Stories—Dave H.

Around two months ago I was praying over the state of the church in America (which I do often), I was lamenting  the fact that the Jesus portrayed by many doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the Bible; I was asking God how on earth we got so sidetracked—so mean, and asking Him to open our eyes, open our hearts, lead us to corporate repentance, and draw us back to the simplicity of the gospel message.

As I was praying, God led me to ponder one of the verses that is often used to “lead people to the Lord”—Romans 10:9  “…If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” As I thought about that verse, it dawned on me that we typically emphasize confess with your mouth  and believe in your heart, but the heart of that verse is Jesus is LORD. I believe some of us have missed that  along the way.

The word “Lord” is Kyrios in the Greek. and according to Strong’s Concordance, Lord means: He to whom a person or thing belongs…the owner; one who has control of the person; the master. 

When we surrender our lives to the lordship of Christ—we are saying, You own me. You are my master. You get to decide what my life is going to be about. I choose to obey you. That’s a concept that sounds scary and unpleasant, and would be if another human were our Lord—but belonging to Jesus and letting him lead us is where real life is found.

So, Sunday morning in our stories series, as Dave shared his story, my mind went right to this place. Dave shared with us that he was raised in church. When he was 7 or 8 years old he decided that he probably ought to be baptized, because he knew it was the right thing to do. So he went forward, said all the right things, got baptized, and left the church that morning unchanged. In his words, he went in dry and came out wet.

I can relate to that part of Dave’s story; When I was a child, our church showed a Billy Graham film during the Sunday evening service and many of my eight year old friends and I went forward at the end of that film. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I was not going to be left out! Many of my friends went on to be baptized shortly after that, but my pastor—who just so happened to be my dad—said that he wanted me to wait. I was really frustrated with him. I thought it was unfair that my friends were being baptized, but not me. In retrospect,  I am deeply grateful for my dad’s wisdom and discernment. He knew that I hadn’t had a real encounter with Jesus—I was just doing the right thing so I could be part of the group. The following summer, the real Jesus made His presence known to me in my bedroom. Can’t explain that, but He was there. I felt His love and I knew I would never be the same. I made my decision to follow Him public in my church, and was baptized a short time later. (Interestingly, even though I had a very real encounter with Jesus, when life got hard a few years later, I chose to try to be Lord of my own life (which was disastrous), but the Holy Spirit never left me alone and even though there were very real consequences to my choices, God never left me; he wooed me constantly.)

Dave confessed that he had been a pretender for a lot of years. He went to church, he even went to Bible College, but he knew that He didn’t have a relationship with God. He also knew that God was pursuing him, but he ignored God’s pursuit, tried to push it to the back of his mind. (I love that God pursues us when we don’t know Him, and he pursues us when we’ve wandered away from Him.) In Dave’s story, it took his life falling apart, bringing him to the end of himself and his perceived self-sufficiency to finally realize that his only hope was Jesus alone. He cried out—he says he literally cried, bawled his eyes out, and cried out to God. He knew, just like I did in my bedroom, that Jesus saved him in that moment and the Holy Spirit entered his life. He immediately felt peace, joy, relief, loved—all the beautiful inexplicable things that come with surrender. His life has never been the same.

That’s what happens when we come into a real relationship with Jesus. We know that something beautiful and supernatural has taken place in our lives, and we know that we will never be the same. We want Him to be Lord, to be our Master, to take control of our lives and lead us. We want to do life His way. It’s not a burden, it’s a joy.

Dave closed first service by saying these words: Some of you may be able to relate to my story. Some of you may be pretenders, running from God. If you are in that place, I would beg and urge you to get out of that place and give your life to Jesus Christ. It matters not what anyone else thinks—the only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Christ. What matters most at the end of the day is a personal relationship with Jesus. 

Dave is no longer a pretender. He says that when God became real to him, he himself became real. Many of us, who have known Dave for the last six or so years have been honored to watch him transform from the inside out. He was gruff, argumentative, and a little scary when he first came around. Now, it’s hard to describe what a gentle man he is. Joy flows out of him. His worship is uninhibited, he is full of generosity and encouragement… I love that. Nothing is better than submitting to the only true Lord, becoming the real people we were made to be, living out the purpose for which we were created. When we live that way, the fruit of that relationship spills out and over onto those around us, and it’s that love, and the kindness of the Lord that draws people to Him.

It used to be that church was part of Dave’s life, but Christ wasn’t. That is no longer the truth in Dave’s life, and the evidence of Christ in his life is real.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that ˆnot everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 

Dave admits that in the past he went through the Christian motions, he looked okay on the outside, but his life was filled with inner turmoil, until he came into a real relationship with a very real, very loving God through Jesus. Now when he calls Jesus his Lord, it’s not just a phrase, it’s his life.

What about you? Do you really know Him? Has your life been changed because of Him? Have you done more than said words with your mouth, have you surrendered your life to Him as your Lord in the truest sense of that word? I hope so. Everything in your life hinges on this one choice. He is so worth it! Nothing compares to His love.

—Luanne

Dave said he was a “pretender” most of his life. So was I. Our stories are different, but that word and its synonyms still prick my heart a little when I hear them. Maybe that’s because a little bit of the old me still fights for life deep down in my heart. Occasionally, she surfaces. And as much as I would rather hide, God is nudging me to share a little more about my own story here. The tears welling up as I write are evidence of the resistance in my heart. This is a vulnerable, tender space… But I know that to grow, we have to be willing to risk. To risk vulnerability, to risk being misunderstood-the way Dave risked this weekend.

Like Dave, I gave my life to Jesus as a young child. I was eight years old. Soon after, I was baptized. Also like Dave, I looked like a “Christian” on the outside. But this is where our stories begin to look different. I bought my own act…

Did you know that you can get so good at pretending that you eventually believe it yourself?

I didn’t know that. I didn’t know I was pretending. I didn’t know that having a relationship with Jesus actually meant freedom from pretending and permission to be real. That wasn’t my experience. As I understood it, living for Jesus-doing it “right”-took work. A lot of work. So I waded deeper and deeper into the pool of perfectionism. I was great at it. So great at it, in fact, that it would take years before I began to see it for what it was.

I will say right here that I believe my relationship with Jesus began the day my eight-year-old little girl heart chose to accept His gift of salvation. I sensed Him, and in ways I couldn’t understand, I loved Him and longed for Him. And He accepted me right where I was, with whatever faith I had then. He pursued me throughout my childhood, He pursued me through all of my pretending, and He pursues me today. I don’t believe my salvation was in question. But I had no idea what it meant to live real.

I was in elementary school the first time someone called me “fake”. My feelings were hurt for reasons I couldn’t yet articulate. But mostly, I just didn’t understand. I was a model student, teacher’s pet, obedient daughter, nice to everyone. I read my bible and I told my friends about Jesus. I was exactly who I was expected to be. If those expectations changed, so did I. I thought that’s what good girls did

That wouldn’t be the last time the word “fake” was used to describe me. It kept happening as I grew up. I still didn’t understand, and I grew more and more defensive at the accusation. It felt mean, like an attack on my very identity. It would still be years before I began to discover what my real identity is…

Fast forward to my early twenties… As an adult, married woman with children, things looked good on the outside. I had made awful decisions as a teenager, when the perfectionism couldn’t be maintained and rebellion took over. But now, I was faithful in church, serving in multiple areas, growing in my relationship with God.

And I was exhausted. So tired of the upkeep this inner perfectionist demanded. But by now, the “fake” was so much a part of me, it was the realest thing I knew. The verse “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became my favorite in that season of my life-I wanted that so badly. But I had no idea how to be still. There was too much to be done, too many people to perform for.

We started attending FBC in May 2010. And God, in His goodness, began to deconstruct everything I believed about Him-and about myself.

The journey has been unbelievably painful. And unexpectedly beautiful…

As I entered into life and serving at FBC, I began to hear familiar things from people who didn’t know me well. They wanted me to be real, authentic, to stop performing. And I took offense. I got defensive. The little girl who always felt like a victim was hyper-aware of how unsafe this felt. But something was different this time… These people called me out for the fraud I was-AND, they were willing to help me out of the pit. I hadn’t experienced this before. I had been accused of much in the past. I had gotten used to hearing hurtful things. But I wasn’t used to people coming alongside me in my pain and offering me the help I didn’t know I needed. The journey to becoming real-there aren’t really words to adequately capture how painful it can be. But like Dave, I found myself tired of running and desperate for Jesus. And God, in His constant, perfect pursuit of me, used people who were real to teach me what I was missing in my relationship with Him. I was never going to live into the purpose and calling He had for me until I learned who “me” really was. You know what? I found out that I actually like me. And other people do, too. God loved me at every stage of my growth, in His perfect way. But He wanted me to love me, too. To find myself within His love, as His Beloved. He knew of course, that everything flows out of the knowledge that I am fully known and fully loved by Him. And freedom would come when I was willing to be fully known and fully loved by others. And, it was only then that I was truly free to love my neighbor. All of my neighbors.

I wish I could tell you that one day I woke up and the “pretender” I’d been was completely gone, never to be seen again. But that wouldn’t be true…

I still struggle. There are times I find myself performing as I sing, rather than worshiping. Other times I gauge my gift as a writer by how many likes a blog post gets. Sometimes, I hide my hurt feelings from my friends, and ignore my own convictions in order to keep the peace. I say I’m fine when I need to reach out. I hide behind others because I’m afraid of my own calling. I don’t step out for fear that I’m still a fraud. There’s so much more to this story, so many reasons for the pretending, so many examples of how that played (and sometimes still plays) out in my life… I’ll save that for another day. For now, what’s important is what Dave said at the end of what he shared. Luanne wrote it above, and I’m writing it again because it’s just that important:

“It matters not what anybody else thinks. The only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. We can say the prayer, get dunked in the water, and still not submit our lives to the Lordship of Jesus. We can even think we’re doing it right, and so deceive ourselves. But when things get hard, when we find ourselves in pits of our own digging, that’s where the truth comes out. Is Jesus really ALL to us? Have we become who He knit us to be in our mother’s wombs before one of our days came to be? (Psalm 139:13-16) Or have we chosen a counterfeit version of His original creation? Have we become pretenders even in our pursuit of Him? I lived so much of my life as a pretender. I hated myself and other people weren’t too fond of me either… But what matters now is what mattered then-Jesus thought I was worth pursuing. He had more for me, like He had more for Dave. Like He has more for you. I never want to go backwards-and I pray that by His grace and constant pursuit of me, I won’t. Freedom, realness, knowing the real God-there’s nothing on earth that compares. Are you pretending? Will you let Him love you past all the striving and bravely lay down the masks so you can experience living real, too?

–Laura

brennan manning

Stories… “Arise, My God”

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

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

And He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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Stories

 

 

Communion: derived from com “with”, and  unus “oneness, union”

When Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, he was making a grand statement. The word thanks in this passage (Luke 22:19)  is the Greek word eucharisteo which literally means thanks and grace. If you’ve read Ann Voskamp’s beautiful book One Thousand Gifts you know that she breaks down that word by telling us that

-the root word of eucharisteo is charis– the Greek word for grace;

-the root word of charis is chara, the Greek word for joy.

So grace, giving thanks, and joy are all tied up in this one word. Jesus gave thanks—this incredible grace recognizing, rooted in joy thanks–right before he broke the bread. Right before he said “This is my body broken for you.” less than 24 hours before he would be hanging broken on a cross offering himself for us in a very literal, grace filled way.

John shared his personal story with us, told us about the Sunday morning a little over six years ago when he had to confess his sin before the church, and the beautiful way that Jesus came to him in a vision later that day, offering John communion–the bread, the cup–and John said that Jesus was not mad at him, but offered communion with grace, with warmth, with compassion. Jesus came to John in his brokenness.

We were in a dark season, John and I. He was beginning to find freedom and healing once his sin was brought out into the light. I, on the other hand, entered the darkest season of my adult life. Twice I contemplated suicide. When I realized that I could not end my own life, I begged God to kill me. I begged Him for weeks. He said no. Then I begged Him to release me from my vows. He again said no. So I yelled at Him, then do not waste this pain!!  I did not know how I was going to make it through that season of my life. I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing joy again.  But just like Jesus met John in his brokenness, he met me too.

It was winter, the days were short. After work I would go to my room, turn off the lights, turn on the electric fireplace, lay on the floor in the dark with worship music on and cry, and pray, and listen. I can’t describe what happened, but Jesus was there. I was not alone. He ministered to me in my brokenness. He met me where I was. He didn’t condemn me for being broken, for being devastated. For about a month he just sat with me. Then, one night, the song “Dance With Me oh Lover of My Soul” came on, and just like John’s vision of Jesus offering him communion, I had a vision of Jesus with his hand stretched out to me asking me to dance. I got up off the floor and danced with Jesus. I can’t explain that, but I can tell you that it was a holy moment, and the first moment that light began to enter my darkness.

Brokenness. None of us desire it. But Jesus, in His brokenness invited us into real life. His broken body, his poured out blood are an invitation to take off our masks, enter in just as we are, accept his extended hand, see this communion for what it is–Jesus’ marriage proposal to us. And we get to respond by eating the bread and drinking the cup as a way of saying “Jesus, I accept  your life and I give you mine in return.”

His extended hand offering a broken man communion. His extended hand offering a broken woman a dance to the song of all songs. His extended hand offered to you, asking you to remove your mask, and enter into the most beautiful relationship ever. Grace. Thanksgiving. Joy. Will you accept? Will you offer yourself in return? Will you enter in?

–Luanne

In January 2012, I read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts, that Luanne referenced. It changed my life. For real. I had never heard the word “eucharisteo” before–now I wear a bracelet almost every day that bears the inscription. Because I don’t ever want to forget. I don’t want to forget that gratitude and grace and joy-they all come together at the Eucharist, the table of our Lord’s Supper. I don’t want to forget that gratitude precedes the miracle every. single. time. I don’t want to forget that naming everyday graces as gifts-the daily practice of thanksgiving-reorients my heart toward the Giver of everything, of every breath I take… It became part of the fabric of my heart, the rhythm of my life. And then, life got really hard. Really, really hard. As I thought through what I would write this week, I remembered a piece I wrote three years ago, called “The Dance of Grief and Gratitude”.  Interestingly, I even used the same scripture in it that John used in his sermon this week. So, I thought I would share some excerpts from that piece here-a window into my heart during a time when I was violently wrestling with brokenness and gratitude and how in the world they went together. God had asked me during that season, more than once, if I would thank Him now, when my world was broken-when I was desperately broken, too. I was vehemently opposed. This is a glimpse into my process through my dark night of the soul…

“I forgot. As time passed, I started to forget. This practice of gratitude, of counting gifts, remembering His goodness, it became a “sometimes” practice. And by the time my life began to turn a corner and loss started to come into view, my vision was cloudy and I had soul-amnesia. I didn’t hold fast to the truth of who God is and all He has done. I didn’t take hold of the truth of His goodness in everything.

So when I grieved the loss of a perceived calling, when I grieved the recurrence of a monster disease and eventually the early death of my precious mother, the last thing I wanted to do was thank this God who had allowed the pain that tore my heart and soul into a million tattered pieces…but…

True gratitude requires death. Death to myself, to my own will, to the way I would do things if it were up to me. True gratitude recognizes that each moment we are given, full of things we perceive as good or full of what we would call bad, is a gift from the hands of our Father. Not one breath is guaranteed. Every second is grace.

Every second? Did I really believe that?

As I tried to come to grips with the freshly re-surfaced question, I re-read words that I had forgotten…

‘ “On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it…” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Jesus, on the night before the driving hammer and iron piercing through ligament and sinew, receives what God offers as grace…? Oh. Facing the abandonment of God Himself, Jesus offers thanksgiving for even that which will break Him and crush Him and wound Him and yield a bounty of joy.’ (One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp)

Jesus gave thanks with the cross in view. With death creeping ever closer. With the knowledge of all that he would face in a matter of hours. He opened His hands, and not only did He receive the bitter, the hard that God had given, but He did so with a heart full of thanks.

On the next page of Ann’s book, she writes, “The Eucharist invites us to give thanks for the dying. To participate in His death with our own daily dying and give thanks for it… I lay the torn bread on the tongue and I remember and press it to the roof of my mouth and the bread melts and I give thanks for the dying”.

I give thanks for the dying…

How, Lord? How do I give thanks for the dying? How do I say thank you for pain, disease and death? For facing the rest of my life without my Mom? How do I do that?

Ephesians 5:20 says ‘…always giving thanks to God the Father for all things…’. All things. Even this.

The tears fall raw and wild as I remember words I read in my Mom’s journal not long after she died. ‘Thank you, God, for the RA and the Pulmonary Fibrosis.’ I remembered her last few days with us, her understanding and acceptance of what was ahead. She said, more times than I could possibly count, ‘Glory to God for the life that I’ve lived. I choose to live for Him-whether it’s here or in Heaven’. And she meant it. She understood that we all have an expiration date, that death is guaranteed as a result of life. And she thanked God for it all. Even for the murderous disease that took her life…

To respond to every moment that flows from the hands of God with gratitude is the hardest thing of all. To see every moment as grace-every single second-is anything but easy. Because it is an opening of my hands to receive whatever God chooses to give, whether bitter or sweet to my tongue. It says, ‘You alone are God. I am not. I trust you enough to take you at your Word. That you are a good God. Purely good. And the things in life that don’t feel good now, you can make good out of those, too’. When I respond to God with gratitude, I lower myself. I remember that I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve another breath…but He gives it. I don’t deserve any grace… “But He gives more grace” (James 4:6a) I am reminded that I was bought with a price by a God-man who gave thanks for all things, even in death, and how could I ever be anything but grateful when I’ve been given a gift like that?”

I wish I could say that in the three years since I wrote that, I haven’t forgotten. But I have. I do. Sometimes, I forget the power of eucharisteo, forget to live grateful and aware of the gifts that God gives. Sometimes, I pick up a mask and slap it on-covering the image of Jesus that’s being forged in me as I learn to live fully alive in Him. I had to lay one down today, in fact. Before I came to the table, I came to the feet of my Jesus and confessed again my brokenness, this mask I had picked up. I laid my heart before Him and do you know what happened? He met me in that space. He was there drawing me long before I made the decision to come. It’s what He always does. He is always inviting, always beckoning us to come to the table…

When we are most broken, Jesus offers us His broken body and spilled blood to fill in and repair our most shattered places. He comes to us, the ever-faithful groom, and He lifts the veil of all of our masks, and extends the invitation again: “Will you take all that I am and let it invade and cover and complete all that you are not? Will you give me your broken, depleted, sin-stained life so that I can give you my abundant, whole, forever life? Will you embrace dying to yourself so that you can wake to your real, unmasked life in me? Will you? I choose you-in all of your brokenness-to be my beloved bride-do you take me to be your groom?”

What response can our broken, tattered hearts give but a humbled and grateful, “I do”?

–Laura

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Why Is It…?

Why is it so hard to love others?

Ron opened this week’s message with this question. Scripture is full of the Jesus’ mandate to love each other. In Mark 12:31, He tells us that after loving God, there is only one other commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself”. In John 13:34-35, He tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another“. And in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. And in John 15:12, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we get the idea. Jesus was pretty clear. We are to love one another.

So, why is it so hard? Ron gave us four reasons why it is challenging to love others:

We have to become vulnerable. 

We risk being rejected

It requires removing conditional barriers.

Some have never experienced authentic love.

When we choose vulnerability, we put our well-being in someone else’s hands. Becoming vulnerable not only requires lowering our defenses–it requires us to completely lay them aside, to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. One way we can be wounded in our vulnerability comes in the form of rejection. I don’t know about you, but there is little else that has wounded me as deeply as being rejected for who I am. The pain is deep, and when we’ve experienced it once, we become wary of putting ourselves in any position where it could happen again.

But this is what love requires of us…

Choosing to love the way that Jesus calls us to love requires a willing vulnerability. A vulnerability that is keenly aware of the potential for rejection–but chooses to love anyway.

What does this Jesus way look like? Ron gave us some examples. Jesus love looks like…

…reaching out to touch the leper that society-and the law-had deemed “unclean”. (Matthew 8)

…choosing mercy over judgement when the law of the land required stoning the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:2-11)

Jesus stood in the gap for these two–and so many others that we meet on the pages of Scripture. He put Himself in vulnerable positions over and over and over again to align Himself with those who were even more vulnerable in society. He willingly stepped into situations where He would find Himself accused, mocked, rejected, hated. And He tells us to love others in the very same way. He asks us to lay down our defenses and stand in the gap in the name of loving one another,  loving our neighbor. And our neighbor is everyone. Everyone that bears the image of God.

As I listened to the message, I remembered a story from scripture that we don’t talk about all that often. But it is quite possibly the key moment in our even having most of the New Testament available to us today…

Not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. Here is the account from Acts 9:26-29, out of the Message:

Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name.

Saul had arrested, persecuted and sanctioned the murder of countless Jesus followers. He had a past. People were afraid of him-so much so, that many were unwilling to give him a chance. This is what he faced when he came to Jerusalem. His reputation preceded him.

But someone stood in the gap… 

What would have happened if Barnabas had been unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to risk his own reputation to vouch for Saul? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Because after Barnabas spoke up and stood in the gap for Saul (who would become Paul), Saul was “accepted as one of them” and he went on to plant churches and preach the Kingdom of Heaven and write a massive portion of our New Testament. All because someone was willing to oppose popular opinion.

Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to vouch for the humanity of another when it means we may be criticized, rejected, even hated? To push back against the labels society has given–the way that Jesus did over and over again? So that someone who is even more vulnerable than we are might be given a chance, a fresh start? Will we choose to love by looking beyond the dirty exterior into the Image of God that all of humanity bears–the way that God looks beyond our own dirtiness to see His own image in each of us? I hope that we can say yes. Yes, we will choose to love the way that Jesus loved us-by laying our lives down for one another. By choosing vulnerability and risking rejection because we know that God’s love is the only thing that ever changes anyone. May we be vessels that His life-changing love can flow through to change the world…

–Laura

Ron’s question–Why is it so hard to love?  My answer–Because it’s stinking hard!

Loving God’s way is impossible apart from the Spirit of God. God’s very essence is love, so in order to be able to have godly love, His essence, His character must dwell in me, and in order for His character to dwell in me, I must be filled with Him. How I would love to say that I  live this way consistently–but I can’t.

I love that Laura brought up Barnabas and his vulnerability in being obedient to God by befriending Saul of Tarsus.   Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’. In Acts 11:24 we learn that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith

I sometimes ponder, if my life was summed up in a couple of phrases–would full of the Holy Spirit be one of them?  Full of the Holy Spirit indicates full of love.

None of the verses Ron used in his sermon were unfamiliar, none of the verses Laura references above are unfamiliar, “God is love” is not unfamiliar. We know this in our heads, but living it out in our lives becomes intrinsically more difficult. When Ron talked about the way Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that Judas was going to betray him, it pierced my heart.  I pray for God’s love to reach members of ISIS, of world leaders, of human traffickers, but Jesus shared life with Judas, shared bread with Judas, didn’t talk negatively about him to the other disciples. He loved him. And I feel sure, if Judas hadn’t taken his own life, that Jesus would have gone to him after his resurrection and loved him then too–just like He did with Peter. It’s the close proximity people who challenge my loving well. If I think someone might hurt me, my self-protective barrier goes up, my wall goes up–and that’s not loving the Jesus way.

I think there’s an important nugget for us in the story of Judas.  Luke 22:3 makes it clear that “Satan entered Judas”, but what made Judas susceptible to that attack?  Was it a love of money? Was it frustration that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom? Was he mad about not being part of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? We don’t know. What we do know is that he separated himself from the rest of the disciples for a time. What were the disciples doing that day? Preparing for the Passover. What was Judas doing? Visiting with the Chief Priest and coming up with a betrayal plan, which ultimately destroyed his own life.

Here’s the nugget. We have got to guard our hearts fiercely! We have to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to search us daily, and confess those areas that don’t line up with God’s desire, and we have to choose to love.  We have an enemy who is seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), and the moment we let our guard down, we are susceptible to all kinds of destructive things.  Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.

So, how do we choose love? How do we truly love God and love others–even our enemies?

I once sat across the table from a man who was going to lead a student conference for us in Brazil. While we were discussing things, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that we are not capable of loving God the way God wants to be loved, so we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God well–to love Himself through us. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked God to love Himself through you? I never had, but I think this man is right. God makes it clear that He loves us. Responding to that love with love is where it all begins–and it’s a Spirit thing…the fruit of the Spirit is love….(Gal 5:22) . 

So how does it happen? No doubt, there is mystery involved, but God tells us that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we receive Christ (Romans 8:9). We learn that the Spirit can be quenched (1st Th. 5;19) that He can be grieved (Eph 4:30),  that we can ask for Him (Luke 11:13), and that being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is what we are to be about.   And the evidence that we are filled goes back to Galatians 5:22–His fruit will be evident in our lives, it will be the natural outflow–and Jesus tells his followers in Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-19 that we will be recognized as His followers, or not,  by our fruit.

Paul tells us, in the famous “love” chapter (1st Corinthians 13) that it is possible for us to do all kinds of things, like speak in tongues, prophesy, fathom mysteries and knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, give everything we have to the poor, allow ourselves to go through hardship  but if we have not love…we are nothing. 

Then Paul describes what love in action looks like–patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs, doesn’t delight in evil, rejoices with truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,  – love never fails.  

Do we believe this to be true? Are we willing to step out of the self-righteous, hate spewing, grudge bearing culture that we live in–humble ourselves, choose the Jesus way, and let Him love through us, even if it costs us dearly?

Holy Spirit, we need your help! In this day of division, labels, hate, vitriolic  comments, may we, Your people, choose a different way by choosing to allow you to fill us and choosing to allow You to love others through us–all others. Your love is the only thing that will change this world. May we allow you to change us, and use us to love others well.

–Luanne

God’s Guidance

I had a delightful friend in college who was born blind. She was very independent, lived in the dorm, used a cane, and got around remarkably well. One evening I was looking out the window of my dorm room and saw her heading toward the normal sidewalk that would take her to the commons; however, this particular evening someone had parked their car on the striped “no parking” lines and had blocked the sidewalk. Jana tapped her way along her normal route, but the car in that spot threw her off and she became disoriented. I didn’t even take the time to put on shoes, and ran as quickly as I could down the stairs and out of the dorm to offer her assistance. I explained to her what had happened, offered her my arm, and we headed to the commons together, having great conversation as we went.

It has been a long time since I’ve thought about that incident, but it popped right into my head when John read Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them: I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”

God’s guidance–what a gift!

I don’t know if we post-resurrection Jesus followers truly understand the incredible gift we have. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God wasn’t in common people. Some people were anointed by the Spirit and they gave God’s message to others. Sometimes God sent angelic beings to speak to people, but the majority of the people had no intimate connection with God, so seeking His guidance was difficult. If there was no “anointed” person around, the people floundered. In the book of Judges, verses 17:6 and 21:25  tell us that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”,  which led them into bondage and misery.

But God had a plan. Through the prophet Ezekiel God told us, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (36:26-27) 

Jesus reiterates the same promise in John 14:16-17 when he tells his disciples “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Back to my story with Jana–I could have watched Jana in her confusion hoping that she’d get it figured out on her own, or I could have opened the window and hollered instructions to her, but indifference or instruction from a distance wouldn’t have sufficed. Presence, proximity, and physical contact were what was needed, and it was a joy to be able to assist her in that way.

If we look closely at the Ezekiel and John verses, they imply incredible intimacy. The word “put” implies a hands on action, and His Spirit in us…it’s mind blowing–deeply personal, deeply intimate. Words will never be able to express the awe-inspiring greatness of that reality.

Guidance implies proximity and movement. I went to Jana, got near her.  She took my arm, and I led her to her destination. It would have been silly for us to just stand there. The same is true in our relationship with Christ.

The Holy Spirit is in those who have submitted their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and one of His roles is to guide us, not from afar, but in “within us” nearness. The Holy Spirit is very much alive, very much active; He knows where we are headed and He knows how to get us there.  He works in tandem with the word of God to lead us where He wants us to go. Hunting guides, fishing guides, trail guides etc. are all present in their guiding. They teach, they lead, they guide. The role of the follower is to listen, to imitate, to follow. Independence will not serve the follower well.

The Holy Spirit is present and longing to be our guide. Do we take time to seek Him? Do we make time to be still and listen?  Independence will not serve us well. God has a mission for us. Will we take His arm and let Him lead?

–Luanne

Luanne articulated that it would have been silly for her and Jana to just stand there, not moving, and that the same is true in our relationships with Christ. And yet… is that not exactly what we do much of the time? John took it one step further Sunday when he said that not moving when God is trying to lead us is actually disobedience. I don’t think we are often deliberately disobedient in our walks with Christ, (although, admittedly, there are times I have told Him no when I knew he required my yes–so grateful for grace!) but it’s easier than we may readily realize to find ourselves in a stance of disobedience.

John articulated one of the reasons we can find ourselves standing still as fear of doing it wrong. This is a huge part of my story. I spent most of my life drowning in seas of insecurity, feeling incapable and worthless and just plain not enough. So when God began to ask me to step out and let Him lead me deeper into the waves, my first instinct was to dig in my heels and rattle off all of the reasons why I couldn’t. Honestly? Sometimes that’s still my first instinct. The fear of doing it wrong–whatever “it” is in any given season–is a formidable obstacle. If we don’t understand the heart of our God.

I was there. I was living out of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life. The tree of striving and performing even while knowing it’s never going to be good enough, instead of the tree that reminds us that Jesus is the good enough we can never be. He offers His more than enough through the power of His Spirit to equip us to follow where He leads. But if we don’t understand the tender heart of the Shepherd toward His sheep, it’s easy to stand still out of fear rather than respond to His voice. So what is His heart toward us as He leads us? Here are just a few examples…

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:11

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soulHe guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Psalm 23:2-3

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frameYou will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26

In these four verses, we read that God tends to us, gathers and carries and gently leads us, makes us lie down and refreshes our souls. He satisfies our needs and strengthens our frames. And His Spirit helps us in our weakness and even intercedes for us when we can’t find the words to pray. This is Who we follow. And when we see Him, when we begin to grasp the extravagant gift of His Spirit residing IN us, fear of doing it wrong fades as we realize that we never had the ability to do it right on our own and we never will. It is only through the power of His Spirit and the living guidance of His word that we can follow where He leads. And that frees us up to take the next step. Because it was never meant to be done in our own power. In fact, “taking the next step” isn’t all our own doing either…

If Jesus is truly our Lord, if we have submitted our lives to Him, then His Spirit lives within us. In the Ezekiel 36 passage Luanne included, God says “…I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow…”. There are two actions mentioned here–“put” and “move”. God puts His Spirit in us in a holy transaction that brings our dead souls to life. AND, He moves us to follow. So our “next step” is never taken in our own strength. God moves us to follow Him, “For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 Amplified).

What a good Father He is… He sent Jesus to die so we could live. He gave us His Spirit so we will never walk alone. He gives us the longing and the ability to do what He is calling us to do so we never have to muster up the “want to” or strive beyond our capabilities… He works within us and moves us–even when we feel paralyzed by fear. And even when we try to run the other way, far from Him, He never leaves us. Because we serve a God who is with us. A God who makes His home inside of us. This is the God who leads us. Will we surrender our fearful hearts to the One who is already holding them in His tender, loving hands?

–Laura

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Divine Delays

I imagine we can all relate to the frustration of seemingly unanswered prayers. Prayers that we have been praying for a LONG time… Prayers we have gotten tired of praying… John spoke to us this weekend about these delays–the time between our prayers and God’s answers. John told us that in the delays, God desires to increase our faith, vision, testimony and compassion. He highlighted many accounts of Jesus responding to various requests in different ways in Matthew 8 & 9.

Have you ever thought about what life would be like without these delays? If we received what we asked for when we asked for it? This thought crossed my mind as I listened to the message:

Without delays, our requests become demands, our prayers become a formula and we never mature into all that God created us to be.

Not only would we miss out on the increase of our faith, vision, testimony and compassion that John spoke about–we would also miss out on the extravagant, intentional plans of “…Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20 Amplified Bible) I’m not an expert, but to me the words “infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes or dreams” tell me that I can’t possibly begin to fathom the answers God is preparing in response to my prayers.

But that’s hard to remember when life is crashing down on us, isn’t it? When we feel like the caterpillar in the cocoon–bound, squeezed, uncomfortable and in the dark–it’s hard to live into the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today. We know that there is a day coming when all will be set right. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” But we forget that the Kingdom of Heaven, eternity, exists in the reality of today. If we are willing to live into the tension–to stay put in the cocoon of today until our wings are ready for the tomorrow that God is preparing for us.

John began his message with the story of the leper in Matthew 8:2-3:

A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

The word “willing” appears twice in these two verses and it caught my attention, as is always the case when it comes to this particular word. In these verses, it’s the willingness of Jesus we read about. But I believe there is an implied willingness on the part of the leper as well… He–an “unclean”, marginalized leper–came to Jesus, knelt at His feet and identified Him as “Lord”. He then proceeded to say “IF you are willing…”. He came to Jesus with faith that He could heal him. But he humbled himself before Him and placed his future in His hands. He did not demand. He was willing to receive whatever Jesus deemed appropriate, with a faith that believed and trusted regardless of the outcome.

Do we present our requests, our prayers to Jesus with a heart that is willing to receive whatever He deems appropriate? In His time?

Interestingly, one of my devotions this morning was titled “Willing to be Filled”. It highlighted the seasons of life when we feel like empty, unfilled vessels. The point was that during seasons of transition–seasons when we haven’t received the direction, the answers, the purpose we’ve been asking for–we can choose to be vessels that are empty but available. WillingThe author challenges readers to ask ourselves four questions:

Am I willing to be used in ways I’ve never thought of?

Am I willing to fulfill a destiny I don’t yet know?

Am I available to His plans and purposes?

Am I available for more of God, Himself?

She concludes with these words… “At the perfect moment, God will fill you with Himself yet more, making you complete in new ways.” 

Without the delays, there is no completion. Without time in the cocoon, the wings don’t develop. And if we’re not willing to receive whatever God chooses to give, we are likely missing out on an answer that is exceedingly, abundantly beyond what we could ever ask Him for or even imagine. May we be willing to live in the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today.

–Laura

May we be willing to live in the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today.  The tension…

I was seeing a wonderful Christian counselor a few years ago, and all over her office were ampersands (&). She taught me that life is lived in the tension of the “and”. Our lives are not lived in black and white, but in gray. Two simultaneously opposing things can both be true, and both be happening at the same time.  One does not invalidate the other.

I love God deeply and desire to live for Him, and I make selfish decisions that put me at the center of my life.  Both are true.  All of us have great capacity for good, and great capacity for evil. So the fact that Laura highlighted the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today struck me, because this is where life is lived–in the tension.  The question then becomes, what do we do in that space, how do we live?

John highlighted the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat while the disciples assumed that He didn’t care about them and was going to let them drown. (Mt. 8:23-26).  I’ve been there.  I’ve been so disillusioned by God that I’ve tried to walk away. I’ve been so disillusioned by God that I chose the path of self-destruction for ten years of my life. The battle raging within over trying to reconcile my personal suffering and grief with a loving, good God was fierce. I was stuck in polarized thinking–God had to either be good and loving, or mean and evil, and I chose the latter during that season.

I was almost thirty before God and I had a wrestling match of colossal proportions, and I finally fully surrendered to the truth that God is good; He is not just loving, but His very essence is love AND suffering is a very real component of life on a fallen planet.

I don’t like the suffering piece of that statement. I don’t imagine any of us do. Yet, the truth that we never suffer alone, that God will not only minister to us in our seasons of suffering, but will transform us more into the likeness of Christ through our suffering, if we are willing, is huge. He is the God who makes beauty out of ashes. He is the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  He is the God of the promise of never will I leave you or forsake you. AND He is the God who knows the beginning from the end, He is the God who is sovereign, and He is the God working in the delays for His glory and our good. He is the God who is ever present in the tension.

As much as I long to see Jesus face to face, I am very very grateful that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”   (2 Peter 3:9)  

I am deeply grateful for the people who were praying for me during my season of self-destruction. I was the subject of their divine delay.  I have people now in my life who are the subjects of divine delays. I long to see them come into fellowship with Christ, to experience His embrace, His grace, His freedom, His forgiveness, and discover the purpose that He has for them in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through their unique gifts and talents. Yet, for this season, I love, I pray, I wait, AND I hold on to His promises even though I can’t see what He’s doing behind the scenes.

John read a beautiful quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that spoke volumes to me. It begins with the phrase: Above all, trust in the slow work of God, and ends with: Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.  Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

Give our Lord the benefit of believing. Give our Lord the benefit.

Benefit—an act of kindness. (Merriam Webster)

Are we willing to be kind and patient toward the Lord as He does His slow work? It all comes down to trust. To willingness. To surrender. May we live patiently in the tension of the “and”,  as we walk with Him.

–Luanne

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Final Greetings (Colossians 4:7-18)

Paul’s final greetings–I had no idea I would get so much out of this sermon! John highlighted different names in this passage; names that mean “one who hits the mark”, “useful”, “a great ruler”, “lovely”, “light giver”, “bridegroom”, and “one who began something powerful”.   Adjectives and phrases used to describe them include “dear brother”, “faithful minister”, “fellow servant”, “fellow prisoner”, “co-workers for the kingdom of God”, “comfort to me”, “always wrestling in prayer”, “working hard for you”…. And John reminded us to follow their lead using these phrases:

  1. Fulfill your destiny.
  2. Be useful.
  3. Lead well.
  4. Keep praying.
  5. Share the story.
  6. Be ready.
  7. Don’t give up.

Can you imagine if today’s church, and by church I mean you and me, as in each individual that makes up the church, really grasped these seven things? When I think about Jesus saying to Peter “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Mt. 16:18)  I hear Him saying “there is a plan for you, Church.  You have a destiny to fulfill.  Are you willing to enter in and do this My way?” 

As Paul describes these men and women, we see how they were united in one purpose–to make Christ known. They each had a role to play, and they were doing it. As a collective whole each individual role became part of something so huge that we are still beneficiaries of their obedience today.  We can live this way too! Today’s church can still impact the world;  however, we must acknowledge that as a whole we have become sidetracked. We are married to things other than Christ. We must humble ourselves, confess our infidelity, and renew our vows to Him and Him alone.

There are three statements that I came across on Twitter last week that I have been pondering:

  1. “A 30-minute sermon won’t teach people to love neighbors. Their cable news teaches them all week to fear/hate. They’ve already been discipled.”
  2. “People may hate me because of Jesus, he told us to expect that, but if they hate Jesus because of me there’s a problem.”
  3. “Choose the third way.”

Paul and his companions chose the third way; the Jesus way, which is all about beautiful, diverse community working in unity to make Jesus known. In his “final greetings” group there are Jews and Gentiles, there is a woman, there is a run-away slave (a dear brother) returning to his master, there are those who aren’t chained in prison and those who are, and they each understand that they have purpose and that they are living for something much bigger than themselves; something colossal. They have understood the call of Jesus to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls and with all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37;39). And to express this love by going “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28: 18-20).  

And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.

Oh, Lord Jesus, take us back to the simplicity of your original call. All that the church has become that doesn’t line up with your Word–expose it for the idol that it is. Shatter the idols, the false gods, the false doctrines, the twisted scriptures, the cultural interpretations of scripture, the narrow lenses, the hate, the meanness, the judging, the racism, the pride. Refine your bride. May we be discipled by you, not our culture. Breathe new life into us as we pursue the third way; your way. May we be about love, peace and reconciliation, the way you’ve asked us to. May we heed the words that Paul spoke to Archippus when he wrote: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord” (v18), and may we chain ourselves to you, the real you, forever.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote:

“And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.”

I think she beautifully summed up what we’ve learned through our study of Colossians. It has been a call to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to align our lives with His, to love Him and others God’s way and to usher in the Kingdom-on earth as it is in heaven.

On the last day of our 21 Days of Prayer, some of our children led our corporate prayer time by opening with the Lord’s prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13)

It brought tears to my eyes to see the next generation leading us–and it was evidence of the Kingdom advancing as their young hearts learned to connect with God’s in prayer.

I looked back through every blog we’ve written during this series and in 12 of the 13, one or both of us wrote at least a little bit about the Kingdom. And in the one that didn’t include the word “kingdom”, the concept was still there. I don’t think that’s an accident at all. I believe that Jesus desires his bride, the Church, to really get this, to grab hold of the idea that the Kingdom really can come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus talked about it all the time during His ministry. And Paul, in his letters-especially in Colossians, tells us how.

John mentioned the Kingdom in this week’s sermon. He said this:

“Don’t sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand without you being on the front line.” 

And that is the challenge. This week’s sermon hit me hard. Like Luanne, I didn’t expect to get so much out of Paul’s final greetings. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears more than once. I didn’t expect to feel the fire of the Holy Spirit engulfing my heart as I listened. But that’s what happened to me. I’m still processing all that God spoke and is speaking to me. But here’s what I know–

I don’t want to sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand with me sitting on the sidelines.

Except when I do.

I think we all long to be a part of ushering in the Kingdom-to play our parts in the great symphony that is the Church. We were born with a God-given desire to realize our purpose and live our lives for something, Someone, bigger than ourselves. John laid out in his sermon seven ways we can follow the early church’s lead in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. Luanne listed them above and I’m going to repeat them here:

  • Fulfill your destiny.
  • Be useful.
  • Lead well.
  • Keep praying.
  • Share the story.
  • Be ready.
  • Don’t give up.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Where our expressed desire to make a difference translates into leveraging our lives-all that we have and all that we are-to make that difference. The one that we were each uniquely created to make.

Which one of the seven holds you back? Keeps you from assuming your position on the front line? Is there more than one? For me, there are two. Lead well & Don’t give up. I’ve never seen myself as a leader, yet God has appointed me to lead in several different areas. I didn’t even realize it until today–I still haven’t fully embraced it. But I know that if I don’t embrace God’s call to lead in the areas He’s asked me to, I will be choosing the sideline rather than the front line. And, friends, the sideline is easier. But it doesn’t usher in the Kingdom. 

There are other things I know God has called me to do, but I’ve gotten scared… I’ve gotten lost in the how and the when and even the why at times–so I’ve given up rather than pressing in and pressing on.

In Colossians 4:17, Paul instructs Archippus:

“See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord”.

I’m not fully aware of the extent of the “ministry” I have received in the Lord. But I know that those words pierced my heart as John read them, and God spoke them directly to me in that moment.

So I will take what I have learned, what I’m still learning, from this beautiful book of Colossians, and I will use the tools I’ve been given to step into my position on the front line. Because Jesus is Lord of my life and my desire truly is to see His Kingdom come on earth. It takes all of us doing our part. We can do it, church. We can do it together. Will you join us on the front line?

–Laura

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Principles for Relationships (Colossians 3:22-4:6)

How often do we find ourselves praying for God to open a door? Or to close the doors that need to be closed? And if He can’t open a door, then would He please open a window?? Have you prayed prayers like this? I’m pretty sure I have prayed this way at least once in the last few days. During this week’s sermon, John briefly talked about how we often pray like this. He was telling us about Paul’s own prayer for an open door–but Paul didn’t pray for open doors the same way that we often do.

I suppose I need to back up for just a minute, before we explore that further. John gave us practical advice this week. Advice for how to respond to people-all people-especially when we find ourselves in difficult relationships. Relating with others, especially those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, is hard. Really hard. Relating with them in a way that sees and honors their humanity as well as brings Glory to God? That can only be done one way. John said it like this:

“See your relationships with the big picture in mind”. John told us that there is a divine purpose in all of our relationships–this includes both the beautiful, life-giving friendships as well as the seemingly impossible interactions that can leave us feeling discouraged and angry. God has a plan for every relationship. Every human interaction we have has purpose. Wouldn’t it change everything if we lived like we actually believed that?

John gave us four principles, practical advice, for responding and interacting with others:

Pray first. Be wise. Redeem your time. Speak well. 

I want to focus on ‘Pray first’. Our author, Paul, models throughout the book of Colossians-as well as in every other book he penned-the importance of prayer. Much of the way we pray today has probably been modeled after his examples. In this week’s passage, Paul writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message…” (Colossians 4:2-3a)

Notice what Paul wanted an open door for… their message. The message of the Kingdom. He didn’t ask for a door to open for a job, a new home, a financial breakthrough, a new relationship. He asked for an open door for the message. Why? Because Paul’s entire life revolved around one relationship–his relationship with Jesus–and everything he said and did, the way he related with others, flowed from that place. He only prayed for himself in relation to whatever he needed to carry out his purpose. That purpose was carrying the gospel of Jesus, the message of the Kingdom, to as many as he could during his time on earth.

If we pray first–if we pray for God’s Kingdom to come with a heart that’s willing to leverage all that we are to see that Kingdom come–our hearts will be moved toward people. And we’ll find that we are wise in the way that we redeem the time we’ve been given and we will speak well.

IF our agenda is Jesus’s agenda. But if we have our own agenda, if we come to God in prayer asking for doors that we want to see opened for ourselves, we won’t be wise with our time or our words. Because if we come to God looking for open doors to satisfy our own agendas... we’ll relate with others the very same way. We will enter conversations with ourselves in mind. We’ll look for an “open door” to push our point or defend our argument and we won’t actually listen. We won’t speak well at all–because to speak well, we first have to learn to listen well. And that doesn’t begin in conversations with others. It begins in our conversations with God. Praying His Kingdom first means aligning our hearts with His and we can only do that if we listen to His heart. We don’t inherently know how to make the Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. We can’t figure that out. We have to listen to Him. To learn from Him. To come to Him with one agenda–seeking HIS way so that we can carry HIS message to all of the people that HE loves. And He wants to grow our hearts to the place where we love them too.

If we learn how to listen to God-if we begin there-we will learn how to listen to others. With hearts that are already inclined toward them because we’ve already been on our faces on their behalf. And because our hearts have been moved toward them in prayer, because we’ve sought God for them, we will be able to speak well. To lift our voices to support one another using words that are full of grace, seasoned with salt and ready to give an answer. Because we’ve actually listened to the questions.

I wish I could say I was better at this than I am… Even in my closest relationships, I am often guilty of bringing my own agenda to the table. Of entering conversations looking for open doors to speak rather than listen. And of having agendas other than God’s agenda.

Jesus, I want to learn to pray like Paul, asking for open doors for your message to be spoken through me, through my life. Teach me to listen well so that when the opportunity arises, I can speak well, in a way that glorifies you and brings a little piece of your Kingdom of heaven to earth…

–Laura

Laura wrote: if we pray for God’s Kingdom to come with a heart that’s willing to leverage all that we are to see that Kingdom come–our hearts will be moved toward people. And we’ll find that we are wise in the way that we redeem the time we’ve been given and we will speak well.

Over and over and over again, in his letters, Paul reminds us that how we see people, how we treat people matters deeply.  Do we believe that? Do our lives, our interactions show that we believe that?

Colossians 4:6 in the Message translation says this: “Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”

And verses 3:23-25 in the NIV say this: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

In my personal time with God I’ve been studying the book of Matthew and have been in Chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 for a long time. There is so much there! These are Jesus words to us about how to live in His Kingdom, how to be a Kingdom citizen on earth. Last week, I was noticing how many times the word “reward” appears in Chapters 5 and 6. Jesus tells us–“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Right away we see that Kingdom living is counter-cultural–that we may be persecuted as a result; however there is a reward coming in heaven. Does that matter to us?

Paul in Galatians 1:10 writes: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying  to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Back to rewards–these are the brief notes that I wrote in my journal on Friday:

Mt. 5:12 – great is your reward in heaven for being persecuted.

Mt. 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Love your enemies.)

Mt. 6:1 -Don’t “show off” your rightesness or there will be no reward from God.

Mt. 6:2 – Pharisees who show off to get accolades have received their reward from men, not God.

Mt. 6:4 -Give in secret and your Father will reward you.

Mt. 6:5-6: – Don’t show off in your prayers, pray in secret and God will reward you.

Mt. 6:16-18 – Don’t “show off” in your fasting. Fast without drawing attention to yourself and God will reward you.

So when John read the word ‘reward‘ in the Colossians passage Sunday, it drew my attention.

On Friday, as I reflected on the Matthew scriptures, in its simplest form appears to me that humbly living before Christ pleases God, but any attitude of superiority or showing-off does not please God.  John wisely said in Sunday’s sermon that arrogance destroys ministry. I couldn’t agree more.

What are these rewards? I don’t know. On this planet, I believe they have much to do with the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control) ruling our inner lives, giving us the inner peace that can’t be explained in this life, which then spills over into our relationships with others.  But I also know that Revelation 22:12 makes it clear that there are heavenly rewards: Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.

The danger in knowing that there are rewards is that all of a sudden it becomes a worldly competition– we try to “out Christian” other believers, and we fall into the comparison trap, which is exactly what Jesus was pointing out about the Pharisees in Matthew 6.  So what do we do?

We pay attention to how Jesus asks us to live, we repent when we mess up, we ask the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us, to fill us, we worship God in spirit and in truth, and we ask God to help us love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We pay attention to the prisoner, to the oppressed (Mt 25:31-46 give huge clues as to how to live the Jesus way), we try to model our lives after Jesus–

And we pay attention to ourselves–how we speak, because out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Lk 6:45)  Scroll up and read Colossians 4:6 again in the Message translation. This has been a concern of mine since we moved back to the United States after living in another country for 10 years. We lived outside this culture from 1996-2006. When we moved back, I was shocked at how much language in this country toward and about others had changed. Sit-com humor was cutting and degrading, news panels (and it’s continued to get worse) disrespect one another to a degree that I can’t even wrap my mind around, reality shows highlight conflict, fighting and disrespect, politicians  slander, lie, and tear down opponents in a horrifically ugly way, even some video game language is mean– and now, in this season of social-media and public commenting on news stories etc. Oh My! And then we’re surprised by the bullying crisis in our children and youth, without taking responsibility for, or trying to change what we’ve modeled. How the heart of God must be breaking!

And the sad thing is–this steady diet of death speaking words–it’s contagious. Just a week ago I made a “funny” comment to someone, that the Holy Spirit convicted me about. It wasn’t funny. It was unkind. I prayed the rest of the day for the opportunity to apologize face to face, and God, in his goodness, gave me that opportunity. The recipient of my “humor” hadn’t taken offense, but still appreciated the apology. Friends, this is what we must be willing to do.

If the world is to know that God is real, that He loves them, we must see relationships with the big picture in mind, we must treat others well, we must work toward Christlike relationship principles and seek reconciliation and peace when necessary; and to live this way we must pray first, then be wise, make the most of every opportunity and speak well. And it all begins in the heart.

I have to ask Jesus every single day to search my heart and show me the areas where I’m out of step with him. Every. Single. Day.  — because when it comes down to the deepest part of my heart, my deepest prayer is that I want my life to count for His Kingdom. Thank you, God, that you are patient and abounding in love. Thank you that you don’t condemn when we mess up, but you lead us to repentance with kindness, and that you speak well over us. Lead us to do the same over others.

-Luanne

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A New Foundation (Colossians 3:17-23)

There are times in my life when I know that God is doing a huge thing. I am in one of those seasons, and it is beautiful and challenging at the same time. I have done more “on my face” repenting of things in the last few months than I have maybe in the last 5-10 years.  And God has been rocking my world with new insights in scripture that have sometimes left me trembling.

John’s sermon this morning took us through Colossians 3:17-23. Verse 17 says “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the LORD Jesus…”. And verse 23 begins,Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the LORD…”  

In between those two verses Paul mentions people who had previously been invisible…wives, children, slaves…and gives husbands/fathers a new directive.  The fact that these people groups are mentioned is evidence that something new is going on, which goes back to “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)

Earlier last week, when I was getting prepared for a devotion, the Lord took me to Genesis 1:26-27 which is a very familiar passage. It says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they (the human race) may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  

I’ve known these verses a long, long time, but this time God showed me something new, something huge. God tells the human race what portion of His created world that He has given us to rule over–and it doesn’t include other humans. Not men ruling over women, not whites ruling over non-whites, not rich ruling over poor, no one ruling over no one. In God’s perfect design He rules us, we rule together over the rest.

John reiterated this in his sermon when he said in Christ all of life has a new center of reference, a new Lord, and a new understanding of reality.

A new Lord. Look back at verses 17 and 23 of Colossians 3. Both imply living a new way that affects all of our actions, all of our words, all of our effort because Jesus is our Lord. So what does Jesus being Lord really mean?

I read a book recently called “The Myth of Equality” by Ken Wytsma, and in the book he points out that the “sinner”s prayer” is not actually in the Bible and he says, “I know from experience that we can have a personal relationship with Christ. The danger, however, comes when asking Jesus “into your heart” is reduced to merely a transaction of spiritual goods and rights. This is especially dangerous in a consumeristic society that places more emphasis on individual rights than on responsibilities.” Wytsma also says, “As often as we hear about accepting Jesus into our heart, this is not the usual salvation language found in the Bible. Scripture most often uses the image of our being found in Christ.”

When I read that I had to sit back and ponder it for a moment. I went to a verse that is often used to bring people into relationship with Christ, Romans 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  I stared at it asking God what He wanted me to see, and this is what He revealed. The focus of this verse is the Lordship of Jesus. I’ve heard the verse presented many times with the focus on the mouth and the heart, but what brings us into relationship with Christ is submitting to His Lordship. And do you know what is written three verses down? Romans 10:12 which says, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him…”  Truly, each of us submitting to the Lordship of Christ is the only way true Christianity can work.

So the question for us is who is Lord? Jesus or self?  Do we put ourselves in a position of superiority over others based on skin color, financial position, job status, what neighborhood we live in, what country we’re from, who we voted for, which channel we get our news from, what school we go to, or any other thing?  John pointed out that a great test of this is paying attention to how we compare ourselves to others. Comparison is a great indicator that there may be some “lording it over others” going on.

This weekend ugly “superiority” violence spilled over on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Blood was spilled, life was lost, and terror gripped many. Man’s way leads to destruction. Ruling over one another leads to destruction. Submitting to the authority and Lordship of Jesus leads to the beauty of diverse community, of a united body where each member is seen, loved, heard, and valued–where everyone’s gifts are able to flourish, and where the Kingdom of Heaven becomes evident and advances on planet earth.

So Paul’s wording in both Colossians 3:17 and 23 needs to be embedded deeply in our hearts—WHATEVER we do in word or in deed, do it ALL in the name of, and as if we are working for the LORD Jesus…

–Luanne

It is impossible to see the humanity in every “other”, to place equal value on all lives, to truly comprehend the need for equity and equality if Jesus is not the Lord of our lives. Paul got this. I mean, he really got this. I’ll dig into that piece in a minute…

I love that Luanne wrote about the Lordship of Jesus. In fact, what she wrote about completely redirected the focus of my thoughts and writing today.

I looked up the word “Lord” from the verse Luanne referenced, Romans 10:9. I looked it up because I wanted to know how the original word was defined in Scripture. I didn’t plan on sharing it with you, but it was so thought-provoking that I can’t not include it. (My apologies to readers who are not fellow word nerds…thank you for your patience!!)

“Lord” is translated from “kyrios”, a Greek word that means:

“the one to whom a person belongs and about whom he (the Lord) has power of deciding; Master, possessor, owner, one who has control”

The root word behind this word is “kyros”, which is simply translated “supremacy”. In light of the weekend’s horrific events, I hesitated to even include this word in reference to Jesus. But I think that it is important to our discussion to know that this word, “kyros” is only found one time in Scripture. That one time? It was used by none other than our Colossians author, Paul, in the first chapter of the book we are studying. Paul uses the word in Colossians 1:18 to establish the absolute authority, preeminence, “firstness” of Jesus. And it is from this word that we get our word “Lord”. Let’s look at that definition one more time:

“the one to whom a person belongs and about whom he (the Lord) has power of deciding; Master, possessor, owner, one who has control”

A few things come to mind as I ponder this definition… First, whether we acknowledge Jesus as Lord or not doesn’t change the fact that He. Is. Lord. Philippians 2:10-11 tells us that, “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” He is. And one day, ALL will acknowledge His Lordship. But, for now… we get to choose whether or not to acknowledge Him. Which is pretty mind-blowing. He has the power and the right as the firstborn of all creation, as the risen Savior, as the spotless Lamb and as God Himself to “Lord” over us. He doesn’t… yet. Unless we submit to His Lordship. Once we declare Jesus as Lord of our lives, we willingly assume the role of a servant in His Kingdom. We belong to Him, He owns us, and He has the power to make a decision about us. Here’s the beautiful thing about that…

He made His decision about us at the cross. 

When He chose to die for all-not just for some-He made His decision. As Lord of all, He decided that all of humanity was worthy of the chance to be reconciled to our Father in Heaven. He didn’t make allowance for one nation, one tribe, one ethnicity, one gender, one age group, one socioeconomic status. He showed no favoritism and no partiality. He bled for all. And He rose as the victorious King who made a way for all to enter in to the Kingdom He passionately ushered in.

He could demand our submission. He doesn’t.

Paul understood the power of Jesus-maybe more than anyone. He knew firsthand that there is only one way to be changed–by submitting to Jesus’s Lordship. Paul wanted us-all of humanity-to understand, to accept, to embrace the only power strong enough to not only save a soul, but change a heart, change a life.

Paul used to be Saul. Saul was righteous. A case could be made that he was the most righteous in his day. But Paul… Paul’s ministry wasn’t built on his own righteousness. His ministry was built on justice, on the upside-down Kingdom that Jesus modeled and ushered in.

Saul murdered and persecuted followers of Jesus. Lucky for him, the Lord Jesus had already made a decision about Saul when He spilled His blood for him and the rest of humanity.

Paul understood that declaring Jesus as Lord was an acknowledgement of the equality of all people.

Declaring Jesus as Lord, submitting to our roles as grateful servants on equal ground at His feet, is the beginning of heart change. Because when we declare Jesus as Lord, whatever or whoever we had given that title to previously has to go.  Matthew 6:24 makes it clear: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” There can only be one true Lord of our lives. And it’s not about what we say with our mouths-we can say that Jesus is our Lord. But if we are living lives marked by entitlement, superiority, judgment, comparison, division… we may need to take a closer look at who is sitting on the throne of our hearts.

If Jesus is truly our Lord, we will be changed, as Saul was. Once that switch happened-when Saul “asked for, prayed for” became Paul “humble or small one“, it was so much more than a name change. He saw himself differently. He saw people differently. He didn’t lord his credentials, his knowledge of the Scriptures, his genealogy. He understood that the blood of Jesus was spilled for him and for all of humanity as a means to reconcile all of us to God. He recognized, with overflowing gratitude, that there are only two levels within the Kingdom– The Father, Son and Holy Spirit occupy the top level, unified, as One. Below them? Everyone else. This concept is so important to Paul that I have yet to find a letter he penned that doesn’t exhort us to see and acknowledge the humanity, equality and interconnectedness of all people. It was that important to him, that vital to the furtherance of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

So I ask all of us–is it important to us?  Do we understand that there are no levels within the Kingdom, no jockeying for position, no superiority? Are we willing to not only alter our behavior but invite the Holy Spirit in to radically rewire our faulty belief systems? Is Jesus truly our Lord? Really, this is the only question that matters–everything else hinges on our answer. If He hasn’t been Lord of our lives, I pray that today will be the day we submit to His Lordship and allow Him to begin the transformation process within us.

–Laura

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Colossians 3:15-17

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. AND be thankful.   Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17 NIV)

As we work our way slowly through the book of Colossians, it could be tempting to take each section as a separate thought, but to do that is to miss the entirety of the letter. Right before Paul wrote the above section, the last two words of verse 14 are “perfect unity”.  Backing up to verse 11 Paul reminds us that in Christ there are no labels, no ethnic or social barriers, and he is wise enough to realize that different cultures coming together can lead to tension and conflict, so in verse 12-14 he reminds us that we are ALL chosen, ALL loved so we each need to work to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bear with each other, forgive each other (as we’ve been forgiven), and above all put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.   THEN he writes the above words.

I am struck by the phrase “as members of one body you were called to peace”.   

God has had me on quite a journey over the last few years, and He has taken me to a new level on that journey this summer. Those of you who know me well know that for about five years God has been pounding the phrase “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10) into my heart, my mind, my soul. He’s been showing me in scripture that Jesus’ primary message was about preaching the Kingdom of God. His primary teaching was about the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) he teaches us what it looks like to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth. And in John 17 he prays his beautiful prayer, again reminding us what Kingdom living looks like and the effect it will have on the world. He, himself models it in the way he cares for everyone, especially those who have been invisible, oppressed, outcast, despised, judged, criticized and ultimately he lays his life down for us all–and he asks us to do the same–to love as he loves.   Impossible without the filling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, so there is a tremendous individual element in keeping self connected to God, keeping the heart soft, repenting quickly, not having personal agendas, staying connected to the heart and message of Christ, asking the Holy Spirit to fill us– but the body of Christ is not about the individual. 

So this summer, with the help of The Justice Conference in Chicago, God is teaching me and challenging me in new areas. It has been eye opening, it has been hard and it has been beautiful. I have been convicted in some areas and on my face in repentance before the Lord, and I have been stretched in beautiful ways. I won’t even begin to pretend like the journey is coming to an end any time soon, but I’ll share with you a few of the things I’m seeing, and some of the things I’m doing differently.

I was challenged to look back across my life and see what voices have primarily shaped my theology. Were they people who primarily look like me? The answer was yes. Almost everyone that I’ve learned from in my Christian walk is white, most of them American, a few white Europeans in the mix. I’ve learned wonderful things from many of them, gone deeper with the Lord, so I am not in anyway saying that I am not grateful for their teaching, or that their teaching is wrong. However, I am now aware that I have not brought other voices into the mix. So, this summer I am beginning to read and listen to Christian authors and teachers who are not white. I am getting a new theological perspective based on their experience in life, and their experience with Christ. I am seeing a tremendous community element, the heart for the entire body of Christ to get beyond barriers and get about the business of loving one another. I’m seeing how individualistic the emphasis in the white American church has been, and how different that is from the vast majority of believers from other ethnic groups, both in the United States and around the world.

I’ve been challenged to see past “issues” and look at the humanity of people, and then minister to that humanity. One voice I heard this summer brought up a political issue that had been divisive. He shared that Hollywood voices were there standing with people, hippies were there, but where was the church? He was frustrated as he said to us–“You don’t have to agree politically to minister to the humanity in others.” He’s right. We are the church of Jesus, the only ones with the message of hope– of salvation. If we stay separate, how will the world ever see Him?

I’ve been challenged to read scripture in a new way, and let me tell you–it’s been exciting and it has changed–it is changing everything! Christena Cleveland, a very wise professor at Duke Divinity School, spoke to us about paying attention in scripture, especially in the life of Jesus (but it’s all over scripture) to how “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16). She encouraged us to pay attention to who the privileged are in each story, who the underprivileged are in each story, and watch how Jesus turns it all on its head. Easy example–Jesus first miracle at the wedding in Cana. (John 2) Jesus performs the miracle in front of the servants. The privileged have to learn about it by talking to the servants. The privileged have to humble themselves… It’s all over scripture. And the challenge is real–those of us who are privileged by our citizenship, the color of our skin, our education, whatever…have the awesome honor to humble ourselves, to listen well to others who have a different experience, to learn from new voices, find our commonality in Christ, and get about His mission of bringing His Kingdom to earth together. 

In the spring of 2010, my husband and I went to a conference in Queens, New York. We were in a church whose congregation consisted of people groups from at least 60 different countries. The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.

Which brings me back to our passage from this week…as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you…”  

Peace means one. As members of one body, we were called to oneness. That means we must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to have hard conversations with kindness, compassion, gentleness, patience, a forgiving heart, a willingness to hang in there, and most of all–love, in order to have unity in the body. We must be filled with grace. We must be filled with thanksgiving. We must be a people of worship, of singing with gratitude in our hearts to God, who has called us to this beautiful, diverse, body–and we must let the message of Christ, the word of Christ, Christ himself dwell in and among us.

I’m learning, I’m growing. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. But I’m committed to this journey. I want to partner with Jesus in His mission on earth. I want to get rid of anything that is based on church tradition or my cultural understanding of Jesus and really do this his way. Will you join me? It’s not easy, but it will be so worth it!

–Luanne

Luanne wrote about an extremely diverse church body that she visited in New York. She wrote:

“The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.”

“They had to be willing…”

So much of my personal journey with Christ, especially in recent years, has been a journey toward willingness. God has used the word ‘willing’ so many times in the last three years, it has almost become laughable. But I know that when He makes something so obviously clear, it’s important that I pay attention. Because it matters. It’s key. And so, when I read this paragraph that Luanne wrote, it immediately grabbed my attention.

I believe that we could see the Kingdom of heaven come so quickly–if we would simply be willing

Willing to lay down our privilege, as Luanne wrote about.

Willing to lay down our expectations and notions of “fairness”.

Willing to let go of control, of our ideas of how it “should” be.

Willing to let God reshape our thoughts and theologies with a more accurate, more full picture of His heart for all of the people He created in His image.

Willing to go–and love… willing to stay–and love.

Willing to repent from and lament our complicity in the individualization of the Gospel of Jesus.

Willing to repent from and lament our implicit biases, our own prejudices.

Willing to embrace the “other” who doesn’t look, act or think like us.

Willing to take the first, shaky step toward authentic community.

Willing to give and receive grace as we all fumble around, trying to find our way.

Willing to forgive-and be forgiven.

Willing to let the peace–the oneness, wholeness, unityof Christ rule–assume the role of umpirein our hearts. 

John said in his sermon that what is actually responsible for conflicts around us are the conflicts raging within us. The places where we can’t find common ground? They are actually places where we’re unwilling to let Christ rule in our hearts, places where we have taken an immovable stance–hardened places unwilling to yield. Where Christ rules, unity is found. It is proof of the love of Jesus in us-individually and in community-when we can be unified despite our differences, and it also bears witness to the truth of who Jesus is. Luanne mentioned Jesus’s prayer in John 17. Verses 20-23 from that prayer, out of the New Living Translation, read like this:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

I believe it is the unresolved conflicts-some that we may not yet be aware of-raging in our hearts that shut off our willingness valve. When we become unwilling, we become hard, and our world becomes all about us. Living in this place, it’s impossible to embrace the thriving, diverse community of the Kingdom. This place is an isolated island under the rule of individualism, independence and a “me first” mindset. I have lived on this island. Some days, I travel back there. While “alone” can be lonely, it can also feel safe. Isolation can feel safer because, with no one else around, there won’t be conflict, right?

Wrong. Conflict rages in isolation, it just rages within us instead of around us. It is only within community that we can come together around a common core and work through the conflict. That core is the rule of Jesus Christ. He is our head. We-the collective, colorful, multi-cultural, diverse “we”-are His body. The beautiful manifestation of all of His Glory on display. It is through this unified body that the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus makes it so clear, and Paul reiterates the importance of this unity throughout his letters. Letting the peace of Christ rule doesn’t mean we agree about everything. In fact, it is through admitting and addressing our disagreements that we learn how to love and grow the most. When we can disagree and remain united under the rule of Christ is when His glory and power are on full display.

Can we be a body that is willing to let the peace, the oneness of Christ, rule in each of our hearts so that there is then no question that He rules in our churches and in the greater, collective Church that bears His name? Can we be willing to embrace the messy, the awkward, the uncomfortable in our journey toward representing Jesus accurately? Willing to let go of everything that doesn’t line up with His Kingdom and willing to grab hold of everything that does? I pray that we can all answer yes to these questions. And I trust and know that in the areas we’re not yet willing, there is grace to get us there. Together. In community. His way. Will you join us?

–Laura

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