Stories: Jonathan & Jeaneece

As I reflect on the story we heard on Sunday morning, my eyes fill with salty pools again. We were given a gift that few are courageous enough to give another: raw, undiluted vulnerability. Truth, spilled from weary, hurting hearts. I am so grateful for the words that Jonathan and Jeaneece shared with us, and it is a terrifying honor to be sharing and expanding upon some of those words here.

The Schmidts married young. Their journey together began in New Mexico. While working at a youth camp in the mountains, Jonathan heard a call into ministry. He heard these words: “I want you to be my watchtower.”

Jonathan had never aspired to be a pastor. In fact, he shared that, “A pastor is the one thing I never wanted to be.” Much like Jonathan, Jeaneece had never seen herself as a pastor’s wife. Yet, here they were. Jonathan said that this call started a season of  bargaining with God, and laying fleeces out–fleeces that God responded to as He, over and over again, provided a way.

They remained in New Mexico, serving at a church there, for three years. During these years, Jonathan recalls rubbing elbows with the higher-ups and not liking what he saw. He said that his thoughts at that time were basically, “If this is what ministry is, I’m out of here.” 

A friend told Jonathan, “Run. If you’re called, you won’t be able to hide.”   

And so they left. They ran. All the way to Bellingham, Washington. They both worked outside of the church world. But they didn’t stay away from church. They began to serve with the youth at their new church–strictly on a volunteer, unpaid basis though–at their request. They loved their students deeply and, eventually, Jonathan found himself on staff again. Turns out his friend had been correct–he couldn’t hide.

At some point along the way, they had two daughters and then two sons. They landed back in New Mexico–Albuquerque this time–for a season, and eventually they ended up back in Washington. As they described the many transitions and changes, Jeaneece said, “All of a sudden…life happened.” 

Jonathan and Jeaneece spent 32 years in ministry. And then, in December 2014, they realized they’d had enough. They needed to be done. They had nothing left. The environment they were in was toxic. That transitional time in their lives is what eventually brought them to Casper.

What had they had enough of? What did they need to be done with? In a word: church. Their experiences in ministry left them empty and needing to be done. Jonathan, in describing some of these experiences, said, “I didn’t think I signed up for what I saw.”

What was it that he saw? When Pastor John asked him how he saw the church, he said, “They seemed to be about building their little kingdoms.” He shared that his relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. He had witnessed power plays, been stabbed in the back by his head pastor, and had seen leaders conspiring against pastors. He saw “self-righteous, religious, church garbage”, and he witnessed fighting over music, buildings, and what would be taught. At a particularly raw moment, he spoke these words…

“I trust no one… I’m having to re-learn how to trust God.”

Of the current season they are in, Jonathan said, “We don’t know what this story looks like tomorrow…” 

Yeah. I feel that, too. You probably do as well… We don’t know what the story will look like tomorrow. A different line in our series introduction video stood out to me this week:

“Is the Writer trustworthy to get the middle right? To surprise us with His love one more time?”

It seems to me that this line captures where Jonathan and Jeaneece are right now. They left the ministry after 32 years, but in many ways, where they are now is in the middle. Not the end. Not by any means. And they know that…  They articulated that they know God’s not done yet–but they don’t know what it looks like.

They have been hurt deeply by the church… and yet they are still a part of ours. What a gift we have been given in who they are and the story they carry into our midst. The reminder they give us to be on our guard against the temptation to build our own comfortable kingdom–not simply because that isn’t the Kingdom Jesus came to bring, but because when we forget why we exist, we hurt people.

Jonathan said to the faces that dotted the sanctuary, “Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

His words gutted me.

He was thanking us for allowing them to come in as far as they could bear, without asking them to dive in further. For letting them be exactly where they are on their journey without making them feel like that wasn’t enough. But the way he put the words together…

Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

Thank you for giving us the space to exist…”

I wanted to respond, “Thank you for gracing our edges with your existence, for choosing to exist among us.”

How did we get where we are, Church? As the big “C” church of Jesus? That someone’s experience could be so damaging, so painful, that us simply giving them space to exist on the edges would be such a gift? Why are we so bad at simply letting one another exist? Exactly as we are, where we are? How did we get so far from loving God and loving others, from carrying Jesus’ kingdom of love to those around us?

A pastor and his wife who deeply love Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to extend that love to so many who were desperate for what they had, left the ministry after 32 painstaking years–depleted, disillusioned, with nothing left to give. It breaks my heart. And as I sat, shaken to my core by their honesty and their pain, the Spirit implored me to search my own heart. To see where I’ve fallen into the “business” of church life and forgotten to make space for those around me to exist in whatever way they need to. I am grateful for the reminder of how ugly we, as human beings, can be. How selfish and cruel we can be, the ways we tear each other down in pursuit of our own comfort and greatness.

How Jonathan and Jeaneece got here, to Casper, to our church, is a heartbreaking story. But I am so, so glad they are here. Whether they realize it or not, they are still ministering to those around them. They carry the Jesus that they love faithfully, even especially in their brokenness. They’re not afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with God about the hard. And their realness invites us to be real, too. They say they are “making it” right now by taking it day by day, trusting that God has enough for that day. Jeaneece said, “Day by day, you have to make the choice to reach for joy. It’s a deliberate search for things to be thankful for, an intentionality of looking for the good.” 

They are in process, as we all are. They’re in the murky middle, wondering, hoping and somehow knowing that the Writer is trustworthy to get it right–to surprise them with His love one more time…

Let’s give each other space to exist friends, to be the Church that loves like Jesus and lives for His Kingdom-not our own.

–Laura

I wish you all could know Jonathan and Jeaneece. They are beautiful, tender-hearted people. Their vulnerability as they shared drew us in. There were a lot of tears, I could hear gentle weeping all around me, and I cried too. Theirs is a story of deep love, and of deep grief. There is much we can learn from them.

Jonathan shared with us that when he met the real Jesus as a teenager,  he was overwhelmed by an intense love like he’d never known. Jonathan has experienced the deep love of Jesus, and he loves Jesus deeply–which is why his grief is so deep. Any of us who have been loved deeply, and love deeply in return are grief-stricken when the object of our love is misrepresented and abused. Jonathan shared with us that being a loyal defender has been hard-wired into him since he was a child. What he has experienced on church staffs cut him to the core, because Jesus-the one who loves him deeply, and the one he loves in return-has been misrepresented. Jonathan’s heart is to be lovingly and deeply loyal to Jesus and His mission.

Laura wrote above that both Jonathan’s grandfather and his dad were pastors. Jonathan didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus, and certainly didn’t want to be a pastor. He said that what he had observed led him to believe that “it” doesn’t work.  So, when he was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, it was a huge moment in his life.

Jeaneece had never aspired to be a pastor’s wife. It’s a hard thing–both to be in ministry (which she was), and to be married to a “professional” minister.

I am the daughter of a pastor–and the wife of a pastor. I did not want to marry anyone in the ministry either. Unlike Jonathan’s experience, my dad modeled Jesus in a beautiful way. My dad is a gentle, wise, shepherd who drinks from a deep fountain and ministers from that place. I did not realize how rare that was until I left home. But even gentle, loving pastors can come under attack from factions in their church, so after pastoring the same church from the time I was six years old until I was pregnant with my third child at the age of thirty, my dad retired early because he didn’t want the church he loved and had poured his life into to split. It was ugly, hateful, satanic. The man who started the ugly went on to be a denominational leader in my home state, and in that state the denomination has been in lawsuits and power plays that have been very public. It makes my heart sick.

Even when the “hard” isn’t that public, life for ministers and their families is challenging.

There is tremendous pressure placed upon pastors and their families. We live in a fishbowl, and many people live as if they have permission to make commentary on how they think we’re doing. The children of the pastor have expectations placed upon them to be perfect, and if they’re not, it’s a reflection on their parent. I hated running into an adult from church when I was with my friends as a teenager. I would be introduced as their pastor’s daughter, and all of a sudden there was an expectation to be a certain way. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that my teen years were wrought with self-destruction and pain–however, I never wanted that to reflect on my dad.

The pressure put on pastor’s children leads either to “performing” as perfect models, or running the other direction and giving up completely. One day, just a couple of years ago, a nationwide Christian radio station was discussing pastor’s kids on the air. The phone calls “joking” or complaining about the kids almost made me want scream. I wrote a letter to the station and expressed how deeply hurtful that was.

I wanted my own children to have permission to cultivate and navigate their own relationships with Jesus. I didn’t want them pretending in order to “look the part”. That didn’t stop the outside pressure, but I have defended them more than once by pointing out that doctors’ kids still get sick, dentists’ kids still get cavities, and neither the kid or their parents are judged for it. What a gift it would be to let pastors’ kids be kids without judgment or unrealistic expectations. I’m in my mid-fifties and still recovering from being a PK.

As for being a pastor’s wife–my friends know never to introduce me that way to anyone. As soon as that “title” is shared, authentic conversation goes out the window. It’s a weird and uncomfortable thing. I want to be introduced as “my friend, Luanne.”

At church, when I am introduced as the pastor’s wife, I ask people not to hold that against me and to let go of any pre-conceived notions that they might have, because I’m not any of those things. I would rather get to know real people and let people get to know the real me–then if they learn that I’m the pastor’s wife, it’s not so weird because they already know that I’m normal. And one other thing–I don’t serve in my church because I’m the pastor’s wife. I serve because I love Jesus, and like any other lay person, I am using my gifts in the body because I love Him.

Unrealistic expectations and pressures put on pastors and their families was one of the things that was difficult for Jonathan and Jeaneece. Expectations that pastors/leaders are somehow supposed to have all the gifts, do all the things, and if they are not perfect or doing it well, the large target on their back is shot at ferociously.

On the flip side of the issue of unrealistic expectations, there are pastors who use their role to exert power and influence, and who sometimes abuse that power and harm many in the process.

Jonathan, with incredible passion and pain shared about his experiences on church staffs by stating: “My relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. This is supposed to be the place where we come share that love–not about stupid arguments. I didn’t get into this to run a church. I didn’t want it.” During the second service he said  he had seen too much “self-righteous, religious garbage–fighting over ridiculous things and the church huddled together to try to make ourselves more comfortable while there are thousands on the outside in need of what we have.”

His righteous indignation is spot on. He loves Jesus deeply. He made attempts to redirect elders and pastors who were sidetracked. He was told to “shut up”. The stress caused symptoms that mimicked heart attacks. Jeaneece, finally said to him, “Jonathan, we’ve had enough. We need to be done.” and then she looked at us and stated, “It was toxic.”

It was toxic. The church was toxic.

Jeaneece, in talking about that season,  reminded us of the time when the prophet Elijah ran and hid.

He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.”  Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep. Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.”  So Elijah sat up and ate and drank. The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai,  the mountain of God,  and he spent the night there in a cave.  (1 Kings 19:4-9)

The Lord sent an angel to minister to Elijah. He was gentle with Elijah. He met Elijah in his despair. And a few verses later the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, refreshed Elijah, encouraged Elijah, and gently called him back.

Elijah wasn’t the only person in scripture who wanted to die in the middle of a ministry career. The Apostle Paul did too.  In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  (1:8)

Paul had mean, religious people stirring up trouble everywhere he went in his ministry.  Jesus did too–mean religious people who had an agenda, were willing to buddy up to the Roman government to get their way, were willing to lie and listen to false testimony (read about the night time, unlawful “trial” of Jesus), in order to kill him and retain their power.

And dear ones, it is still happening today. Like Jonathan and Jeaneece, it grieves me deeply.

Religion makes people mean. The Holy Spirit transforms people into the likeness of Jesus.

Religion is issues focused. Jesus is people focused.

Religion follows agendas. The Holy Spirit leads lovers of Jesus to follow His ways.

Religion has no heart. Being a new creation in Christ means that the heart of Jesus is in us–the heart that beats with the intent that all people experience His love through our love.

Speaking in generalities, the corporate church is not introducing the real Jesus to the world. We are loud about political parties. We are loud about concrete commandments being posted in public spaces. We are loud about who is in and who is out.  We are loud as we shame people who have made decisions we disagree with. We are loud, and we are mean.

Inside our walls we argue about music styles, carpet colors, who gets to use which tables, ridiculous temporal things, while-as Jonathan noted, thousands of people are desperate for what we have.

We are toxic.

It hurts my heart to write those words. Over the centuries, we have lost our way. We are having affairs with many things, while forgetting that we are the bride of Jesus.

The Lord is faithful in every generation to have prophetic voices that call us back to single-hearted devotion to Him. Jonathan and Jeaneece have that voice. It’s been costly. The religious resist the prophets, and the prophets pay a high price.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lamented over the hypocrisy of  the religious. He finished his lament with these words:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.

Will we listen to the voices that He is sending us in this generation? Will we let go of religion, of agendas, of issues? Our real mission is clear. Jesus made it clear.  Love God. Love people. Model His life. Proclaim good news to the poor. Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Go everywhere and teach people to love God and love people–do this, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In doing this, God’s Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And if you are a prophet who’s had enough,  Jesus says to you:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message.

Thank you Jonathan and Jeaneece. God will not waste your pain.

–Luanne

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Hold On: Habakkuk 3

In week one of this series, Pastor John encouraged us to hold on to hope. In week two, we learned about how to hold on in the waiting. In the third and final installment of this series, it was all about Who we’re holding on to.

Habakkuk, whose very name means to embrace or wrestle with, to hold on, sets the third chapter of his book to music. The whole chapter is a song, a heart cry to his God. Have you ever sung your heart out to God? As Habakkuk sings his prayer-or prays his song-however you want to look at it (I personally believe prayer and worship are synonymous…), he is also spurring his own soul to remember.  As he wrestles with the coming destruction of his people, he does two things. Luanne wrote about the first in last week”s blog. He chose wisely in the waiting. Luanne wrote:

“Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God.”

And in this week’s passage, he remembers. These are some pieces of his prayer, his song:

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy… God came… His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden… He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble… His ways are eternal… Sun and moon stood still in the heavens… You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one…” (Habakkuk 3:2-13, NIV, selected verses)

After Habakkuk recalls where and how he has seen God move in the past, he finds himself overwhelmed… and resolute.

“I trembled inside when I heard this; my lips quivered with fear. My legs gave way beneath me, and I shook in terror. I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us. Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:16-19 NLT)

Have you ever found yourself in a season so dark that you had to borrow light from the past in order to move forward? Have you ever heard a message that plunged you into the depths of despair, to a place so terrifying that you had to consult your memories in order to find any hope at all?

I’ve received messages like that… As a little girl, there was the news that my daddy was moving out-it ushered in the dark… The message that my baby might not survive did the same… The news that what I thought I was called to do was no longer an option for me-the stripping of what turned out to be a false identity-brought in an entirely different type of darkness…The relayed message that my little girl had been bitten by a rattlesnake while her dad and I were 1,100 miles away… A doctor telling me through sad eyes that my mama was terminal and our time with her was very short blocked the light, too…

These are a few of the dark-inducing messages that have come into my life. Yours might be different. Maybe you were told you couldn’t have the children you long for. Or that your precious unborn child no longer had a heartbeat… Maybe your message came in the form of an incurable illness. Or it could have been carried on papers you were served, informing you that your marriage was over. Perhaps it came in the form of a dismissal, a pink slip, a foreclosure notice. It could be that phone call that informed you of an unexpected deployment, or the one that came from the jail where your child was being held. It could be an admission, a confession, news that your child has been abused, or any number of other heart-stopping things. We receive endless messages over the course of our lives. And we can’t escape the hard ones, not one of us can.

When these messages come, they carry the terrifying tune of destruction, not at all unlike the message Habakkuk received from God. But Pastor John told us on Sunday that our passage describes both destruction AND deliverance. It’s easy to find the destruction. The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens… 

How did he get there? How can we get there?

We get there by going back. Back to where we’ve seen God move before. When the road before us is dark and foreboding and hopeless, we have to look back. We have to remember when God showed up. When we first fixed our eyes on the one who has always had His eyes on us. When we can look back and remember, we see again the extravagant length our God is willing to go to deliver us–and we can find a sliver of light to shine on our dark path, a reason to hope. Not hope for our enemy’s destruction, hope in the Deliverer who is completely for us. We are His priority. We want Him to act amidst the circumstances around us… He wants to do the work within us. Several months back, I wrote a little about the desire for deliverance versus desiring the Deliverer… Here is a bit of my own wrestling, and what Jesus showed me then…

“I have been asking Jesus to enter into the chaos around and within me. I have been praying that way-it made sense to me.

Enter into the chaos, Jesus. Come in. Come fix it. Come get me out…

But the chaos hasn’t stopped. The churning seas continue to rage. And I have found myself discouraged, afraid, confused. I have felt unsafe and even angry.

Why won’t You come into the chaos? If You would come in, You could fix it…

…The problem was, I have been surrounded by and consumed with the chaos in my life and in the lives of those around me. He has been trying to lift my face, to implore me to just look up. If I would just lift my eyes, I would see Him standing above the churning waves. I would hear His words-words that don’t enter into the trivial and chaotic, but stand altogether seperate from and above them. And I would see His hand reaching out to me, inviting me to step out of the swirling chaos and into the realm of His Shalom…

…His very Presence brings light into darkness. I wanted Him to bring the light of His Presence into the chaos of my circumstances. He wanted to give me a different perspective. The perspective that comes when I stop staring at all that is going wrong and look into the face of all that is right. All I could see were the waves surrounding me. All I could feel was the pull of the undertow dragging me down-further and further. My eyes darted frantically around, desperate for Jesus to just show up in this place. If You were here with me, things would change, the seas would calm…

All the while, He stood above the crashing waters, extending His hand, waiting for me to look up…

Look above the chaos. Look at Me. The chaos may continue… but you don’t have to stay there. You can come up here with me. The waves still rage-but you don’t have to. Come up higher and you’ll see. You’ll see it all looks different from My perspective.”

The perspective shift that occurred when I looked up is the same one we’ll encounter by looking back and remembering. When we look back and search for the marks of His Glory throughout our stories, we will come face to face with Jesus. As we gaze back into the moments He showed up before, we’ll catch a glimpse of His face, His eyes that are fixed on us. Eyes that are full of love, acceptance, grace, forgiveness, connection…

As I write, I’m aware that we’re all in different places. Maybe you’ve never encountered Jesus. Maybe when you look back, you don’t see any hope, or any light at all. If that’s your story, my prayer is that today will be the day you’ll look back on in the future, a day clearly marked by the Glory of God and His love for you, the beginning of the rest of your story. Or maybe you do know Jesus, and you can recall times when He’s shown up in your life. But when you picture His face, His eyes don’t look at all like what I’ve described. Maybe the eyes you see flash with anger, disappointment, condemnation… If that’s what you see, I pray for a divine interruption to come your way–that the God who made you and loves you and delivers you will reveal the truth of who He is and His affection toward you. I pray that today will be a defining moment for you as well-a day marked with a deeper connection and the beginning of the most beautiful love story.

And for all of us, I pray that we’ll make the choice to wait in hope, and to remember. That at the end of the day, regardless of the messages each of our stories contain, we can stand resolutely and declare, as Habakkuk did,

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!”

–Laura

Laura wrote: The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens…

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, YET I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!” (Hab. 3:17-18)

That little word yet… Habakkuk’s use of that little, powerful, three letter word leads us to the greatest lesson the book— Habakkuk does not put his head in the sand and pretend like calamity is not coming. He knows that it is. He doesn’t try to pretend like  he’s devoid of fear—he acknowledges my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.(3:16) YET… 

And, as Laura highlighted above, it’s remembering who God is and what He’s done in the past that gives Habakkuk the assurance that God is strong, that God is sovereign, that God is at work, that God can be trusted, that God is still worthy of praise, and that deliverance will come.  Hindsight is huge.

Do we remember that the pivotal point of our faith, our deliverance, happened through devastation and destruction? We have the benefit of hindsight, but for a moment, try to put yourself in the midst of Jesus’ closest friends and followers during the twenty four hours of Jesus’ life that ended with his crucifixion. Turn on your imagination for a moment, and set yourself in the scene.

Picture yourself at the Passover meal with your closest friends. Imagine settling into the familiar and beloved Passover script, remembering God’s powerful deliverance in the days of Moses. Imagine your interest being piqued when Jesus took a detour from the normal script and began talking about the bread being His body broken for them, and the wine His blood poured out establishing the new covenant between God and His people.

In this setting, you have no idea what is coming in a few short hours, yet Jesus says to you: do this in remembrance of me. Are you confused? Are you intrigued? Are you thinking this is another parable that’s difficult to understand?

Imagine going to the garden and watching Jesus pull away. If you manage to stay awake, what are you thinking as He wrestles with the Father–as He implores the Father to let the cup pass from Him– as He feels all the emotions of the coming calamity?  What goes through your mind as He ultimately surrenders to the Father’s will?

What do you feel when Judas comes with the religious leaders and Roman soldiers? What is going through your head at the unjust , crazy, false accusation trials that take place under the cover of night? How do you feel when Pilate declares that Jesus is to be crucified? Are you still around, or have you run away because you are afraid? What are you feeling at the horrors of the beating, and the cruelty of the crucifixion? Can you imagine what that felt like to His followers?  Would you have lost your hope? Would you have forgotten in that moment God’s miraculous past deliverance that you had been celebrating a few hours before? Would your “yet” have been–I know that God will still deliver and I will praise Him–or would you have run and hidden thinking that this was the end?

It wasn’t the end, and on the third day, everything for all time changed. Jesus rose again—fellowshipped again with His friends. A short while later He ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, just like He said He would. (Acts 1&2). His followers were changed, empowered, fearless and lived in the hope of future deliverance, so much so that they very literally gave their lives for the Kingdom of God.

Hebrews chapter 11 ends by highlighting some of the nameless martyrs by saying: Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and goat skins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us…  These followers lived in the yet. They held on, knowing that God was worthy and deliverance was coming.

These were all commended for their faith—As. Is. Habakkuk. Calamity was coming. It was going to be awful, YET he chose to remember who God is, what He’d done in the past, and gain hope for the future. 

We can make the same choice. We can remember the day that appeared like total disaster to Jesus’ closest friends was God’s sovereign plan for our ultimate deliverance.  Jesus says to us—remember. He tells us in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

We don’t have to deny the feelings when these hard seasons come. We don’t have to pretend like we’re not wrestling when these hard seasons come. AND we don’t have to be hopeless when these hard seasons come.

 …you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again… (1 Thess. 4:13b-14a)

We have a good Father who is for us. Have you resolutely chosen to trust Him no matter what? Do you have your yet firmly in place? Are you determined to remember all that He has done and hold on to Him? Ultimate deliverance is certain for those who know Jesus. Do you know Him?

—Luanne

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Romans 15:13)

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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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