An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

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Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

Image result for compassion quote henri nouwen

 

When the enemy comes: Remember Me

Last week, in the first message of our Joel series, we were reminded to return to the Lord when the enemy comes. The enemy had come upon the land of Judah in the form of wave upon wave of locusts, then drought, then fire. The people, the animals, and the land itself were devastated. The Lord encouraged the people to return to Him in the midst of the devastation-to turn to Him with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and to call out to Him.

I really appreciate the fact that in the returning there is not only permission, but there is encouragement to weep and mourn. I get frustrated with people who throw out spiritual platitudes during hard seasons–you know, the folks who say flippantly God works all things together for good, or similar things that feel dismissive and really aren’t helpful in the moment. God Himself was telling His people to weep and mourn. Feel it all. Acknowledge it all. It’s the only way to be truly authentic in any relationship, including our relationship with the Lord.

But after the weeping, the mourning, the lamenting, sometimes in the midst of the weeping, the mourning, and the lamenting,  we move to remembering who God is and what He has done. In verses 2:19-20 God promises to send grain, new wine, and olive oil–enough to satisfy them fully, and to drive the horde of locusts far away from them.

Then, in verses 21-23 of chapter two, Joel interjects his own thoughts for a few verses-it’s as though he can’t contain himself and has to give his people a word of encouragement and hope, as he writes:

Surely He has done great things! Do not be afraid, land of Judah; be glad and rejoice. Surely the Lord has done great things!  Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures and the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for He has given you the autumn rains because He is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.

Personally, when I read those verses, I think Joel is having an outburst of rejoicing. To rejoice means to have a sudden physical reaction–to spin, to circle, to dance. I love that in the middle of God’s narrative, all of a sudden Joel exclaims He has done great things!-and he’s exclaiming it, not only to people, but to animals and land. I think he’s really excited, even jubilant as he remembers God’s faithfulness. Maybe he hopped up and did a little dance. It makes me smile to picture it.

One morning, a few years ago, I was taking a walk and pondering things. One of the things I was pondering was the opposite of the word remember–is it really forget?. (Weird, I know, but it’s what I do.) I had an aha!  moment when I realized that the opposite of remember is not forget, it’s dismember. When we remember something, we connect ourselves to it again. Joel is connecting himself to God’s faithfulness, to the history of all that God has done in the past. He is no longer focused on the current devastation, he has instead reconnected with who God is and all that God has done, and it has led him to rejoice.

Last week I wrote about my season of “dismembering” myself from God for about ten years, which did not take me to good places. I don’t recommend that method in a storm. Re-membering leads to much better places.

In November of 2011 my world exploded and I was faced with a decision. How would I handle this devastation?  Would I dis-member or re-member?

Four months prior to that explosion, I was sitting in my backyard praying over the unrest that I was feeling but couldn’t put my finger on, when a yellow swallowtail butterfly flew over my backyard fence and made a beeline straight toward me. As it came my way, in the depth of my being I heard the words, I see you. You are not aloneI had no idea in that moment how those words would become my lifeline.

There were a few more God sent encounters with yellow butterflies that summer. One landed on a potted plant right next to me in my sister in law’s back yard,  one was in a large downtown area–not a plant in sight. We stepped out of our hotel onto a sidewalk, and the butterfly led us along. Each one reminded me of God’s words, I see you. You are not alone. Each time, I was in a place where I needed the reminder, still unaware of the explosion to come.

When November came, and I was thrust into the darkest season of my adult life, I spent many nights in a crumbled heap. However, this time I did not dismember myself from God. I remembered Him and He met me in my fasting, and weeping and mourning. I would come home from work, go to my bedroom and lie on the floor in the dark. I had no words, but as my “random” worship playlists would move from song to song, God, Himself sang over me. He saw me. I was not alone. I heard some songs for the very first time, such as Kari Jobe’s I Know You are For Me.  I heard songs that I hadn’t heard for a very long time such as Paul Wilbur’s Dance With Me. (And I did–I stood up from the floor and danced with Jesus.)  And I heard songs that met me right where I was and offered hope, like Bebo Norman’s We Fall Apart. Over and over, God met me in song lyrics.

And then, in His amazing way, in the throes of our Wyoming winter, God sent me a yellow butterfly. It was January. My dark season was still very dark. I could not determine my future and I desperately wanted out. I was praying for God to release me, to kill me to get me out of the pain, begging Him to take me home.  In the middle of that dark place, I got a sweet letter from one of the children I sponsor through World Vision. Of course, she had no idea what was going on in my life-but she had drawn me a card and on it was a yellow butterfly. I laughed when I opened it–probably the first time I had laughed in two months. I am smiling even now as I tell you about it. I see you. You are not alone. It can still leave me speechless.

Rejoicing in the midst of devastation. Is it possible? Yes. It is possible. It doesn’t mean that you ignore your circumstances, it doesn’t mean that the pain will go away or that it won’t still be hard. It does mean that your focus shifts from your circumstances to your God. It does mean that you look for Him everywhere. It does mean that you connect to Him; remember Him. He is the God who meets us where we are. He is the God who lifts us out of the slimy pit. He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way. He is, after all…

The Lord your God who is with you, the Mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love; He will exult over You with loud singing…(Zeph 3:17)

He is rejoicing over you. Rejoice in Him and remember….

-Luanne

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

Tears sting my eyes as I read Luanne’s portion and prepare to write my own… how deeply her story resonates within the chambers of my heart. Not because our stories are at all alike–but because we both have experienced the same fancy, gift-giving, loving God in the middle of our darkest days.

This morning–without warning–I was thrust into a few moments of remembering… I was going through a bag of paperwork that had been thrown together during our recent move. I was sorting school papers, coupons, lease information, etc… In the middle of all of the paper, I was surprised to find one of my gratitude journals. I have several, but this one is a special one–every line is filled. I opened it to a “random” page and found myself pulled back in time–into one of the most devastating seasons of my life. I’m so glad I kept naming gifts, that I continued to write them down during the darkest days, because the remembering now offers unexpected beauty. I want to share my remembering with you, the gifts I was grateful for during a heartbreaking season…

#562: Mom was able to come to church

#570: Realizing that “Holy Week” doesn’t come with any guarantees of holy days or holy moments–and it’s okay if days are hard

#595: Being able to walk and move freely–I’ll  never take it for granted again

#625: The hard eucharisteo–Mom’s re-diagnosis. Nothing could’ve prepared me for today, but He is still here with me…

#627: Wonderful friends and family, support that is so needed

#630: She got her own hospital room–answered prayer!

#633: She’s not in pain for the first time in a while

#641: Worshiping hard in a hard time, soul connection to my Father

#658: So many friends who want to celebrate Mom

#667: So much love for Mom on her birthday–everyone showed up

#670: Great concert–Mom was there, and beaming

#694: Beautiful waterfall–first time this year. She got to come and hear the water–even if all she could do was sit at the bottom of the trail

#729: A God who always knows what will be as we sit in the foggy now

#737: Friends that cry with me AND cheer me on

#772: Laughs with Mom before bed, all of us smiling

#778: Sweet husband taking care of Mom’s coffee before I wake up

#780: Mom’s going fishing with us…making memories

#782: Time to love well…as long as God gives us

#783: Looking at old photos on Mom’s bed with her

#784: Sean and Dani made it in time

#785: Laughing with Mom, the 4 of us kids, late into the night

#787: We were with her at the end, loving her, peaceful

#788: She’s with Jesus, free and full of life…and BREATH…

#789: Waking, and smiling at memories through the tears

#792: Long, sad embraces and the hope of all of our future homecomings

#801: Waking up and feeling okay…the sense of loss isn’t as crushing today

#816: Blue jay out my window this morning

#818: Long, tearful, healing talks with a friend of my heart

#847: Memories so vivid my heart aches

#848: The time I did have…so grateful that mine and Mom’s days intertwined for the time we had

#870: A huge heart-shaped leaf placed in my path

#875: A dream–cuddled up with Mom, talking with her, hearing her voice again

All of these “gifts” were recorded over a few short months. There are many in between the ones I listed that aren’t connected to my mom, her illness, or her death. But all of these were gifts I was given in the midst of the season that was breaking my heart. As I read through these this morning, I wept. Loudly. My eyes are full again now… Reading any one of the gifts I shared with you takes me back to that day, that moment. I didn’t mean to jump back into these days today. It wasn’t part of my plan at all. I hadn’t yet read any of Luanne’s words. But I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I found that journal today. Or that Luanne chose to share about her yellow butterfly gifts…

God gave me gifts during my hard season, too. I didn’t get butterflies–I got blue jays, a heart-shaped leaf, and writing in the clouds. The clouds and the leaf were one time gifts. But the blue jays… they came over and over again. They still come, over 4 years later. And always when I need them most. They are God’s little whisper to my soul. His answer to the silent, hidden cries of my heart that no one else hears. And there’s nothing you could say that would convince me otherwise…

I am so grateful for the gift of remembering. So grateful that I can reconnect to all of the yesterdays and all of the joy and grief that they contain. The remembering can trigger deep wells of grief. Hard questions can resurface as memories flood your consciousness. But remembering is also where I can most clearly see the evidence of God’s hand, of His Presence with me in the dark. It’s often hard to sense Him in the moment, when the chaos is swirling and the clamor of life drowns out His voice. But He is easy to see in the looking back. Joel obviously knew that. He and his people may not have seen God in the middle of the circumstances they found themselves in, in the face of crushing loss and utter devastation. So Joel reminds them of who their God is. He encourages them to remember. And as He does, joy floods his soul and it spills out of him.

Rejoicing… dancing… these are the unexpected gifts of remembering. The dance is often one of grief AND gratitude, joy AND pain, because these things are not mutually exclusive. They exist together. Like Perfect God AND imperfect me, or imperfect you… What is essential is staying connected to the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, looking for Him everywhere and taking the time to look back when our hope is running out. Because…

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

-Laura