Dedication

Psalm 30

A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.

To you, Lord, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?
 Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.”

You turned my wailing into dancing;you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

The words above are those that David prayed to dedicate the temple. The psalm is a song of praise; Pastor John began his message on Sunday by reading these words. It was fitting on this special day–a day that marked the beginning of a new season for our church as we moved into our new building under our new name, City Park Church. It was a day to dedicate our new space to God and the work of his kingdom, but more than that, it was a time to remember that we–not the building itself–are the temple of God.

The psalm above holds within it difficult and beautiful reminders of what it is to be an imperfect temple where the perfect Spirit of God resides, and as we moved through the lines, we found an opportunity to not only dedicate our new space in this new season, but to re-dedicate the spaces within our own hearts to the work and purposes of our God. 

“I will exalt YOU, Lord, for YOU lifted me out of the depths… Lord my God, I called to YOU for help, and YOU healed me… YOU brought me up… YOU spared me…” 

These words are some of the first that David speaks to God, and they are telling. He is among the congregation, dedicating the new temple, and the first cries of his heart are not words focused on the building or the community, but rather a personal remembrance of the merciful hand of God that has been ever-present in his own life. Did you catch the words? God lifted, healed, brought him up. God’s hand, his touch, is what David acknowledges here. Hold onto that; we will come back to it…

The first words of the psalm are God-focused, and the rest of the song follows that same pattern. Though the pit and needs are mentioned, they are not the focus of the song. David speaks not of the work that was done by human hands, nor of the strength of his faith to see the work completed. The focus is on what God has done, on his unstoppable mercy and constant presence. He does mention once feeling secure and unshakable, only to find himself shaken and pleading for help and mercy, desperate for the presence of his God. We know that feeling, don’t we?

Times of transition are never as smooth as we would like them to be. Change can be hard, unsettling. It can cause us to feel like our world is shaking and insecure. We certainly felt that from time to time as a community throughout this long season of transition. There was loss and hurt, doubt and fear visited often, relationships were tested–as was our faith. Mourning and weeping accompanied some of these changes.

And… there was God’s presence.Every step of the way. The God that David encountered in every high and every low, the constant hand that reached toward him and lifted him from every pit is the same God who has upheld each of us and invites us to follow him as he leads us forward into a new place.

Our mourning is turned into dancing and our weeping into songs of joy when we realize our longing for God’s presence, and recognize the constancy of his love, his mercy, his arms ever-reaching to embrace us and pull us back in–regardless of how many times we’ve turned away.

Dancing and rejoicing are not simply the exuberant responses to hardships being removed and brokenness being healed… they are the front-line battle cry that moves a community forward into new territory. They remind us who goes before us and with us and upholds us on every side. They are silencers of fear and doubt and they cause us to remember whose we are and who we are in Him.

Sunday morning, our community remembered who our God is and all that he has done. We also remembered who we are and why we are here as we came together in worship so sweet there are no words sufficient to describe the experience. Pastor John reminded us that God is present everywhere and he is the one who invites us to come in, to show up, in the places where he already is. We were reminded that where we sit is meant to be a place we move out from. We can find ourselves tempted to insulate ourselves inside strong, beautiful walls, to get comfortable and “just be us” in our own small spaces. But this has never been the way of Jesus, and it is not who God is calling us, our community, to be now.

Rather, we come into the “temple” to be reminded of the story we came from, the story where each of our own stories find their origin–and one day their completion, as well. Our new building offers the most beautiful picture of this old, old story. Stunning stained glass enfolds the worship center on three of the four sides. It beckons us to enter in to the story of Jesus and reminds us of his life and ministry. It extends an invitation to continue his ministry as carriers of the kingdom of God. This is the story the windows tell…

Jesus was born as a human baby, in a manger. He grew and learned in the temple. He was baptized in the full power of the Spirit and under the blessing of his father and propelled into his kingdom-bearing ministry. He called his disciples, performed miracles, offered his presence. Jesus healed. Jesus restored. He encountered every kind of person. He ate and broke bread at his last supper, he prayed in Gethsemane. Peter denied him, Pilate washed his hands of him, and Jesus died on the cross. Then he was resurrected and restored all that was broken.

Throughout each scene, we witness Jesus’ withness, and Jesus’ touch. Just as we saw the hand of God reaching to David throughout our Psalm, in these windows we see the hand of Jesus ever-reaching, ever-embracing…

Who is he embracing in these pictures? “Sinners” and “saints”… the old and the young… the rich and the poor… men and women… those who denied him… the seen and the unseen… the sick and the well… followers and doubters… those whom he sought, and those who sought him. The pictures on both sides reveal the Kingdom-heart of Jesus, the Jesus who extended his hand to touch every life. The picture in the back, nudging us forward, is stamped with these words, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” What gospel? The story that the windows walk us through, the story of Jesus. The story that we are reminded of not only as we look side to side, but as we look forward to the fourth wall. On that wall there is a window–but it doesn’t hold stained glass. It holds a wooden cross, built from pieces of our yesterdays as a community, carried into today, and propelling us into our tomorrows. The cross hangs in that window, a reminder of the self-emptying, cruciform, outstretched love that leads us to live and love in-kind. And it hangs there empty, because Jesus rose from his grave, holding in his hands the keys to death and hell. The empty cross reminds us, also, that he lives among and within us. We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.

This new “temple” our community has moved into is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Laura

In addition to reading David’s dedication psalm, Pastor John also read excerpts of Solomon’s dedication prayer from 1st King’s chapter 8.

Solomon begins with these words of praise: Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.”

A few verses later Solomon’s own mind is blown and he asks: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Solomon expresses his desire: “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”

He asks God to be their judge, to forgive their sins, to restore them and bring them back when they stray.

And later in the prayer he includes these words: “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—  for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple,  then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

That may be my favorite part of the prayer. Solomon knows that God desires to use Israel to make God’s name known to all the people of the earth- not just some. Solomon is praying in a way that shows his openness to those from distant lands. He even asks God to honor the prayers of the foreigner.

After the prayer, Solomon blesses the people and says:  May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us.  May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors.  And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other.  And may your hearts be fully committed to the Lord our God…”

Solomon, the king of the chosen people, chose inclusivity. He understood the heart of God.

There is much in Solomon’s prayer and blessing that we could dig into, but I’m going to go a different direction.

Pastor John reminded us that we are not “the temple”–we are the church. Jesus founded the ekklesia (translated “church”)  which means the “called-out assembly. We are part of His kingdom–his called out ones–along with all those who follow Jesus from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We are one church. Each of us individually is a temple that serves as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit (1st Corinthians 6:19) and together we are part of a holy global work.

Peter helps us understand this concept when he writes: As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual temple to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light…(1 Peter 2:4-5,9)

This is our task, our mission, our purpose. We get to carry the wonderful light of Jesus into the darkness of the world. We get to be part of establishing his kingdom and his ways right here. What a beautiful, mind-blowing, blessing!

Solomon asked “But will God really dwell on earth?” and requested “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’” 

Do you think Solomon could even begin to fathom that God would indeed come to dwell on earth in human form? Could he fathom that God, in the person of Jesus, would start a movement that will continue for eternity? Could he fathom that God’s very Spirit would dwell inside his followers–that God would place his seal on us in the Spirit and give us His name? That God would give us the honor to be His living, organic, growing temple—the inclusive temple of the inclusive King?

Can we fathom it?

Laura finished her section with these words:

We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.  This new “temple” … is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Luanne

fire for the world

Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

An Unusual Couple (Luke 1:5-7)

“We tend to sanitize the birth story of Jesus, fashioning it into a pristine, shimmering nativity scene adorned with gold accents and residing comfortably on a hallway table or atop a fireplace mantle… We do this with our spiritual journeys too, wanting them to be comfortable and clean, desiring something attractive that we can easily accessorize our lives with–but that isn’t reality, is it? Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.”     (Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, John Pavlovitz)

I read the words above in one of my Advent devotionals early Sunday morning–the first day of Advent this year–and I thought of them again hours later, as I listened to the message at church. It can be easy to fall into the trappings of a shiny, sparkly Christmas. It can be tempting to recall the familiar story–whatever version has embedded itself in our consciousness–and stop short of engaging our hearts in the messy and the real of the season.

The real story of Christmas is full of twists and turns. So much of the how, the when, the why just doesn’t make sense. If we look closely, we’ll likely find more questions than answers. Four-hundred years of silence interrupted by an angel visitation? A virgin conception? A dirty, manger birth? Shepherds witnessing the announcement? Wise men from the east? None of this looked the way those awaiting their Messiah expected it to look. We’re familiar with these unusual happenings. They’re part of the story we celebrate each year.

Fascinating as these parts may be, we are not looking at these parts of the story this year. In this year’s Christmas series, Pastor John is walking us through another unusual part of the story, a part often overlooked. We are looking at an unusual couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become the parents of John, the forerunner of Jesus. Their story, like most of the Christmas narrative, doesn’t really make sense. As we take a closer look at them, perhaps we’ll find some hope for when our own seasons don’t make sense.

Pastor John identified four things that made these two an unusual couple. They were:

Unusually Priestly. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were from priestly lines. Luke sets this up in contrast to the political oppression of their day.

Unusually Righteous. They were identified by the way they were rightly related to God, set apart as upright and blameless during political upheaval.

Unusually Barren. Both of them were “well advanced” in years, and without a child of their own–a major blemish in their culture at that time.

Unusually Named. In a time when many women were named “Mary” or “Martha”, both of which mean “rebellion”, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s names reflected something else. Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers”, and Elizabeth means, “God is my oath.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth were an upstanding couple. A couple who could trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning of the priesthood. A couple whose very names were reminders of God’s withness and his faithfulness, who were rightly related to God in every possible way.

And yet, they were barren. 

Barrenness was a blemish they couldn’t escape in their day. Those on the outside looking in likely whispered among themselves, wondering what these two had done to be so cursed by God. They were likely rejected by some, and isolated from their community because they had been refused the blessing of a child. Can you imagine their questions, their wrestling? In a culture that equated children with blessing and identity, as the way to outlive your own life, how must this couple have felt? I imagine they wondered why. I imagine they asked why. They may have spent hours and days on their faces, begging God to bless them with the one thing they didn’t have–a child of their own.

I imagine their pain was deep, their lack of understanding a cloud that wouldn’t leave. And still, they remained rightly related to God, faithful to him.

We’ll dig into the story and see how God showed up for them–when all hope seemed long gone–in the weeks to come. For now, let’s wrestle with the tension this unusual couple likely experienced. Maybe observing theirs can help us identify our own.

What is your blemish? Where is the tension in your life right now? What are the things that make you feel unusual… perhaps even un-chooseable? What part of you makes you feel disqualified?

We have a God who chooses the unusual things, “the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT) “Unusual” is not a disqualification. God still chooses the unlikely ones–and that includes all of us, with all of our many reasons why he shouldn’t. He chooses us because of all that we think stands in the way–not in spite of those things.

We’ll see as we continue this series just how God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth–in the middle of their very real, very hard circumstances. And we will see how Jesus is still coming for us today–if we look for him. Ann Voskamp, in her gorgeous Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, writes,

“This, this, is the love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning. It is possible for you to miss it. To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous–how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait. Wait for the coming of God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved… Mark Advent with a counting, a way of staying awake and not missing… And the heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed. Because each day of Advent, we will actively wait. We will wait knowing that the remaking of everything has already begun.” 

Jesus came, and he comes still. May we stay awake to the wonder in this season. May we look at the unusual with fresh eyes–both the unusual parts of the familiar stories, and the unusual parts of our own…

–Laura

Each advent season, I ask God to show me something new–I ask for fresh revelation in the Christmas story. Each year, God reveals something new. I don’t know what this year’s revelation will be, so I will seek, ask, knock and wait in anticipation until it comes. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. Why? Because I don’t want to lose the wonder, I don’t want to lose the mystery, I don’t want to settle into the familiar story as if I already know it. I don’t want Christmas as usual. God always has new things to show us, new depths to explore, fresh revelation to wrestle with or be awestruck by. Nothing has to be “usual”.

Laura encouraged us to look at the unusual with fresh eyes–the unusual of the familiar stories, and the unusual of our own stories. Where do you find yourself this year? How has your 2019 been? What frame of mind are you in as the advent season begins?

What frame of mind were Zechariah and Elizabeth in? We only looked at a few introductory verses on Sunday, yet they were enough to show us that God’s plan was going to be fulfilled through an unusual set of circumstances.

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7)

Laura highlighted the main points that Pastor John made regarding these verses: Zechariah and Elizabeth were unusually priestly, unusually righteous, unusually barren, and unusually named, and I am going to add that they were unusually beyond child-bearing age. Luke states it pretty bluntly “they were both very old.”  I don’t know how old very old is, but here they were–faithfully serving the Lord, no children to carry on their legacy, and they were old. And God saw them. And God knew them. And God chose to use them. And through them and their son, John (the Baptist),  the four hundred year silence of God was broken.  We will dig into their story and John’s birth in the next few weeks; however, for today, I want to emphasize that God loves to use the unlikely and the unseen.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. They were quietly living out their lives in the days of Roman rule, under Roman oppression as part of a minority people group. They were not trying drawing attention to themselves as they practiced their Jewish faith, consistently serving God in the synagogue, and living blamelessly and righteously according to the law of Moses. I imagine they believed that’s how they would spend the rest of their days. I truly love the fact that even though they were old, they were still actively pursuing and serving God.

Years ago, my family met a man named Buddy Wood. He was old. He was also vivacious, full of life, and children-mine included-flocked to him in droves. Buddy faithfully served the Lord and spent a good bit of his time being invited to speak to groups of senior citizens. He once said something to me in a conversation that will stick me forever. He said that although his body was aging, the Holy Spirit within him would never grow old. He lived with a fresh perspective, a holy “what’s next?” and encouraged others to seek God and choose to love and serve God faithfully as long as they were alive on this planet. Age doesn’t exclude any of us from being used by God.

I get the feeling that Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that.  We don’t get the feeling that they were disgruntled. We don’t get the feeling that they were judgmental and full of themselves. We are told that they walked blamelessly with God, and served faithfully day in and day out. I don’t even get the feeling from these verses that they were waiting for the spectacular. They appear to be content to walk with God, despite life’s hardships, and they loved Him.

I don’t know where you find yourself this season, but I want to encourage you to keep leaning into God. The life of the Holy Spirit is within you. The Spirit does not grow old or weary. God sees you. God knows you, and God loves the things that make you unusual. He is faithful; he wants to use your story in his story. Allow yourself to push beyond Christmas as usual into the wonder of whatever God wants you to see and experience as you walk faithfully with Him.

–Luanne

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His Kindness: Patience, Presence & Peace

After everyone had their meal, Jesus instructed his disciples to get back into the boat and go on ahead of him and sail to the other side to Bethsaida. So he dispersed the crowd, said good-bye to his disciples, then slipped away to pray on the mountain. As night fell, the boat was in the middle of the lake and Jesus was alone on land. The wind was against the disciples and he could see that they were straining at the oars, trying to make headway. When it was almost morning, Jesus came to them, walking on the surface of the water, and he started to pass by them. When they all saw him walking on the waves, they thought he was a ghost and screamed out in terror. But he said to them at once, “Don’t yield to fear. Have courage. It’s really me—I Am!” Then he came closer and climbed into the boat with them, and immediately the stormy wind became still. They were completely and utterly overwhelmed with astonishment because they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.

(Mark 6:45-52, The Passion Translation)

Our passage this week is a continuation of last week’s story. Immediately following the miracle meal of the loaves and fish, Jesus sends his disciples off in the boat. He dismisses the enormous crowd–probably not a quick or easy thing, considering that all of them had personal needs they might have wanted Jesus to address–and then climbs a mountain so he can pray. His disciples are struggling out at sea. Jesus sees them as they struggle. He comes to them several hours later, walking on the water. He starts to pass by them. They notice him and are terrified. He gets into the boat and comforts them. The wind subsides. The disciples are amazed and overwhelmed because they hadn’t understood the miracle of the meal.

There are so many things we could highlight in these seven short verses. I’m going to focus on the part that stands out the most to me. Before I do, though, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that, like the disciples before us, there is so much we don’t know. The same will be true for those who come after us. We can read every footnote and commentary there is, look up the etymology of every word, and still end up with zero solid answers to some of our questions. That’s why it is so crucial that we hang onto what we do know about Jesus regarding his love, his kindness, and–as Pastor John highlighted on Sunday–his patience.

The patience of Jesus plays a key role in this passage. And it is frustrating and difficult to understand, just as it often is when Jesus loves us with his patience in the middle of our personal stories. We like to emphasize the love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness of Jesus. These fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) show up a lot when we talk about what Jesus is like, and we’re pretty comfortable with them. But there are two other fruits less often associated with Jesus’ way of being in the world: patience & self-control. We can see both in this story.

Jesus sends his disciples out in a boat, sees the storm come up against them, sees them struggle… and then waits to go to them. This reminds me of when his dear friend Lazarus died and he waited four days to show up. Or when Jairus’ daughter was dying and he chose to stop to listen to the woman who touched him; he waited while she told her whole story–even as Jairus’ daughter died.

Why did he wait to go to where the disciples were? He could see their struggle, knew their fear. Why did he wait?

This question, while frustrating, is not the most disturbing question that rises up in me as I read this story. Verse 48 tells us that Jesus “started to pass by them.” Other translations read, “He intended to pass by them.” What?? I looked up the Greek word that was translated intended, started, or about to depending on the version, and was unnerved to find that the original word indeed means “intended, willed, resolved, desired, wished, delighted in.”  Jesus wished–and was delighted–to pass by them? What the actual heck?

I don’t have a framework in which this makes sense. This doesn’t fit with the person Jesus has revealed himself to be… He watches them struggle for hours and then when he finally goes to them, he is intentionally passing them by?

Unless…

Perhaps this “passing by” of Jesus is connected to another time when God passed by a man named Moses…

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. (Exodus 33:21-22, NIV)

Moses longed to see the glory of God. God granted his request, but with conditions. He couldn’t see the full glory of God revealed.

Jesus’ disciples couldn’t either.

Except, this time, it wasn’t God’s decision to hide the full revelation. They were the ones that didn’t have eyes to see and hearts that could understand. Jesus came as the full revelation of God. But the world wasn’t ready to see him–not even his closest friends. I don’t know what Jesus was praying about on the mountain. Maybe he was praying that the miracle of the loaves and fish would sink in, that at some point, his friends would stop straining and realize that even though he wasn’t in the boat, he was with them. Maybe his time in prayer was also his patience on display. Like a parent who longs to rescue their child from hard circumstances but knows that their child needs time to see what they couldn’t see before. Maybe he thought that if he waited, surely then they’d be ready to see the full revelation of who he really was. He didn’t have to cover them the way Moses had to be covered. His glory was now on display. Hadn’t they just seen that with the 5,000+ others who had witnessed it?

But they weren’t ready. They couldn’t yet see or understand. They were, instead, afraid. 

And Jesus… Sweet Jesus… What does he do? He doesn’t pass by, leaving them in fear. He doesn’t lose control of his words, lashing out at their unbelief and un-woke hearts. He sees them, as he’s seen them all along. He meets them where they are, in the way that they were accustomed to experiencing him, because they weren’t yet ready to experience him in a new way. And he loves them with his kindness that speaks peace into their fearful hearts, and also brings peace to the storm around them. The Passion Translation footnotes and commentary suggest that his miracles “hadn’t yet penetrated their hearts”, and notes that he was “quick to comfort” them in their terror.

His “passing by” could have been a revealing of his God-ness, a picture of his glory, that would have deepened the disciples faith as they realized they were always fully wrapped in the presence of God. But they weren’t ready. Similar to the few of them on the road to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them as they spoke with Jesus, but didn’t know it was he, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. But they weren’t yet ready to acknowledge what that meant. They hadn’t been fully awakened to the truth of who he was.

How often is this story about us? We know that Jesus resides in and among us, that his kingdom is here, now. We know that he’s not on some far-off mountain, waiting to show up, because he is always with us. But when he doesn’t show up in the ways we’re accustomed to seeing him, when he passes by in a new way, with a new layer of his glory on display, how often do we miss him? How many times is he right here in front of our faces as we cry out for his presence? How many times does he see our inability to understand what he is trying to teach us, and chooses–in his kind, self-controlled patience–to meet us where we are with his peace, until we are ready to see a new revelation of who he is?

There is so much we don’t know.  So much we may never see. But we, gratefully, have a kind and patient Jesus who is faithfully present to us in our weakness. One who, like a mama or daddy who longs for their child to learn and grow, recognizes when us kids aren’t quite past the fears that keep us from taking that next step into further revelation. One who chooses not to drag us forward kicking and screaming, and not to protect us from the wilderness that can rage around and within us–but to meet us in those places with patience and presence that knows no limit.

The fruit of our Jesus includes patience and self-control, and these are further proof of his kindness toward us.

–Laura

Jesus can sometimes be incredibly difficult to understand, and like Laura highlighted above, the times in which he allows us to wait, wondering where he is or if he cares are hard times!

Let’s back up in scripture and remind ourselves that before Jesus had a crowd of people to take care of, he and his disciples were headed to a solitary location to spend time together. The disciples were going to have time to tell Jesus all about the miracles and things that happened when he sent them out two by two. They were going to rest, they were going to eat, they were going to have downtime with Jesus.  That plan was a bust. 5000+ people chased them, consumed their time and they were required to serve those people even though they were tired and their plans were interrupted.

I wasn’t there, and I’m not the disciples–but I know myself. I would have been impatient, maybe even a little grumpy. I would have assumed that as soon as all the people left I would have my downtime with Jesus, and I would have looked forward to it. So, if Jesus had sent me away without him–I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have been overjoyed.

Here are the very tired disciples, in their boat, leaving the shore without Jesus. It’s been a long day. It hasn’t gone according to their plan. And now they’ve been sent off. To top it off, while these tired men are on the lake in the dark, a storm comes up and they find themselves “straining at the oars, because the wind was against them” (v. 48).  They are not sleeping, they are not being refreshed, they are fighting the wind.

And Jesus…he had gone up on a mountainside to pray. Scripture tells us that Jesus could see the disciples struggling and like Laura asked above, why did he wait?

We certainly don’t understand the mind of God, we certainly don’t understand all of God’s ways, which is why it is so important to know God’s character.

I love Laura’s interpretation of Jesus almost passing by being like the Old Testament story of God’s glory passing by Moses. However, I’m going to throw out another possibility to consider, again stating that we don’t know the mind of God, so these are suppositions to ponder, and it’s always possible that it’s a both/and rather than an either/or.

I’m going to start at the end of our scripture passage because there we learn that the disciples “had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened”. (v. 52).  Hardened hearts. According to Strong’s concordance, the word “hardened” means “to cover with a thick skin, to harden by covering with a callus; to grow hard, callous, become dull, lose the power of understanding; blind.” 

In the King James Version, and in Young’s Literal Translation, and possibly other translations, that last line of this passage gives the group a singular heart… “their heart was hardened” (v. 52, KJV). The whole group together, the heart of the group was hardened. Had they been complaining, grumbling, murmuring, sharing their frustrations about the day with one another? Were they talking themselves into a collective funk? It’s certainly possible. Haven’t we all been in disgruntled groups talking ourselves into a collective hardened heart? It’s something to think about.

So, four to six hours after the heart-hardened disciples begin to struggle,  Jesus begins to walk out to them. They are fighting against the wind. Some of the disciples were professional fishermen before they became followers of Jesus. My assumption would be that they are the ones in charge at this moment. They are leaning on their own understanding as they battle against the wind, but the wind is fierce and they are tired. Are they yelling at each other in their frustration? I don’t know, but I imagine things weren’t calm and quiet in the boat. They were striving in their own strength–and Pastor John reminded us that sometimes in our own striving we can miss Jesus. Been there!

It’s also important to remember that Jesus doesn’t force himself upon us-he is always present, always available, yet he gives us opportunity to reach for him. Is it possible that he almost walked by because the disciples were so consumed by their own struggle that they didn’t see him, didn’t call for him?  Maybe they were even mad at him for sending them away and allowing them to be in the storm alone (even though Jesus had been watching them the whole time).

Someone eventually looks up from the struggle and sees something on the water. Fear ensues. They can’t even imagine that it could be Jesus. So Jesus, in his kindness, tells the disciples three things:

  1. Take courage.
  2. It is I.
  3. Don’t be afraid.

The root of courage comes from the Latin word “cor”, which means “heart”.  Jesus is saying “take heart”.  It is “I”–your Lord, your teacher, your friend, the great “I AM”; don’t be afraid…

In this instance, the word  “afraid” actually means: to cause one inward commotion, take away his calmness of mind, disturb his equanimity; to perplex the mind of one by suggesting scruples or doubts; to strike one’s spirit with fear and dread” (Strong’s).

Read those words again, and remember that collectively, as a group, their heart was hardened.

Jesus says to them, don’t be overcome by inward commotion, by doubts, by fear, by dread. Remember, Jesus hasn’t calmed the storm yet. He is saying these things while the storm is still raging–while they are still fighting against the wind.

Pastor John reminded us that sometimes we desire Jesus to take care of our crisis, but his focus is not our crisis, his focus is us.  We want him to sweep in and fix things for us so that we can have inner calm and peace based on peaceful surroundings, peaceful relationships, healthy bodies, healthy finances, cars that run like they should, etc. And Jesus, he is much more concerned about us in the midst of all of those things. Instead of saying “I’ve got this”, he says “I’ve got you”.  It reminds me of John 16:33 where Jesus says In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Is that enough for us? Is Jesus himself enough for us?

Natalie Grant sings a song whose chorus says:

Help me want the healer more than the healing
Help me want the savior more than the saving
Help me want the giver more than the giving
Oh help me want you Jesus more than anything

I think it’s hard to acknowledge that Jesus is enough, whether my crisis is ever taken care of, whether I get the answers to my prayers that I want, whether Jesus bows to my whims or not. I always have heart work to do in this area. Is he, alone, enough? Do I desire him above all else? Not always.

Then, after he has encouraged them with his words,  Jesus got into the boat, his presence calmed the wind, and they were amazed…for they had not understood about the loaves’ their heart was hardened.

Such an interesting way to end the account of this day. So much to ponder. Are you tired? are you frustrated? Do you need downtime with Jesus and can’t seem to get it? Do the needs of other people frustrate you? Does Jesus seem silent? Does Jesus seem distant? Does it seem like Jesus doesn’t care about your situation? Are you part of a group that is collectively disillusioned? What is the condition of the heart of the group? What is the condition of your heart?  Are you striving? Are you struggling? Are you leaning on your own understanding, your own expertise?

Jesus is near. Take heart. The great “I AM” is here. Don’t be afraid. Give him access, not only to your situation but to your being.  He will take our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. (Ez. 36:26). His presence is our peace. Do we trust the kindness of his heart?

–Luanne

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Over All: Jesus Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus says:

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

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

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

Paul says:

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

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

And the writer of Hebrews tells us:

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

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

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

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

That’s the theological lens in a nutshell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t have anything profound to offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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Over All…Death & Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only compassion…

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

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

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

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

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

Someone is moving toward him… 

Why is she here? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we?

–Luanne

 

 

A Matter of Principle: Growth is a Mystery

 Here is what the kingdom of God is like: a man who throws seeds onto the earth. Day and night, as he works and as he sleeps, the seeds sprout and climb out into the light, even though he doesn’t understand how it works. 28 It’s as though the soil itself produced the grain somehow—from a sprouted stalk to ripened fruit. 29 But however it happens, when he sees that the grain has grown and ripened, he gets his sickle and begins to cut it because the harvest has come.   (Mark 4:26-29 The Voice)

Jesus so desires that we understand what the kingdom of God is like, that he uses metaphor after metaphor after metaphor, parable after parable after parable in the hopes that we’ll listen, understand, and align our lives with the principles of God’s kingdom– the subject that Jesus spoke about more than any other–even after his resurrection.  Acts 1:3 tells us:  After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  

No matter what theological teaching we’ve grown up under, it is imperative that we understand the importance of the right here, right now kingdom of God. Jesus taught us to pray “may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Mt. 6:10).  And in parables, he tells us over and over what that kingdom is like.

The parable in Mark 4:26-29 (above), follows the parables of Jesus teaching about seeds scattered everywhere and about not hiding our lamps, (which we wrote about in our last two blog posts). Today we focus on kingdom growth.

Pastor John continues to remind us that our role in Kingdom work is to sow generously. This parable is no exception as Jesus begins it by saying the farmer scatters, throws his seeds onto the earth.  Verse 26 doesn’t tell us that he planted in carefully tilled rows…no, he scattered seeds, lots of them. Once the seeds were scattered, he, the farmer, went on about his life, working during the day, sleeping at night, while underground–hidden from the human eye–seed began to bear life. The new plant pushed itself up through the dirt and continued to grow until it bore fully ripened grain. That fully ripened grain was harvested–some for life-giving food, some for seed to be scattered. The process never ends–and yet,  no one really can explain how it happens. I love that. I love that God invites us to participate in His plan of reconciling the world to Himself and making all things new–and at the same time shrouds much of it in mystery.

The most brilliant minds in the world spend millions of dollars and much energy trying to solve the mystery of life’s origins. In a NASA article written in 2017, the author wrote: One of the biggest questions about the origin of life and its subsequent evolution is how random molecules managed to organize themselves into complex living organisms. What prompted them to form complex molecular chains that became the basis of life, and what are the underlying principles that govern which molecules became the important cogs in the system? With so many permutations of how molecules can combine, on the face it would seem extremely unlikely that nature would just stumble onto the right combination of molecules to form self-replicating life.        (https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/computing-the-origin-of-life/)

Mystery–only God knows, and yet, he gives us the dignity to partner with him in this mystery.  Two things that we can be sure of as we join Jesus in scattering seeds, we will be stretched, and we can’t control the outcome.

Pastor John used a beautiful metaphor to help us understand the metaphor that Jesus used in this parable. Pastor John asked us to see Jesus offering his hand, inviting us to join him in a dance.  If we choose to take his hand, he leads. It may be awkward at first–we may not know the steps–but as we catch on, the dance becomes more graceful, more fluid. He chooses the music, he chooses the tempo. The song may change, the dance may change, the steps may change–it may become awkward again as the dance becomes more complex–but if we continue to look into the face of Jesus, allowing him to gently hold us and lead us, we’ll grow in our ability to partner with Jesus in the dance.

Notice that in this metaphor, Jesus doesn’t ask us to dance for him as he sits on the sidelines. He doesn’t leave us on our own to figure it out–behaving our way into growth, and comparing ourselves to others on the dance floor.

Jesus also doesn’t force us to dance with him, which could lead to appropriate outward behavior without the heart–the forced, coerced heart often harbors resentment.

Kingdom growth happens organically as we allow the seeds sown in us to be entrusted to the care of the seed creator, the author of life, who does his work in us as we accept his invitation and spend time with him–and if we do that, the seeds sown in us will bear fruit, that fruit will bear seeds and we’ll get to scatter those seeds generously in the world entrusting them to the care of the seed creator, the author of life…

It’s important to keep in mind that we sow seeds all the time, and our work of sowing seeds generously also includes the element of being mindful of which type of seed we’re sowing. The supernatural-natural laws of nature that God implemented from the beginning mean that each seed bears the fruit of the type of seed sown. Scripture is full of analogies in both the Old and New Testaments about sowing and harvesting:

Proverbs 22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity...

James 3:17-18 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of justice.

Hosea 10:12-13 Sow for yourselves righteousness and reap the fruit of loving devotion; break up your unplowed ground. For it is time to seek the LORD until He comes and sends righteousness upon you like rain. You have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies…you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your mighty men. 

Galatians 6:7-10  A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people...

Through our lives, are we sowing seeds of peace or seeds of calamity? Are we reaping unfailing love, justice, and righteousness, or calamity, injustice, and destruction? Are we sowing seeds of love or seeds of division? Are we eating the fruit of lies, or eating good fruit (peace-loving, compassionate, merciful, considerate, impartial)? Our headlines would certainly suggest that not much Kingdom seed is being sown–but there is always some evidence somewhere in some story that the quiet, powerful work of the Kingdom has not ceased. Kingdom seeds are still being sown and are bearing good fruit.

I am aware that I need to examine the seeds I’m sowing–are they kingdom of God seeds or not? The fruit of my relationships, my encounters with people, my thought life, my public life, my private life will all indicate whether or not the kingdom of God is growing in me and being sown through me. If the kingdom of heaven is to come on earth, the Kingdom farmers (us), must plant kingdom of heaven seeds, which means that we must partner with God in allowing him to do what he wants to in our lives–he grows us as we surrender to his lead.

We’ve been sown into, we sow, God grows it all—a mystery that belongs to God alone. What he wants to grow is his kingdom through kingdom fruit which looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, because loving God and loving others is our highest call, and it’s the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance. That type of fruit grows in us as we spend time with Jesus, letting him lead our steps, our lives. He honors us with the dignity of a partnership with him in scattering seeds– Spirit born, Kingdom of God seeds–everywhere we go. And as we follow his lead, he does his beautiful, mysterious Kingdom growth work in us and through us. Thanks be to God!

–Luanne

Mystery… So much mystery. It can be a frustrating thing, especially when we want concrete answers and formulas to help make life easier. But God’s design for growing the kingdom can’t be carried out through formulas and answers. Growth in the kingdom is relational–just like our journey with Jesus is relational. Because it is so, I think that God’s mysteries are a kindness to us. Father Richard Rohr has said many times,

“Mystery is not something you can’t know. Mystery is endless knowability.

Endless knowability… I love that two-word phrase. We’ll never reach the bottom in the ocean of God’s mystery–there will always be more to discover. And that is what keeps us seeking, learning, growing. We grow in our knowledge of him and his ways, and that new knowing changes us, and plants and cultivates new seeds, and when those are scattered, the process begins again. If we could fully grasp in our human knowledge the mysteries of God, there would be nothing left to discover, and the model of relationship that keeps us engaged with one another would fall by the wayside. Knowledge can lead us to a desire to control, which then leads to rigid formulas that grow our egos and strip us of our compassion, our humanity.

Mystery keeps us curious. It keeps us humble. 

Learning to live with mystery is about more than how we see and understand God. It is also about how we engage with others–including ourselves. More from Father Richard:

“The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality, to trust our divine image and grow in God’s likeness. It is simply a matter of becoming who we already are.”

Becoming who we already are… allowing the seeds that have been planted within us to grow beyond us and into the world around us. Naturally, this would mean making space for others to become who they are, too… Luanne wrote,

“Kingdom growth happens organically as we allow the seeds sown in us to be entrusted to the care of the seed creator, the author of life, who does his work in us as we accept his invitation…”

And Pastor John said on Sunday, “The God who created you is still creating in you.”

When we take Jesus’ hand, when we say yes to the dance, we have no idea where we’ll end up. We also have no idea what the seeds planted in us will grow up to be. As Lu was describing the story of the farmer and the seed, she wrote,

“Once the seeds were scattered, he, the farmer, went on about his life, working during the day, sleeping at night, while underground–hidden from the human eye–seed began to bear life.

We can’t see all of the seeds that have been planted in us. We don’t know how long certain seeds take to germinate and sprout. And once seeds do begin to sprout and make their way into our awareness, we don’t know how large that fruit will grow or where it will lead us. We have no idea how the fruit produced in our lives might somehow be the catalyst for change in others and in the world around us. As John said Sunday,

“The seed doesn’t have the capacity to know the potential of its growth.”

Seeds don’t control their own growth. They have no idea what they might become. They are cultivated by the grower. A wildflower doesn’t stand over a glassy pond in the morning perfecting her appearance and wondering how she’ll measure up next to the other wildflowers. That would be absurd. Wildflowers grow into a beauty unique to each one of them. Each one is exquisite. Each adds color and life and dimension to the landscape in which it is growing. They don’t attempt to outdo one another, or to steal each other’s sunshine. They simply grow. And release more seeds that will grow, and so on…

As I’m writing this, two of my kids are with their dear friends. Friends who wouldn’t be friends if it weren’t for seeds generously sown years ago. Eight or nine years ago, I told my mom about a woman who had started coming to the Sunday morning bible study I attended. I told her that I just had a feeling the two of them would be great friends if they met and got to know each other. At this point, my mom wasn’t even going to the same church I was, though she started coming soon after. I remember mentioning my thoughts to my mom more than once, but it would be a while before that seed I’d planted in her ear began to grow…

Two or three years later, she began to pursue a friendship with this woman. She planted seed after seed after seed in attempts to cultivate a friendship. It was slow, but over time, they connected deeply, and this woman became my mom’s best friend. They shared the gift of that friendship, planting seeds in one another’s lives, for one short year before my mom left this earth. But the seeds planted during that year began to grow… and they are still growing today.

The two of them scattered seeds in many different ways, but one way they did so was in their commitment to prayer. They prayed for each other constantly, and they prayed for one another’s children and grandchildren more than anything else. Because of my mom’s encouragement and the friendship they built, my kids and my mom’s friend’s grandkids met each other. She and her husband get to have two of their grandkids with them every summer, and the summer we lost my mom, her grandkids and my kids began spending time together. And they began to build their own friendships. During that season, the tears of my mom’s friend–along with my own–watered the dry ground of grief. In that soil there were seeds planted by prayer, seeds sown generously in friendship. And during that summer, those seeds began to grow. The children became fast friends. And my mom’s friend and I, who didn’t know each other well previously, also developed a beautiful friendship.

It’s been five years since that summer, and today, my kids are having another sleepover with two of their very best friends. They are growing up together, building community together, learning how to stay close and pray each other through hard days as they navigate long-distance friendships. They are asking hard questions, and learning how to grow in their own walks with God and plant seeds of their own. The seeds planted years ago are bearing good fruit in their young hearts today. There’s no way to know how much more fruit will be produced or how many more seeds will be flung into the world as a product of seeds that were planted by two precious grandmas.

Luanne wrote last week about planting tomato seeds with her young granddaughter. Tomato seeds aren’t all she’s planting, though… I’ve watched and listened to the way she interacts with her. I’ve noticed her intentionality, the attention she gives to the precious girl who calls her Lulu. She listens to her, and lets her know that she matters deeply to her. She is planting seeds in her granddaughter’s little heart and mind, seeds that will grow as God works in her, seeds that will likely bear the fruit of patience, compassion, kindness, empathy, honesty, and love, among other beautiful things. These fruits are evident in Luanne’s life, and that fruit produces seeds that she then sows generously into the lives of those around her, including the life of one precious three year old whose potential only God knows.

Pastor John told us on Sunday that his job  on Sunday mornings is to sow generously, to scatter the seeds of whatever God leads him to share with the congregation. And that is what he does. He generously sows into a few hundred hearts every Sunday morning, and more throughout the week. He doesn’t know how many are listening, and he knows it’s not his job to make the seeds grow. His job, like ours, is to sow generously. God is the grower of the seeds that are sown.

There is no way for us to measure which of these examples of sowing will yield the greatest return. That’s part of the mystery–a part we don’t need to know. We’re not in control of the results, thankfully. That responsibility isn’t ours to carry. We are to carry seeds and to sow them generously, trusting that God knows the potential hidden in every tiny seed. Are we willing to scatter seed like the farmer in the story did? Are we willing to throw it everywhere? That is our call. It’s how the kingdom grows. Our big, mysterious, awe-inspiring God has made this part fairly simple and straightforward: Sow seeds of the kingdom, sow generously, and the kingdom will grow. We can all do this. The question is, will we?

–Laura

Image result for seed quotes

A Matter of Principle–Kingdom Growth

What we hear over and over again, we ingest. What we ingest becomes part of us and shapes our understanding. We cling to our understanding as it becomes intertwined with our identities, and so our understanding forms our convictions. We then build arguments around our convictions, and this affects our ability to hear.

The paragraph above is a rough paraphrase of a couple of statements Pastor John made in Sunday’s sermon. It is especially applicable to the passage we looked at this week:

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:21-25)

Have you heard these words of Jesus before? If you have, what is your understanding of what they mean? What formed that understanding? Did you hear them together, in the context of the whole chapter, or have you heard them as standalone phrases, used to illustrate concepts unrelated to one another?

Pastor John offered some common interpretations of the text. A few of those are:

-The lamp symbolizes Jesus; he is talking about himself in verse 21. 

-What is hidden and concealed will be disclosed is in reference to our sin. God, who is keeping a list and checking it twice like some kind of righteous Santa Claus, will expose every last thing we’ve done wrong.

-“The measure you use” from verse 24 is talking about our financial offerings and the use of our spiritual gifts.

Have you heard explanations like these? I know I have. Over and over and over again. My understanding of these verses was shaped by how I heard them taught. After ingesting that teaching time and time again, it became easy to gloss over them as odd, standalone phrases sandwiched between otherwise connected passages. My understanding affected my ability to hear.

I can’t help but think about the proverb that exhorts us to lean not on our own understanding, but instead, acknowledge God in everything, including the truth that his ways and his thoughts are so much higher than ours. Remembering these truths reminds us that part of what makes God so beautiful is that we cannot possibly, within the limits of our humanity, grasp or understand the enormity and vastness of the mystery of all that he is. We are continually growing and learning more about his heart and his ways as he reveals himself to us. If we have ears to hear what he is saying.

Pastor John offered a different explanation of these five verses, an explanation that not only keeps them within the context of the passages surrounding them but also keeps them connected to the central message of Jesus throughout the gospels: the kingdom.

Jesus was always talking about the kingdom. Theologians disagree on many things, but one point they tend to agree on is that the central theme of Jesus’ ministry was the Kingdom. He continually talked to his followers about what the kingdom is like, and then he showed them what the kingdom looks like in action. Luanne and I are convinced that kingdom living–living our lives as Jesus would live them if he were us–is our highest priority as Jesus-followers. He was always all about the kingdom. He taught that it is here, now, and that living according to the ways of his upside-down kingdom could actually change the world. We agree. We agree so much that the tag “kingdom living” is our second highest used tag on this blog–second only to the tag “Jesus”.

Our verses this week are sandwiched between passages in which Jesus tells stories about seeds and sowing as illustrations of what the kingdom is like. Pastor John offered a new take on what they might mean, considering their context. He offered that these five verses actually teach about kingdom growth and that the shame-based way many of us have heard them taught stands contrary to the point Jesus was actually trying to make.

What if…

Jesus talked about the lamp because it was familiar to his hearers. He asked them if they would hide what illuminated their homes, the thing that transformed the darkness around them into livable space. Obviously, their answer would have been no. Who would do that? Likewise, why would we hide what is illuminating our lives, what has transformed us? Who would do that? Well…we would. We do. The seeds of Jesus’ kingdom grow within us and change us, but oftentimes we hide the changes…

So, Jesus moves on to say that what is hidden and concealed is meant to be brought into the open, to be seen. The fruit of the seeds that have been sown into our lives is meant to be shared and sown into other lives…

Because what we harvest depends on what we sow. With the measure we use, it will be measured back. Pastor John said, “Sow generously so you can reap bountifully. Throw seeds everywhere. Stop judging and calculating where it would be best to sow.” If we want to see the kingdom grow, we have to be people who sow generously.

Jesus finishes these statements by talking about those who have been given more, and how those who don’t have will lose even what they do have. John explained this last statement by contrasting the principle of consumption with the principle of conception. This is where I’ll linger a while…

The principle of consumption teaches that as we consume, we deplete the resource. We use it and lose it. The principle of conception is all about creating something new, birthing something that grows. As is grows, as we use it, it isn’t depleted–it is multiplied. It expands. John 12:24-25 explains it this way:

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (MSG)

The way of the kingdom as Jesus taught it and lived it is the way of self-giving love. In Philippians, Paul uses the word “kenosis” to describe this kind of love. Bradley Jersak, in his stunning book, A More Christlike God, defines kenosis as:

“Greek for emptying, used by Paul in Philippians 2 to describe Christ’s self-emptying power, self-giving love, and radical servanthood, revealed in the Word becoming flesh and particularly seen in the Passion of Christ.”

Love, in the kingdom of God, is meant to look like this. It is meant to expand and to grow without condition. It gives, over and over, and is never depleted. “Wherever God, wherever Christ, wherever we risk emptying ourselves of self-will and self-rule to make space for the other, that is where the supernatural kingdom-love of God rules and reigns… He rules and reigns through our consent, our yieldedness, our surrender–through our willingness to mediate his self-giving love into the world. That’s a different kind of kingdom! A strange kind of King!” (Jersak, A More Christlike God)

When we pair the concept of self-giving, self-emptying love with the principle of sowing seeds of love generously, we must confront our tendency to control where we sow. I think this might be what Jesus wanted to show us through this particular teaching. His exhortation to sow generously with our lives, to empty ourselves in love, trusting that the seeds in us will be continually reproduced by the grower acts as a mirror to show us ourselves. To show us where we’re unwilling and unyielding, where we have a tendency to hold on and calculate the love we give rather than throwing it out vulnerably and generously. The mirror shows us which image-bearers we find worthy of our seeds–and which ones we find unworthy.

In Dallas Willard’s book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, he wrote:

“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christians” will become disciples–students, apprentices, practitioners–of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.” 

Every corner. 

Every corner leaves no one out. Every corner includes the cages our brown-skinned brothers and sisters are living in on our nation’s border. The offices of the politicians we find easy to hate, regardless of which “side” they represent. The megachurches preaching nationalism as gospel. The prisons that hold those who have committed the vilest acts against fellow human beings. The precincts that protect officers who have misused their power. The brothels where pimps profit from the rape of women and children. The homes that hold family members who have torn our own hearts to shreds. The alley where the addicted find their next high. The bars that make space for those whose lifestyle we don’t agree with. The clinics that provide abortions to women and girls. The orphanages overflowing with children no one wanted. And endless other places full of faces that bear the image of our God.

Are we sowing generously into all of these corners? Are we living the life of the kingdom and loving into every image-bearer, without exception? Do we have ears to hear Jesus’ words and apply them his way, for the sake of the growth of his kingdom here and now?

–Laura

I could not agree more with what Laura wrote above, and I could not agree more with what Pastor John shared with us on Sunday morning. I believe the message of sowing the seeds of the Kingdom of God is the heart of our partnership with God in reconciling the world to God and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Not one of us can transform anyone else’s life or save them. What we can do is sow seeds of the Kingdom by seeing everyone as an image-bearer of God, and by choosing to treat every image-bearer with dignity, love, and kindness so that they can discover their incredible worth and be drawn to the One who loves unconditionally, saves, transforms, heals, and empowers so that they too can be part of God’s ministry of reconciliation and Kingdom growth.

I love the way Jesus, in his teaching,  takes common, everyday items and uses them to teach deep principles. I find it interesting that he chose to talk about lamps in the middle of his teaching about sowing seeds…but both fruit and light are principles in the Kingdom and they are intricately connected.

Seeds, when sown, are hidden in the ground. Every hidden seed has potential. My three-year-old granddaughter and I planted some seeds together in a contained environment a few months ago. They weren’t put into the dirt to be forgotten, but to grow something. As the first two tiny leaves pushed through the soil after a week or so, excitement ensued (mine more than hers if I’m being honest). Evidence that the seeds would bear fruit had begun. What had been hidden, was now seen.   If I had chosen to deprive that little plant of light, of water–if I had chosen to cover the plant and let it be consumed by darkness–it would have died, but by continuing to provide what was needed for growth, it finally outgrew it’s container and was ready to be transferred to a new environment.  If the fruit matures, the seeds inside can be salvaged for an even greater harvest next year. I don’t know how many seeds each fruit holds, but I know that it’s more than one.

Like fruit, light is meant to be seen. Light actually is the fruit of fuel and spark.  Jesus–in thinking of oil lamps asked who would take their lamp and hide it. It’s a good question. It’s hard to contain light. Light, by its very nature, is generous. It’s impossible to turn on a light and have it just shine on the one who lit it. Anyone else in the vicinity will see the light as well–unless it’s hidden under something, and then, what’s the point?

A  year or so ago, I led a devotion about anointing and light and took some time to learn about the oil lamps of Jesus day. This is what I learned:

 For an oil lamp to function, it needs a containeroil, a wick, and fire. The container holds the fuel and the wick. The wick must absorb the oil…keeping the wick wet is what allows it to draw fuel up to the top where it can be burned. The purpose of the wick is not to burn, but to carry fuel up to the top edge of the lamp where it (the fuel) can burn. It is the fuel that is creating the ability for light

Wicks that carry the fuel to the light have to be saturated in the fuel source. Wicks are not striving to get that fuel to the light, they are immersed in the fuel and soaking it up.  The farther out of the lamp the wick is, the more light it produces.  The fuel must be lit by an outside source. As the fuel burns, it will need to be replenished with fresh fuel.

John the Baptist, when speaking of Jesus, said He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Mt. 3:11)  The Holy Spirit within us is the fuel that burns providing the light of Jesus to those around us.

The Apostle John tells us that in Jesus was life and that life was the light of all mankind. (Jn 1:4) No one is excluded.

Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill can’t be hidden (Mt. 5:14).  Do we try to contain our light, control where it shines, just like we sometimes try to control where we should sow seeds? Sow generously, shine generously.

1st John 2:20 and 27 tell us  You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth…, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–remain in Him.”  In order to shine the light of Christ, we must remain immersed in the fuel source of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit’s presence will permeate our lives like wicks absorbing oil, providing light through us. 

 The fuel source for God’s light is within us; however, we have choices about what we’ll do with that fuel source. 

1st Thessalonians tells us not to quench the Spirit…meaning that we can put out the fire. 

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about some foolish young ladies who let their fuel supply get too low so their fires were going out meaning that without refueling by remaining in the Spirit’s presence we can become inefficient light-bearers.   

Unlit oil makes a lamp useless– the lamp’s container might look pretty sitting on a shelf or in a pew, but that’s not what it was designed for; it was designed to bear light, and light is not meant to be hidden.

Ephesians 5:18 tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, 

Luke 11:13 says HOW MUCH MORE  will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.  A constant supply is available as long as we remain in Him.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:16 to let our lights shine before men, so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. That verse could almost make it seem as if Jesus is encouraging behavior-based goodness until we remember that our light source is the Holy Spirit. We can’t manufacture our own light, just like we can’t germinate sown seeds. Our part is to remain in the Spirit allowing ourselves to be filled with the Spirit’s fuel,  giving God access to use our lives as wicks that allow His light to burn and shine on those around us; therefore sowing seeds everywhere we go.   

Scripture says that the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, of his fuel burning in us,  will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal 5:22)–none of which is meant to be hidden, all of which is meant to be sown wildly, generously, everywhere to everyone. 

Pastor John concluded his message by reminding us that condemnation doesn’t lead to Kingdom growth and change, condemnation leads to conformity. It’s kindness that leads to change. It’s the kindness of the Lord, expressed through us,  that draws people to him (Romans 2:4). His kindness is without limits, without exclusion, it is to be extended to everyone, including all those that Laura reminded us of in her powerful second-to-last paragraph.

Kindness, love, gentleness, patience, goodness–evidence that the seeds of the Holy Spirit that were sown in us have grown and are bearing the fruit of the Spirit whose light burns in us, through us, and around us, so that the world can be changed and the Kingdom of God, his expansive upside-down Kingdom of love, inclusivity, unity,  equality, and grace can expand and grow right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom that is right here, right now, more than any other subject. The Kingdom and its ways are the priority of His heart. We are His followers, His apprentices–are we bearing light that looks like Jesus, and sowing the seeds of His Kingdom–or ours? Our fruit will let us know.

 “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

–Luanne

seed growing up

 

 

 

A Matter of Principle: Sow Generously

Simple-earthy; Divine-heavenly. That’s how Pastor John described the parables of Jesus–simple, earthy stories to illustrate divine, heavenly principles. I love the word “earthy”; probably because I am a lover of the natural world, and when the weather is nice, it’s hard to keep me contained inside. I’m also a lover of Jesus, and I see him everywhere I look. He’s in the earthy, and I love that about him. He’s also in the divine, and I love that about him too.

After taking a little break, Pastor John has taken us back to the book of Mark. We picked up in chapter 4, verse 1. As a refresher, chapters 1-3 introduce us to Jesus and his message that the Kingdom of heaven is right here, right now, in our midst. God is not far away–he’s here. Jesus demonstrated that truth through authoritative teaching, miracles of many kinds, and the forgiveness of sins, showing that the Kingdom is here and available to everyone. Everyone. No one is excluded. 

In chapter four, Jesus begins to teach in parables. Pastor John reminded us that parables are meant to be heard, not read–a challenge in today’s world. If you can, take the time to listen to Mark 4:1-9–read it out loud or press the audio feature on a Bible app. Listen without analyzing or thinking, “I already know this one.” There’s always more to see, more to learn, fresh revelation through the Holy Spirit.

The Message version of the Bible goes like this:

 He (Jesus) went back to teaching by the sea. A crowd built up to such a great size that he had to get into an offshore boat, using the boat as a pulpit as the people pushed to the water’s edge. He taught by using stories, many stories.

“Listen. What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled among the weeds and nothing came of it. Some fell on good earth and came up with a flourish, producing a harvest exceeding his wildest dreams.

 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

Are we listening? Really listening? One of the things that I love about scripture is that there are always deeper layers to mine. We were reminded that this particular parable is often interpreted with the emphasis on the type of “soil” we should evangelize in. Or it is used as a way to judge the hearts of others. Or it is referring to the harvest at the end of time. Which interpretation is correct?  Could it be all of them?  What if we’ve emphasized the minor points? What if the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not about soil but about sowing seed?

A farmer (he’s the main character in the parable)–planted seed. He scattered the seed…  What!? He didn’t dig little troughs and plant his seeds 1/4 inch deep, 6 inches apart in nice little rows? Hmmm.

He scattered seed. That’s the point. He sowed seed generously. That’s the point. Seeds were sown everywhere. That’s the point.

Is the sown seed about a one time encounter? Is it about salvation? Or could it be something more?

Think about your walk with God–your relationship with him. Is he still sowing seed in your life? If your answer is yes, are there times when that seed is carried off by birds almost immediately? Are there times when you’ve had a spiritual encounter that lit a fire in you, but it’s not sustained and withers quickly? Have you had seed sown that could grow, but the circumstances surrounding you choke out its potential? Have you had seed grow that matures and you share with others? I believe we’ve all had those experiences. I have, and in my own life–not one seed has been wasted, no matter what state my heart was in.

I grew up in a family that was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night–all my formative years. Church attendance was not an option. Sunday School was not an option. Youth group attendance was not an option. Church attendance was not an option.

As a young child, I loved going to church. I had some wonderful teachers, I loved making arts and crafts projects, I loved being with my friends. I’m old enough to remember flannelgraph and loved the colorful figures that were placed on the board. If you asked me to come up with a particular Sunday school lesson that was my favorite, I wouldn’t be able to.  There is not one particular Sunday that stands out as spectacular. My memories are of the overall experience. My parents were consistent in loving God. They modeled love for all people, read us books like “Little Visits With God”, prayed with us, taught us to pray, and taught us to know that God is here and loves us very much. Lots of seeds were being sown generously into my life. What kind of fruit were they bearing? I don’t know. I do know that even as a child I loved people and reached out to new kids, defended my Jewish friend on the playground when other children were unkind to her and had friends of all colors at my house (or I went to their houses) after school.

As an adolescent and teenager, I loathed going to church. I was angry at God. I sat in the back of the sanctuary, played tic tac toe with friends, paid no attention to what was going on, and was most likely a distraction to anyone sitting near me. By all appearances, I was not taking in anything during those years–it would have appeared the soil was rocky, and birds were snatching away any seed that was being scattered. But is that true? Forgive me for being so graphic, but we’re going “earthy” here. Sometimes seed eaten by birds passes through their systems and gets scattered elsewhere.  There are entire islands whose lush vegetation began from seeds that came through the digestive tracts of birds. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no heavenly seed scattered in my life was wasted. Some of those seeds have borne fruit years later in locations far from where they were sown. Seed snatched by birds still has potential.

Part of my youth group experience included summer mission trips. Each summer, my heart was made tender toward God on those trips. Each summer, when I returned to church, I tearfully made my way to the altar at the end of the service and recommitted my life to Jesus. Every. Summer. Then school would start, and I would be back in my rebellious and self-destructive behavior almost immediately.  It would appear that those summer seeds grew quickly and died quickly. Were they wasted seeds?  No. My recommitment-Every. Single. Summer. -was genuine in the moment. My encounters with God were real. And every single summer, God welcomed me with open arms, no condemnation. I experienced his unconditional love over, and over, and over again. It’s possible that church people rolled their eyes and thought “there she goes again”, but what God was sowing in me, teaching me, was his consistency in love, and his willingness to embrace this prodigal daughter over and over and over and over. His love was sowing seeds that I was unaware of at the time, but today are seeds that I sow into the lives of those who think they’ve blown it and think that God couldn’t possibly still love them. I know that he does, because of that season of seemingly wasted, but not wasted seed in my own life.

As a young adult who was still struggling with anger, still resisting my upbringing, no longer attending church, “partying”, self-destructing–living among weeds– (I could have been identified by outsiders as a weed myself) –seeds were not wasted. I have a particular very clear memory from that season: One night when I was with a group of friends and we were drinking pretty heavily, the conversation turned to God. That moment lasted a couple of hours. I shared about God’s unconditional love with my friends.  I shared about some of my personal encounters with him, how I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me and them. None of that was my usual method of doing things.  Most of those friends had no idea I had any knowledge of God, much less a relationship with him. I was in a season in which I wasn’t even sure of that truth myself, but God was using me as a spokesperson of his truth in that moment. The Holy Spirit was speaking to my friends and to me through me-even as we were partying.  What happened? Was that conversation the result of seeds that had been sown but lain dormant in me for years?  Was I a weed or a seed? Was I sowing among weeds? Was that a bad thing to do? Are we not supposed to sow among weeds?

Does Jesus’ parable tell us that it is wrong for seed to be scattered on rocky roads, shallow soil, among weeds?  No. The farmer scattered seed. It landed everywhere. That’s the point. Who are we to determine which seed will bear fruit and which won’t? We can’t determine that. We don’t know.  Even in our organized modern-day agriculture, we can’t make seeds germinate and grow. Seeds are sown. We can try to create environments in which they can grow, but we can’t make them grow. Each seed grows or doesn’t individually. That includes seeds sown in you and me. Are they growing? Are they bearing fruit? Each seed which germinates and grows has the potential to multiply many times over. That’s the beauty of a seed.

I’ll ask again, are we sowing seed generously? (BTW- I don’t think that means our modern-day understanding of “evangelizing”) Does our seed sowing include creating environments where people feel loved and accepted right where they are and as they are? Think of the fruit of the Spirit–are we sowing seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? (Gal. 5:22).  Are we letting those fruits “go to seed”?  Each year, I let some of my lettuce “go to seed”. The following spring, new lettuce appears, some of it in the raised bed where my previous lettuce crop was, some of it appears on my garden path, some of it in sidewalk cracks. and some of it nowhere near the original lettuce location. No matter where it grows, it’s lettuce and we eat it. The lettuce that has been allowed to “go to seed” produces an unplanned crop. It’s a natural process, a result of sown seed. Sow. Sow generously. Sow everywhere. Sow.

And as you sow, don’t neglect the ongoing seed being sown into you. Let them grow. Sow, grow, sow, grow– this is the earthy, divine manner in which the Kingdom of heaven expands on earth.

–Luanne

I love what Luanne wrote, the way she was able to identify seasons in her own life during which seed was sown in all four types of soil that Jesus talked about in his parable. I love it because it reminds us all of what is true in our own lives, too. But what I love most about her examples is they clearly show that none of the seed that was scattered in her and around her was wasted. None of it. Every seed scattered served (and is still serving) a purpose, and our God who sows generously really doesn’t care if it looks like foolishness to us. He doesn’t live inside our boxes of limited understanding and formulas. His Kingdom cannot be contained within our rules and our traditions. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways.

Aren’t you grateful that’s true?

As people, we grasp for understanding as a way to control the chaos in and around us. But there are some things that we will never fully understand. There are parts of God that will always be mysterious to us… and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But sometimes, God pulls us in. He takes us a little deeper and reveals more of himself and his ways…

Scattering seeds everywhere might look like throwing caution to the wind–until things start growing. Human wisdom would never get behind tossing seeds into the air and letting them land where they may… that feels a little bit like swinging at a pinata while blindfolded.

But God…

When Luanne and I decided to go hiking on Monday, we had no idea how God would bring this message to life for us. We hiked a trail that never disappoints–it’s always full of reasons to gasp with wonder, beautiful gifts that surprise and delight. Monday felt especially enchanted. This place that captures our hearts afresh every time we are there had some things to show us, illustrations of this parable that are now seared into memories I won’t soon forget.

We saw wildflowers everywhere–I can’t remember a time I’ve seen so many blooming at once. All varieties, all colors, some not yet budding and some whose petals are withering as they complete their life cycle. No one planted these flowers in specific places–they grow where their seeds fall. And they are growing everywhere… We saw color cascading down hillsides, among the grass and weeds and trees. Some line the path, some are growing in the middle of the path. I can’t count the times we saw flowers, ferns, and even trees, growing out of the sides of rocks. I saw one growing on a rock in the middle of a creek. I’m still baffled by that one–I have no idea where its roots are attached, but it is growing nonetheless. This trail boasts several different types of soil–the wildflowers explode in all of it. Some of the flowers and plants are more prevalent in the sand, some in the rocks, some among the grasses and weeds, and some closer to the water. But they are all stunningly beautiful. Even the weeds dazzled us with blossoms so beautiful, it was hard to distinguish the weeds from the flowers. In this environment, the weeds and the flowers complement one another’s beauty. The bees and the butterflies move among them without preference, and they grow together–there is room for all of them.

But which soil on this trail is the fertile soil?

All of it. The path… the rocks… the sand… the grassy hills… the loose dirt where dead, fallen trees disintegrate and enrich the soil around them… the streams… the cliffs–gorgeous, fruitful life is being grown and sustained in all of these. The environment is healthy, and growth explodes everywhere your eyes land.

On Sunday, we had the opportunity during our “mission moment” to hear from Earlene about a beautiful ministry that she heads up in our community. At one point she said, “I don’t remember how it exploded as it did,” and then something to the effect of, “You sow the seeds–God grows it beyond imagining.”

When seeds are sown generously–everywhere–explosions of growth result. And there really is no explanation other than, “God grows it beyond imagining.” 

When Earlene shared those words, I immediately thought of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians from the third chapter of that book. I thought of it again many times as we hiked on Monday. This is how the Amplified Bible phrases verses 16-21:

May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. Now to Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.

Growth might look neat and orderly in meticulously manicured gardens (though, even there, seeds are carried off by birds and redistributed elsewhere, and things pop up in places other than where they were planted), but growth in individual people and in the kingdom is anything but nice and tidy. Humanity is messy. Kingdom work is messy. Trying to control and regulate the sowing of seeds into one type of soil in a certain environment will not lead to kingdom growth. The kingdom grows when seeds are sown generously in environments that are healthy enough to support variety and diversity. The most beautiful parts of the trail, the places that really took our breath away, were the parts that produced a wide variety of life that exploded into a kaleidoscope of color. Not because someone had studied which colors would go well together in that landscape. But because seed had been scattered generously, and what could be called wild, reckless, haphazard sowing has resulted in a breathtaking landscape where each life supports and sustains the next, and beauty expands.

The glorious beauty of the creation that surrounded and embraced us on Monday gave me a picture of what the kingdom is supposed to look like when we do it God’s way. If we dare to sow generously, without judgement, and trust God to do the growing, there are explosions of growth. And the God who lovingly fills and floods us with his very life will do superabundantly more than we could ever imagine–in us, around us, and through us. It’s the way of the kingdom. And it works.

–Laura

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This I Know: Father’s Day

On Sunday, we had the privilege of hearing from a panel of dads. Pastor John Marshall, along with two of our elders, Trevor Schenk and Jim Fuhrer, shared with us about their experiences with each of their fathers as well as their experiences parenting their own children.

These three men all had really good dads. Dads who weren’t perfect, but still modeled God’s love to them. Dads who lived out their faith. All three identified that their dads didn’t really talk about their faith with their kids–they shared their faith in their actions. Whether it was the way they respected others and spoke encouragement, their consistency and strength of character, or their hospitality to anyone who needed a place to stay, all three lived out their faith in front of their kids. And these sons that we heard from–they noticed.

Jim said, “What you know is articulated through what you do.” He went on to say that kids are quick to spot the inconsistencies. They see hypocrisy. He encouraged us to notice the way that God demonstrates pursuing his kids–and to pursue our kids in that same way–in words as well as in action. He talked about the importance of dads telling their daughters, “You’re beautiful” and telling their sons, “I”m proud of you.” I think the exact words may differ for each child–every person is wired uniquely and may need to hear something different. Regardless of the wording, what Jim was encouraging dads to do was to speak to the places of longing in their children’s hearts. To speak truth into those holes we all have that, if not countered with truth, become a breeding ground for insecurity, shame, fear, and all forms of hidden pain. For me, the best thing my dad could say to me–whether in words or through action–is, “You matter. You’re significant to my life, and I have space for you.” What is it that your heart would most love to hear from your father?

John vulnerably shared that, while his dad lived out what he believed, he can’t recall hearing the words “I love you” from him very many times in his life. He wasn’t sure his dad loved him. He identified one time that he did hear these words. They were the last words his dad spoke to him before he died nearly two years ago. The impact of those three words on John’s heart was felt throughout the room as he shared about that moment through tears. John needed to hear his dad say, “I love you.” 

Up to this point, we’ve looked at the importance of both words and actions when it comes to being a dad. We’ve heard about three really wonderful fathers from three men who are also wonderful dads (and granddads) to their own children and grandchildren. None of these men are/were perfect, none have/had all the answers. But they all love God, and they’ve all done–and are doing–their best to reflect the heart of God to their children.

As I type these words, I am so aware that what our panel presented is, unfortunately, not the norm. It is not common to hear about so many dads who parent well and lead their children this way. There are many of us who can’t quite identify with this experience, many of us whose dads created chaos rather than stability, and left us doubting God rather than trusting him. Rather than modeling the love of God to their children, many dads instill in them the fear of God by painting a picture of anger, judgement, and criticism, or maybe one of apathy and abandonment.

If your experience with your father–or as a father–was (or is) more like what you just read than what our panel shared about, please keep reading…

While our panel of dads shared many wise and honest points, there was one line that hit me harder than everything else they said. It was a response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge as a dad?” The answer we heard from Trevor, the youngest of the three dads, is one that I know I’ll be wrestling through for a while. Trevor has two young sons, currently one and four years old. He answered the question with these words:

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

His words hit me hard. They led me to a trail head for a path I was (and am still, honestly…) resistant to travel. The path is rocky and steep. It’s dark and shadowy and a bit mysterious. It’s full of memories that could cause me to slip and fall and bleed. It’s a path I don’t want to take–and I don’t have to. I could walk right past the entrance and move on. I could find another trail–one full of butterflies and wildflowers, one well-marked and well-lit.

I don’t want to take the rocky path. Because it might cultivate compassion that I don’t want to have for a person that has wounded me deeply, and continues to do so…

The Holy Spirit delivered Trevor’s words into the core of me. It felt a bit like a sucker punch, the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you a little panicky as you gasp for air. I resisted immediately, because, well, self-pity feels better than self-emptying love. And anger can feel like power and control in situations that otherwise leave you feeling small and insignificant. 

I wanted to stay in the anger. I told God that.

But even as I wrestled, I knew that this would be the next page in my story. God was inviting me deeper, into a place of compassion, grace, and forgiveness through Trevor’s words. Would I take his hand and let him lead me onto this rocky trail in front of me, the one called “Ian”?

Ian is my dad. Our relationship is complicated, and to catch you all up to where we are today would require far too many words. What you need to know, for now, is that I came into church on Sunday hurting and guarded and wanting to go back home. Because once again, my dad had broken my heart and left me feeling disappointed and invisible. I’m learning that anger is my go-to emotion when I feel unseen, because, as I said before, anger can feel like power and control. So that’s where I was as I listened to our panel.

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

Trevor’s words led me to a trail head called “Ian”, not “Dad”. A trail called “Dad” would lead me through the winding, treacherous journey back through our story as father and daughter. God was inviting me, instead, to traverse the trail of Ian’s story. That realization alone was enough to cause stress fractures in the walls around my heart. I know his story, and it’s tragic. One chapter from the story of his early years would be enough to soften the hardest heart… but, somehow, I’d forgotten that. I  had locked all of that in a box and hid it behind the file cabinet of my own pain.

I couldn’t go there yesterday. I thanked Trevor for sharing and let him know that I was pretty sure I’d end up writing about how God had used his words. And then I left with my family to celebrate my husband and his dad.

I couldn’t run away from it today, though…

What if I applied Trevor’s answer to my Dad? What if I took the first step onto the perilous path of his life story with eyes to see and ears to hear what it was like for him? What if I opened that locked box and let the stories I’ve put away come into view?

My dad endured a childhood no little boy should ever have to face. The stories aren’t mine to share, so I will speak in generalities, but I assure you that the details would rip your heart in two. He faced abuse and abandonment. When he courageously stood up to protect his mother at the tender age of eight, the cost was his father, whom he never saw again. He endured poverty and a fractured, blended family. He endured spiritual warfare terrifying enough to break box office records in the horror category. The man who eventually ended up sticking around in his life was a good man, but he was a hard man who only softened in his later years. Despite the odds against him, my dad excelled in school and in sports. He found a love for God through the faith of his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have survived all that life threw at her–but somehow she did.

He wanted to be a pastor…

But then he found himself entangled in a “church” that preached patriarchy and a vengeful, angry God. It was a place that stripped young, hopeful Jesus-followers of their identities and manipulated them in a grotesque show of power and control that took the forms of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse. This place broke him. And his brokenness broke his family.

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

It’s still breaking my heart, and now the hearts of my own kids.

And I want to be angry…

But as I recall all he’s been through, all that’s made him who he is; as I think about what was modeled to him from every father figure he’s ever known, I have to acknowledge it:

My dad’s biggest challenge as a father is himself, too. 

His shame, his broken little-boy heart, his fragmented history… How do you learn to be a father when that is the story of you?

As I exhale, my narrative shifts… Considering all he’s been through, he hasn’t done too badly. My saying that doesn’t mean he’s “off the hook” for all the pain he’s caused me and those I love. It does mean, however, that I can cultivate compassion for this man, named Ian. This man who, if I didn’t know him as my father, I would be devastated for. A man whose story is heartbreaking and woven into the person he is–the good and the bad. A man who, against all odds, has held onto hope and to God, and who brings a lot of good into the world. Acknowledging his story allows me to focus on his strengths and to see the good in him. And there truly is good in him–and in all of us. I get to choose what I focus on–we all do.

Maybe the biggest challenge we all face as human beings is ourselves. Maybe Trevor’s answer applies to all of us… Maybe it’s our own shortcomings, each of our file cabinets filled with our pain and disappointment, that get in the way of our loving each other well.

And maybe that’s why we all need the reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us. We wrote these words in our Mother’s Day post:

“…Wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God… Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet…  There is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but as we commit these things to God,“he will bring life to it.” We are “a people of hope”, and God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” 

None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. (And stories we may have forgotten about…) His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.”

These words are worth repeating, because we have to be reminded that our weakness is not something to be afraid of… and the weakness of someone else–even if that someone else is our dad or our mom–isn’t something we have to be angry about. We can choose compassion when everything within us would rather run the other way. Because the story doesn’t hinge on our parents, on our children, or on us. The story hinges on the father who is also mother. The father who is perfect and shows up brightest in our imperfections.

My dad isn’t perfect. There are wounds in my heart that aren’t healed, and may never be. But my Father is perfect. He is perfect in his love for me as his daughter, and he is perfect in his love for my dad, who is just as much his child. He alone can come into the broken and cultivate compassion rather than anger, if we let him. These words from a song we sang on Sunday keep running through my head:

My weakness is hidden within Your glory
Jesus, my strength is in You
The odds are against me, but You are for me
Jesus, my strength is in You

(Power, Elevation Worship)

The odds are against all of us. But we all have One who is for us. And his perfect parental love is enough to carry us from where we are to where we could be, if we trust him enough to take his hand and let him lead us.

–Laura

As I read what Laura wrote above, my heart hurts for my friend, my heart hurts for Ian, and my heart hurts for all those who’ve struggled in their relationships with their dads. That is not my story. My dad is not perfect, but he’s fantastic. He was very free with loving words and loving actions.

I have no idea how many of my childhood hours were spent traipsing through the woods, catching tadpoles and crawdads in creeks, floating in a canoe down a river, walking together on trails, sitting in his lap while he read me books, even sliding down his cast when he broke his leg. He taught me, with words and actions, about God’s love, about prayer being listening to God as well as speaking to God-and we practiced that together. We memorized the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm together. When my mother died, he gave us permission to be angry and grieved honestly in front of and with us. When my life exploded in 2011, he was my confidant, my safe person, and gave wise and beautiful support and counsel without degrading anyone else. He will be ninety on his next birthday, and though his physical body is causing him a good bit of trouble, his brilliant mind, his gentle ways, and his love are still pillars in my life. I recognize that my story is a rare one. I am grateful.

Pastor John reminded us as he shared,  that we weren’t comparing fathers and mothers and which parent is most important or has greater influence because both reflect the image of God and both are incredibly influential; however, he did point out that there is a weightiness that goes with the role of being a dad. Many times, the view we have of God comes from the view we have of our earthly dads. In my case, that’s a great thing. In the case of others, it’s not so great, which is why what Laura does above is so powerful. She began to remember her dad’s own story, his own holes, his brokenness, his story, and it led her to compassion for her dad. Again, not excusing or dismissing her pain, but adding another element to the story.

When I was in counseling a few years ago, the counselor’s office had ampersands (&) in various locations. One of the concepts that they reminded us of over and over is that life happens in the tension of the “and”. I’ve found that to be very helpful, and have an ampersand in my own house to help me remember. What does it mean to live in the tension of the “and”? Two seemingly opposing truths can be true without one canceling out the other. It’s both/and rather than either/or. I am a generous person and I am a selfish person.  Both are true. I live in the tension between the two truths.

What Laura was doing in remembering Ian’s story, was adding the tension that comes with the ampersand. The ampersand helps us to cultivate compassion, even as we grapple with very real wounds.

Life might seem easier if everything was black and white. It’s not. We live in the gray. We live in the tension. One of my son’s friends, who has the authority in his job to hire and fire people, allows situations to go on for a while as he learns the story behind the story. He shared that he prefers to offer grace in the gray before determining whether to let someone go or not. I’ve adopted his phrase. Grace in the gray–not an easy place to be, not without wrestling, but maybe the best place to be in the many situations over which we have no control, which includes the parents we have, and the choices our children make.

So, as the child of a parent, as the parent of a child, as the “stand-in” parent for children and young adults to whom we didn’t give birth, as a success and as a failure, can we offer grace to ourselves and to others in the gray? That doesn’t mean that we stuff our pain. We have to acknowledge it. We have to deal with it. But it does mean that we see a fuller picture with a wide-scope lens acknowledging that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2a). There is always more to the story. Can we offer grace in the gray? If so, I think we may just be surprised to find healing in that place.

–Luanne

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