time. The miracle of parting the Red Sea is not the miracle the people needed in the middle of the desert, when there was no water in sight. They needed to remember who God was to remind them that He still is that same God. But they needed to forget the circumstances of then, so that they could live present to nowIf we find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences with Him–we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. 

In our passage, when Paul says he is forgetting what is behind, it is in order to remain present to the Jesus who lives with us in the now. So that we can keep moving toward what’s to come. Dwelling on the past, whether it be about what we’ve done or failed to do, or how we’ve experienced Jesus before, robs of the gift of today. The depths of Jesus are unsearchable. We cannot dive deep enough to explore the breadth of all that He is. We can only see and grasp what He reveals of Himself to us. And if our eyes are fixed on what is behind us, if our expectations are based in who Jesus was to us then, we essentially dig our heels in and cease moving forward. We cannot continue to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus if we fix our gaze on a faded photograph of how He appeared to us back then. And as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the opposite of looking back  is not looking forward. We have to have a different view of our now. We have to let go of our white-knuckled grip on the faded photograph of yesterday so that we can live fully present to our today, which will allow us to take the necessary steps that will get us to our tomorrow. That’s how it works.

Dear Church… we haven’t arrived yet. We didn’t have it together back in “the good ole days” (those days are an illusion-for so many, they were anything but “good”), we don’t have it together today, and-spoiler alert-we aren’t going to have it together tomorrow either. And that’s okay. We aren’t the captains of this ship-we never have been. What we are responsible for is waking up to now, to the leading of the Spirit in this moment. We can only take one step at a time, trusting that the One who has always been holding onto us will continue to hold us firmly within His capable, loving hands, and will lead us on until the day we are perfected and made complete in His presence, as His beloved Bride. Until that day comes, we practice all that we’ve learned so far, all that has led up to this point in the letter. We learn from Christ and we allow His life to overcome ours. We experience His love and then we share that experience everywhere we go. And when we feel overwhelmed by all that we have not yet obtained-we press pause. We breathe. And we remember that we can make Jesus our own only because He first called us His own. And we can only run after Him as He draws us in. We were dead. He made us alive. And we get to live for Him, one step at a time.

Dear Church… keep moving forward.

–Laura

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Daily Kindness

As  I reflected on John’s sermon about “kindness” as one of “The Dailies”,  and reflected on acts of kindness that have come my way, one story in particular stuck out to me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t paint me in a very good light, but it is beautiful.

During my teen years, I was living in a great deal of emotional pain. My mother had died a few years before. My dad had remarried a widow with four children of her own, all in the same age range as my siblings and me, and life was chaotic for a few years. I can not remember what prompted my outburst, but one afternoon I had a melt down directed toward my dad. I yelled, I said ugly things, and at one point, my grand finale moment, was that I did not want to live with them anymore. I wanted to live in foster care. Then I stormed out of his room and went downstairs. He came down after a few minutes and told me to get my sweater. My heart began to beat a little faster, afraid that he really might be wanting to take me to live elsewhere, but in my pride, I did not apologize or let on that I was nervous. We got in the car and he took me to play miniature golf and then took me to Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was hurting, that he loved me deeply and that nothing would ever change that. I deserved punishment. I received kindness. Kindness that didn’t make sense. Kindness that softened my heart and brought a piece of healing to my chaotic, painful life. It was more than an act of kindness. It was a heart of kindness overflowing with love for me. It is one of my most cherished memories.

In 1965, Dionne Warwick recorded the song, “What the World Needs Now”; the chorus goes like this:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No, not just for some, but for everyone.

How true those lyrics still are today, and God’s delivery system plan for that love is us. We, the followers of Christ will take it to the world. It’s why we’re here. What will it look like? It will look like kindness. Kindness is how love behaves.

Ephesians 2:6-7 tells us that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Christ is God’s expression of kindness to us.  Have you experienced his kindness in Christ? Have you experienced the kindness of his forgiveness? Have you experienced the kindness of his presence? Have you experienced the kindness of his love? Have you experienced the kindness of his transforming power in your life?

The world has a very skewed perspective of God. However, as John said in his sermon, the world defines God by what they see in us. I have a much clearer picture of God’s grace, kindness and unconditional love because of my dad’s response to my outburst. The opposite is also true;  when the world thinks that God is mean, distant, angry–they get that impression from his followers. They define God by what they see in us. That hurts my heart.

Without a doubt, kindness is an action, but it goes beyond just being nice. True kindness is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22)  Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. ”  The only way we can clothe ourselves like that is to allow ourselves to be filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, which means we must crucify our flesh and follow His lead in our lives. Can you imagine how different the world would be if Jesus’ followers really lived this way–If what spilled out of us was compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, love, joy peace?

Currently, a Google search of the phrase “why are Christians so…” brings up words like miserable, judgemental, intolerant, mean…Can you imagine if a Google search brought up words like kind, compassionate, loving, gentle?   

And, this kindness…it’s for everyone. Not just the people we like. Not just for the people whose favor we may be trying to earn. Not just for people who are nice to us, or kind to us in return. No–this is a Holy Spirit type of kindness. This is the type of kindness that is expressed when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Mt. 5:44).  This type of kindness is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit. But if the world is going to change, if Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is going to happen, it is imperative that his followers take–with thanksgiving–the love we have received from God in Christ–so costly, so undeserved, and so life changing–and pass it on to others. This is the kingdom coming on earth. Nothing that we receive from God is for us to horde. It is all to be given away. And what could be more beautiful and world changing than giving away love through kindness every single day–Kindness as a lifestyle, a heart overflow because our hearts are full of the love of God.

Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

–Luanne

Luanne’s last paragraph is short, but powerful. It connects with what has been stirring in my heart since I listened to John’s sermon. She wrote:

“Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

Willingness, it’s a tricky thing… God has been using the word “willing” in my life very intentionally over the past couple of years. I say that it’s tricky because there’s more to willingness than we initially realize. The first definition for the word willing is this:

“inclined or favorably disposed in mind”

If we use this as our only definition, it is probably a safe assumption to say, yes, we are willing to extend the kindness we have received. Most of us do not set our minds on being unkind. I think we have great intentions and we want to be kind to the people around us. At least in our minds…

But, the second definition Merriam-Webster gives for the word takes us a little deeper into the implications of willingness:

“prompt to act or respond”

When we read the full definition of the word willing, it makes it a lot more difficult to honestly answer Luanne’s question, doesn’t it?

In my mind, I have planned to bake treats and go introduce myself to our neighbors… for the past three years… I have thought about making time to take that person to coffee and give the gift of time several times over the past six months

If my willingness to extend kindness starts and stops in my mind… I am neither willing nor kind. True willingness is prompt to act or respond. Kindness, as Luanne shared above, is how love behaves. It is glaringly clear that both require action.

How, then, do we grow our good intentions into true, willing kindness?

The answer can be found in a verse John shared in his sermon. Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to:

 …encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:13 (NIV)

Encouragement is one way we see kindness displayed. This verse exhorts us to encourage one another daily. Today. Before today becomes tomorrow. And therein lies our problem.

I didn’t mean to let today turn into three years of not knowing my neighbors. I didn’t intend to let six months pass without asking her to coffee. I simply planned to do it tomorrow… And when tomorrow became today, my plans moved once again to tomorrow.

There are two problems I see with “tomorrow”:

  1. It may never come. None of us is guaranteed a single breath beyond this moment.
  2. Every tomorrow eventually becomes our today. If we haven’t learned and practiced how to live intentionally in the moment we are given, we will not be truly willing. And we will not live out the kindness we ourselves have received.

Hebrews 3:13 tells us clearly why this cycle of “I’ll do it tomorrow” is so hard to break.

…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

I have learned to pay attention when I see the words “so that” in Scripture. What follows those two words is always important. In this case, it’s a clear warning. If we don’t practice encouraging one another today, we will be hardened and deceived by sin.

Is it sinful to put things off for another day? To plan on doing them tomorrow?

I won’t take the liberty of answering these questions for you. What I do know is that, for me, there is one core reason I put off acting in kindness:

ME.

I don’t have time… What will they think of me I am tired… I don’t want to…

I can come up with eloquent, persuasive arguments as to why I put off extending kindness in the moment. But the root of every argument I could make? Selfishness. And I’m pretty certain selfishness is sin. So, yeah. For me, it is sin to put off until tomorrow what I could do today.

This is difficult to navigate, though, because we don’t often see beyond our good intentions far enough to see our selfishness. And the good intentions in our mind, they deceive us into believing we are kind when our actions (or lack thereof) prove otherwise.

For me, the truly frightening part of this verse is what it says can happen as a result of sin’s deceitfulness…

If we neglect to daily live and act out of the loving-kindness we have received, our verse tells us that we can be “hardened”.

The word “hardened” is translated from the Greek word “skléros. Included in the definition of skleros are the words:

harsh, intolerable, offensive

Those words sound a little bit familiar… They echo the words that Luanne mentioned earlier when she referenced the auto-fill options for the Google search:

Why are Christians so _______ ?

If we don’t act in love and kindness daily; if we are deceived by our sin, selfishness, good intentions, we run the risk of becoming exactly what the world thinks we are. I’m a little blown away by the fact that a couple thousand years ago, this warning was written to Jesus’s followers. And today, we are bearing the consequences of ignoring the warning. Somewhere along the way, our kindness stopped being kindness and turned into a word we didn’t really know the meaning of. We didn’t know it—and we certainly haven’t lived it. Google proves it.

Now, though, we know. We know that kindness is how love behaves. We know that being willing to give others what we have received from Jesus involves prompt action. We know that living out kindness daily protects us from becoming harsh, intolerable, offensive Christians.

We can change the auto-fills, friends. Let’s start today.

–Laura

 

 

 

The Dailies #1: Dependency

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

I am so excited about this new series John began this weekend! The series is titled “The Dailies”. We began this weekend with Dependency and we will continue looking at daily habits that will give us the momentum we need to create traction in our lives.We are being invited to discover daily disciplines that lead to our becoming true disciples of Jesus.

So this week’s “daily” is dependency. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the words “Give us today our daily bread”. John reminded us that this prayer is intended to be a reflection of dependency, not a demand. Because demands, well, they create expectations. Expectations, whether met or unmet, create reactions within us. Unmet expectations create disappointment, fear and resentment. When our expectations are met, however, it creates a sense of entitlement. We are tempted to think-especially when it comes to God-that we’ve found the formula, we’re doing something right. This sounds a whole lot like eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that we talked about last month. (That post can be found here: Two Trees)

Dependency, unlike demand, produces gratitude. Gratitude, by nature, is full of humility and void of demands. Grateful dependency acknowledges that we have need and that we cannot provide for our own need. It recognizes the Giver and thanks Him for the gifts. It lives in the now, in the present moment, and it lives fully alive and aware of this day.

John read this passage out of Deuteronomy:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.                                        Deuteronomy 6:10-12 (emphasis mine)

Cities you did not build… Houses filled with amenities you did not provide… Fresh, flowing water from wells you did not dig… A harvest you did not plant…

This short list applies to me and you, too, doesn’t it? In fact, I could add many more things that I have but did not provide for myself. The list of all that I have been given is extensive. What about you?

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord…

I believe that most who will read this are like me, in that excess is part of our lives. Excess in itself is not a bad thing.But we are in danger of forgetting the Lord when our dependency shifts from the Giver to what has been given. What do you do with your excess? What do I do with mine? Do we even see the excess that we possess or are we so living from a place of lack that we cannot see the abundance of what we’ve been given?

When John talked about our daily bread, he referenced Proverbs 30:8-9:

 … give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

He offered that when we live from a place of lack, when we desire excess so we can relax and live more comfortably, we completely bypass asking God for our daily bread and we ask for (demand, perhaps?) the entire bakery.

Here’s the thing about the bakery, though–it looks great and offers a sense of security, but it’s too much for one day. None of us need that much bread for today. There is so much excess in the bakery.

Yet, many of us have been given the whole bakery…

What are we doing with what we’ve been given? Do we even recognize that we have been given the bakery? There are so many thoughts swirling in my mind around this concept.

If God wants us to live dependent on Him for our daily bread, why has He given so many of us a whole bakery? What do we do with all the extra at the end of each day? Do we wrap it up safely and put it in the freezer to store it for another day? Just in case tomorrow’s manna doesn’t come?

Bakeries don’t save their excess bread. The mark of a good bakery is that it is filled with the freshest bread each day. Old bread gets stale and hard and eventually goes bad, regardless of how it is stored. Bakeries do one of two things with their leftovers:

They either throw it away… or they give it away

What are we doing with all of our excess? Are we trying to hoard it, save it, fearful of a day when we might find ourselves without enough? Are we eating our fill and carelessly discarding the rest? Or are we eating today’s bread with open hands and grateful hearts, living present in each moment, taking only what we need and giving the rest away?

John said, “Living in the moment today displaces the fears of tomorrow”, and that, “Daily dependence reminds us of God’s faithfulness”. He reminded us that today is all we have. Today is all we need. And today is all we can handle. He also said that what we do with our today impacts our tomorrow.

I can think of no better way to impact tomorrow than to give the excess of today away. To gratefully receive today’s bread, humbly take only what I need and trust that tomorrow’s manna will be enough. Trusting that God will show up again tomorrow allows us to live with open hands, willing to let go of the extra we don’t need so that someone else can have what they need. May our lives be marked by grateful dependency on the Giver of all that we need…

–Laura

Some years ago, my husband’s former college roommate came to visit us. We were hanging out in the kitchen, delicious food bubbling away on the stove–my high school age kids were in the kitchen with us and we were laughing and enjoying one another’s company. John Boy, as we affectionately call him, asked the question “Does the present really exist? Think about it…as seconds tick by it’s past, future, past, future, past, future…Is there really such a thing as the present?” Even though he was being silly, I pondered that question for years. I still ponder it from time to time.

In John Chapter 11, Martha is grieving and a little miffed at Jesus for not having shown up before her brother Lazarus died. She says to him…“Lord… if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Past tense. She goes on to say… “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Present tense. Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, and her response takes her out of the present and into future tense: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Then Jesus makes a powerful, powerful statement:
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus refers to himself, his state of being in the present tense.

                                                  I AM.  

He tells us that present tense living, present tense believing in him, leads to life. The one who believes in me now, in this moment…

Isaiah 26:3 gives us a glimpse of what this looks like: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (ESV) The verbs are in the present tense.

As I write this, I am in my daughter’s house in Alabama with my precious 9 month old granddaughter. We live far away from her, so every moment we have together is precious. In the past, I have robbed myself of the gift of the present by living in countdown mode—”I only have this many days left, this many hours left”— I am through with that!!!! It robs me of the joy of this moment. So yesterday when she took a nap and held my hand for 30 minutes, I did not think about what I had to do next. I relished the moment. When I fed her and rocked her to sleep, I did not think about what I had to do next. The moment I was in was precious, so I chose to step out of time and allowed that moment to be all I focused on.

After listening to John’s sermon and being in a place to observe the actions, the total dependence  of this little one, I am keenly aware that she has no thought of ticking seconds. When she senses a need, she communicates that she has a need. When she plays, she constantly looks back to make sure that she is being watched– that she hasn’t been left alone, and (my favorite) she frequently crawls to me (or her mommy or daddy), climbs over our legs, connects with us by touch and then heads off again. She imitates our actions, our sounds as she learns to become like us, she responds to us as we respond to her, and in the really precious moments, this busy busy little girl rests in our arms and lets us hold her close.

My desire is to remember this–to live like this in my relationship with Christ–connecting with him, taking my needs to Him, trusting Him to be present, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, but knowing that He is more than sufficient in the now. I want to live in the “I Am” of Him-trusting Him for today’s bread, knowing that His presence In The Now is more than sufficient for all the moments of life.

–Luanne

enough-bread