Giving Goes Beyond You

I spent hours yesterday reading blogs, book excerpts, theological debates, and theories written by a variety of theologians, faith leaders, and other authors that all attempted to offer insight into our main scripture passage from Sunday’s message. I also spent a good bit of time thumbing through the chapters preceding and following the passage and looking up words in the original Greek.

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

I tell you that as a framework for where I’m actually going to go in my writing this week. Our passage is one that will probably be familiar to you, whether you have a religious background or not. There are plenty of voices who would offer us the “right” interpretation of these words–and most of them disagree with each other. That said, what follows is what I personally believe to be at the heart of the message, the way that I see Jesus representing his heart in this sometimes controversial parable, and where I see the application of it mattering in my life and in the way I love others. I could cite several sources that would back me up, several more who would disagree, and others still who would see it from another angle entirely. My goal is not to prove a point, or to explain away with ease what is a complex and nuanced cluster of scripture. I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

The passage is from a parable found in Matthew 25:31-40, the parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s one parable, set among several others, that Jesus used to describe the kingdom–what it was to look like and how his hearers’ lives would shift if they learned to follow his ways. It is the second message in our series about giving, and what we are invited to do is to look at giving differently. We are invited to move beyond a rules-based, transactional framework and begin to look at giving as an overflow of the self-emptying life of Jesus living within us and guiding us to deliver this kingdom to a waiting world. Whether you’re not at all familiar with this parable you have it memorized word for word, or you find yourself somewhere in the middle, I invite us all to read it again with a heart that’s willing to see it with fresh eyes as we dig into what it might mean for our lives today:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

Last week Pastor John spoke about the importance of being “for” all others, and how God calls us to give others our “for” before we give to him. Let’s look at this week’s passage through that lens. When we read the passage about the sheep and the goats, we naturally want to identify with the sheep, which pits us against the goats, those outside of our assumed camps. But if we can remember that the word “brother” in last week’s passage means anyone from a womb, then the sheep and the goats are our kin—regardless of which side we’re on.

Choosing to give all others our “for” can protect us against the temptation to try to identify who the sheep and the goats are, which really is not the point of the teaching at all. If we identify with one side, we set ourselves up against the other side, creating the us/them mentality that Jesus is continually trying to free us from. If we see one side as good and one as bad, one saved and one damned, one righteous and one depraved, we’re missing the point. We cannot give all others our “for” if we categorize people and only identify with one side. If we are for all others, we won’t stop to assess which camp they belong to or to judge the “why” behind their needs before coming alongside them as our brothers and sisters.

It is also important to note that, on any given day, we move from goat to sheep and back again a multitude of times. Sometimes we respond to the need in front of us, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do the right thing because we want the gold star, other times we are moved by the love of Jesus living within us and, like the sheep in his story, we don’t even realize we did anything worth noting at all. The two sides aren’t set in stone. No one gets caring for the least of these right every single time. This is a fluid picture, designed to teach Jesus’ followers what the kingdom is meant to look like. We would be wise to follow the example of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in praying this prayer,

“Loving God, allow me to be a sheep at least once in a while, and never let me forget that most of my life I have been a goat.”

We mentioned last week that paying attention to the context of what we read in scripture is vitally important. It bears repeating this week. This parable Jesus tells is set among several other parables in which he tells his hearers more than once, “This is what the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus preached about the kingdom more than 80 times in the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It was one of his favorite things to talk about. Our passage is set apart by chapter and verse in our bibles, but it is not a stand-alone teaching; it is a continuation of the stories that precede it, stories all about what the kingdom is like.

Jesus was (and is) a master communicator. He knew his audience, knew that they had been trained up in dualistic, transactional thinking (as many of us have been), and so he begins with what they know. He outlines an either/or, in/out scenario. He gets their attention and uses the opportunity to tell them again how important it is that self-emptying love be what sets them apart as his followers. He’s about to demonstrate what that kind of radical love looks like by willingly submitting to the murderous violence of the humans he created, but he’s telling them in this parable what that looks like in practical, day-to-day ways. And then, after describing the sheep and the goats and the fates of both sides, Jesus chooses to identify not as a sheep or as a goat—he doesn’t pick a side. He identifies himself, instead, with the needy as he states, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus continually challenged the religious, works-based teachings of his day. He often called the Pharisees out for paying lip-service to God while their hearts were far from him. This week’s passage is another example of the difference between behavior modification—works-based religion–and the kingdom of God. The interesting part is, Jesus is teaching his hearers to do good works. This is clearly not a passage that encourages us to say a prayer and so secure a ticket to eternal life. This passage encourages listeners to do good things, to serve, to act–but more importantly, it deals with the heart behind the works.

There were many in his day, some of them likely in attendance as he spoke, who were good at checking boxes. Behavior modification, keeping all the rules, was a common practice for the religious leaders at that time, and it was what they had been teaching the people for hundreds of years.

But the kingdom would never come by way of behavior modification.

For the kingdom of the God of love to come in its fullness, there had to be a different way, a new way, a way that wasn’t about us versus them. This is what Jesus continually taught about.

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I love this quote. It is absolutely true. When the love of Jesus reigns within us, we live like the sheep–unaware of our “good works”, living in the flow of the spirit, letting his kingdom be cultivated and grown within us, and then freely giving the fruit to all those around us.

The early church understood and modeled this is the way they lived with one another. Pastor John actually began his message with these verses:

All the believers were one in mind and heart. Selfishness was not a part of their community, for they shared everything they had with one another. The apostles gave powerful testimonies about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great measures of grace rested upon them all. Some who owned houses or land sold them and brought the proceeds before the apostles to distribute to those without. Not a single person among them was needy.

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

Not a single person among them was needy. Selfishness was not a part of their community. They were one in heart and mind. Is it possible that this is what Jesus was pointing to in this story that he told? Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that it is. In a blog post about the sheep and the goats, he wrote,

“The real message of the parable is a call to a transformed mind and heart.”

In the story, Jesus is calling his hearers into transformation. He is telling them, You can choose an either/or way of living, or you can join me on the margins, where I identify not only with the needy, but as the needy. The early church listened to his teachings, they understood what he meant, and they lived in unity with each other, having—as a community—the heart and mind of Jesus living within them. Self-giving love modeled after the givenness of Jesus replaced selfishness and they gave what they had for the good of all. It wasn’t about them, and what served them best. It was about understanding that self-giving love is the way of the kingdom, and as they were permeated with the love of Jesus, giving flowed from them as the natural expression of his life within them.

May it be so with us, as we each leverage what we have graciously been given for the sake of those who need what we have. What we give, we give to Jesus…

–Laura

Laura wrote above: I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

And she included this beautiful quote:

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I am taking a “grace” week in the midst of what is a super busy season, so instead of writing, I would ask that you read Laura’s beautiful words again. We are invited into the deeper…

–Luanne

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Giving: Forgive Before You Give

“Giving” is the theme of our new series. It’s a risky endeavor…when a church begins to talk about giving, there can be some strong reactions from those hearing the message. Some take on an “I knew all they wanted was my money” mindset, some take on the mindset of “It’s my money and no one can tell me what to do with it”. For some, it reveals priorities, the things we’re willing to spend on or give to generally are things that matter to us, and some of us find safety and security in holding on to our money because, despite the fact that on it is written “In God We Trust” when it comes down to it, we ultimately trust money to take care of us.

If it’s so risky, why talk about it? And when we talk about giving, are we referring only to money–or is the subject of giving a reminder that we give our lives to God, every bit of them–our talents, our gifts, our time, our resources, our minds, our beings?  And what is the heart that God desires in our giving?

One thing is for sure, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:21-24 that he wants our hearts toward others to be in the right place before we give at the altar.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. He is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. When he gets to this portion he says:

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

There is much to glean from these few verses. One is that Jesus is shaking up a traditional understanding of what it means to be godly. He affirms that it was said long ago and passed through the generations that people should not murder other people. I think that we would all agree with that statement; however, in kingdom living, refraining from murder is not enough. There are plenty of other ways to devalue a life.

Jesus goes on to say anyone who is angry with a brother, or anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca”, or anyone who calls someone “fool” is in danger of judgment. Pastor John took us deeper into this, pointing out that even if we don’t physically murder someone, we can murder them in our minds and demean them in our treatment.  To call someone “Raca” or  “fool” or anything else derogatory demeans that person’s value. To harbor anger against another is to set an internal fire ablaze which spills out in unkind or demeaning words and sometimes in violent actions.

So Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others, and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.

It’s interesting to consider that the word translated “brothers” in this passage means someone “from out of the womb”; therefore, Jesus is asking us to consider how we think of and how we treat all humankind.

This is a challenge. Being human, we classify, divide, label, separate, and draw lines between us. Many of the ways we divide are generational, so Jesus says to us, you’ve heard it said… , but I say to you don’t demean anyone, don’t think negatively about anyone, don’t talk negatively about anyone, don’t call others derogatory names, don’t place human beings in categories.

Jesus reminds us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 & Luke 6:45). Are we asking God regularly to search us, and know our hearts: try us, and know our thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting? (Psalm 138:23-24 KJV) If not, it’s a good practice to put into place.

Jesus tells us in his sermon that to treat others with contempt is on par with murder. This is where it gets hard. We treat others in our family, our communities, our workplaces, our churches with contempt if they don’t see things like we do.  We live in a great nation, and many here believe God loves us more than he loves people in other nations; therefore, we can treat other nations with contempt. Do we look down on others who don’t share our same citizenship? Do we stereotype? Do we lump entire people groups into “less than” categories? Do we ever see Jesus teaching that people of one nation are his favorites or are superior to those of another? If Jesus favored anyone, it was the poor, the sick, the oppressed.

And here, inside our borders, how are we treating one another? Are we labeling people? We’ve got the liberal left, the radical right, the Fox followers, the CNN followers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the rich, the poor, the white-collar, the blue-collar,  the African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, and white, there are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.,  those who are for war, those who are against, and many, many other ideologies that have strong proponents on each side. To top it off, we are headed into an election year that’s going to be brutal as far as name-calling and divisive language go.  What are we, the followers of Jesus, to do?

Jesus says to us: “You have heard it said…but I say…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow. That’s a tall order. What does it even look like?

Paul, in Colossians 3:12-14 urges us toward this when he writes: As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues. (J.B. Phillips)

We are representatives of the new humanity–those who have God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13 NLT)

We are loved by God and are to share that love with every other image-bearer of God on the planet. It looks like merciful actions, kindness, humility (not thinking of oneself as superior in any way), tolerance, patience, and living with an attitude of forgiveness.

We are asked to forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven us. And here’s an important thought…God forgave us freely, but it cost him greatly. To forgive doesn’t mean to stuff emotion and pretend as though conflict doesn’t exist. To forgive means to wrestle it through, it means to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, it means to have hard conversations, bathed in love, with hope for reconciliation. In my own life, I’ve had to ask for God’s help, confess when I’m not ready to forgive, express the desire that I want to do this His way and offer my willingness to Him.  He then leads me through the process. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours, sometimes it’s months, sometimes years. It helps a great deal to pray blessing for those with whom I’m in conflict. Praying good things for them helps to get my heart and thoughts in a better place. And, yes, sometimes I’m praying blessing while at the same time acknowledging that my heart isn’t completely there yet, again, asking God to help me get there. 

Paul goes on to say, and Jesus would agree, that above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.

So, before we give to God, we are asked to give our “for” to others, and seek reconciliation. It’s not always possible to reconcile. There are times when the other party does not want to, or the situation is so toxic that to converse with that person would not be wise. In those instances, Paul tells us if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18). If physical reconciliation does not happen, strive for peace in your heart and thoughts toward others, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to reconcile.

So giving the way God wants us to begins with recognizing that God is for us, and he wants us to be for others.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

Pastor John combined and paraphrased the Matthew and Colossians scriptures to help us see it more clearly:

“Do not reduce the value of the life of another, but raise the value and worth of all others. If you have not done that and you are coming to give your gift to the Lord, your gift that declares you are for the Lord, go to the one that you are against; go to that one and establish your “for”. Reconcile with them, then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Give your “for” as freely as the Lord has given his “for you”. 

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.” It is vitally important that we pay attention as we read scripture. Context matters. Audience matters. The culture of the day matters. It matters that our passage is but a few verses connected to three entire chapters of teaching from Jesus. These aren’t standalone verses in a sermon focused solely on money, or even just about forgiveness. They are part of the whole that, as Luanne identified, is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and what it looks like to live as kingdom-minded people here on earth. The sermon in its entirety establishes the ways of the kingdom and emphasizes kingdom values, namely the value of people over religion. The context is so important, because this is one “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” among several others, set within a teaching given to show the people that religiosity will only take us so far—it’s love that takes us all the way.

Jesus is editing the script on religion. He’s not discarding what they’ve previously been taught, he’s reminding them—and us—about God’s original intention, and then expanding their understanding. The laws God gave through Moses were designed to teach the people how to live lives of love, focused on Him, following his lead. The laws describe how love acts, what it does and doesn’t do. They outline the basics of how to treat all others, how to live in such a way that love for God and love for others would direct their entire lives, everything they did and did not do. The laws had become something else, though, in the hands of humans who may have started out with good intentions, but who eventually overcomplicated God’s words, added rules and requirements designed to maintain control, and to box God in, to make him small enough to control by checking boxes. In the hands of those who stood to benefit from systems, what was intended to lead us into love for God and one another became something that did the opposite. It became a hierarchical system built on impossible expectations that divided the people rather than connect them.

Jesus comes onto the scene to press the reset button. But he doesn’t simply reset the system—he takes it several steps further. He connects everything to love of God and one another and tells his hearers more than once that everything hinges on this one command. The command to love. Sometimes this can be interpreted as watering down our faith, this emphasis on love. But there is nothing more demanding than following Jesus’ example of self-emptying love. He’s not lowering any standards by refocusing the people in this way. As Luanne wrote,

“Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.”

Jesus places a high value on giving. He instructs us many times in scripture to give generously, to give to the poor, and to give our lives to follow him. He modeled this value by giving everything, even his very life. Giving was not the greatest commandment, though. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. Giving without loving is meaningless. The giving must flow out of the loving. Giving every material belonging, and even our very lives matters not if not done from a place of love, as 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us:

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (MSG)

Bankrupt.

We are bankrupt without love. Our English word “bankrupt” comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means “a broken bench”. The root of the Italian is from the Latin rupta, which is “to break or be defeated.” Without love, we are completely broken, and we can offer nothing—not even a safe place to sit—to another. The good news is that recognizing our brokenness–seeing how empty, how bankrupt we are when we’re not connected to and operating from a place of love—can reconnect us to the One who creates beauty from brokenness, the one who scatters the fears that break us down with his perfect love that restores and rebuilds. Before we can be put back together his way, though, we have to acknowledge how we’ve been operating, where we’ve been rule-following and calling it love, where we’ve been “letting it go” by hiding our hurts deep inside and shutting the door rather than moving toward honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness.

Pastor John said, “Before you come to God, stop pretending.” Offering anything from a loveless place is just playing church and practicing religion. It’s pretending. It’s what the people Jesus was speaking to were used to seeing and practicing. Ritualized giving. Giving because the rules said what and how and how often giving was required. Giving because of the fear of the consequences of not giving. They didn’t understand God’s heart, his love, until he came to them in the form of Jesus. He came to set all things right, to restore what had been so broken by religion. And what had been most broken by the religious systems and structures of that day were their hearts. They weren’t connected to a God of love. They were going through the motions of following rules and avoiding negative consequences. Jesus came to reclaim their hearts, just as he comes to us to reclaim ours.

Our motivation to give and forgive has to be love. We can’t be truly for others—or for God—if we aren’t connected to and dependent upon his love alive in us. We only love because he loved us first. And it is his love that leads us. What does this love look like? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us:

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (verses 4-7, TPT)

”[Love] never stops believing the best for others…” Love God’s way values others, and never gives up. Which others? All of them, I’m pretty sure… I have some work to do here. Sometimes–often really–giving up can feel easier. Walking away from what feels like conflict, drama, and moving away from the pain can feel like self-protection, and often feels necessary. Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are toxic, abusive relationships that we really do need to physically move away from. In those cases, we still need to do the inner work with Jesus, asking him to search us and heal us and help us to forgive when we’ve been wounded. We are still called to forgive—regardless of the nature of the offense. And that is still moving toward, not walking away. We’re moving toward that person as we pray for the willingness to forgive them, as we pray that God would bless them and as we ask him to show them his love for them. Our spirits—the Christ-in-us part of us–can still move toward others even when we physically have to move away. Because, as we saw throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always pursues. Always moves toward. Always. Because love is what drives him. And if he lives within us, then his love is what drives us, too—if we don’t stand let fear stand in the way. 1 John 4 exhorts us:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (verses 7-12, NLT) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (verses 18-21, NIV)

If we are living from a place of love—not some appearance of love that we are trying to manufacture on our own but the love that comes from “…God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT)—then we will be led to both forgive and to give. Fear will prevent us from giving and forgiving. Love will lead us to do both, generously and extravagantly. This is what Jesus came to teach us all. He came to show us what the love of God looks like with skin on. He came to show us—in dramatic fashion—just how far real love will go, and how it really is at the core of every other commandment.

It will demand our all to live this way, to live as kingdom-minded disciples who choose to see and value and honor the image of God in every single one who comes from a womb. But we never have to do it alone. Learning how to forgive and how to give from a place of love isn’t easy. But because God loved and forgave and gave to us first, we can lean into all that he is for all that we’re not and he will enable us to do what we could never do on our own. We need only to come to him with our willing yes, with a heart open to receive his great love, and surrender to the changes his love will make within us. The rest will come as a result of being completely overcome and captivated by this extravagant love that wins our hearts. Are we willing to say yes to his love? Are we willing to let that love search us and change us, and lead us to forgive and to give without fear?

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

2020 Perspective–Looking Back

“The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  Dallas Willard

Ready or not, we will soon step into a new year–and a new decade. 2019 is coming to a close, and 2020 is about to begin. I don’t know how your year was, but this girl is raising a hallelujah at the thought of leaving the last twelve months behind!

Well, sort of.

I was. Until I realized that my battle-scarred, weary self didn’t see any of 2019’s hard coming twelve months ago. And that makes me a bit wary about throwing 2020 a welcome party…

Pastor John’s message on Sunday came out of Philippians 3:12-14. I am including two translations of those verses below–J.B. Phillips, the one John used, and The Passion Translation. Take a minute to read the words and chew on them a bit.

J.B. Phillips: “Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.”

TPT: “I admit that I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead. I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus.”

Pastor John shared with us that looking back can prepare us to move forward. He also warned us that how and why we look back matters. He advised us to look back in order to learn and to remember. We’ve written about the word remember before, how it means to stay connected to, that it’s antonym is not to forget, but rather to dismember. He advised us to avoid the kind of looking back in which we are concentrating on, dwelling on, or longing for where we’ve been. Those lingering glances, fixating on what was, can keep us from living. It can be a tricky balance, remembering and learning from our pasts, but not dwelling on or longing for what used to be. This can be especially difficult if we’ve faced a loss, or many losses–whether the physical loss of a person or relationship, or a circumstantial loss, like a relocation, a career change, or an emotional move.

John shared a quote from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner related to looking back in order to move forward. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but I did come across this one:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”
― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

If I’m honest, when I read in our passage, “I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal…”  from the J.B. Phillips translation and, “I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead,” from The Passion Translation, I don’t feel a lot of excitement. I feel a bit of trepidation. A bit leaning towards a lot at times. I am someone who tends to be oriented toward the past. Nostalgia and sentimentality have always been part of how I look at life. Seeing the world and my life in this way also keeps me keenly aware of the pain of the past. Sometimes, that makes me want to run forward with abandon–but not usually. More often, I succumb to fears that the future could hold worse pain than the past. My past might be hard, but at least I know what I’ll see when I look into those memories. The thought of moving forward with arms outstretched toward whatever might lie ahead? Fastening my heart to an unknown future? These things can feel dangerous to a fragile, weary heart. I’m not typically one who fears change or looks ahead with cynicism and pessimism. But I am telling you–2019 had it out for some of us. 

That said, when I look at these verses alongside Buechner’s quote, it settles my insides a bit. His words read like an invitation to discover both who we are and who we’re becoming by way of remembering who we were and how far we’ve come. He invites us to step into the room where we are most alive to where our journeys have brought us. In remembering, like Pastor John talked about, we can see where God was in the midst of everything we’ve walked through. Remembering shows us how far we’ve come, and highlights the One who’s carried us all along.

This kind of remembering, it makes our passage easier to get excited about. Because it’s impossible to look back at the ways God has shown up without our faith being stirred to believe that he will continue to be that same God for us and with us–regardless of what our tomorrows hold.

As I pondered the message, a few other verses and some song lyrics came to mind:

“Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

–Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5a NKJV 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

Behold the Father’s heart
The mystery He lavishes on us
As deep cries out to deep
Oh, how desperately He wants us…

Behold His holy Son
The Lion and the Lamb given to us
The Word became a man
That my soul should know its Savior…

Behold I have a friend
The Spirit breathing holy fire within
My ever present help
Speaking truth when I can’t find it…

(Behold, Hillsong Worship)

I couldn’t get away from the word “behold” as I prayed through John’s sermon and what to write about. I spent some time leaning into the concept of “beholding” and what it means a couple of months ago. So I went back to look at some of my personal writing to try to connect the dots. This is what I found:

 “When did you last take the time to behold?

To behold a thing is to go beyond the passive seeing, past the every day looking that happens by default.

To behold is to be held within a moment…

When we behold something, our entire person is engaged in the seeing. The word itself means to mentally perceive, take heed of, experience, care for, contemplate intently, regard, observe, consider, partake of, discern–it takes us far beyond what we perceive with our eyes.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve been held in a moment until that moment passes…

But to truly behold is to regard with intention and care all of the things–not only the beautiful. It takes courage to behold the other things, namely ourselves

Why do I only pause to acknowledge and behold the beautiful, as though the rest is undeserving of being named?

If it is in the moment of beholding that we find ourselves truly held, then why would we avert our gaze from the moments that leave us most in need of an embrace?

There is beauty to behold even in the dark, even in the broken, and if we’re willing to look straight at it, to engage what we see with all the parts of ourselves, we’ll find that the beauty we encounter there will change us. And as we courageously behold, we will find ourselves held.”

As I reread my own words, I realized that the key to engaging in the past, present, and future in a healthy way just might be taking the time to behold. To behold our past–the hard AND the beautiful–is to observe it, to contemplate what it had to offer and to teach us, to honor it and find ourselves held within it as we remember. We have to look at it with courage in order to be changed by it. The same goes for our present. Staying awake to the moments of our lives, pausing to take them in and to discern the deeper meaning is another way that we learn. And we have to also be willing to look up when we hear the “Behold!” that beckons us into our future.

Each of our journeys is a dance. There are rarely either/or options. More often, we have the opportunity to engage in a both/and way of being in the world. Beholding offers us a way to look back in a way that can propel us into our future.

We need to know, though, that there is a massive difference between beholding something for a moment and allowing something to take hold of us. Pastor John asked us to consider what has taken hold of us, what might be growing roots in us. If our answer is anything but Jesus, we’re in danger of not being able to move forward.

I wrote these words as I prepared to make the transition from summer into fall, and I’m asking the same questions again now as we approach a New Year:

“What am I refusing to fully let go of as the next season presses in on me? What weight from yesterday am I carrying? Is there something I’m holding onto that will inhibit new growth in the days ahead? How do I stay connected to the learning, to the beauty and the process of seasons past and move forward fully yielded to the process?”

May we all be willing to ask ourselves hard questions, and willing to answer them honestly. May we behold our yesterdays and our current circumstances with the intention of learning and remembering how we’ve made it this far. And may we step with courage, with arms boldly outstretched toward whatever comes next because we have a God who is Emmanuel–God with us. He is the one who goes behind and before us, the one who calls us into our future and asks us to trust that he will walk with us and carry us–no matter what that future holds.

As Dallas Willard articulated so well, “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.” We get to decide if we will behold and learn from or dwell on and long for what once was. We have to look back in order to learn–but we don’t have to carry what we find or let it take hold of us. We get to choose. May we choose well as we move into this new year. For those of us who had a brutally hard year and those of us finishing the best year of our lives, I pray these words over our next year, from the song I referenced earlier:

Light up this broken heart and light my way
‘Til my time on earth is done
Oh, Holy Spirit
Breathe in me like Kingdom come

Oh, Holy Spirit
Let Your work in me be done…

Let your work in us be done…

–Laura

There is always the possibility of newness when one is in a relationship with God. Each new second can bring a new beginning. Each new day. Each new week. Each new year.

The new year, of course, is the time when everyone is focused on change, on resolutions, on how things are going to be different from this point forward, so I sit here and type on New Year’s Eve day, the end of 2019, the beginning of  2020, with lots of mixed emotions. 2019 was a difficult year on almost every front in my world. Yes, there were moments of beauty: a precious new granddaughter, even a miracle that I saw up close as God healed one of my children who could have died or had limbs amputated, but there was also a lot of hard–really hard, and some of that goes right with me into 2020. So, like Laura, I sit on the cusp of this year with some trepidation.

I’m not the type to put too much emphasis on resolutions or New Year’s celebrations; however, as I typed out the word “resolution” above, I was struck by its two components: re and solution. Re means “again” or “again and again”. Solution comes from the Latin word “solvere” which means “to loosen (solve)” (etymonline.com). To make a New Year’s resolution means to try to loosen something, to try to solve something again. In light of our verses from Philippians, this takes on new meaning for me this morning.

As Pastor John shared his message, he brought up a strange account from the book of Genesis about “forgetting” the past. It’s the account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back while fleeing her city. I won’t even begin to try to explain that; however, Pastor John said that her looking back wasn’t like a glance in a rearview mirror; it was a longing for. She didn’t recognize that she was being saved as she left the past behind. She set her heart and her mind on her past and longed for it. Metaphorically speaking, being turned into a pillar of salt meant that she was stuck, there would be no new for her, her longing for the past left her immobile, unable to move forward.

As I pondered that thought, my mind went to something that I learned in counseling a few years ago. My counselor used an illustration in talking about our pasts–she said to think of our memories like our own personal DVD library. The stories that make up the library are our memories and will be part of our story forever.  We can remember them as part of the overall collection–one story of many, or we can choose to put one in the DVD player, press play, and watch it over and over. In other words, the Dallas Willard quote that Laura wrote above “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  is key to whether we stay stuck or move forward.

The Buechner quote is also key: “The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”  

We are all becoming something–all of us being transformed–but in what way?

Looking back is necessary, but “living” back is detrimental. Looking back allows us to find healing, to find re-solutions as we loosen ourselves from the old we are tied to, and looking back allows us to remember God’s faithfulness and see how He’s changed us over time. Remembering God’s faithfulness gives us hope for the future because we know that God will be with us.  Paul, in this passage in Philippians, is remembering what he had let go of and the call he was pursuing. That type of remembering was his catalyst for moving forward.

As is the case with lots of scripture passages, depending on which lens we look through, there can be different takeaways. Our passage (Phil 3:12-14) in the NIV translations reads:

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

Quick breakdown:

Not that I have obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal: back up a little bit in chapter 3 and Paul is talking about how he tried to earn righteousness before God in his former life as a devout, circumcised Jewish man and discovered that it didn’t work. Paul had learned that our right standing with God (and others) comes through faith in Jesus alone and through that faith, allowing God to work in us so we become like Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection. He was forgetting (letting go of) living a religiously law-based life yet knew that he had not become 100% like Jesus.

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me: What did Jesus “take hold” of Paul for? If we look at Acts 9:15 we learn that Paul (Saul)  was “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” and that Paul would suffer greatly as he carried out his mission. 

So when Paul says that he’s not there yet, that he hasn’t taken hold of it yet, he’s talking about becoming like Jesus. Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul would take hold of Jesus and become like Jesus, through faith, from the inside out. 

So when Paul says that he is forgetting what is behind, he’s talking about being a slave to the law, to a behavior-based attempt to be in relationship with God. He’s pressing forward to become more like Christ as he fulfills his mission to carry the name and ways of Jesus to Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,

In the original language, the word “heavenward” does not exist. Paul’s prize is not talking about going to heaven. Young’s Literal Translation words it like this: I pursue for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. High calling can be translated as “high invitation” or “high vocation”. The “high calling” of God in Christ Jesus is to become like Jesus–to die to self, to allow the Holy Spirit to live the resurrection life of Jesus through us (the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and lives in us (Romans 6:10)), and to pursue that high calling, full of faith,  with everything we are, no matter what our earthly circumstances look like. Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote Philippians, yet was still pursuing his holy invitation. 

What was the goal of the invitation Paul received from Jesus? To bear the name of Jesus, to carry the name of Jesus wherever he went–even prison. 

Is that any different from the invitation God has given to us? 

Romanian theologian and Pauline scholar Corneliu Constantineanu, writes: “In stark contrast [to the ways of Rome] the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel–God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this, not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation. Jesus, not Caesar, brings peace and justice! This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.”

This is what Paul had given his life to pursue–Paul’s self-giving life, the prize he was after, the race he was running–was about letting everyone know that Jesus brings wholeness (salvation), Jesus brings peace, Jesus changes individuals and Jesus changes the world. 

As we head into 2020, let’s look back to see what we are becoming in order to forget the things that have not made us more like Jesus, or to abandon the ways that we have not carried Jesus to those around us, or to let go of the ways we have not died to ourselves.

Let’s re-solution our lives by beholding God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and allowing God to transform us as we sit in stillness before Him, allowing Him to do deep work in us. Let’s pursue the high calling, the invitation of God, to join him in his mission to bring the ways of the kingdom of heaven to earth (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven). Let’s not get stuck in the past and beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right, but confess and move on into Christlikeness as we surrender our ways to his ways–even if it includes suffering.

None of us have attained it yet, but is becoming like Jesus the desire of our hearts? It’s a goal worth pursuing.

Laura ended her portion of the blog with these words:

Let your work in us be done…

May that be our prayer and our desire for 2020–no matter what comes.

–Luanne

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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

Angelic Prophecy

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God is showing grace to you. For I have come to tell you that your prayer for a child has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you are to name him John… His birth will bring you much joy and gladness. Many will rejoice because of him. He will be one of the great ones in the sight of God. He will drink no wine or strong drink, but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while still in his mother’s womb. And he will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God. He will go before the Lord as a forerunner, with the same power and anointing as Elijah the prophet. He will be instrumental in turning the hearts of the fathers in tenderness back to their children and the hearts of the disobedient back to the wisdom of their righteous fathers. And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.”

(Luke 1:13-17, The Passion Translation)

Last week we looked at the first part of the messenger’s proclamation to Zechariah. He was informed by the angelic visitor that his prayer had been answered–he and Elizabeth would have a son. They would call him John. As if that message was not startling enough, there was more. This child would be set apart, great in the sight of God, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb. He would be a forerunner–THE forerunner. The one who would prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. I wonder if Zechariah was remembering these words from the prophet Malachi as he listened to the angel:

 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LordHe will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers [a reconciliation produced by repentance], so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse [of complete destruction].” 

(Malachi 4:5-6, AMP)

Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son, finally. And they would know much about what he would be like and who he would become before he ever inhaled the air of earth. He was the one who would prepare the way, according to the angel’s message. His would be a life filled with, as Pastor John detailed, potential, power, and purpose.

He would grow up close to the presence of God, and that would increase his human potential astronomically. He would never experience a moment without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And he would know his purpose: to break the silence and announce the coming of the Messiah.

In verse 17 of our passage, the Passion Translation reads: “And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.” The footnote says that the words “a united people” are the words used in the original Aramaic. I couldn’t find much else about it, unfortunately. But it stands out to me. We know that when Jesus came on the scene, and certainly when he began his ministry, not all people were united or ready for his coming. There were many opinions and judgments made about him, and there was much division among the people because of him.

Perhaps what John was to do was to bring together all those who were waiting expectantly for the coming King, and unite them under a message that Jesus himself would reinforce. Maybe the words of that verse meant that those who were ready for the Lord would be united under the message John preached, and it would be that message that would prepare them for the coming of the Lord?

What was the message that John preached? He began his ministry preaching about repentance. He invited the people to change the way they thought, to change the way they saw God and others. The spiritual leaders of that day had modeled self-righteousness, arrogance, and rules-based living. John’s message challenged their teachings. He told the people that those who have should give to those who don’t have. He told them to stop robbing from each other, to refrain from extortion, and to treat others with dignity and honor. He exhorted them to stop falsely accusing one another and to, instead, treat others with kindness. He told those with power to stop using it against the powerless. John preached about a whole new way of thinking and being in the world, and about forgiveness and becoming new. This was the message that would prepare those who had ears to hear. This was the message that would unite those who accepted it.

It was a message not unlike Jesus’ first public proclamation about himself just a chapter later in Luke, as he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

(Luke 4:18-19)

John was the voice in the wilderness that prepared the way for the message of Jesus to be heard. Those who were excited about John were excited because he brought something new to the old teachings. He brought word of a coming Messiah, and the new way that this coming kingdom would operate. It was a message that assigned value and worth, dignity and acceptance to those who could accept it. It paved the way for the radical ways and message of Jesus. That message would shake up the whole world, turn powerful systems upside-down, and extend an invitation to all. Everyone. The whole world. 

We are all the voice in the wilderness today. 

What message are we proclaiming? Pastor John said on Sunday, “Let the message of Jesus be your life.”

Our lives–the way we live, the way we love, the things we say and do–they speak. They expose what we believe, whether we think we are proclaiming a message or not. Do we offer Jesus to a waiting world? Do we love in a way that prepares hearts for an encounter with our Messiah?

As we live and move and interact with those around us, I pray that our lives will reveal the message of Jesus the way that John’s did. And I pray, especially during this season of Advent, that we are willing to be the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the arrival of our Savior.

–Laura

I am writing my portion of the blog on week 3, day two of this year’s advent season.  This year is different from others that I remember. This year, it seems that everywhere I turn, John the Baptist–his birth and his ministry–are being emphasized. Usually, in my experience, the story has begun with Mary or with Old Testament prophecies, but this year, curiously and intriguingly John the Baptist seems to be at the forefront of many advent devotions and messages. Anytime I see a common theme arising from multiple locations, I pay attention. Why does God have John the Baptist on the hearts of so many?

John, the advent announcer and forerunner of Jesus, is often treated as a minor character in a greater story. We gloss over his impact and move on. However, when we pause and spend time with John’s story, we realize how profound a role he played. I can’t recall another prophet whose birth story is so emphasized.

God wanted us to know both of his parents came from priestly lines, were considered righteous and blameless, were mature in years and mature in their faith, and that despite the tremendous disappointment of not having a child, they continued to serve God faithfully.

God wanted us to know about the angelic visit and the prophecy spoken to Zechariah regarding his not yet conceived son. Laura wrote out the prophecy above from the beautiful Passion Translation, I’m going to reiterate it here from The Voice paraphrase:

Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth. This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s wombHere is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God.  Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children; someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God. (Luke 1: 14-17)

This is an incredibly big deal. God had been silent for 400 years. In those 400 years, the religious fathers had added rule upon rule upon rule upon rule for the Israelites to follow. The weight of trying to be right in God’s sight was heavy and becoming heavier all the time. The entire religious structure had become behavior-based and the religious leaders determined who was in and who was out; who was righteous, who wasn’t; and who was being punished by God and therefore not allowed to participate (the sick, the disabled, the foreigner, women, etc). Into this mean-spirited time period, a sweet elderly couple was visited by an angel who spoke the words of the prophet Malachi regarding their impossible to conceive, soon-to-be on the way son. Their son would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. The silence was shattered and huge things were about to happen.

We don’t know anything about John’s formative years, but we do know that when he reached adulthood and appeared on the scene, he caused a bit of a ruckus.

His is the voice that God chose to use after 400 years.  He is the prophet who came in the spirit of Elijah. His message is bold.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke let us know that a large portion of John’s message was about repentance and producing fruit in keeping with repentance.

What would fruit in keeping with repentance look like? John’s listeners would have understood that repentance wasn’t about sin. The word–metanoia in the Greek—literally means new mind. In other words, change the way you think, allow your current thinking to be challenged, produce fruit that shows you are thinking in a new way, God’s way.

All of our outward actions begin in our minds. All of them. So the message of repentance is about allowing God to renew our minds. It’s only been in the last century that the word repent got twisted into having something to do with condemnation, shame, and sin, which is not the ministry of Christ. If we ponder that, we’ll realize that thinking new thoughts–thoughts that produce fruit that looks like Jesus makes a whole lot more sense–and John is paving the way for that.

When the people ask him “what shall we do?”  In other words…what is the evidence of this fruit…

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3: 10-14)

Hmmm. This is certainly different from all the rules and behavior-based striving that had become the religious system of the day. Rules and behavior-based striving are self-focused.  John is preaching an others-focused mindset:  Share what you have with those less fortunate, don’t cheat people in order to line your own pockets; don’t speak poorly of or lie about others, don’t slander another’s character; those of you who have power, don’t use it to take advantage of those who have less power; don’t finagle ways to get more and more–be content and live generously with what you have.  John’s preaching looks very little like the majority religious culture of his day and very much like counter-cultural living.

The angel addressed this counter-cultural mindset in speaking to Zechariah in Luke 1:16…

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (NIV)

He will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. (The Voice)

He will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God (The Passion Translation).

He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. (NASB)

Bring back and turn back indicate they had lost their way.  Have we?

The prophecy continues:  “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to:

turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and

the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—

to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

Who are the fathers?  Yes, it could be that the biological fathers had turned their hearts from their children, but it could also be the spiritual fathers. The religious leaders of the day would have been their spiritual fathers, and we learn from both John the Baptist and from Jesus that those fathers did not minister with the heart of God. John called them a brood of vipers, Jesus called them white-washed tombs and talked about the heavy yoke they placed upon people, keeping them from God rather than drawing them to God. They were judgmental, critical, exclusive, and mean-spirited.

What would it look like for these fathers’ hearts to turn to their children? If John’s message is one of repentance…what would new thoughts look like for “the fathers”? Is it possible it could mean that rather than a shaming, condemning, exclusive message and being known for all they’re against, they could cultivate loving thoughts that would turn into loving actions toward those they were called to shepherd?

And the disobedient…who are they? The sinners?  If we read the apostle John’s understanding of this, he writes: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2nd John 1:6) 

Jesus himself makes it super simple: If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15) What are his commands? Jesus says the greatest one is  “‘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… (Mt. 22:37-39)

 So the disobedient would be those who don’t walk in God’s love. Hmmm. Strong’s concordance defines the disobedient as the unpersuadable. The unpersuadable would resist repentance (thinking a new way)…so the disobedient are stuck in their ways, convinced they are right and can’t be persuaded to love God’s way.

Another thing John the Baptist was going to do was turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. What does that even mean? 

If, as Strong’s defines it, wisdom means understanding, or knowledge and holy love of the will of God and righteous means equitable (in character or act), or as others have put it, righteous means being rightly related to God and others, we begin to see a theme developing in John’s life purpose.

The last phrase of this prophecy is  Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God (The Voice) or He will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing. (TPT). 

Are we a united people ready for God to do whatever he wants to in our midst? Are we a united people ready for the Lord’s appearing?

As we ponder John’s mission and ministry, and as I ponder why I keep running into advent readings this year that are centered around him, I also must ponder what the Holy Spirit is communicating to the church.

Could it be that we’ve lost our way? Have we turned our hearts away from the children we are to shepherd? Are we the unpersuadable, stuck in our ways and disobedient because we’ve forgotten that love is our highest calling? Have we forgotten to seek understanding from God on every matter, or forgotten to love his will, (which is for us to bring his kingdom to earth by loving others into his presence)? Have we forgotten to be equitable, to live generously, to place ourselves in the shoes of another, to see life from another’s perspective and work toward the flourishing of all people everywhere?

Could it be that we are not prepared for a real encounter with the real Jesus who deeply loves and is for everyone everywhere, and who detests our manmade traditions?  Will we allow him to turn our hearts toward the world? Will we be unpersuadable or are we willing to change our perspective, think a new way and see things from His point of view?

The word advent means “to come”. Jesus is the one who was and is and is to come. (Rev. 1:8 and 4:8). Are we prepared for his coming, both in the future and in the right here, right now? Are we ready to let him use us his way, producing his kind of fruit, to draw people to God? 

–Luanne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Interruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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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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See the Signs: The Sign of Sight

Since Laura and I took last week off, I’m going to touch briefly on last week’s scripture passage because it is relevant to this week’s message. Pastor John’s passage was Mark 8: 13-21. To sum it up, the disciples were concerned because, with the exception of one loaf, they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey. While they were thinking about their lack of bread Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was mad because they hadn’t brought bread. Jesus, who knew what they were thinking said:“Why all this fussing over forgetting to bring bread? Do you still not see or understand what I say to you? Are your hearts still hard? You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” (Mark 8:17-18 TPT) Jesus asked them to remember when he fed the crowds of 5000+ and 4000+, asked them to remember how many leftovers there were and then asked them “…how is it that you still don’t get it?” (8:21) . 

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus mentions represent two oppressive systems. Yeast changes the composition of whatever it is introduced to. In the fermentation process, whether it be the making of bread or the making of beer, once yeast is introduced it works its way through the entire substance and changes its chemical structure. The disciples and Jesus had experienced quite a few unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees who continued to question Jesus’ authority and sow seeds of doubt, believing (and teaching) that their oppressive behavior-based system was the way of God. Their yeast represents man-made religious systems that have detoured from God’s loving heart and desire that his followers join him in his mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Man-made religious systems create hierarchies where some are in power and lord it over everyone else. Man-made religious systems oppress people. Man-made religious systems forget that God desires that we each use our gifts to introduce His ways and work toward the restoration and flourishing of all. Man-made religious systems portray a mean God. Man-made religious systems lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, judgment and “othering”.

The yeast of Herod represents the political realm and worldly power. One needs only to read the headlines to see how divisive, destructive and polarizing it can be when we align our hearts with political structures. The hate, the “othering”, the inability to see human beings without attaching labels and preconceived notions in regards to them, the mistreatment of some for the benefit of others…it’s toxic yeast changing our very nature.  Both religion and politics can have a tremendous influence on us. We are steeped in these systems and many times don’t recognize it, so we must be wise, allow the Holy Spirit to show us what we need to see, and separate ourselves from man-made systems that seek to oppress. The ways of the Kingdom of Heaven run counter to the kingdoms of this world. It is very easy to be infected by the yeast of the systems we grew up in. Do we see that? Are we willing to let Jesus open things up and show us something new–or–like the disciples, are we too hard-hearted to get it?

This week our passages are Mark 7:31-37, and Mark 8:22-26.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man. The way Mark lays out the timeline, Jesus heals the deaf man, feeds the crowd of 4000+, has an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees which leads to the above conversation in the boat, and then he heals the blind man. There are interesting parallels in these two healings that bookend this segment of scripture,

  1. Both men were brought to Jesus by others.
  2. Both men were brought to Jesus because they had physical limitations.
  3. Both men were brought to be touched and blessed by Jesus.
  4. Jesus pulls both men aside, away from the crowd, and gets one on one with each of them.
  5. Jesus uses his own saliva in both of these healings.

One man was deaf/mute, the other was blind. Isaiah prophesied centuries before that blind eyes will be open and deaf ears will hear… (35:5). These healings were more than just healings…

After Jesus healed the deaf/mute man, and right before he healed the blind man, he said to his disciples  “You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” 

Would Jesus say the same to us? Everything that Jesus does is nuanced and multi-layered. Yes, two men were miraculously healed by Jesus, but is that all there is to the story? Could it be that as Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, he is using these men as signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here and that he is the Messiah? He is giving his followers the opportunity to recognize that his ways are different from the ways of the Pharisees and of Herod; his ways are the ways of the Kingdom of God. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I find it beautiful that in both of these accounts Jesus pulls the men away from the crowd to be with them one on one.  If we look at Jesus’ miracles, they were never for the purpose of showing off–they were always on behalf of people who were in need–and he responded with compassion to the situation at hand. When the Pharisees wanted Jesus to show off for them to “prove” that he had authority to perform miracles, Jesus sighed deeply and walked away (Mark 8:12). Yes, his power was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his demonstrations of power were driven by his compassion, his love, his concern for all of us who are like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion, kindness, unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, all the fruit of the Holy Spirit are signs of His Kingdom on earth. Our Savior is powerful and pointed and gentle and kind. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I wonder, in the case of the deaf/mute man, if the voice of Jesus was the first voice he ever heard?  Mark 7:34 tells us that Jesus “gazed into heaven, sighed deeply, and spoke to the man’s ears and tongue, “Ethpathakh,” which is Aramaic for “Open up, now!

In The Passion Translation of the Bible, the footnote from Mark 7:34 says: “The phrase “open up” is the same wording used in the Hebrew of Isa. 61:1 “Open the prison doors.” It furthermore refers to the opening of the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  

Hmmm. Does this remind anyone else of Luke 4:18 when Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”  Jesus opens prison doors, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind… He opens things up. He changes things. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

In the healing of the blind man, “Jesus led him, as his sighted guide, outside the village. He placed his saliva on the man’s eyes and covered them with his hands”  (Mark 8:23 TPT). Again, the footnotes from The Passion Translation give us deeper insight into what is happening here. It says of verse 23, that the word “eyes’is not the common word for “eyes.” The Greek word omma can refer to both physical and spiritual sight”. And of the actual healing process itself “The Aramaic can be translated “Jesus placed his hands over his eyes and brought light.”

This healing account is different from any other in scripture because it happened in phases. The first time Jesus touched the man’s eyes, he only received partial sight. Jesus touched him a second time and he was able to see clearly, which according to Strong’s concordance literally means he could see “at a distance, and clearly”. Sometimes we get partial sight; the Apostle Paul said that’ “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (1st Cor. 13:12 The Voice) Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers? Are we willing to examine the lenses we grew up with and test them to see if they hold up to Truth? Are we willing to see through another’s eyes, and wrestle with his/her understanding of God, of salvation, of Jesus–removing our lenses and studying the gospels to see what is gold and what is stubble–recognizing traditions taught by man, versus what is actually there? Are we willing to soften our hard hearts and see, hear, remember? Jesus, the light of the world, is willing to touch us as many times as we allow so that we can see his light and his ways clearly.

In both of these healing encounters, Jesus opened things up. In putting these three accounts together, Jesus warns us to be careful about being influenced by human power structures, whether they are religious systems or political. He desires to pull us aside, to open our ears to hear his voice, open our eyes (both physical and spiritual) to see what he sees. He is our sighted guide. He brings us light. He leads us gently. He shows us who he is and what his Kingdom is about. He desires that we be like him, setting the oppressed free, and serving the people of the world with a heart of love, of compassion, of humility (“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:35).

Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

–Luanne

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I chose these words as my Senior quote. This line sits beside my picture in the yearbook that marked both an ending and a new beginning. The words came to my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and again this morning as I prayed through what direction to go in my writing. I don’t remember exactly why I chose this quote as a conflicted yet wide-eyed-with-wonder 17-year-old; I just know that it resonated deeply with my heart. I didn’t know that I would come back to it again and again as I grew from childhood into adulthood. It has reminded me that things are often not what they appear to be on the surface, that there are depths and nuance and mystery undetectable with our physical eyes. In moments where I’ve been tempted to pass judgment based on what is visible, these words have challenged me to consult the eyes of my heart first–the view is often different from there.

As I ponder the quote now, I find myself adding a few words that spring from what I’ve found to be true as I’ve grown in my own ability to see. I would say something like, “It is only with a heart whose eyes have been enlightened by the Spirit that one can see rightly; what is essential can be seen no other way.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit… If we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible.

The eyes of our hearts… It would be great if, when we each meet Jesus for the first time, a one-and-done opening of our heart-eyes was part of the deal. Can you imagine being able to see clearly and completely from that point forward? It would change everything!

But that’s not how it works. This seeing, this opening, it’s a gradual process. That’s what makes the two-part healing of the blind man at Betheseda so relatable. Luanne reminded us of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (The Voice)

What we know and see is only a sliver of the whole. In light of this truth, Luanne asked us some questions:

Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers?

Are we willing? Willing to, first, come to Jesus? Even if we have to be brought to him in the arms of someone else? And then, are we willing to let him touch our blind spots? Those places where we haven’t yet been enlightened by the Spirit? Luanne also asked if we are humble. Humility and willingness go hand in hand. It takes humility to admit that we have a limited field of sight and that our understanding is incomplete. And in that place of humility, we can choose to be willing to be led by “our sighted guide”, as Luanne called him.

Willingness and humility are not difficult–if our motivation is the same thing that moved Jesus. That motivator is love. If love is what drives us, being humble and willing are natural fruits of our endeavors. Luanne and I have both referenced 1 Corinthians 13:12. I was drawn to go back and read all of chapter 13, the chapter often called the “love chapter”. I’ve included it in its entirety below, to remind us what love actually looks like. Pastor John said on Sunday that to be “godly”, to be like God, is to be loving. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). No other attribute more fully captures his nature. And Jesus says the world will know us by this same love…

If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value. Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.

 (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

This kind of love is what motivated Jesus. If it’s what motivates us, we will have to continue to go to Jesus, to ask him to touch our blind spots and teach us to see the way that he sees. We’ll have to let him open us up–our eyes, our ears, our hearts. Luanne and I both used variations of the words “open up” many times in this post. We both know how hard it can be to open up. It can feel so much easier to live closed off, withdrawn, with eyes and ears closed to the world around us. It can feel safer. To open up is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable feels scary. But there is no way to embody the kind of love we just read about above if we’re not willing to be opened up by Jesus. Because love can’t be poured out of a closed vessel.

May we each have the courage to ask Jesus to heal our vision–layer by layer–so that we can see the world through his eyes–eyes that see what could be and what will be when wholeness and restoration come to set all things right. May we embrace the humble willingness that leads to a love that spills from our open hearts. And may we remember that for now, we only see in part, but our sighted guide sees the whole–and he’ll be faithful to keep bringing sight to us until the day we also see in full.

–Laura

The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

Image result for pharisees ask for a sign

 

See the Signs

One of the greatest things about following Jesus is there is always more to discover. Every account in scripture has deeper meaning than a one time reading could ever convey. Everything Jesus did was intentional, multi-faceted, complex, loving, purposeful, wise, and a myriad of other things. Since Jesus is the full revelation of God and “all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in him” (Col. 1:19), it makes sense to reason that the thoughts of Jesus are not our thoughts, the ways of Jesus are not our ways–that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9) In order for us to have the mind and attitude of Christ (Ph. 2:5) we must be willing to dig in– to seek, to see, to be changed. Jesus tells us that if we seek we will find (Mt. 7:7), but this is not a one time a week Sunday morning encounter; this is a lifelong journey with Jesus, one in which we discover new things and receive fresh revelations, as we allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and teach us.

Many of the things that Jesus did point to other things. Signs were part of his ministry. Signs are still part of his ministry. Pastor John defined signs as indicators of something greater–of there being more to an event than the event–he also cautioned us not to seek the signs, not to worship the signs, but to worship the One who gives the signs. Each sign is one piece of a much bigger picture. I like to think of signs as something that can give us holy wonder and curiosity. We can interpret signs in many ways–we may be right, partially right, or we may be wrong in our interpretations–so hold all of that loosely; however, pay attention. God is not silent and there are still plenty of signs to be seen.

Sign is the root word of signature and significance; therefore, can we say that God-given signs carry significance and bear His signature? I’ve shared many times about the summer I was in a difficult season and was praying in my backyard when a swallowtail butterfly flew right to me accompanied by the words “I see you, you are not alone.” For the next couple of months, every time I was deeply troubled a swallowtail would appear and my heart would hear the same message.  It was a few months later, long after the swallowtails had disappeared for that season,  that the power of the sign of the swallowtail and the message it carried literally kept me alive. I recalled it all through a long hard winter, even receiving a drawing of a yellow butterfly from a child in the month of January that year. It’s been eight years since that season, but every swallowtail I see reminds me of God’s faithfulness and his care for me during that time. Each one is significant–a sign to remind me that God sees me–I am not alone, and whoever happens to be with me when I see a swallowtail hears that message from my mouth–God sees, we are not alone. A sign. A message of significance. God’s signature.

This week our passage had us in Mark 8: 1-9 the feeding of the four thousand. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the four thousand often seems to take a back seat to the first miracle, but it has much to offer, especially when compared to the feeding of the five thousand. What signs can we see in these miracles?

Jesus had compassion on both crowds, but the compassion had a different root. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He took them under his wing, taught them many things, and provided guidance and leadership. He was concerned about their spiritual hunger.  In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus was moved to compassion by their physical hunger. He said of them  “My heart goes out to this crowd, for they’ve already been here with me for three days with nothing to eat.  I’m concerned that if I send them home hungry, they’ll be exhausted along the way, for some of them have come a long, long way just to be with me.” (Mark 8:2-3 TPT)

Could we take from these two similar but different stories the sign that Jesus is concerned about spiritual and physical needs? He ministered to both of those needs, and he led his followers to do the same. Is it a sign that his Church today, his followers, you and me, should be addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the world?

In the feeding of the five thousand, we learn right away that there is both bread and fish to be multiplied. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus asks the disciples how many loaves they have and learns that they have seven loaves. Jesus takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks them, and has the disciples distribute the bread. Then we find out that there were a few small fish as well. The emphasis seems to be on the bread. Why? Is it a sign?

In the gospel of John, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). In John 6:51 Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. In Matthew 26:26 we learn that at the last supper with his disciples before he was arrested he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Is the multiplied bread a sign that Jesus is here for the whole world, that when we come to him we find ultimate satisfaction?  Is it a sign that whatever we offer to Jesus becomes more in his hands–that our seven loaves can feed the masses and there will still be plenty leftover? Is it a sign that in God’s kingdom everyone counts, there is no shortage, that when those who have share with those who don’t have there is more enough for all?

Speaking of signs Pastor John encouraged us:

  1. To open our eyes and see signs as something Jesus used to help us see him in his fullness.
  2. To keep our eyes open and try to see all Jesus is trying to show us–not to see the sign as any type of conclusion–but as an indicator pointing to a bigger picture, a deeper truth, something significant.
  3. To stay focused on the Giver of the signs, not on the signs themselves.
  4. To blink. If we stare too intently for too long our eyes begin to burn, then they begin to tear and we lose clarity. Blinking helps us to see clearly.

In both miracles, there is great need in the midst of humanly impossible circumstances. There was no human way that 5000+ people or 4000+ people could be fed with the resources provided. I think this point is where many modern churches get stuck. We forget that nothing is impossible for God. We become skeptical (sometimes we call it logical). Often times the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds. Did he give us these biblical loaves and fish accounts as signs to help us remember that he can multiply anything we give to him in order to meet the needs of those around us?

Let’s be honest–the needs of the world, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. The needs right here in our city, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. Will our response be, “I’d love to get involved but I don’t have enough (fill in the blank) to make a difference? Or, I don’t really get what’s going on and am not sure I like it, so I’ll hang out on the sidelines and wait. Or will our response be “Father, how can I be part of what you’re doing?” and offer whatever we have. There’s more to offer than just money; we can offer our experience, our time, our homes, our hearts, our tables, our expertise, our love, our kindness, our encouragement, our prayers, our fellowship, our presence, our willingness to make space for whoever we encounter, our Jesus who loves all people, our Jesus who is moved with compassion over all the need, our Jesus who gives us purpose and includes us in his mission and ministry, our Jesus who takes what we offer, multiplying it beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

He chooses all of us to be part of his work on earth. He gives us personal signs to encourage us along, he gives us corporate signs to encourage us along, he gives us scriptural signs to encourage us along– all of these are indicators of something significant. Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.

–Luanne

“Oftentimes the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds…”

I’m not usually prone to skepticism. I tend to be an optimist–even, sometimes, an idealist. But there are situations and people that bring the skeptic out in me. The wrestling match Luanne described above is a real thing, especially when a situation that has felt daunting gets more daunting, and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a time when it will be anything but daunting. It is in these situations, and in our interactions with these people– when we feel the skeptic in us rising up–that paying attention to the signs we are given is so very important.

I can’t help but think back to the end of chapter 6 in Mark when Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat with his disciples. In verse 52, we read that, “…they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson. (The Passion Translation)

Luanne ended her post with this exhortation:

“Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.” 

Both the story of the disciples I referenced and Luanne’s exhortation highlight a crucial component of sign-seeing. Our hearts.

The disciples saw the sign with their eyes. They were part of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 from beginning to end. But there was a disconnect somewhere. Mark 6:52 tells us exactly where that disconnect stemmed from. “Their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.” Would it be fair to say that they were being skeptics about what they’d seen?

Maybe defining what a skeptic is would be helpful.

Skeptic: a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it. (Dictionary.com) 

I don’t know if the disciples were being skeptics. But I know that I can be. I also know that when I take things at face value, without engaging my heart, skepticism leads to more skepticism and I end up in an ugly web of my own spinning…

If we’re only seeing with our eyes and not also with our hearts, we will find ourselves skeptical of everything we think we see. 

There are situations where a bit of skepticism is merited. But when it comes to journeying with Jesus, skepticism will not serve us well. Being skeptical of the mystery and wonder of the kingdom will keep us from seeing the kingdom come. Skeptics can see with their eyes, but skepticism will place scales over the eyes of our hearts.

The apostle Paul prayed this prayer over the Ephesisans:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit. Why is this important? So that we will know and cherish the hope that is ours in Jesus, and so we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of his active power in us!

Hope and skepticism don’t go together. And if we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible. The “small” signs and wonders we see when we live with eyes and hearts wide open add up. And over time, we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of the One we follow.

Some of the most precious gifts I’ve received from God would be completely meaningless to someone else. But to me, these “signs” are significant and bear God’s signature. Like Luanne’s butterfly, these signs from God’s heart to mine convey that I am seen, valued, and loved by him. I may not interpret each one correctly, and that’s okay. The goal is that the signs point us to God. They give us a glimpse of our own beautiful smallness in light of his inexhaustible greatness and remind us that there is always hope. Living with our eyes and hearts wide open to the signs along the way keeps us awake to the wonder and mystery of Jesus. The signs offer us glimpses of depths we wouldn’t otherwise see, and remind us that our God is alive, active, and right here with us, in the thick of everyday life.

May we resist the lazy, limiting way of skepticism and embrace the hope that comes with choosing to live with our eyes–and our hearts–wide open to the signs of God all around us.

–Laura

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