Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

We are in the second week of a mini-series within our series–the three “When you…” statements Jesus made in the sermon he taught on the mount. Luanne introduced us to all three last week before she expanded on giving, the first topic Jesus addressed. Here is a snippet of what she wrote to refresh our memories:

“Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… (Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting. So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.”

Pastor John spent a few minutes on Sunday articulating that while Jesus spoke first about giving, then praying, then fasting, the order doesn’t indicate priority. All three pillars are important. If we leave one out, we cannot fully understand the other two. I think in pictures a lot, so as he spoke to us, I pictured a triangular platform balanced on three pillars. If one pillar is removed, the whole structure tumbles. That’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. But what if one is beefed up, reinforced, well taken care of, while one (or both) of the others is neglected? The corner supported by the maintained pillar may be strong and for a while the whole structure may appear to be in good shape. But, eventually, the weaker supports will begin to sag and give way, collapsing the whole thing–including the part that felt strong. An equal emphasis is necessary in our application of these three principles if we want to live a healthy, fruitful, kingdom-driven life. In order to apply them effectively, we have to first understand them.

Luanne explained beautifully Jesus’ instructions about giving last week. That post is linked in the first paragraph above if you missed it. This week, our focus is prayer. Our passage is Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” (The Message)

Pastor John shared with us about the prominence of prayer in ancient Judaism. There are prayers that were (and still are, for some devout Jews) prayed at specific times throughout the day, and many shorter prayers that were integrated into their daily lives. History tells us that, in ancient Judaism, followers were committed to prayer. When we think about religions that emphasize prayer today, we might think of Islam and the way that many Muslims integrate times of prayer into their daily lives.

But what will history say about prayer as it relates to Christianity? John asked us.

Hmm. Good question, right? Jesus modeled prayer many times during his earthly ministry. And as Luanne’s words from last week reminded us, the early church was committed to prayer. But what about now? What about us, today? What does our prayer life look like–individually as well as in our homes, our churches, our communities?

Pastor John identified that many of us pray three times each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we’re not too uncomfortable to do so… If we’re honest, how many of us can say that we have a prayer life that goes deeper than that?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may recall that my history with the Church and with God is a bit complicated. My home life was also challenging in many ways. However, my Mom’s unwavering faith set an example for me that still impacts my walk with Jesus today. Her example, especially in the area of prayer, is a gift that I am deeply grateful for.

I was not always a fan of her prayer life, though. I found it a bit embarrassing and idealistic, even a little silly at times. She prayed about everything. Literally. Everything. A break in traffic to make a left turn… A parking spot at the mall on a rainy day… A good clearance find at the store when money was tight… A short line when the schedule was tight… She would pray short, conversational prayers–out loud, of course–about all of these things. And I would roll my eyes and hide a little–especially if my friends were with us. She simply talked to God. All throughout her day. It was as natural as breathing to her. I may have been annoyed in my adolescence… but I heard her. I heard other prayers, too, spoken in the same conversational way, every day that I spent with her. Prayers like:

I need a miracle to pay this bill this month, when she was working three jobs and raising my brother and I alone.

Please let me live long enough to see my kids graduate, when she was wrestling with the terminal illness she’d been diagnosed with.

Give me your grace to forgive…again, as she grieved the betrayal and rejection of her husband.

Will you give me the gift of a friend? And a husband who will love me? I’m so lonely…, as she dealt with feeling isolated and alone.

Draw my kids’ hearts to you, heal their hurts, be their Father, she prayed for us repeatedly, especially as we grew into adulthood.

I want to live for Your Glory, whether here or in heaven, as she wrestled with her failing health.

In addition to prayers like these, she prayed for other people constantly. Her name was Constance–everyone called her Connie–and she lived out the meaning of her name. She was constant, consistent, committed. I was recently reminiscing about her with Luanne, and remarking about how great she was at connecting with others, how she was the best at being a good friend. If she said she would pray for someone, she meant it. She’d usually do it right there, wherever “there” happened to be, and however uncomfortable it made my brother and I in our younger years. She would also write their names in her prayer journal. I don’t think she missed one day of prayers over those names until her last couple of days on this earth with us. On her most pain-filled days, when breath was most elusive, I’d often catch her praying more, spending hours with her journal, loving so many people through her conversations with her God.

I didn’t know it at the time, but her example was forming the woman I would become. Somewhere along the way, I started talking to Jesus about everything, too. Even the “silly” things that used to make me roll my eyes at my mom. We have a running conversation, he is part of my days, my hours, minutes–because I had an example to follow that was real. Not showy, not performative. Authentic, continuous, even quirky and quaint at times–but it wasn’t for anyone else. Mom’s ongoing conversation with God was both evidence of the deep relationship she had with him and the way that she remained connected to him. She was aware of her deep need for his presence in every area of her life, so she made talking with and listening to him a priority.

I didn’t know how formative her example would be. Here are some of the ways I pray throughout my days now…

Exclamations of gratitude when I’m in nature and the beauty fills me with wonder and delight.

In my car, imagining Jesus in the seat next me, conversing about whatever is going on that day.

Silent pleas for wisdom as I navigate hard conversations with my kids–or friends in crisis–and don’t know what to say.

In the middle of worship, between song lyrics, whispering prayers for the Spirit to bubble and flow all around.

Requests for patience and a facial expression that doesn’t betray my frustration when dealing with other imperfect and sometimes impossible humans like myself…

Prayers that I will have a tender, listening heart, and be present in the moments ahead while I’m on my way to meet a friend. 

Requests for wisdom around how to help in some way as I drive through town and see people in hard situations.

Do I also pray about breaks in traffic, good deals, and other “silly” things, like my mom did?

Yes. Yes I do.

Because when talking with Jesus is woven into every aspect of your life, there’s no area you don’t invite him into. It’s like finding that friend that becomes your person–the one you feel safe enough with to be silly, speak the truth, express deep emotion, share everything. My mom had that kind of friendship with God. And it was evident in her prayers.

It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk with God in these ways. I referred to my Mom’s example as formational in my life. And it was, and is. But there is so much more to prayer than the friendly, conversational way we can engage in it. There is a depth that comes with more structured prayers, and I want to touch on that briefly before I wrap up…

I am still fairly new in my experience with using a liturgy for prayer. But, friends, it is transforming my prayer life. I virtually attended a prayer conference led by Pastor Brian Zahnd in May, and I’ve been using portions of the morning prayer liturgy he shared with us these last couple of months. It is powerful to pray some of those prayers day after day and see the ways God moves through them. The prayers prepare my heart to encounter my God in a deeper way. And I am being formed as I lean into prayers that have been around for a long, long time. There was a time I thought of these prayers as rigid, outdated, void of life. Not anymore.

Pastor Brian said, regarding this liturgical way of praying, “Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. It’s true or false. What’s alive or dead is the person praying.”

He shared with attendees that the word liturgy comes from the Greek liturgeo, which means “worship, the work of the people.” I love that. Liturgy is the work of the people, it’s worship. It was such a shift of perspective for me.

Zahnd also said, “Prayer is like a trellis for a vine to ascend–a structure so that which is alive can ascend. . . We must surrender ourselves to prayers that are wiser than we are.”

Prayer forms us. However shallow or deep our prayer life, it is forming us. What is our goal as we pray? Do we want to be seen, applauded, rewarded for our devout ways? Or are we content to be seen by God in the secret places, and to experience the reward of seeing–and being satisfied in–him? My mom’s prayer in the secret place spilled into her daily life. I was blessed that her conversations with God splashed into my consciousness. But she was never praying to be seen by me. She was unknowingly modeling a consistent relationship with God. I don’t walk around town proclaiming the liturgy I am adapting into my prayer life, but it is forming me as well, it is changing me. An honest, consistent prayer life will do that. Once again, as we’ve discussed throughout this whole series, Jesus’ focus is on what is happening within our hearts. What is happening in our hearts as we pray? What changes might we need to make in our prayer lives?

–Laura

I love Laura’s testimony of prayer–how her mother modeled a vibrant, ongoing prayer life, and how Laura (despite her adolescent embarrassment), has adopted a similar approach. I also like her move toward a more liturgical practice as part of her prayer life. I attended the same online prayer seminar, and am experiencing a deeper, richer more profound prayer experience than at any other time in my life through that practice.

We’ll revisit that in a bit, but for a moment, let’s return to this week’s scripture. Laura used The Message paraphrase above…I love it–especially this portion: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Peri Zahnd, during the prayer seminar, shared these words: “Our work is bringing more of ourselves, not more of our words.” Think about that. What would it look like to bring more of ourselves to our prayer time–to be in God’s presence as simply and honestly as we can be?

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus, in this portion of his sermon, was actually pushing back against what had become a fairly common practice. The NIV translation of Matthew 6:5 words it like this: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… 

As Laura pointed out, in the Jewish faith, praying three times a day was a normal practice. Three times a day they were called to prayer. Their lives revolved around prayer. However, some of the leaders in Jesus’ day had lost the heart of the matter and were more concerned about being “seen” as devout than about actually being devout. Jesus addressed this issue more directly in Matthew 15:8 when he said to the Pharisees,You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'”

Or this parable from Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus was pushing back against this practice of self-righteous, look at how holy I am, praying.

Has anyone besides me done anything for show? True confession time: I went to a Christian college. For many students, going to church on Sunday was a given. I was still doing a fairly decent job of getting away with my double-life living, and rarely went to church on Sunday. However, I lived in the dorm and ate in the dining hall, so on Sundays I would sleep in, but would get up in time to dress in my Sunday best as though I had been to church before I heading to the dining hall. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a heathen. Good grief! That’s pretty much the definition of a hypocrite–a role player–an actor.

Back to The Message: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

My own prayer journey has been complicated. Being the pastor’s daughter as I was growing up, meant that I was often called on to pray in Sunday School, or youth group. I hated it. When God didn’t heal my mother of cancer, I was pretty convinced prayer didn’t work, so I’d go through seasons where I didn’t pray at all until I wanted God to get me out of whatever crisis I was in–the messes I’d gotten myself into.  Or, I wanted him to change someone else.

As I got older, my prayer life still went through cycles. I wanted to be more consistent, to pray more deeply, to hear from God, but I just wasn’t getting there. I read numerous books about how to pray. I tried various formulas. But it seemed like my prayers always cycled back into being very “me” focused.

During the prayer seminar, Pastor Zahnd said that we typically pray out of our own pathology. To be pathological means (of a person) unreasonable, or unable to control part of his or her own behavior. (dictionary.cambridge.org) That has been true of my prayer life; but at the seminar we learned “The primary purpose of prayer is not to try to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”

When the idea of adding liturgy to my prayer time was brought up, I pushed back. It felt impersonal to me, until Zahnd pointed out that Jesus had a prayer book–the Psalms. Hmmmm. Good point. I’m sure that in addition to the Psalms, Jesus also prayed the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions…the title given to the central prayer which is said three times a day by all observant Jews. It is also known as the Shemoneh Esreh (‘Eighteen‘), the Tephillah (‘Prayer‘), or the ‘Ami. dah (‘standing’) because one stands to say this prayer. (The Journal of Theological Studies)

Jesus prayed written prayers. Hmm. As Laura wrote above, liturgy is not dead (as I had assumed). It’s neutral. The life in the liturgy comes from the heart, mind, and soul attitude of the one praying the liturgy.

So, for the last couple of months I’ve been praying liturgically. The structure I am praying includes prayers that have been around for a long time, scripture including The Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Beatitudes, a short gospel passage and a Psalm.  There are moments of intercession, prayer for family, a prayer of confession, and sitting quietly with Jesus. The famous prayer of St. Francis (Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…) is part of it. Many of the written prayers address each person of the Trinity. Most of them are communal and global in nature. In truth, it felt clunky at first, but as I returned morning after morning; as I began memorizing; I found the prayers being planted deeper and deeper within–their content becoming part of me.

I’m finding that when I wake up in the morning, I’m hungry for this time with God. I’m bringing more of myself, not more of my words, and I am coming as simply and honestly as I can. I’m no longer praying out of my own life cycles–or my own selfish desires. I can bring my requests to God, and I do…but somehow, it’s different now. It’s been a beautiful experience–one that I will continue.

It’s common in Christian circles to tell people–just pray, talk to God. However, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them words to pray. We’ll study that prayer in a couple of weeks, but it’s important to note that he didn’t send them off to figure it out on their own.

If you’re curious about liturgy–there are many liturgical prayers that can be found online. The Shema and “Eighteen” can also be found online. It might feel weird at first, but dedicate a set amount of time to stick with it. We were encouraged to stick with it for 40 days. I’m glad we did. It’s changed our prayer lives, and is deepening our relationships with God.

I’ll close this post with two of my daily prayers: “Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.” 

“Save me from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

Thy Kingdom Come on Twitter: ""You can give without loving, but ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Disconnect, Discover & Dance

 In [this] freedom Christ has made us free [and completely liberated us]; stand fast then, and do not be hampered and held ensnared and submit again to a yoke of slavery [which you have once put off]. (Galatians 5:1 AMP)

Pastor John didn’t reference this verse in his message on Sunday, but I think it is so important that we establish from the start the extravagant gift we receive when we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord. He makes us free, completely liberated in Him. That’s our starting point when we enter into a relationship with Him–not as slaves, but as free people who have chosen to lay down our lives in surrender to the only One worthy of our submission. Maintaining the freedom we are given is easier said than done, but God has provided a way-if we choose to take that way…

This was Pastor John’s first Sunday back after his sabbatical, and it was his sabbatical experience that he vulnerably shared about in this week’s message. (Sidenote: I recommend watching the Facebook live recordings of every sermon we write about, but I highly encourage you to do that this week. The link to the church page is provided below…) John began this week’s service by explaining what a sabbatical is and why He took one. He explained that the word “sabbatical” comes from the concept of Sabbath.

Priscilla Shirer writes in her bible study Breathe:

“Shabbat–the Hebrew word for Sabbath–means ‘to come to an end, to cease, to stop, to pause’. Notice they are all active commands that a person needs to take responsibility for. Something they have to do. To experience Sabbath margin, you must make a decision to stop something, to push away from something, to rest from something.” 

This is what Pastor John was doing while he was away. He was taking intentional time away from all of his responsibilities. He was choosing to make space to observe one of the greatest gifts God created for His children-the gift of Sabbath rest. This gift is also a command–in the New Testament (Hebrews 4:9-11), as well as in the Old. The command, however, is one that is given for our good-because God knows how much we need it. We need it to remember-and connect with-God… as well as to connect with our own souls. That is something many of us don’t like to do-and we’ll come back to that here in a minute. But Sabbath is what reorients our hearts toward the supremacy and sovereignty of God. It serves as a reminder of Who is really in control, Who ought to be on the throne of our hearts. God gave us dominion over every created thing, with the exception of one another and ourselves… Sabbath reminds us that there is One outside of the realm of what we can control. But we so often forget that. Without intentional space, without margin, we become slaves again-we choose slavery instead of embracing the gift of our freedom. That slavery takes different forms for each of us. It could be self-imposed slavery to another person, or maybe it’s slavery to our schedules-the busyness of life. Perhaps we are enslaved to other people’s expectations or to a career or even a ministry that has taken up residence on the throne of our hearts. Whatever it is for each one of us, our slavery is always a result of denying ourselves the rest our souls require, while believing that doing more is the only way to restore the freedom we’ve somehow lost.

In his book Margin, Richard Swenson writes, “Chronic overloading is not a spiritual prerequisite for authentic Christianity. Quite the contrary, overloading is often what we do when we forget who God is.” 

And in the same study I referenced above, Priscilla Shirer writes, “God gave us the Sabbath to refocus our attention–to cause us to bring to the center stage of our minds and hearts the Person who we have placed at the periphery far too long. Margin keeps us from marginalizing God.”

And, I would offer, margin keeps us from the unhealthy practice of marginalizing ourselves, too…

Pastor John told us that his sabbatical, his Sabbath time, included these three phases:

  1. Disconnecting
  2. Discovery
  3. Dancing

The first phase is what made the other two possible, but it was the hardest part for him, as it probably is for many of us. He described disconnecting as getting alone with himself, without a plan. Unplugging. Slowing down. Giving himself room to breathe. This intentional disconnecting takes the form of solitude, not isolation. As I listened to his description of disconnecting, it reminded me of a podcast I listened to recently by Emily Freeman. The title is “Come Home to Yourself“.  In it, she said these words:

“Coming home to yourself is not an easy thing to do… If you arrive at a house and the host stands on the porch shouting criticisms, judgments and sarcasm at you, guess what you won’t want to do? Walk through the door. You will turn your back on that house every time… and vow never to return…. We don’t go home when home is unsafe.”

Emily goes on to say that we have put “No Trespassing” signs on the windows of our own souls. Disconnecting in the way that John described requires us to take down those signs, walk through the door of our souls and get alone with our real selves. If we can bravely walk through doors that we’re afraid to enter, we’ll find what John found: When we get alone with ourselves, we realize we’re never alone. It’s in that quiet space that we rediscover the withness of God. And, as John stated, we don’t know just how disconnected we are… until we make the choice to disconnect.

We cannot experience the discoveries and dances that God has ordained for us if we refuse to disconnect…

I can’t prove this assertion. But my life testifies to its truth. Avoiding the real me, keeping God on the periphery, choosing doing over being… these are soul-stifling practices. Practices that have slapped shackles on my feet and built bars around my potential. Living this way denies our souls the blessing of rest, as we’re choosing enslavement to self-imposed masters over holding fast to the freedom that was won for us.

John shared with us one of his discovery experiences and invited us to participate in a similar exercise. His experience took place in a labyrinth. As he (less than enthusiastically…) began his journey through the maze, he was asked to consider one question: What do you need to let go of, to leave in the center? And once he made it to the center, he was asked one more question: What do you need to carry out of this place, to hang onto? Though he went in with doubts about the exercise itself, John experienced God’s Presence in a powerful, mystical way. I will take the liberty of saying it was maybe even life-changing. I won’t recount his experience here–I’m not sure I could do the beauty of it justice if I tried, but what I will say is this… If John had refused to take the first step of disconnecting, the beauty of this moment would almost certainly have been lost on him. Getting still and quiet, alone with himself and his God first, he found breathing room for his soul. There was space to simply be, and to listen to what God longed to impart to him. I believe that the discoveries God desires we find along our journeys are part of the “…superabundantly, far over and above all that we [dare] ask or think [infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, hopes, or dreams]…”(AMP) that Ephesians 3:20 speaks of. How it must hurt His heart that we miss so many of them because we choose to be burdened again by the yokes of all kinds of slavery…

Just as disconnecting is what ushers in the possibility of discovery, it is walking out in the new discovery that produces dancing. In John’s case, was there literal dancing? Yes, some. And would time enjoying his wife, children and granddaughter cause h is heart to dance if he hadn’t first disconnected and discovered? I believe that yes, it would have. But not to the degree that he was able to dance after engaging in the first two phases… Because he entered this third phase refreshed, and awed by the love and grace he had just experienced in the presence of his Father. He had reentered a freedom that had  previously been elusive and his soul was singing a new song. You can’t tell me for one second that fully engaging in the process didn’t have a radical effect on this last part of his sabbatical journey.

We all want to get there… to the dancing. To the place where our souls sing and our spirits soar with our Father. But in order to get there, we have to be willing to accept our limitations as gifts. To remember the only One who should occupy the throne of our heart, and to allow Him to draw us into the rest only He can provide. We have to do the hard work of getting alone with ourselves and learning to speak to our souls differently. God has made this Sabbath rest available to each of us and He invites us to enter it far more often that we accept the invitation to do so. He knows what we truly need-He’s the One who built us. I’ll leave you with the words Pastor John read over us at the conclusion of his message. I hope it reminds you of the Father’s love for you and that you sense His invitation to enter into His rest.

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
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.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you…
…Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

-Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24

–Laura

Pastor John admitted to us that last fall he was not in a good place. We may not have known it on the outside, but inside he was burning out. He was too busy. He pushed and pushed and pushed himself trying to meet what he perceived to be the expectations of others. He admitted that when his sabbatical began, the first couple of weeks were really hard. But, as Laura highlighted above, he made intentional choices to disconnect. He turned off his cell phone. He chose not to read the news or follow any social media.

At first he struggled to be still. He had no sermons to plan, no Bible studies to prepare, no upcoming ministry projects to lead, no one to counsel–quite a departure from his “normal” routine. His normal routine that was leading him to depletion. At first he felt guilty for not doing anything, then he felt guilty for feeling guilty. He admits that he even wanted to plan his stillness. But after his detox from busyness, he was in a place where God could speak to him and he could hear the intimate message of love that God was communicating to him–the message that said, “You are loved simply because I love you.” Being loved was not contingent upon Pastor John (or us) “doing” all the right things. We are loved simply because we are.

Psalm 139 (above), which talks about the intimate ways in which God knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs,  begins by acknowledging that God is familiar with all of our ways. The psalmist is quite open about the fact that he has tried to hide from God, to run from God, yet finally discovered the beautiful truth that God never leaves. At the end of the Psalm he asks God to lead him in God’s ways–the way everlasting.

Our ways lead to darkness, death, isolation, burn out– God’s ways lead to life.

Sabbath—rest—solitude—it’s part of the way of God; the way everlasting.

I heard a sermon once that suggested the 10 Commandments are not a list of rigid do’s and don’ts, but are actually wedding language,–covenant love language. I like that interpretation, and agree with it.  When we pay attention to Jesus’ words telling us that all the law and prophets hang on the greatest commandment of loving God with every part of us and loving neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt. 22), we are able to see that love does indeed have much to do with the 10 commandments.

When God tells us to have no other gods before Him, not to worship anything else, I see that as correlating to loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength. When He tells us not to kill, covet, commit adultery, steal, and the like, I see that correlating with loving neighbor, and when He tells us to keep the Sabbath day holy, I believe that correlates with loving self, after all, the Sabbath was made for us, we were not made for the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).

We were never meant to be the gods of our own destinies. Taking a Sabbath acknowledges that we trust God. Sabbath acknowledges that we have no other gods before God, whether they be the gods of work, of reputation, of focusing on everyone else, of busy-busy-busy or any other thing that we fill our time with. Sabbath rest acknowledges that we are finite, that the revolving of the earth does not depend upon our efforts–and intentional rest restores our soul.

Jesus invites all of us who are weary, who are heavy laden to come to Him, to yoke ourselves to Him because His yoke is easy and His burden is light;  He says when we do this, He will give us rest. (Mt. 11) Peter encourages us to cast all of our cares, anxieties, and worries on Jesus because He cares for us (1st Peter 5:7). David writes that the Lord is his shepherd; therefore, he wants for nothing-the Lord leads him to green pastures, beside still waters, and restores his soul (Ps 23).

Sometimes we are more heavy laden than we know, we carry more anxiety than we care to acknowledge, and our souls need more restoring than we want to admit. We go, go, go–but if we’ll stop long enough to “feel” something real, to lean into the heartbeat of God and rest in Him, we’ll discover the beautiful gift that is there.

Sabbath rest is intentional disconnection from striving in order to connect with God. Sabbath rest leads us away from our fragmented selves. moves us toward wholeness,  and allows us to healthily and meaningfully connect  with each other.

Sabbath is not isolation. It is solitude. There is a tremendous difference between solitude and isolation. The “sol” in solitude comes from the Latin word meaning alone, as in “solo”.   “Isol” in the word isolate.  is more closely related to “isle”, an island–cut off.   Solitude gives us space and time to connect with God and recharges our souls. Isolation does not leave us feeling replenished but leaves us feeling drained, alone, and depressed.

Pastor John also highlighted the point that social media is not real connection, texting does not substitute for meaningful conversation, and the false connecting of those mediums does not leave us fulfilled. I can “scroll” through my social media accounts wasting precious moments of my one precious life, numbing out in a meaningless way that leaves me feeling “bleh” all the while trying to convince myself that I’m connecting and keeping up with people. My own gut instinct tells me that’s not true.  I am making an intentional effort to stop the mindless scrolling. Here’s what’s true- I can scroll and isolate at the same time. It’s not healthy.

And here is the deeper confession–God has me on a journey of discovering some of the “whys” behind my default behavioral “whats”.   Oftentimes when I choose scrolling over spending my time more wisely it’s because I am deflecting the inner work that God is leading me toward. The more I deflect, the more out of touch with my real self I become, the harder it is to hear His voice, and the wider the gap in my authentic relationships with others. Deflection leaves me distracted. Isolation leaves me wanting.

I love that Laura started her portion of the blog with Galatians 5:1. It truly is for freedom that Christ has set us free; however, I am painfully aware that what Richard Rohr writes is also true. He says: “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”   That phrase makes me want to laugh and cry. I know the truth of it personally-and I think we would all rather escape the “miserable” part,  but the freedom that Christ died to give is a gift worth pursuing–and that pursuit looks like resting in God and asking Him the questions that John heard in the labyrinth–What do I need to leave here?  What do I need to take with me from here?

Our  “work” will never stop. There will always be things to do. Always. That’s why choosing Sabbath has to be intentional. To choose Sabbath is to choose the deeper way. To choose Sabbath is to choose the abundant way. To choose Sabbath is to choose the transformational way. To choose Sabbath is to choose God’s way.

Jesus teaches this concept to his disciples in Mark 6:31 which says:  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” The people who were coming and going, who had great need, didn’t stop coming. Instead, Jesus pulled away with the disciples to a “solitary” place. Solitude. Restoration. Rest. 

Is your soul in need of being refreshed? Not very many of us will have the opportunity to disconnect for forty days, but can we set aside weekly time to disconnect for a day, a half day, a couple of hours, or an hour a day?

It may be uncomfortable at first, but we have to believe if God included it in His word, if Hebrews 4 talks about there still being a Sabbath rest for the people of God,  He knows what He’s talking about.  I believe if we’ll trust Him in this and intentionally choose to build this Sabbath rhythm into our routines we’ll discover richer, fuller, more whole and more abundant life.  Disconnecting for Sabbath leads to seasons of discovery and seasons of dancing.

Jesus’ invitation to you is the same as it was for the disciples:

Come with me by yourself to a quiet place and get some rest.  

Will you say yes?

–Luanne

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Contingency Plan

On Sunday in the absence of our pastor, one of our elders brought the message. Jim spoke about the importance of a contingency plan and used an illustration from his work to highlight his point. Jim is the manager of the air traffic control tower in our city, and one Friday evening he received a call, which is unusual. He was told that the tower had lost its radar, phone capabilities, computer screens– basically everything that was needed in order to carry out their duties and keep passengers and crews safe. Jim asked them if they had carried out the contingency plan, which they had. He asked if they needed anything from him. They did not. They were able to function using the contingency plan, and calling Jim was part of that plan.

I looked up the definition of “contingency plan”–  according to dictionary.com this is what one is:

1. A course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.
2.  A plan or procedure that will take effect if an emergency occurs; emergency plan

In Jim’s example, I can’t imagine the panic that would have set in had the air traffic control tower not had a contingency plan, but because of the plan, when the unexpected happened, they were prepared, knew what to do, and were able to continue carrying out their mission of keeping planes and people safely where they needed to be.

A contingency plan is in place before the unexpected happens. Spiritually speaking, it’s good for us to have a contingency plan. Life on this fallen planet is full of the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, do you have a plan in place?

Jim’s spiritual contingency plan consisted of four parts:

1. Keep your eyes on Jesus: Jim read to us the account of the incarcerated John the Baptist sending his followers to find out from Jesus if Jesus was truly the Messiah. John was in a crisis. He was confused. He was hurting. God wasn’t doing what he had expected, and he had some questions. (Notice that he took his questions to Jesus—always a good idea in a tough season.) Jesus didn’t get angry with John or his disciples—nor did he explain John’s situation or tell him what the outcome would be—instead, he told John’s disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus was reminding them of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah, and that even though John’s personal situation was unexpected, He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah and His Kingdom work—God’s plan— was being done.

Ravi Zacharias says “In its essence, faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.”

Does our contingency plan include choosing to hang on to Jesus, to trust Him, to have unwavering faith, even when the bottom drops out?

2. Pray for each other.  Jim illustrated this point by reading us the account of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal (fabulous account found in 1st Kings 18).  King Ahab was a terrible king and Elijah wanted him to know the one true God  so 3 1/2 years earlier he had prayed for no rain to fall. This encounter on Mount Carmel was the tipping point in that 3 1/2 year drought coming to an end.

In the New Testament, in order to remind us of the power of prayer,  James writes this about Elijah: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:16-18 NLT)

Blaise Pascal wrote one of my favorite quotes about prayer when he stated that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” 

 Things happen when we pray.

And things happen when we don’t.

God told Ezekiel “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)  

Our intercession for each other and for the world is huge.

I read the following in my devotion this morning:

“Prayer (and fasting depending on the translation) is part of Jesus’ casting out of unclean spirits (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21). Why prayer? These verses about prayer and fasting are not about our holiness such that if we are worthy we can wield them to use God’s power…. No, prayer is conversation with God. Prayer helps us to attune our hearts toward God as well. It is in the midst of this form of communion with God that we hear from God and also make intercessions for the world around us. We pray for strength, insight, forgiveness, healing. We pray for the transformation of situations and for the needs and welfare of others. We pray for darkness to be lifted and for people to become free.  I absolutely believe in Holy Spirit driven calls to action. I also believe in the powerful activity of prayer that moves in ways that I don’t always see… If prayer is the method that Jesus uses to cast out the darkest forces that invade and misdirect our physical world, let us also choose prayer as a form of resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.”  Justin Coleman

Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray…if we want darkness conquered we must be people of prayer. Paul tells us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, he tells us to put on the armor of God, and he tells us when we have done that to PRAY.  (Eph. 6)  He tells us in 1st Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Jesus reminds us  “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,'”  (Mt 21:13a). 

 We are the temple of God (1st Corinthians 3:16) and we are living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 5:8).  WE are His houseWould our houses, our temples be recognized as houses of prayer? Is prayer part of our plan?

3. Continue in community.  Jim used the story of Lydia in the book of Acts (chapter 16)  to highlight this part of the contingency plan. He pointed out that Paul normally went to the synagogue when he entered a new city; however, on this sabbath he went to the river to pray.  While there, he visited with a group of women, and encountered Lydia, who was a worshiper of God but did not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus. She responded to Paul’s message and was baptized. So many things about this encounter are beautiful–Paul went where the Holy Spirit led him. On this occasion the Holy Spirit led him to a group of women.  Women were little more than property to the men of that day.  But to God, each woman was His image bearer. Jesus highly esteemed women when he walked the earth, and Paul was following in the footsteps of his Savior. The result of this encounter with Lydia is that not only did she come into a relationship with Christ, she came into the kingdom of his people–community. The church in Philippi was birthed out of this encounter.

Paul was already part of the kingdom of God, and he leveraged his life to bring others in. He noticed the marginalized. This is our call. All of us. Who are the marginalized in our day, and what is Christ’s desire for them? We do not have His permission to despise anyone.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17), and we–his people– are the ones who carry this message to those who don’t yet know Him.

One caution–when we go through hard times our tendency is to want to withdraw from community, to isolate. We are not meant to go through life alone.  Seek a community that allows you be exactly who you are, exactly where you are–one that doesn’t require pretending. Seek a community that will love you into the arms of Jesus.

Is your contingency plan to stay connected to kingdom people, and bring others in?

4. Love each other.  Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this, instead, he gives us godly ways to handle conflict (Mt. 5:23).

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14)   James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)  Peter tells us “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.” (1st Peter 1:22).

Does your plan include choosing to love?

Jim’s air traffic controllers had a contingency plan in place. When the bottom fell out and their normal system failed they followed the contingency plan.

My hope is that each piece of our spiritual contingency plan is part of our daily lives–focusing on Jesus, prayer, healthy spiritual community, and loving well–so that it is as natural to us as breathing. Then, when life falls apart, systems fail, and the bottom drops out-we hold on to Jesus, to His people and weather the storm with eyes fixed on Him.

–Luanne

As I think back over the four parts of the contingency plan that Jim laid out for us, I believe that the first and the last are paramount for us to really grab hold of. Keep our eyes on Jesus and love each other. When I put these two side by side, it reminds me of some words that Jesus spoke when He was asked which commandment is the most important. He answered:

“…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)

During Jesus’ ministry, He never wavered about what had to come first. He called out sin, of course, and He spoke and taught about many things. But He maintained that our primary focus as His followers was to 1. Love God, and 2. Love (all) people. This is what we’re called to. It’s always been the way to bring His Kingdom on earth. I know that Jim’s first point was to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to love Him–but I think they are one and the same. If we fix our eyes on Him, if we see Him for who He really is, we will love Him.

So the two most important commandments, according to Jesus, are the bookends to Jim’s contingency plan. I’m going to focus only on these two points here, because I believe that loving God and loving each other are what spur us on to pray for each other and to continue in community. They are part of the natural outflow of prioritizing the other two, and cannot exist without them.

Okay… Love God. Love people. 

So simple… and so hard.

One of the reasons this simple command is so hard has to do with something Jim brought up on Sunday. He used the term “expectation bias“, and I believe it can get in the way of fulfilling the call we were given (Sidenote: It is a call and it applies to all of us…) to love both God and people.

So, what is it? What is expectation bias?

Expectation is defined as: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; an attitude of expectancy or hope. 

Bias is: A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned. 

Expectation bias is explained a lot of different ways by a lot of people who are much smarter than me. One article I read defined it this way:

Having a strong belief or mindset towards a particular outcome that influences perceptions of one’s own, or others’, behavior.

If we look at the three different definitions above, it’s easy to see that expectation bias can be a slippery slope. None of it is grounded in truth. Our expectations may be grounded in truth at first; they may spring up from the hope that we have, hope that comes from our knowledge of God and His love for us as well as from Scripture. But it doesn’t take much for our expectations to move away from truth and toward a focus on self. And when expectation is paired with bias, which is often preconceived or unreasoned, based on incomplete stories or isolated experiences, it’s a dangerous combination.

So let’s look at Jim’s first point: Keep your eyes on Jesus. How could expectation bias complicate this simple concept? In the story Jim referenced about John the Baptist, John asked this question of Jesus:

 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT)

John (and many others over the course of Jesus’ ministry) suffered from expectation bias. They expected a conquering King, not a suffering Savior. Nothing Jesus did or said lined up with their expectations of Him, even though-as Luanne wrote about above-He was fulfilling every prophecy that had been written about the coming Messiah. John’s expectations began with the prophecies from Scripture that he had learned about since childhood. His expectations started out grounded in truth. But as he grew, bits of his own ideas, his own bias, infiltrated what began as pure, hopeful expectation, and as the story unfolded and he found himself in very unfavorable circumstances, his expectation bias kept him from seeing Jesus. He had, at some point, lost sight of the real Jesus, the prophecy-fulfilling Jesus he’d grown up with, and he’d fixed his eyes on a counterfeit. He had fixed his eyes on a self-serving image of the Messiah somewhere along the journey. And we are in constant danger of doing the same thing. 

If we are going to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, we have to have our eyes fixed on the real Jesus-not the self-made version that suits us best. We can’t say we love Him if we’re not looking at the real thing. The real Jesus is found in Scripture. The real Jesus can be seen in the faces around us. The real Jesus is revealed to us in everyday moments through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The real Jesus won’t always keep us from or get us out of crises–but He is always by our side in the midst of our suffering. We have to fix our eyes on that Jesus. If we can do that, if we can look up into the face of love Himself-all filters and expectations aside-we will love Him with all of ourselves. We just will.

When it comes to Jim’s last point, Love each other, we see expectation bias affect things a little differently. Luanne wrote this above:

“Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this…”

When it comes to people, our expectations can reach all-out crazy levels. And we have so many different biases, we are probably unaware of most them. All of our expectations, in regard to other people, are rooted in selfishness. 

Um… all of them? I think so. Yes. I am sitting here trying to think of one single expectation I have of another human being that isn’t somehow linked back to me and my well-being… and I can’t find one. If you disagree, feel free to comment–I would love to be wrong about this!! But I don’t think I am. I could write example after example and dig into the roots of all of them, but I won’t do that here. I would challenge you to think about it though, and to pray through what God might be saying to you on the subject.

I’ve been studying the life of Joseph the last few weeks. Not Mary’s Joseph. The Joseph who was daddy’s favorite-the one with the beautiful coat of many colors… the dreamer. That Joseph. He went through some stuff. We could definitely say that he experienced a crisis or two… His circumstances were beyond unfavorable from the time his brothers sold him into slavery until the dream God had given him was realized in his life a couple of decades later. He was betrayed by those closest to him. He was sold into slavery. Falsely accused. Imprisoned. Forgotten. Alone. And yet… We never see expectation bias play out in the way Joseph interacted with those around him. And years later, when his brothers repented of their sin against him, Joseph’s response was:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20-21 NLT)

When we’ve been hurt, mistreated, let down-and we all have-our expectation bias will grow out of control if we let it. If we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus, attach our hearts to His word, His truth, our minds and hearts will run wild with fear, conspiracies, stories we’ve created out of our pain. Joseph could have found himself in the midst of a bitter, resentful web of expectation bias. But he didn’t. I think it might be because he had a contingency plan. He knew His God and he kept his eyes, his heart, his mind, his strength firmly fixed on Him. And because He did this, because He loved God most, he also loved others. And he made accommodation for their shortcomings. He chose to love anyway, to move toward people anyway, to draw those who had betrayed him back to himself anyway… I see such a picture of Jesus in Joseph’s story. It’s what Jesus does for us. It’s what he asks us to do for others. Ann Voskamp writes this in her book Be the Gift,

I am what I love and I will love you like Jesus, because of Jesus, through the strength of Jesus. I will love when I’m not loved back. I will love when I’m hurt and disappointed and betrayed and inconvenienced and rejected. I simply will love, no expectations, no conditions, no demands. Love is not always agreement with someone, but it is always sacrifice for someone.

Loving each other means laying aside our expectation bias and moving toward people anyway. We can only love each other if we fix our eyes on the Jesus who loves us perfectly first. And if we fix our eyes on Him and love others, we will pray for each other and we will continue in community.

Contingency plans exist for the crisis. They’re in place for when the unexpected happens. When we find ourselves in crisis, we have to hang onto, “…but God intended it all for good…” He knows what we’re going through. He has a plan. Do we?

–Laura

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A Balanced Life

Are you longing for balance in your life? I know I am. Even before this series started, I began taking inventory of my life, asking God to show me what to lean into and what to back away from during this next season. We can sense when we’re out of balance–there is a tension, an instability that keeps us on edge, divided hearts within us. We may not be able to articulate that we’re feeling that way as a result of being unbalanced, but we feel the repercussions of living this way. The consequences of an unbalanced life are the things that leave us longing to find our way back, out of the chaotic mess our lives have become.

What is it, though? What does balance even mean? Pastor John hasn’t directly defined balance in his messages. The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t really define it either. In nearly every definition I read, the word balance was used to define itself. I thought that was a no-no, defining a word by itself… But apparently even Merriam-Webster is a little stumped by this one. To get any grasp at all on what balance actually is, I had to consult a Thesaurus. The synonyms for balance include harmony, evenness, equity. Its antonyms include disproportion, instability and inequality.

I want harmony, equity and evenness to mark my life. How about you? How do we get there from where we are?

Pastor John explained to us three laws of balance. To acquire and cultivate balance, we must first have a reference point, engage in constant correction, and maintain a clear objective. Living this way-much like standing on one foot for an extended amount of time-is simple. The directives are not difficult to understand. The list is not long. It’s simple. But it’s not easy… What is easy, though, is to look back and see where we’ve been in or out of balance in the past. It’s very easy to see how our yesterdays have impacted our todays-for better or worse. We remember the seasons our lives that were marked with instability and disharmony… because we have felt the consequences of living that way. Looking back is easy. Maintaining an awareness of how today’s decisions will affect our tomorrows, though, is harder-if we don’t hold onto the three laws of balance.

While finding a solid definition of balance is a challenge, there are principles that we can grab onto. We heard in this week’s message that “Balance allows us to be all God has created us to be”. It’s not possible to live our lives to the fullest, to fulfill the purposes God designed us for, if we’re living out of balance.

King David understood this. We know from his well-documented story that he didn’t always live a life of balance. But he evidenced over and over again that he did know how to find it. He understood that:

Everything belongs to God. Everything. Scripture drives home this truth many times. Here are just a few examples:

The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all that is in it, You have founded and established them. (Psalm 89:11 AMP)

Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine. (Job 41:11 NLT)

 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:8 NIV)

David penned these verses in one of his own psalms:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1-2 NIV)

And these verses record David’s words from the chapter Sunday’s message came out of:

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
    and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
    for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
    you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
    you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
    to exalt and give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12 NIV)

Every single thing-and every single human being-belongs to God, the Creator of all. And everything we have? It all comes from God.

We can easily identify that David truly believed-and lived by-this truth in the story that John put before us on Sunday.  The verses above, from 1 Chronicles 29, are a portion of a prayer of praise that David lifted after he had given absolutely everything he had, along with the leaders around him, to provide what was needed to build the Temple. He continues his acknowledgment of God as the Giver in verse 14, the verse that Pastor John focused on in his message:

 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

David worshiped, in awe of how generous God had been with him and his people that they could now give so generously. By any standards, David gave extravagantly-today’s equivalent would be somewhere around $14 billion. But he didn’t credit himself as being a selfless guy, some generous temple sugar daddy. He didn’t take one tiny bit of credit. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the extravagance of God that allowed him to then give so much.

When I heard verse 14, I immediately remembered a similar prayer from earlier in David’s story. In 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, in response to God’s declaration that He would build a house for David-not the other way around-and would establish the throne of David’s son Solomon forever, David said these words:

“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?  And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.”

In this instance, David is awed by all that God promised to do for him and for his family. He understands that it is not man who establishes himself, but rather God who holds the plans and the future of each one He has created. He worships, humbled and grateful for the God who gives identity, purpose, position, in addition to providing for physical needs. In the story in chapter 29 that we discussed earlier, he is humbled again as he sees how much he was able to give-because it was a reminder of just how much he had been given.

So what are the takeaways for us? There are many, and I won’t cover all of them here. I encourage you to dig in and seek God’s heart for what He has to say to you through His word. I do want to highlight a few, though.

Our ability to give is not dependent on how much we have, but rather the condition of our hearts. I don’t have $14 billion to give to God’s house. Not even close. And I may have a little more or a little less than you have. God doesn’t give out resources equally-but if we see the whole picture, we’ll see that He always gives extravagantly. Our bank accounts will look different, as will the size of our homes, the year of our vehicles, the vacations we take. But we have all been given the greatest Gift in equal measure. The Gift of Jesus, given for each of us so that all of us could be grafted into the best family-the forever family of God. And within that identity in the family of Jesus, we are given everything.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ(Ephesians 1:3 NIV)

For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6 NLT)

Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. And that should motivate our hearts to give our raised-from-the-dead lives right back to Him. If we understand how much we’ve been given, we won’t want to hold anything back when it comes to giving to Him-because all that we have was first given to us.

Delighting in God above all else changes our “have to” into a “get to”. I don’t believe that David was just an extra-generous guy. And I don’t believe that any part of him struggled to let go of his wealth or himself in surrender to His God. I think we can see pretty clearly that he was a cheerful, grateful, humble giver. I believe this is because he delighted in God. Not as one of many things he found delight in, but as Source of all of his delight and joy. He didn’t have to choose in the moment whether or not to honor God with his life and his giving-the matter had already been settled in his heart. He delighted in his God, and his choices flowed from that place.

I recently listened to a message from a conference that asked the question: Is delighting in God your highest aim, your priority? My current answer? Sometimes. Less than sometimes, probably. But I want it to be my priority. Because if we are absorbed in who God is, in enjoying being with Him and delighting in Him, our focus is on God-not on the gifts that He gives. And if our delight is truly in Him and not in what He can do for us or in us, or in what He gives, then living a generous, open-handed, surrendered life that honors Him is easy. Because it ceases to be about us. 

John asked us to enter into these 21 days of prayer asking God this question:

How can I honor You with everything I am and everything I have?

I’ll be digging into this question in the coming days and hopefully you will, too. I don’t know the full answer yet. But I do believe that honoring God with my life includes these things that David modeled in his life: delight in God above all else, understand that everything belongs to God, and because it all belongs to Him, acknowledge that everything comes from God. 

If we start here, I believe we’ll be well on our way to living lives that honor God.

–Laura

Like Laura, I tried to find a good definition of the word “balance”, and then sought out the etymology of the word. In the midst of that search I found an interesting rabbit trail to follow; I came across the question on stackexchange.com,  Why is a bank balance called a bank balance? This is a portion of the answer that was given:

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

This is not rocket science to anyone who has a bank account; however, it got me thinking about balance in the spiritual realm.

Laura wrote above: Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. 

Jesus cried out “tetelestai” on the cross right before he died. That Greek word has two meanings. One is literally “It is finished.” The other meaning is a banking term meaning “Paid in full.” So when Laura writes “the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for.” It is settled. Done. Complete.  That debt that we owed, that negative balance is wiped out, paid for, finished.

However, in other ways God gives unequally, and He is very purposeful in that. He is a diversity loving God, and He has a plan, using that diversity, to bless the world.

When God called Abraham He told him… I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:2)  Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be blessings. Whatever God has given to you doesn’t stop with you; it is part of God’s bigger plan to bless the world, for His glory,  through you.

Saturday, John and I were preparing for our 21 days of fasting, and we were going through the refrigerator, the freezer, and the cabinets cleaning out old food, expired food, etc.  I was mortified that we had some things that expired years ago. I felt the Lord speak to me, and He said, the more you have, the more you waste.  I felt the prick of that statement, but began to ponder it, process it, and face it. It’s not just food that I waste. I have a fully furnished living room that no one ever uses. It just sits there. Wasted sofas, wasted space. I have clothes and shoes in my closet that don’t get worn. Wasted garments. I am fasting from social media, but when I’m not fasting and have a minute I’ll often pop onto Facebook or Twitter and before I know it I’ve lost thirty minutes or more. Wasted time. The more we have, the more we waste.  And I believe that oftentimes the more we have, the greedier we are. When John and I lived in Brazil, we were very aware that when we worked with the poorest of the poor, they were the most generous, AND the most joy-filled. They gave us fruit from their trees, things they had made with their hands, they gave their laughter, their love, their embrace, their time, accepted us with open arms into their community–it was beautiful. A few years ago on a mission trip to Romania, I tried to bless a family of 13 children by purchasing some of their beautiful flowers. They would not take payment. I tried and tried, but they wanted to give the flowers to me as a blessing. That was a costly gift for them, part of a days wages. It was not what I was seeking, but it was what I received–their costly generosity, their beautiful joy, their gorgeous flowers. If I’m being truthful, I feel the paradox of beautiful pain in my heart when I think about it. I received much more than flowers that day.

Jesus tells us a sobering story in Luke chapter 12, beginning in verse 14. He says: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

What does it mean to be rich toward God? Tim Maas writes: Being rich toward God means remembering that God is the ultimate source of time, abilities, and financial or material means that have been placed at our disposal in this life, and using those gifts not purely for our own ease or pleasure, but to express our thanks to God for His grace and generosity toward us… and (for) benefiting those who have not been equally blessed.

Going back to the rabbit trail that I chased earlier…

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

What has God blessed you with? Has he blessed you financially? Has he blessed you materially? Has he blessed you with wisdom? With artistic skill? With the gifts of craftsmanship? With the gift of hospitality? Encouragement? Teaching? Time? Cooking? Mechanics? Computer skills? Music? Writing? Compassion? Organizing? Decorating? The list goes on and on…

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

Sit for a bit and think about all that God has lavished upon you. Think about how many incoming transactions you have received and continue to receive from Him. He is over-abundantly generous! We will never ever out give Him. When you look at the outgoing side, does it balance out with what you’ve received? Do the gifts and talents and personality and love and fruits of the Spirit that He has deposited into you get spent?

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

The reason that the Dead Sea is dead is because water flows into it, but no water flows out. That’s a negative balance.  Receiving and not giving leads to a dead, joyless life. All humankind is made in the the image of God (we all equally bear His image), and He is a generous giver. He blesses and blesses and blesses. To be like Him, to reflect His image indicates generous living. And to be rich toward Him, by living generously, honors Him.

The three things required for balance:

  1. A reference point, a focal point–I recommend Jesus.
  2. Constant correction–I recommend balancing your life and choices against His Word and His actions, and readjusting as needed.
  3. Clear objective–I recommend a life goal of honoring God and leveraging your life on this earth for the sake of His kingdom.

Will there be wrestling? Yes. We all want control over what we perceive to be our own lives and our own stuff. But truly, none of it is ours. It all came from God.  Will it cost us something? Yes. Will it stretch us? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. Jesus tells us If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Mt 10:39)  May we have the wisdom to find the balanced lives we were meant for by completely giving our lives to the one who completely gave His for us.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…(Col 3:17)

–Luanne

 

 

 

Colossians Week 2: Do you know what you’re doing?

What are your priorities? Your passions? Do you know what your purpose is?

These are a few of the questions John put before us as he led us further into our study of Colossians. This weekend, we covered verses 9-14. This is how The Message translates this part of Paul’s prayer:

Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us. God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.

“Juggling more than one priority is exhausting–and it’s actually impossible. We were never meant to have a divided heart.”

When John spoke these words, he was highlighting a truth that we don’t often acknowledge, a thought that is counter-cultural in a world that tells us to list our priorities in an attempt to better organize our lives. His point was simply that it doesn’t matter what occupies space #2, 3, 4, 5, etc… The only thing that matters is what sits in the #1 slot. Whatever is first in our lives is what drives our passion, what dictates our purpose. Everything else is wrapped up in priority #1.

What sits at #1 on your list? Ultimately, it comes down to one of two answers–it’s God or it’s ourselves. Friends, this is a huge deal. If God is first, if He is our priority, then our passion is wrapped up in Him. And if He is our priority and passion, we will know our purpose. If He’s first in our lives, we will be willing to do whatever He asks us to do–and we have the potential to change the world. The whole world can change from one undivided heart that is fully sold out to Jesus.

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19 NIV)

God wants us to have an undivided heart. He says He will give it to us. Are we willing to receive it? An undivided, surrendered heart in one individual is powerful. A group of these sold-out individuals can move a church and a community out of apathy and complacency (the kind of indifference and lack of momentum that causes 1,750 churches per month in the United States to close their doors!) and into a future marked by passion and momentum. And the body of Christ living this way, united under one name, the highest name, the name of Jesus Christ? This is what ushers in the Kingdom of God-this is what causes the world to believe!! In  John 17:21, Jesus says these words:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me [this is us, friends] through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Paul’s letter encourages readers to walk well, be strong & endure and to be thankful. I want to share with you a couple of letters in closing. In case you have any doubt that one undivided heart can change the world…

Letter #1:

“I want to be remembered for how I enjoyed life and loved the Lord… The journey has not been easy… The Lord was with me every step. He held my hand through it all. As I surrendered my heart to Him, I was able to know Him in a way I always wanted. I never thought it would be possible to know Him so deeply. The Lord became everything to me during this time. Every day I chose to live for Him… To bring Him glory… I can actually say, ‘I would do it all again’, knowing how close I was able to get to my Father in Heaven. The intimacy I found cannot be obtained anywhere but with the Father. It is so beautiful. I pray that all of you would find the Lord in an intimate, deep way. I was able to thank God for my illnesses. I found a place in the pain to turn and surrender everything in my life to my Lord… I pray the Lord will bless you with showers of blessings… I hope the Holy Spirit will bring you joy and peace. I love you all so dearly. Keep fighting-and endure.”

Letter #2:

“You are a very special woman. You changed many people’s lives-including mine. You are so close to God and have taught me to be, too. I love you so much…You are so great… I will never forget you. I will endure on God always.”

The first letter was written by a woman on her death bed. She wrote it to be read at her memorial service. The second was written by the woman’s nine year old granddaughter the day before the woman went to be with the Lord.

My mom wrote the first one. My daughter wrote the second. Every day I see my mom’s influence in my girl. I watch in awe as the honest wrestling and the willing surrender plays out in the life of my now twelve year old. My mom didn’t know how far reaching her purpose would be. It outlived her. But make no mistake, one undivided heart–one life fully surrendered, a life whose one priority is God & His Kingdom–will impact other lives. One life has the potential to change the world.

Do you believe that? Are you willing to live a life like that?

–Laura

I love that Laura included the excerpt from her precious mother’s letter, and the response of her daughter.  One life lived “all in” for Christ has a ripple effect that can’t be measured. Laura’s mom is a perfect example of that.

John said, “We think gospel expansion happens because of super stars like Paul”, or we think it’s the pastor’s job, and then he reminded us of all the regular people  that Paul mentions in his letters–women, men, slaves, soldiers, fellow prisoners, free people–people like you, people like me–we are God’s plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  And then he shared this sobering thought, “The Kingdom of God either grows or doesn’t based on our passions and our priorities. What we do as individuals and as a church body either advances the Kingdom or hinders the Kingdom.” Even as I type those words, I feel the increase in the beat of my heart. I so desperately want to see every Christ follower fully sold out to God’s mission–it is the only way to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises. It’s the only way to experience intimacy with God. It’s the only way to experience true freedom. And it’s the only way to change the world.

How does it happen? We can’t be motivated by the “should”. That will never be sustainable. It has to be motivated by love and by gratitude. John pointed out that we talk about what we are grateful for. If a stranger buys our coffee, we tell people. If someone lets us get in front of them in line, we tell people. If we see something wonderful, we tell people. We talk about the gifts we receive, the kindnesses extended to us, the beauty all around that captures our attention–the things that we are grateful for.

Verses 12-14 of Colossians 1 say “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 

We all used to live in the dominion of darkness.  Pause and think about that for a second. The dominion of darkness was our home, and we had no way to escape it on our own. We were prisoners. But God the Father, who loves us so much, qualified us (made us sufficient, rendered us fit) to become citizens of the kingdom of light, the kingdom of His Son, Jesus. And how did God qualify us? He took all of our darkness, all of our personal failures, every moment of our lives that we have fallen short of living for God’s glory and put it all on Jesus–2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that Jesus didn’t just carry our sin–He became our sin. I can’t even fathom the weight of that. Then our sin offering, Jesus, was sacrificed in brutal fashion, and when He died He cried out “tetelestai” (it is finished), which literally means PAID IN FULL.  Pause and think about that for a second.

And what we received out of that sacrifice is redemption (we can be restored to the full purpose for which we were created) and forgiveness for all of it–past, present, future.  We can live in glorious freedom. And because Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again and then sent us the Holy Spirit, we can live powerful, godly, meaningful, abundant, kingdom advancing lives.   Who else loves us like that? Have we become so familiar with the story, with our own salvation,  that we’ve lost our awe, lost our gratitude, and lost the desire to help rescue others from the dominion of darkness? Pause and think about that for a second.

Backing up to verse 10, Paul writes, “We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” 

John said “Paul abandoned everything, gave up everything, and God did everything else.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 to “Seek FIRST the Kingdom of God” and assures us that God will take care of the rest.

We sang in our service “May the glory of Your name be the passion of the church”. (All To Us, Tomlin)  I am the church, you are the church. This is our call, our purpose, our life, why we are here.  Is it time to recalibrate? To reorder priorities? To surrender more fully? To go in more deeply?

-Luanne

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