Stories… “Arise, My God”

When a person survives a life-threatening situation, we tend to focus on the miracle. We rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. And that is good and beautiful and absolutely appropriate. But it’s only a glimpse of the story, an incomplete picture at best.

This weekend, we were blessed to hear the other side of a miraculous story. The parts that we don’t usually ask about, the pieces that–while they’re not often celebrated–may actually contain the greater miracles. Kent’s story is a powerful one. It is a story of a dire diagnosis-Acute Myeloid Leukemia-that took him immediately away from home and into the throes of chemotherapy and hospital living. He endured infections, septic shock and at least one night at death’s door. We have seen God show up and do the impossible time after time in Kent’s life since the day he was diagnosed. From the perspective of someone who battled in prayer for him, it seemed that God was so near, so close–that He never left Kent’s side.

And He didn’t.

But what we learned as Kent shared so transparently with us, is that he wasn’t so sure. And after hearing about the less than glamorous side of this walking miracle, I am convinced that the greater miracle is what God did in the dark…

Kent shared with us that in the beginning of this journey, he sensed God telling him, “I’m going to teach you something more”. He said that when he heard this, he expected God to take him to new heights. Instead He took him to new depths. In this unfamiliar place, God seemed different than He had before. Kent was unsure of who He was. It was a dark, fearful, lonely place, and God seemed to have a harshness to Him that Kent hadn’t known before. Have you ever been in a season like that? A dark night of the soul, when God seemed cold and distant and out of reach? I imagine you have. To varying degrees, we all have probably experienced what Kent expressed.

It is in these places, these seasons marked with confusion and the threat of chaos, that we have a choice to make. Do we succumb to the fear, the loneliness, the lack of understanding and sink into the shadows of despair? Or do we lean in, trusting in what we know to be true of our God-even when we can’t feel Him near? There is a word for the honest, grief-filled cries of the soul that rise from our depths when we choose to lean in. That word is lament. The Psalms are full of laments. There is a whole book in the Bible dedicated to them. Choosing to lament before our Father requires a willing vulnerability. To lament is to bring your tattered, worn, aching heart before God without holding anything back. To lament is to implore God to listen, to act on behalf of our grief. It is bringing our hardest questions and asking our Father. It is ugly crying. It often includes shouts and wailing and indecipherable groans. It can look and sound different for each one of us. But it is always brutally honest. And it happens during dark, uncertain times, when we’re not sure God’s even listening.

What we rarely see in the moment are the treasures that are found in the darkness.

Isaiah 45:3, in the Amplified Bible, says this:

And I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

In a book I keep coming back to, the author talks about these “treasures”. She writes, “We do not go through dark nights of the soul for nothing. We enter into these regions to find treasures that they alone hold. Jewels and precious metals are rarely found on the surface but rather are mined deep underground. Likewise, God’s treasures are unearthed when we enter, willingly or unwillingly, into dark regions and dig deep within ourselves and within the caverns of who God really is.” (This Beloved Road, Amy Layne Litzelman)

This same author writes elsewhere, “…a season of transition always stands between where we are and where He wants to take us. Something must be left behind and something gained in order to go on… We don’t understand how we can do what He has asked of us. And yet, know this: the moment we say with Jesus, “I want Your will, not mine”, mighty and glorious grace is released for the journey ahead.” 

During Kent’s dark night of the soul, he chose to lean in, to lament. He refused to let his journey be wasted, whatever the outcome. I believe the “outcome” is multi-faceted. There are pieces of his miracle left to unfold, as is true in all of our stories. But however the rest of his story unfolds, he found treasures in his darkness. As he placed his life in the hands of a God he couldn’t even feel in the moment, glorious grace was released for his journey. He saw God differently, he found unexpected beauty in unlikely places. His story speaks to the miracle of a healed body–and it testifies to an even greater miracle: A heart renewed in the truth of who his God really is. A God who never leaves us in our loneliest moments. A God who leads us into the darkness where we would never choose to go–because He wants to give us treasures that we can find no other way.

Are you living through a season where God feels far away? May Kent’s story encourage you to lean in, lament, and hold on-there are treasures to be found…

-Laura

I cried this morning while Kent spoke. I didn’t anticipate crying, but there was such beauty in the rawness of his season in the dark that it brought me to tears. He shared with us treasures, the type of treasures that Laura wrote about above, that if we are willing, they can be gems for us as well.

John asked Kent “What’s changed?”  Kent told us that upon receiving the life altering, possibly life ending diagnosis he asked himself, “What am I living for? What is truly important?” All of a sudden the treasures of this world didn’t matter anymore, and Kent had to wrestle, even in the spiritual realm with whether he wanted the things that Jesus offers—comfort, peace, presence—or if it was Jesus himself that Kent desired.  That’s a powerful question for us to wrestle with. Is Jesus alone our treasure? Kent pointed out in first service that there were only three, out of all the people who followed Jesus, only three that went to the cross. Are we willing to go the distance with him, to the hard places with him, the dangerous places with him, because he alone is who we desire? Or do we only “follow” him to get the benefits?

Kent talked about how alone he felt. For a portion of his lengthy hospital stay, after his closest call with death when he had to be intubated and coded, he couldn’t feel the presence of God, he couldnt’ feel the power or the warmth of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t sure in that moment who God was,  the experience felt harsh, and it didn’t feel like something a loving God would do. In addition to that spiritual isolation, anyone who entered his room had to wear a mask, gloves, a gown, booties—no one could touch him. So not only was there no sense of God’s touch, there was no human touch either. There was fear, there was confusion. Isolation.

As Laura wrote above, Kent turned to lament. He reminded us that many of the Psalms are laments, that it’s okay, it’s healthy to lament; yet in the lamenting hang on to God’s truth.

And then the unanticipated beauty—Kent asked for someone to bring him his guitar. He sat in his hospital room at night and played songs of worship and sang. He did not know it at the time, but outside his door nurses would gather and listen, some patients would gather and listen. As Kent reached through the darkness for God, God was using him to minister to others in the hospital. That’s not why he did it. Kent was honestly seeking, searching, reaching, lamenting, praising, and God was using Kent’s raw honesty to reach others on that floor. Eugene Peterson once said that the people who made the greatest difference in his life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference. Kent wasn’t trying to make a difference. He was merely being his authentic raw self—no masks, no pretense, no knowledge that God was using him—yet God was using him. What a beautiful reminder that when we walk humbly with our God, the world is impacted.

John asked Kent, “What would you say to someone who is battling today—who sees God as distant?” Kent emphatically replied that God is not distant, that He is here when we can’t feel or touch him. And then he said what may have been my favorite part of his sharing—he said that even though he couldn’t feel Jesus he got to see Jesus through the church, the body of Christ. Jesus touched Kent through our prayers, cards, text messages, visits, and Kent reminded us that this is what we are about. This is what the church is to be about. He encouraged those who may want to isolate, to stay connected because the Church truly is the hands and feet of Jesus—we are how the hurting get touched. Kent shared with us other major events from his own life, he called them “possible soul destroying” events, but his soul wasn’t destroyed because Jesus showed his love in each of those hard seasons through the body of Christ.

Then he reminded us that the church has a choice.  He said, “We can bless or we can curse and both go a long way. Be a blessing to those around you; love, pray, reach out, touch—it’s not about condemnation, it’s about calling people to a higher place…We know Jesus redeems but it’s the body that puts the touch to Jesus’ redemption…we point people to Jesus by being him.” 

I don’t know what those words do to you. I know that they fan the flame in me. My passion for Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is really this simple. Know the Jesus of the gospels well enough to be Jesus to those around you. All others.  Bless, lift up, love, touch, reach out, listen to,  pray with, pray for, don’t condemn, don’t curse…we point people to Jesus by being him.  Can you imagine if the entire capital “C” Church made this our mission? That’s what I want my life to be about. How about you?

—Luanne

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Colossians 1:24-29

I attended a conference last weekend that changed my life and gave me a new lens through which to see the world. As John was sharing the message that God gave to him based on Colossians 1:24-29, some of the things I learned last week were brought to the forefront of my mind.

John reminded us that we each have a role to play in sharing the message of the revealed mystery of God, which is that the living Christ lives in us, which means the hope of God’s glory lives in us (v. 27) or as The Message translation puts it: “Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory.”

John reminded us of Colossians 1:19 which tells us that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus).”, and then the bombshell from Ephesians 3:17-19 …”And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

That you and I may be filled with the fullness of God…just like Jesus, and out of that fullness we have also received the commission from God to present the word of God in its fullness (v 25) to those who don’t yet know the mystery.

I think any Christian who has been in church for a while knows that we are not here for ourselves. We’ve all heard that the greatest commandment is to  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and all your strength…and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22: 37;39). And we know that the great commission, which is our call, our commission–all of us-– is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (Mt 28: 19-20), but for some reason, many of us never bridge the gap from talking about it to actually doing it.

I learned the phrase “virtue signaling” at the conference last week. According to the Cambridge Dictionary virtue signaling means “an attempt to show other people that you are a good person by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media.” The Urban Dictionary takes the definition one step further and says “Saying you love or hate something to show off what a virtuous person you are, instead of actually trying to fix the problem.” I’m afraid that many of us who follow Christ are virtue signalers. We love Jesus, we hate that there are lost people in the world, injustice bothers us, we talk about it amongst ourselves, we post about it, but very few of us step into engaging the commission of God in a real way. Why?

I believe it goes to another thing that I learned at the conference. Many cultures in the world live with an emphasis on the community rather than the individual. I experienced the beauty of that kind of life when I lived in Brazil. However, in our majority culture in the United States, we live very individualistically, so the body of Christ becomes a group of collective “I’s” rather than a “we”. And our majority culture has a strong tendency to stay silent about many things. This leads us to hoping that someone else will do the scary stuff, the hard stuff, the stuff that might cost something. I think we know this, I even think it causes us to squirm a little with some guilt, yet we don’t move. So what’s the answer?

It is recognizing that Kingdom of God culture must trump our own culture, and acknowledging that God has given us everything we need to do everything that He has called us to. We have the living Christ living in us, we have the fullness of God living in us, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us (John 14:17 “the Spirit of truth…lives with you and will be IN you), and God himself has said “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). And even in the Old Testament God tells us through the prophet Zechariah that it’s “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” (Zech. 4:6)

So, like Paul, it’s pushing through the scary, through the desire to stay silent, through the desire to self-protect, through the false narrative that maybe it’s not part of my kingdom role, and moving into “proclaiming Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ…with all HIS energy which so powerfully works in (us).” (Col 1: 28:29) And all that you have to know in order to do this, is your own story with Jesus. If you know Him, you are equipped and ready.

So take heart–we can join in purposefully pushing back the darkness to bring in the Kingdom of Light because the fullness of the Trinity live in us. The Spirit of God has power, and that power allows normal, everyday people to operate with the supernatural power of Jesus. The Kingdom of God advances on the walk and talk of those who know Christ, one person at a time. Are we willing to take what we’ve received from God, crucify ourselves in order that the Spirit may truly come alive in us, and actively participate in the work of His kingdom wherever He has placed us in life?

–Luanne

“I think any Christian who has been in church for a while knows that we are not here for ourselves. We’ve all heard that the greatest commandment is to  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and all your strength…and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37,39)…but for some reason, many of us never bridge the gap from talking about it to actually doing it.”

Luanne’s words resonated in my soul… She highlighted what it means to be a “virtue signaler” and also explained the way our individualistic mindset can hinder our response to the calling we have been entrusted with. She expressed that,

“This leads us to hoping that someone else will do the scary stuff, the hard stuff, the stuff that might cost something. I think we know this, I even think it causes us to squirm a little with some guilt, yet we don’t move…”

As we read Paul’s accounts through Colossians, however, we see a man who not only moves, but does so with abandon, with wholehearted devotion-and in the face of extreme persecution most of us will never come close to comprehending.

What did Paul know that we struggle to understand? I think maybe it’s less about what he knew, and more about Who he knew. He knew the Jesus of the Bible.

We do, too… right?

We do… to a point. We do to the extent that we can understand. John spoke about the ways we see Scripture through the lens of our traditions and experiences rather than seeing our experiences through the lens of Scripture. He reminded us that it must be the the living Word, the power of the Holy Spirit within us that shapes our understanding. It is only through the power of the Trinity residing within us that we are moved, shaped, changed and sent out.

Paul knew the real Jesus. Not the Jesus many of us have been presented with in our various backgrounds and traditions. He knew the Jesus that “…did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He knew the suffering Savior. Paul understood that his role was to be a servant to the Churchnot a savior of the church. The church already had a Savior–the same Savior that rewrote the story of a man named Saul. The same Savior that changed his name from Saul, which means “asked for, prayed for”, to Paul: “humble or small one”. This was so much more than a change of name for him. He went from being important, from lording his identity as a prominent, privileged Pharisee to seeing himself in light of his new name-small and humble under the lordship of Jesus, for whom he was willing to give his whole life.  He had met the suffering Savior and he got it. He understood what he had been entrusted with. He knew the power of being raised to new life in Jesus. And he knew he had been called to make known to everyone-Jew & Gentile, rich & poor, slave & free-the truth of the Gospel that he had-prior to encountering the Jesus who saved him-refuted and persecuted with murderous passion!

Paul suffered from no illusions that serving Jesus wouldn’t cost him. And more than that, he rejoiced in his sufferings–for the sake of the church! For the sake of people who needed to know this Jesus who had come to redeem humanity unto Himself.

Colossians 1:24b-25a from The Message paraphrase says this:

“…There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world-the kind of suffering Christ takes on. I welcome the chance to take my share in the church’s part of that suffering…” 

John said, “We suffer as an extension of what Christ did”. We must choose our response to our suffering Savior. Do we choose to enter into the world’s suffering-knowing it will cost us-as an extension of what Jesus suffered for us? Or do we talk the talk without following through? If we see Jesus only through the lens of tradition, only through the lens of a privileged existence that longs for safety, security, prosperity and pleasure–we cannot enter into the world’s suffering with authenticity. But if we look to Scripture and let the Holy Spirit reveal to our hearts the truth about the Jesus we serve, He will show us who we are in light of all that He is. He will lead us into our true identities. For so long, we (the western Church) have pushed back against the idea of suffering. We have created prosperity teachings that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus. And we have lived lives marked by fear of suffering. But when we remove our filters and look at the life of Jesus and His first followers, we see that the Gospel is truly about the first becoming last, for the sake of the lasts having the chance to be first. It’s an upside-down Kingdom.

Paul knew this. He encountered Jesus and he was changed. His story was rewritten and he was given a new life and a fresh start. The weight of what he had been entrusted with propelled him into a life of willing servitude on behalf of the world. He led with his story of what Jesus had done for him. And he understood that it wasn’t in his own strength that he carried this weight. It was the very power of God working within him.

John said, “Paul got the suffering, but he also got the strengthening”. Paul was willing to move into the suffering life his Savior had modeled. And so, he got the strengthening that enabled him to walk the walk unto completion. Sometimes we ask for the strengthening without being willing to enter into the suffering. But we don’t get to move into the strengthening without first embracing the suffering. We don’t need to be strengthened to keep up the status quo. To keep talking the talk without walking the walk. We need the strengthening to endure the suffering. To keep showing up. To keep entering into the pain of the world, as Paul’s life so beautifully modeled.

How do we do it? How do we enter into the suffering? We do exactly what John charged us to do this weekend:

“Speak to the one God has placed in front of you. We are the communicators. Hard is part of it. Move to it. Move through it. We can’t. He can. Let Him do it through you. All things are possible in Him.”

And what do we speak? Luanne stated it in beautiful simplicity:

“…all that you have to know in order to do this, is your own story with Jesus. If you know Him, you are equipped and ready”.

Do you know Him? This suffering Savior who came to give his life as a servant? If you don’t, I pray that He will reveal Himself to your heart so that you, like Paul, can have a new story, a fresh start. If you do, are you willing to embrace the role of servant and enter into the suffering of the world as an extension of what Jesus did for you? I pray that we can all give a resounding “yes” to that question and move out into a world that is desperately waiting for our talk to materialize into a walk that will walk with them. 

We would love to hear your thoughts-please share with us any questions and comments you have.

–Laura

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