Lent: A Personal Rescue

I find it incredible, that a few months before our world was facing a global pandemic, God had placed on the heart of Pastor John a series of messages that would lead us to Easter Sunday; the subject of the messages–our rescuing God.  The timing of yesterday’s message was mind-boggling.  Yesterday was the second Sunday that we were unable to physically gather together as a congregation. Many of us have been home for at least a week. None of us know how long the pandemic will last. We all have questions, we all have fears, we all face this uncertainty. As we hear the pleas from our medical community to isolate ourselves, as we hear from leaders of other nations who beg us to pay attention and slow the spread of the pandemic, the reality of what we’re facing slowly begins to trickle in. It is at this time, and in this series of messages, that this particular message of rescue and hope just so happened to fall.

In the beautiful book of Ruth, we learn that a severe famine had taken place in Judah.  Elimelek and his family lived in Bethlehem. As the famine continued to wreak havoc on the land, Elimelek moved his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) to the country of Moab. While in Moab, Elimelek died. Naomi was a widow–a very difficult thing for a woman in that time to be; however, she had two sons who could care for her so her situation was not hopeless. Her sons married Moabite women (I wonder if that was hard for Naomi?), and they lived in Moab for about ten years. Scripture doesn’t tell us how, but we learn that after about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons die, leaving her with no men to provide for and protect her and her two daughters-in-law.

I’m sure this was a season of intense grief, fear, and uncertainty. I think we can place ourselves much more easily in Naomi’s shoes given our current situation.

Somehow, Naomi gets word that the famine in Judah has ended, so she makes the choice to go back. She and her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) begin to head toward Judah, when Naomi stops and encourages Orpah and Ruth not to go with her. (Is this because she never felt fully at home in Moab and didn’t want her daughters-in-law to experience the same thing in her home culture?) She had great fondness for these young ladies and said to [them}, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:8-9). 

After many tears, and much persuasion, Orpah returns back to Moab, and Ruth clings to Naomi and says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:16-18)

We learn that the people in Bethlehem are surprised when Naomi returns; I don’t think they expected to see her again. We also learn the state of Naomi’s heart. She tells the women of Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi,” … “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

Two women–no husbands, no sons, no income, no home; destitute. And this is where the story of living life according to the principles of God’s kingdom, and the effect that kind of life has on others begins to be seen.

In chapter two we learn that Elimelek had a wealthy relative named Boaz. We also learn that Ruth was willing to “go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (2:2) . This was a practice called gleaning. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out God’s purpose and plan for this practice:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”

God, in God’s beautiful, extravagant, generous ways laid out a plan for taking care of the poor and the foreigner way back in the days of Moses. God doesn’t qualify this by saying, if you are rich and your field is this size then I want you to leave food for the poor and foreigner. He just says–when you reap your harvest, leave some. As I type this out, I think of all the current news reports of empty toilet paper shelves, of no food, of medical people lacking supplies, of snarky shoppers, and it grieves my heart. As of today, our supply chain is still working, truckers are still getting supplies to stores. If those who have financial means continue to overbuy leaving nothing for those who can only buy a little at a time, we are not caring for the least of these. I hope people are overbuying in order to share with others. Lord Jesus, give us your heart!

Ruth begins to glean in Boaz’s field. He arrives on the scene, notices her and asks about her and learns,  “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.  She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” (2:6-7)

Boaz (the wealthy landowner) approaches Ruth and says to her: “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” (2:8-9) . 

Boaz doesn’t send someone else with the message. He, himself, goes to her. Not only does he tell her that she is welcome to glean in his field, but he also lets her know that he has told the men to leave her alone and she is welcome to get water when she’s thirsty from the jars the men have filled. He is providing for her and protecting her.

I wish I had time to post in the rest of Chapter 2. It’s so beautiful! Basically, Ruth is astonished that Boaz has taken any time to notice her because she is a foreigner and of lesser social standing than his servants. Boaz recognizes the sacrifice that Ruth made to take care of her mother-in-law, including leaving her land, her people, and recognizes that she has chosen to make God her refuge. His kindness puts her at ease (2:13). That’s what kindness does–kindness welcomes.

Boaz continues to provide for Ruth, making sure that she is well-fed, that she has leftovers, and that she knows she is welcome to come back to his fields.

When Ruth arrives home, Naomi is shocked at the food Ruth brings home and asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs her that she was in Boaz’s fields. Naomi speaks blessing over Boaz because he is their “kinsman-redeemer”, and encourages Ruth to continue to glean in his fields because she might be harmed in another’s field. Again, we see that the character of Boaz is not the character of everyone–he is a man who has chosen God’s principles. Ruth gleans in his fields until the barley and wheat harvests were complete.

The concept “kinsman-redeemer” comes from Leviticus 25:25:If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.”  This concept is so crazy! Let’s say I have to sell my house in order to survive. I sell it to some random person. My kinsman-redeemer would buy my house back from that random person and give it back to me. If no one has the means to be my kinsman-redeemer, when the Year of Jubilee comes (every 50 years, but never actually done), all property is returned to its original owner for free. Ponder what that indicates about the principles of the Kingdom of God for a minute. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of humanity functioned like that–if even the people who follow Jesus functioned like that? In the Kingdom of heaven, there is always enough for everyone as long as we choose to live generously.

There is so much more to this beautiful story–Boaz follows every step correctly and eventually becomes Ruth’s husband. They have a son who becomes the grandfather of King David. Jesus is born out of that lineage, and Ruth, the redeemed destitute foreigner is one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.  (Mt. 1:5)

What can we take away from this beautiful story of personal rescue that is relevant to us today?

  1. Jesus is our ultimate kinsman-redeemer; he rescued us, he restores our lives, gives us purpose, loves us unconditionally, teaches us to love others with the same love we’ve received, and shows us what it means to be a citizen of, and advance his kingdom right here on planet earth.
  2. Naomi and Ruth show us that despite life’s hardships, God sees us, he is with us, he knows our sorrow, he knows our fears, he does not leave us alone.
  3. Boaz shows us that we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.
  4. The whole story reminds us that God rescues and redeems, that God loves, that God cares for all humanity and desires that we care for one another, no matter who the other is.

God is with us in this season of uncertainty and fear. There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

There is much opportunity, during this time to enter in…

–Luanne

I can think of no better place to start than by asking you to scroll up and read Luanne’s last paragraph again. She identifies in her beautiful words what sat at the forefront of my mind after listening to Sunday’s message. These stories of personal rescue encourage us to recognize that, as Luanne wrote in point number 3 above, “…we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.”

I see a few different examples of personal rescue in the captivating book of Ruth. Luanne detailed the way Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, rescued the two widowed women–how kingdom principles are evidenced in his words and actions throughout, and how he foreshadows the coming Redeemer in many ways.

There is also the personal rescue of Naomi–beyond being a beneficiary of Boaz rescuing Ruth. I believe Ruth rescued Naomi, too. What if she hadn’t clung to her and insisted on staying with her? What would her fate have been? Upon arrival back in her homeland, she would have still had the opportunity to sell her late husband’s land, but their family name would have died forever. We don’t know what life would have looked like for Naomi had Ruth gone home to her own family. What we do know paints a picture so lovely it makes me cry, and it leads me to ask some questions about how we engage with one another–especially now.

Has anyone ever “clung” to you the way Ruth clung to Naomi? Has there been someone in your life–not bound by law or obligation–who has loved you this way? Someone who has said, “I’m here. I’m staying. There is nothing you can do or say that will make me walk away from you.” And then… they actually stayed? Stood by their word no matter what? Continued to walk with you, pursue you, love you well–even when you’ve pushed them away? Has someone loved you that much? Have you loved others that way?

While I pondered the relationship between these women, lyrics from J.J. Heller’s song, “The Best Thing” came to mind. The second verse begins with these words:

If I ever show my face
Nothing left to hide behind
Would anybody stay right here with me no matter what they find...

We all want to be loved like that, don’t we? Chosen for exactly who we are. Worth enough that someone would choose to stay. Period. Ruth chose Naomi. Knowing it meant becoming a foreigner in an unfamiliar place, facing possible mistreatment, with no guarantees of provision. She said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17)

What kind of love does that? What kind of love is willing to go anywhere and adapt in whatever ways may be necessary?

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

Let me unpack what I mean by that. Upon returning Naomi told the people not to call her by her name. She says, “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

She returned bitter and empty, and she believed that the Lord was to blame for her misfortune, that he had afflicted her. I’ll interject here that there are some who are saying that COVID-19 is an affliction from the Lord, that God is angry and is punishing the wickedness of humanity. Just as that assumption was not true for Naomi, it is not true for us today. Scripture tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself says in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…” The heart of God was revealed in the person of Jesus–Jesus the healer, the redeemer, the restorer, the shepherd. He came not to condemn the world and judge humanity, he came to rescue! (John 3:17) Pain and loss, though, can lead us all to believe things that aren’t true–about ourselves, others, and about God. Naomi was grieving and as we read her raw lament, we are invited to experience and empathize with the depth of her sorrow. If Ruth had not returned with her, the story likely would have ended there. She would have gone home, bitter and alone. And she would have died there, likely still bitter, with no heir to carry on her husband’s name.

Fortunately, that is not where the story ended. Because Ruth did go with her. And she did not simply go back with her. She did what she said she would do and she stayed with her. She didn’t have to. We can see this in chapter 3, when Boaz found Ruth laying at his feet. When he heard her request, he replied, “The Lord bless you, my daughter! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor.” 

She could have gone after another. From the content in the book’s four chapters, we can gather that she was a young, desirable woman. She could have tried to catch the eye of another, in which case any children would have been the heirs of another family. But her love and commitment to Naomi remained her priority.

The end of chapter 4 reveals to us how Ruth’s love rescued Naomi from her bitterness, from herself:

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17, NIV)

Ruth clung to Naomi, refused to leave her, accompanied her as a foreigner, loved her in her bitterness and followed her instructions. She worked and provided food for the two of them and then she pursued and married the man who could carry on the family name. She had a baby that the women of their community called Naomi’s son. The text tells us that Naomi took the baby in her arms and cared for him. I don’t know what that means entirely. But I know that the community identified how much Ruth loved her mother-in-law and credited her as having more value to Naomi than seven sons. That is a huge deal, especially in their time.

Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, certainly provided a personal rescue to both women. But without Ruth, Naomi’s rescue would have been incomplete. Boaz likely would have purchased the land had Naomi come back home alone. But because of Ruth’s love and commitment, Naomi’s bitterness was turned to joy, and her family had an heir to carry on their name.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that before this virus, we all needed rescuing in one way or another. For some that need was financial, for some relational, for others it was health related. He emphasized that we were all already facing something. We already needed rescuing. And then we found ourselves in a world we no longer recognize with challenges we never imagined we would face. If we needed rescue before, we really need it now. But how do we help each other from a distance? How do we cling to each other and allow others to cling to us with the kind of love that Ruth showed Naomi?

Love that is willing to go anywhere, to adapt to any environment doesn’t necessarily look the same as it did in this week’s story. It can’t look like that–especially now. But what we saw in Ruth is what it looks like when we say yes to Jesus living through us. Through our words, our hands, our feet. Through our consideration of one another, our compassion, our faithfulness. When we feel like we can’t hang on to one other, can’t reach out again, Jesus moves through us to continue to pursue and stay with each other.

I’ve been blessed with a few who have stayed with me, who have chosen to love me and refuse to walk away. They have rescued me more times than they’ll ever know and been Jesus to me in ways that bring tears to my eyes even now. I count them among my most precious gifts and I know that they have saved me from myself–from my own bitterness and grief–like Ruth did for Naomi. And there are a few I have “clung” to who have allowed me to stay with them and love them in that same way. This gift is equally precious, to be allowed to journey alongside another so intimately.

To stay with each other–whatever that requires–that is how we continue to be agents of rescue in one another’s lives. It’s how the personal, rescuing love of Jesus looks lived out in the kingdom he established on earth. How do we do that now, during a worldwide pandemic? I’ll remind us again of what Luanne wrote above:

There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will be days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

This is how we “cling” to each other now. Is it harder to do while we’re stuck at home? Maybe… But maybe not. We have been given a gift of time in these days. Time to re-prioritize, to slow down, to let those we love know how much we love them. We have time to remember how to love Jesus’ way. We all need someone to come along and say, “I’ve got you.” God loves to say that to each of us through the love of one another. May we be open enough to both cling and be clung to, to love deeply and extravagantly however Jesus leads us in these days.

Luanne told us there is much opportunity during this time to enter in… I hope we all will lean in to each opportunity. We’ve never needed each other more. Prayers and blessings to each one of you, friends.

Until next week…

Laura

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Lent: An Extravagant Rescue

Are you familiar with the story of the prodigal son?  It’s likely that most of us have heard parts of the story told in one way or another. Often, this story is referenced when discussing someone who has “fallen away,” as a warning against “wild” living, and as a reminder of the love of God that welcomes his wayward children home. The story, though, is about so much more. Entire books have been written on the subject, and we will not have the space here to dig into every nuance of the parable. We will cover as much as we can…

Before we dive into the text, let’s talk about the context of the story. First, it is a parable. A story that Jesus used to illustrate a kingdom principle. He did this all the time when addressing crowds, his disciples, even individuals. These stories were not true accounts of people in the area. They were a way for Jesus to help those who desired to listen understand the ways of his kingdom. They painted a picture of the heart of the God the people didn’t think they could see. In the stories, Jesus chose words and associations that were familiar to the people and culture of that day. They often contained an element of surprise, a twist—something unexpected and counter-cultural.

Next, it is important that we look at where the parable shows up. It is the final installment in a trilogy of stories. In most Bible translations, there are headings that accompany each story. They typically read, “Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “Parable of the Lost Coin,” and, “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Interestingly, the word “prodigal” didn’t show up in any translation of the text until 1560, when the Geneva Bible used it in the heading. At that time the definition of the word was associated with a morally neutral lavishness. It is not used in all translations and was not a word Jesus used in the original story. Also notable is the fact that the third story emphasizes the lost son—as though there was only one lost son—and doesn’t mention the father. In Jesus’ telling of the story, all three are central characters. To zero in on the one can cloud our vision of the others.

In general, I find the use of headings in scripture problematic. They divide text that was originally connected, and they impose a translator’s understanding onto the text. The headings of these three stories take readers’ minds in a direction that may have the opposite effect of Jesus’ original intention. In his telling of the stories, he emphasized that the sheep was found and there was much rejoicing, the coin was found and there was much rejoicing, the son was found—he was alive again—and there was much rejoicing. In the final story about the two sons, though, not everyone rejoiced over the lost being found. Because the story ends on a cliffhanger… There are two lost sons in the story. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older son was found. We know that the father hoped so, he invited him and welcomed him home, too, but we’re left wondering what his son chose to do. Not only is this exemplary storytelling, it drives home the point Jesus wanted to make. He knew his audience—their biases, assumptions, proclivities, attitudes—and he told a story that would make every listener more than a little uncomfortable. If we really listen to the story, it will have the same effect on us today. Here is the scene…

A father had two sons. The younger came to him one day, demanding his share of the inheritance. His share, according to the customs of Jewish culture in that day, was one-third of everything that belonged to the father. Beginning the story like this would have shocked those listening. Losing a sheep was unfortunate, losing a coin was perhaps careless and concerning—and finding those belongings brought great joy. But then Jesus essentially says, “There was a son who told his dad, ‘I wish you were already dead. To me, you are. Give me what’s mine.’” Anyone who might have been drifting off for an afternoon nap was awake now, appalled at the audacity of this son. Most, if not all, of those in attendance probably expected the father’s wrath—his righteous judgment—to fall heavy on this wayward, entitled, disgrace of a son.

Jesus continued the story, telling his hearers that the father proceeded to divide his property among them. Did you catch that? Dad granted his youngest son’s request, but the real winner that day was the son who hadn’t really made an appearance yet. The older son, who, by very nature of being the oldest had a responsibility to protect his father’s interests. I read about this when I looked up ancient Jewish traditions regarding inheritance. Part of being the first heir, part of receiving the two-thirds share, was looking out for what belonged to the father while he was still living. Where was the older brother? Why didn’t he come to the father’s defense? While this nuance is often lost on modern-day readers, the people listening that day would have asked these questions. Why wasn’t big brother there to stop this atrocity that so dishonored his dad? Perhaps because baby brother’s rebellion benefitted him, too?

Dad divided the property among them. Little brother received his one-third. Big brother got two-thirds. I’m not a math whiz, but last I checked, one-third plus two-thirds doesn’t leave any leftovers… The father divided everything he had between his two sons. We don’t hear big brother objecting.

The story went on… Little brother liquidated his assets (again, we don’t know what this entailed or meant in that day, but this story got more and more provocative with every line Jesus spoke…) and left the Holy land to go ruin himself with the ungodly heathens he wasn’t supposed to associate with. He made terrible choices and lost everything. He decided to come crawling home, ready to confess his wrongs and to beg to be a servant in his father’s household.

At this point in the story, those in the crowd who were hungry for justice would have been foaming at the mouth, ready to hear how this disgraceful son got what he deserved. They would have known something the text doesn’t reveal, something we don’t glean with a surface-level understanding of what’s written. They knew that the community had a right—if this poor excuse for a Jewish son ever tried to come home—to stone him to death. That the laws of the time provided for retributive justice, enacted by the community, to see to it that this son got what he deserved.

The son would have known about this law, too. Still, he chose to make his way toward home.

What does this tell us about the condition of the son’s heart, that he chose to move toward almost certain death rather than stay where he was? What does it suggest he knew about the heart of the one he was returning to? While we don’t have the time or evidence to dig into these questions here, they are worth pondering, and would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience…

The crowd was likely on the edge of their seats, waiting for what Jesus was about to say. The Pharisees among them probably tilted their chins upward even further, vindictive smirks starting at the corners of their mouths…

   “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him…” (Luke 15:20, Message)

Wait… What did Jesus just say? Nobody expected to hear those words. Wide eyes and mouths agape replaced smirks of indignance.

Why would this scorned, rejected father do that? He didn’t only dishonor his patriarchal role by lifting his robes and running… He embraced and kissed his unclean, smells-like-dirty-unholy-pigs son. He got to him first, providing protection for him, salvation from the lawful justice the community most assuredly would have enacted upon him.

I imagine the crowd was stunned. Silent. Maybe not… They may have grumbled among themselves about this “rabbi” with these “radical” views and stories. Whatever they were doing or thinking, Jesus didn’t stop there… He told them that the father then threw a party! A HUGE party. There was no discussion about wrongs committed, no expectation that his son make any kind of amends for what he had done, no “putting him in his place.” Nope. None of what his audience expected. None of what we might expect…  or might have experienced in the past… might have said to a “prodigal son” in our own lives…

When the older brother showed up and found out what happened he was, some translations say, indignant. Indignant in its root form means, “to regard as unworthy.” Ouch. He regarded his father’s son (he refused to acknowledge him as his brother) as unworthy of the treatment he was receiving. The only one worthy of that kind of feast and celebration was him. The good one. The right one. He deserved more, he deserved the party. He could not rejoice over the found son like entire communities had over the sheep and the coin. Because, in my speculation, he thought that if he did choose to celebrate his brother, it would be at the cost of his own significance, his own worthiness—everything he had worked so hard to earn, and the image he was desperate to keep. Practically, it did cost him. The two-thirds of the estate that funded the party technically belonged to him. His father had divided all his wealth among the brothers. One-third was squandered by the younger. The rest, then, belonged to the older. So maybe it was plain, old-fashioned selfishness and greed that motivated his indignance. How dare his father use his wealth on that scoundrel of a man? How dare he take from the good one to embrace the bad one?

The older brother couldn’t see that in his father’s house, there was more than enough. More than enough resources, more than enough grace, more than enough love. He couldn’t see that his father’s house was built on the principles of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, and a love that pursued both brothers.

Older brother stood outside of the party, fuming. The tender father left the party he was hosting—another cultural no-no—and went to him, just like he went to the younger son. He went to him full of love, generosity, zero condemnation. He took the time to explain why, even though he didn’t have to. He pleaded with him to join the celebration—another thing the patriarch simply would not do. But the older son was, as some translations say it, unwilling to go inside.

There is so much to digest in this package. But the unwillingness of the older brother to join the celebration has stayed at the front of my mind. It makes me ask questions I’m not sure any of us want to answer…

Who am I unwilling to celebrate?

Who am I unwilling to welcome in, to welcome home?

Who am I unwilling to worship alongside?

Who, if worshiping inside our church, would arouse feelings of indignance within me? Who would I be unwilling to join inside?

I wish I could say that there is no one I wouldn’t love to embrace. I wish I could say I am willing to invite, welcome, and protect anyone and everyone. I wish I was there. But I’m not. These questions lead to answers that reveal how far I still have to go before my heart truly looks like Jesus. And that’s why it is so important to ask and to answer them. We all have a ways to go on this journey. None of us is perfect. But this story Jesus told is a story about the father’s heart toward each child. Every single one. And it is a story that reveals the upside-down kingdom and its shocking, disruptive ways. Do we have ears to hear? Do we have hearts willing to lean in, to be honest? Do we have hearts of flesh that we are willing to entrust to the gentle hands of Jesus? Are we asking him to show us where we need to grow, and are we willing to submit ourselves to the process of being changed?

These are hard, probing, painful questions. The answers that live in the depths of our hearts might be equally hard to wrestle with. But, friends, may we be willing to wrestle! So that the Church of Jesus might begin to look a little more like the One we follow…

—Laura

Based on what Laura wrote above, I have some questions to ask regarding the parables of Luke 15:

When we hear the parable of the lost sheep, where do our minds place the emphasis? Is it on the lost sheep, on how the sheep got lost, on the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one, or on the shepherd’s invitation to join him in rejoicing over the found sheep?

What about the lost coin? Is the emphasis in your mind on the lost coin,  on how the coin got lost, on the woman’s diligent search for the lost coin, or on the woman’s invitation to her friends to rejoice with her over the found coin?

What about the father and his two sons? Is the emphasis in your mind on the youngest son who asks for his inheritance, squanders it in wild living, and returns in desperation to his home? Is the emphasis on the father’s acquiescing to the youngest son’s request for his inheritance, on the father’s waiting, on the father’s running to the son, on the father’s rejoicing that the son was found, on the extravagant party that the father threw for his found son?  Is your mind’s emphasis on the older son, his anger, his jealousy, his attitude of entitlement? Is it on the father going out to the older son and inviting him to join the celebration?

Laura pointed out that our Bible’s subheadings title these parables as “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Prodigal Son”. Do those subheadings accurately reflect what the point of each parable is? I don’t think they do. Each parable ends with an invitation to celebrate and rejoice. I think that’s the point. Maybe the headings could be: “Throw a Party: the Lost Sheep is Home!”, “Party With Me: I Found My Lost Coin!”, “Join the Celebration: My Son Is Home!”

When Jesus tells these parables, he is in the midst of “tax collectors and sinners” who want to hear what he has to say, while the teachers of the law and the Pharisees are looking on and judging Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

To build on what Laura wrote about the word prodigal, I looked up its etymology. It comes from the Latin word “prodigus” which means “lavish”?  According to dictionary.com, lavish means: bestow something in generous or extravagant quantities on

Based on this definition, who is the prodigal in Jesus’ story?

Maybe the fact that we often emphasize the wrong thing is one of the reasons people experience Christians as mean and judgmental, and churches as the last place they would be welcome.

I think we’ve forgotten that God is the God of rejoicing. He is the God of lavish, extravagant love. He is the God who seeks, who fellowships, who communes with us. And He is the God who will run to rescue us.

Laura pointed out that in the Jewish culture, when the youngest son returned from his journey, the community had the right to stone him. He had dishonored his father, he had dishonored the community, he had dishonored the laws of the Torah, he was a disgrace. By every right, the community could have killed him.

But the father watched for his son, and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

The father ran. The father got there first. The father came between the son and the community. The father set the tone. He made it clear that his lost son was to be welcomed and was worth celebrating. The community could have killed the son–the father modeled something completely different.

As Laura noted above, the father had two sons. The oldest son heard the party. He asked one of the servants what was going on. He was not happy with what he learned.

Once again, the father goes out, this time to the older son who is being the ‘I deserve it and you never did that for me’ son, and alludes to the fact that his brother is dead to him by saying to his dad when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ In other words…he’s not my brother, and I’m not sure where I stand in all of this either. I’ve worked, I’ve earned, I deserve!!!!!

Does the father yell back at him? No. He says:

“‘My son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (31-32). 

He emphasizes “you are my son too, and this is your brother, please come celebrate”.

And then Jesus leaves us hanging. We don’t know what the older brother decides to do with his father’s lavish extravagance.

Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are looking on in judgment. He chooses this moment to tell these parables without telling them what the oldest son chooses; therefore asking, who will they choose to be? What will they decide? Will they celebrate that everyone is lavishly loved and worth celebrating in the kingdom of heaven that’s here right now? Will we?

I used to judge Muslims until I had a Muslim friend. All of a sudden, Muslims weren’t a generalized blob to me anymore. I could put a face and a name to a Muslim person, to her husband, her children. I learned about her culture, about her faith. We cooked together, they came to our church cookouts. She shared with me what it was like to grow up in a country that experienced war–bombs coming into neighborhoods including hers. My perspective changed. I love her. I love her people. She is not my enemy. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her.

I remember one day at school years ago–it was recess time and I was playing with my very dear Jewish friend. We were sitting on top of the monkey bars when, some of our classmates began to spew hateful words at her. They were incredibly cruel. She and I got down and walked away. I wish I could remember if I said anything to them or to her. I can’t, but their cruelty is etched in my memory forever. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her. And you know what? He lavishly loves the children who were cruel too…he goes out to them like he went out to the older brother, inviting them to let go of judgment and come celebrate at his table.

I have three children who I love dearly. One of my three came out as gay his senior year of college. Talk about a hot button issue in the church. My husband (who just so happens to be the pastor of our church) and I made the choice to embrace our son, to love him–no part of us desired to reject him, even as we wrestled with what all of this meant (and means) for our lives, our ministry, our perspectives and perceptions. We love our son. He is not God’s enemy. God lavishly loves him.

Last year at this time, that same son suffered a severe injury. I flew out to him and stayed in an apartment provided by a non-profit organization close to the hospital for six weeks. His friends surrounded us and loved us both very well. Many of them have very real and alive relationships with Jesus, but very few of them have a church family to be part of.

I returned home deeply burdened for this community of people who are loved by God but rejected by the church.

Pastor John, my husband, spoke about our son from the pulpit for the first time on Sunday morning. He said that he was making the choice to be like the father in the parable and run to his son before anyone else can get to him. He admitted that he doesn’t have this all figured out–and we don’t need to. That’s not what Jesus asks of any of us. We are asked to love the world, and without a doubt, we love our son.

This morning in my Lent reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn was quoted as saying: “The line that separates good and evil does not run between nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or political parties, but right through the heart of every person.”  I agree with his statement, and I recognize that it’s true in me. Sometimes I’m at the table dining with Jesus, embracing others and celebrating his lavish love; sometimes I’m judging. I know which one feels more like Jesus in my heart and can see which one produces better fruit.

Jesus tells stories which end with lavish rejoicing and an invitation to join the celebration. The oldest son didn’t appreciate the father’s lavish celebration. He didn’t appreciate the father’s wild and reckless love. Do we?

Jesus says to the church in Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

He still comes for us and says to us: God celebrates you with lavish love–my coming, my death, my resurrection and the gift of my Holy Spirit are proof of that. God celebrates people on the other side of whatever lines we’ve drawn with lavish love. His table is open. All are welcome. Open the door; feast at God’s table where there is always room for, and rejoicing over one more. Come celebrate!

–Luanne

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Lent: A Rescuing Love

On the calendar of the capital “C” church, the season of Lent has begun. In our particular faith tradition, many individuals practice Lent, but Lent is not something we do corporately. This year, even though we are not having corporate Lent services, or special prayer and fasting (we do that in January), Pastor John wants to lead us through a series that sets our hearts on our rescuing, loving God and prepares us for the greatest event in the Christian faith–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We began this series by reading the 3rd chapter of Hosea.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley.  Then I said to her, “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.”  For the Israelites will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days. (Hosea 3:1-5)

God is not asking an easy thing of Hosea. God is asking Hosea to go again… Let that sink in. Go again to your wife, the wife you still love, the wife who is unfaithful to you, the wife who is sleeping with other men, the wife who has broken your heart, the wife who has done this before…go again. Go. Demonstrate agape love, unconditional love, love in action. Love her the way I (God) love my people, even though they chase other gods, offer sacrifices to other gods, and credit those gods for their provision. Hosea, go and be me to your wife, so that Israel will see, through your loving example, how I love them.

So, Hosea goes. He buys his wife back. He doesn’t drag her down the street by her hair. He doesn’t create a public spectacle. He doesn’t play the tough guy by yelling at her and putting her in her place. He takes items worth a great deal in that culture and exchanges those costly items to purchase his wife back. He redeems her. Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God. Costly love that redeems is the way of God.

So Hosea takes her home and says to her: “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.

When you read those words, what tone of voice do you hear Hosea using? Is it a “Listen up, girl, this is the way it’s going to be…” tone of voice, or is it gentle? Although we can’t know for sure, I think Hosea’s last phrase gives us a clue. Hosea, who has been faithful the whole time says to her, stay with me, be faithful to me, and I’ll be faithful to you. This isn’t a threat. This isn’t an “if you cheat on me, I’ll cheat on you and show you what it’s like”. No, this is “I love you. I’ve been here being faithful to you the entire time. I will remain faithful to you, and we will take this journey together.” Hosea’s faithful, costly love will be what restores his wife. It will happen over time, as she chooses him and he walks with her.

The chapter then goes broad, and the Lord tells Hosea what’s going to happen in Israel. He says their political system is going to fail them. Their religious system is going to fail them. Their false gods are going to fail them. Then, when every other thing they have chased fails them, they will return and seek the Lord. What will they find? Punishment? No. We are told they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days.

The word translated trembling can mean “in awe”. After all of their wandering, after chasing what the world offers, after worshiping everything but God, they will return to the Lord and discover his goodness. They will discover his costly love that buys them back. They will discover his companionship. They will be left awestruck.

God’s rescuing love is demonstrated in action. It’s a love that loves. It’s a love that redeems. It’s a love that empathizes, that joins us where we are and restores us as we walk with God.

Every man-made system in which we place our hope will fail us, but God will never fail us. He will not reject us. He will pursue us. He will love us. He will restore us. He will be with us.

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us; he paid a costly price to buy us back; he places his very own Spirit in us and tells us over and over that he will never leave us or forsake us…

…and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

Go again and love…

–Luanne

Go again and love

As Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion, the words “Go again…” are hard. For anyone who has felt the sting of betrayal–be it marital infidelity as it was for Hosea, or the betrayal of a close friend, or the rejection of a family member–those two words, and the two that follow, can feel like an insult added to the injury of our pain. As I write this, there are memories that surface–some old, some very fresh–that remind me of the sting of betrayal and rejection I have felt from those I love. I am sure you have stories, too. I think that’s why this short passage of scripture is still relatable and significant today. It’s appalling, what God asked of Hosea…

I wonder if he wrestled… I wonder if he asked God any questions. Did he go for a long walk, or maybe a run? Did he throw a bit of a tantrum? Did he yell in the privacy of his own home, or break something in his pain and frustration? Did he cry a little? Or maybe even all-out ugly cry, snot and all? Did he wonder how many times his heart would have to be broken before it couldn’t be put back together again? 

Hosea doesn’t tell us how he felt or the ways he might have wrestled with God’s instructions. But everything I listed above? I’ve reacted in all of those ways and more in response to various betrayals and rejections in my own life. To be left and disregarded, betrayed by one who has vowed to be there, to love you–the pain is hard enough to work through one time. But again? It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Hosea to have said something like, 

“Seriously, God?!? I know you’re, well, God. So you know the whole story! She’s done this before. Everyone knows. She’s embarrassed me, betrayed me, left me alone–not once. Over and over. You know exactly how many other lovers have captured her attention, how many others she has given herself to, the ways she has smeared her name–and mine! You know what she deserves. So do I… I don’t want to exact the law upon her–I still love her. But you’re saying it’s not enough to let her live, to mercifully spare her life and the just consequences of her behavior–you want me to go after her? Again? And pursue her, love her, bring her home as mine? When she has given herself to everyone but me? Are you really asking me to do that? Again?”

These would have been fair questions, especially in the time that Hosea lived. Luanne wrote above, regarding his wife, 

Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God.

Pastor John shared that for Hosea to choose his wife again rather than reject her risked his own reputation. Really, he was risking more than that. He was risking everything. To choose her again meant embracing the unknown, the what ifs, the chance of her leaving him again in the future. Those around him just would not get it–until they did. 

I want to tell you a story that I know, a story that resembles Hosea’s…

There was a woman, she was a faithful, loving wife and a wonderful mother. She loved Jesus with her whole heart, battered and wounded as it was. Life had not been easy or kind, but she was hopeful, joy-filled, warm, and as present as she knew how to be. Eleven years into her marriage, she got sick. Very sick. Her future was uncertain. 

Not long after her health began to deteriorate, she found out that her husband had been unfaithful to her, more than once, with more than one other woman. And he was leaving her for one of them. He had fallen in love and just did not want her anymore. She had become to him a “good friend,” and nothing more. He left her alone, sick, without resources, and with their children to care for, promising he would do his part. He didn’t.

Over the next months, the man had some doubts… He missed her kindness, her friendship, he missed their kids, their family. He wanted to come home. The woman set aside her ache and said yes, he could come home. Those around her didn’t understand why she welcomed him back…

He came home.

Stayed a few days.

And left… again. There were whispers of, “I told you so…” as people learned he’d gone. 

A little bit of time passed, and again he wanted to return. Again, she welcomed him home, but only if he was there to stay. He assured her he was. Again, there were murmurings from their community.

And again, he left. 

He came back one more time. Her heart was battered, torn apart. She had no reason to believe him this time, and told him so. She took some time…

They took the kids out together and spent time as a family over the next days. He seemed genuine.

One night, at the county fair, their kids watched him kiss her under the stars next to the Ferris wheel. Their eyes sparkled, her breath caught in her chest, their kids looked at them, giggling and hopeful. All seemed right in their world this time. 

He came home.

Days later, he told his kids he missed the other woman and her kids, told his wife he was sorry, but he couldn’t make this work. 

She begged him not to go. Said she’d do anything, be anything, change everything about herself–if only he’d stay. 

And he left again. For good this time. Her love, the redemption she offered, her welcoming arms—none of it was enough to make him stay. The whispering community largely deserted her and her kids. 

She struggled. She sobbed and screamed in her bathroom with the fan on and the water running. She thought the kids couldn’t hear her, but they did. They didn’t know if she cried because she missed him… or because she was sick and in pain… or because they didn’t have money for groceries. They didn’t know for sure, because she didn’t speak poorly of their father in their presence. She assured them of his love for them, and tried hard not to complain about her own pain. 

Fast forward to more than a decade later. She fought through her illness and experienced the love of Jesus carry her through her darkest days. She was in a different state, with her daughter and young grandchildren, at a summer festival. They rounded a corner and came face to face with her. The one who knew the whole story because she was the other woman. The one he left her for years ago. The one he eventually left for another someone new…

Shock and fear flashed across the other woman’s face. Tears spilled as she hung her head. How were they both here, today? They hadn’t lived in the same state in more than ten years. Before the other woman could say anything, the scorned wife went to her and wrapped her arms around her, held her tightly as both women cried.

“I’m so sorry! So sorry…” the other woman choked out between sobs.

And then I heard my mom say, “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. And I love you.”

I cried at the beauty of the moment, but I wasn’t shocked. I knew how she felt, how she’d wrestled and come to a place of love and forgiveness. But I turned and glanced at a friend who happened to be nearby and had witnessed the whole exchange. Tears rolled down her face; her expression held the awe of one who’s witnessed a miracle. 

And that’s exactly what it was. A miracle of love that didn’t make sense according to the world’s systems. My mom’s love, despite her efforts, didn’t keep my dad home. Her love didn’t rescue their marriage. And it didn’t rescue him from a life filled with regrets. But, we can be sure, her love rescued one, and impacted many… When she embraced the other woman, it wasn’t in her own strength. It was the love of Jesus in her and with her that led her to reach out to the one who was responsible for much of her pain. And that love, pouring through my sweet mom, spoke to this woman that she was loved, redeemed, forgiven, rescued from the guilt and shame her own choices had caused in her life. It was a gift unexpected and most certainly undeserved. It was a gift that changed more than one life that day.

My friend told me she had never seen anything like that. She was overcome by the beauty of the love of Jesus expressed that way. I have heard her tell the story and how it impacted her heart many times, in small groups and to other friends. That’s the power of loving God’s way. 

Real love doesn’t reserve a little room for revenge, for retribution, for resentment, expectations, conditions… It doesn’t react, separate, distance, avoid, isolate or divide. Real love can’t exist if there’s even a little sliver of hate. Because real love acts and responds. It is demonstrated by moving toward, pursuing, including, inviting, holding space. It redeems,  it empathizes, it rescues. And it does this without any guarantees of how the recipient of that love will respond.

Hosea had no way of knowing if Gomer would stay after he brought her home again. History would say otherwise. But he pursued her anyway. She did stay and they were reconciled. My mom had no way of knowing if my dad would stay. History told her otherwise, too. She embraced him anyway. And he left, and they were not reconciled as husband and wife.

God knows that we are an unfaithful bride. That we repeatedly leave him. He does know it will happen again, and how many times we’ll run to something or someone other than him. He knows. And yet… he keeps coming. He doesn’t wait until we ask if we can come home. No, he–like we see in Hosea–moves toward us first. He pursues and he never stops pursuing. When we turn away, he moves around us until we’re face to face again. When we run, he runs with us, never leaving us alone. When we fall down in exhaustion, he picks us up and carries us home, restoring us every step of the way. 

Luanne wrote,

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us. . . and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

My mom experienced the rescuing love of God. She wasn’t reconciled to her husband, but Jesus became her husband and loved her with a love that left her awestruck. She responded by extending that love–even to one the world would call her enemy. 

I don’t know your story, but I know mine. I could tell you many stories of betrayal and rejection, the many times that others have been unfaithful to me… I could tell you more about the times I have been the unfaithful one in my relationship with Jesus. That list is long, friends.

But he loves me as though the list doesn’t exist.

He pursues me even when I try to get away. He holds me in my pain and experiences my hurt as his own. He rescues me when I run straight into the fire over and over again. He always has. He always will. That’s what love does. He is who love is.

Who is he asking us to “Go again and love” this week? May we be filled with his love, awestruck by the enormity of it, and–in his strength–may we move toward others instead of pulling away.

–Laura

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Dedication

Psalm 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we fathom it?

Laura finished her section with these words:

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

–Luanne

fire for the world

Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Teach Me: Trust

Sometimes a familiar word will hit me in a new way which happened as I was beginning to formulate my thoughts for this post. The word understand popped out at me, leading me on a search for its etymology. I discovered that it’s actually a little tricky to define. If its root is Old English it could mean “stand in the midst of” or “among”, or possibly “examine, investigate, scrutinize” or even “stand under”. If its root is Germanic it most likely means “stand before”. If its root is Greek, it could mean “I know how, I know, I stand upon” (www.etymonline.com).

If I look it up in Strong’s Concordance of biblical words, the original Hebrew word biynah was translated as understanding, wisdom, knowledge, and meaning.

Why all this searching? Because in this series, Pastor John is encouraging us to ask God to teach us. This week the request is “Teach me to trust”.  As an introduction to my portion of the blog, I was going to write out the very familiar scripture Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. I wanted to dig into “understanding” and see if there was something deeper to discover. Adding in other possible definitions allows the verse to read: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…  

Many of us are familiar with this verse…yet, how many of us actually live by this verse? The words are easy to say; however, I find actually doing it to be hard.

The good news is difficulty and learning often go hand in hand, and although I like to avoid difficulty, refusing to consider something new, to be challenged in how I see the world, in how I think, in how I live, leads to living from the skewed perspective of my own narrow understanding, through my own cloudy lens.

When thinking of how we learn things, or how our life lenses are formed, we need to consider how we take in information. For some of us, our learning began with absolutes that shaped our attitudes and beliefs, and we have lived life through that lens. For others, our learning began with our life experiences and our absolutes were formed through the lens of personal experience.

I would say that the majority of us learn from life experience rather than what we’ve been taught, and therefore what we experience becomes the highest influence in our lives and shapes our view of the world.  What happens next, if we’re not willing to consider another’s lens, is that my experience and my absolutes butt up against your experience and your absolutes, leading to conflict and disunity.

For many centuries, people had to rely on God and God’s provision for every aspect of their survival. Then, for a season of time, there was a push toward absolutes becoming society’s teacher. The industrial revolution played a big role in that mindset. Singer-songwriter Jason Upton points this out in his song The Farmer and the Field. 

He sings these lyrics:

       There was a time not long ago when the sun did shine and the sowers sowed,                                                        and the rain did rain and the crops did grow.                                                       It was a time before machinery, a time before certainty, a time before we bought the lie,           it was a time before the farmer died, when we had trusting hearts and human soul,                                            it was a time not very long ago…when we trusted you.                              Lord, we want to trust you again.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding–your own certainty…

What does it look like to live like that?

It looks like Noah who had never built a boat, never saw a large body of water, was not an expert in animal science, yet he spent a number of years building an ark because God asked him to. (Genesis 5)

It looks like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and coming up to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them making it all look like a death trap. The Israelites cried out:  “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” In other words—we are leaning on our own understanding and this doesn’t look good, so we’re blaming you, Moses!!

Moses responded: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord instructed Moses to raise his staff, stretch his arm out over the sea, and the Lord delivered the Israelites. (Exodus 14)

What about Joshua and the battle plan to take Jericho? They marched around the city one time a day for six days. Seven priests blew their trumpets, the ark of the Lord was behind them, the armed men were in front of them and the rear guard was behind the ark. Six days. And then on the seventh day, when they were going to actually enter into physical battle, they marched around the wall seven times, the longest distance yet, which would make them more tired, and then when the priests played the trumpets Joshua commanded the people to shout and the walls fell. (Joshua 6)

What about Nehemiah and the plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? He was an exile in Babylon. He learned that Jerusalem, the home of his ancestors was in ruins. He had access to the king as the king’s cup-bearer. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked what was wrong. Nehemiah records: I was very much afraid,  but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

The king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Nehemiah tells us: Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” After which Nehemiah asked for three things: time off, letters from the king for safety, and the provisions needed to build the gates. Then Nehemiah wrote: And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (Neh. 2)

What about Mary, the mother of Jesus who could have been stoned to death for embracing God’s call, and who endured the public crucifixion of her son without knowing that resurrection was coming? Or what about the disciples who left everything they had, everything they knew to follow Jesus? What about Paul who was beaten, imprisoned, and constantly persecuted because God had called him to carry His Kingdom message to the Gentiles? What about Elisabeth Elliott who returned to the tribe that killed her husband to show them what God’s grace and forgiveness look like in practice? What about Corrie Ten Boom and her family who were discovered hiding Jews in their home and were sentenced to a concentration camp? She survived and her stories of love, of forgiveness, and of healing have affected many of us.

All of these people were called by God to follow him. They chose to believe. They chose to trust God and not lean on their own understanding. He calls each of us to do the same.

Are there absolutes? Yes. In the words of Beth Moore from her Bible study Believing God:

  1. God is who He says He is.
  2. God can do what He says He can do.
  3. I am who God says I am.
  4. I can do all things through Christ.
  5. I’m believing God.

As we choose to do life God’s way–to follow him into things that make no logical sense, we experience His mysterious and miraculous ways. Does following God this way come with challenges? Yes. None of the above-mentioned people had a smooth journey. Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble but to take heart, (he) has overcome the world. (John 16:33)

So, as is always the case, we get to choose which kingdom we want to live in: the kingdom of this world in which we lean on our own understanding– which typically leads to cooperating with harmful man-made systems and structures–or to live in the counter-cultural kingdom of heaven, even knowing that we will face opposition, just as Christ did.

The writer of Proverbs knew which one was better and encouraged us to:

Trust in the Lord completely,
and do not rely on your own opinions.
With all your heart rely on him to guide you,
and he will lead you in every decision you make.
 Become intimate with him in whatever you do,
                                       and he will lead you wherever you go.                                              (Proverbs 3:5-6 TPT)

Lord, teach me to trust.

–Luanne

Many of the stories Luanne highlighted above are the ones Pastor John referenced in his message on Sunday. He asked us to wrestle with some of the questions that naturally arise when we consider these stories. I would like to take some time to elaborate on some of those questions and give us all some space to connect them with what Luanne taught us about what “understanding” means in relation to trust. She expanded Proverbs 3:5 to include a more comprehensive explanation of what we are being exhorted to do in that verse. She wrote,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…“

Keep that in mind as we explore the questions Pastor John put before us on Sunday.

Before we dive into the questions, I want to highlight something John said that my experience as a human being on planet earth absolutely testifies to as truth. He said that our most challenging times often go hand-in-hand with our deepest learning. I wish this were not often always true. I wish expansive learning could happen during seasons of ease and comfortability. But as I reflect on my life, there’s no denying that the seasons of growth I’ve experienced have been inextricably connected to the hardest, most uncertain, least comfortable things I’ve walked through. It seems to be how we grow, how we learn best. But if we look to ourselves, to our own experiences, and through the lenses we’ve developed rather than through the eyes of the one we follow, we will struggle to learn anything new at all. Let’s consider these questions together as we seek to be people who are growing in our ability to trust our God, especially when our understanding fails us…

Can we trust—can we stand still—when destruction is chasing us down? It’s important as we consider this question to check where we are when we are standing still. When we are walking where God is leading and all forms of enemies are chasing after us, God sometimes asks us to be still while he fights for us. This is not to be confused with the attitude we saw in the Israelites, who basically said to Moses, “Leave us alone! We want to stay here. We don’t want to move!” (I’m paraphrasing.) This kind of “being still” is not the same as walking where God leads—even when “where” is a total mystery—and staying still in the midst of what looks like imminent destruction. I’m reminded of Psalm 23:5, where the psalmist writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (NIV) That is the kind of being still, the kind of trust, God asks of us. The kind that pulls up a chair to the table he sets for us even when it looks like we are surrounded and our own understanding tells us we should be afraid and run away.

What about when God asks us to do something that sounds absurd, illogical, and not at all strategic? When he asks us to do something in a way that it’s never been done before, what do we do? Do we trust him enough to walk out into uncharted territory, following his voice alone? Can we do that when what God says doesn’t line up with what other voices around us are saying, especially if those voices are coming from people we have journeyed with for a long time? What if those friends, leaders, family members cannot bring themselves to walk with us into the unknown that God is beckoning us toward, and we have to step out on our own, without the support of those we have trusted in the past? Can we follow the still, small voice then? When loss and grief press into the fabric of our hearts? How do we loosen our grip on our own understanding and cling to our all-knowing Guide in these painfully challenging moments when we feel vulnerable and alone?

Will we choose to trust when what God is asking seems impossible, when we are very much afraid to ask or believe for the big thing– can we trust him then? Impossible is a word that only exists when we lean on our own understanding. Nothing is impossible for God. If something seems impossible and we cannot seem to break through that wall into trust, that is a clear indication that we are standing upon or under our own thoughts. Fear is a normal response to being asked to do something we have never done before. But fear and trust are not mutually exclusive here… And we don’t have to move from fear to courage before we step out in trust. Trust moves us to take the step even while we are feeling afraid—that’s courage.

And… it’s always worth it. Yes, I said always. Not immediately, but eventually, the lessons we learn when we take a step toward God are always worth the struggles we face along the way. Being willing to trust in the midst of the hard, the confusing, the grief-stricken moments of our lives not only evidences our trust in God—these times broaden and deepen our trust as well.

Willingness is a non-negotiable on the road to trust. And true willingness doesn’t give us the option of choosing in each circumstance whether we will be willing or unwilling to agree to what God asks of us. Real willingness says yes long before God asks the question, and maintains that yes, regardless of how treacherous and tedious the road becomes. This kind of willingness—the only kind that counts as authentic—is born from hearts that trust that our God is who he says he is, as Luanne referenced earlier. If we believe that, then we believe that he IS love. He IS mercy. He IS only, always good. Knowing who he is, we can give him our yes before he asks us to move and take that first step once he does speak.

The road may be harder than we ever imagined. The losses along the way will shock us and leave us feeling gutted. And when that happens, if we try to stand upon or under our own thoughts, we won’t know how we can possibly go on. But, if we trust our God every step of the way, we will learn. We will learn about who he is, who we are in him, and how to live in the flow of his kingdom rather than the fading kingdoms of this world.

Pastor John left us with Psalm 25 at the end of his message on Sunday, and it seems like the perfect way to wrap this up here as well. May this become our prayer as we look to our God to teach us how to trust, how to love, how to walk with him his way…

Forever I will lift up my soul into your presence, Lord.
Be there for me, God, for I keep trusting in you.
Don’t allow my foes to gloat over me or
the shame of defeat to overtake me.
For how could anyone be disgraced
when he has entwined his heart with you?
But they will all be defeated and ashamed
when they harm the innocent.
Lord, direct me throughout my journey
so I can experience your plans for my life.
Reveal the life-paths that are pleasing to you.
 

Escort me along the way; take me by the hand and teach me.
For you are the God of my increasing salvation;
I have wrapped my heart into yours!

(Psalm 25:1-5, TPT)

–Laura

 

Giving Reverses Greed

Our text this week is quite long, so I’ll do my best to sum it up before we really jump in. In Luke 12:13-34, Jesus is standing before a crowd and a man calls out to him. The man demands that Jesus act as judge in the case of the family inheritance his big brother is hoarding. Jesus says no, he will not make a judgement. He exhorts the listening crowd, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” (from verse 15, AMP) In this one line, we see an indication that more than one form of greed is present in this family feud.

He proceeds to tell all who are listening a story about a rich farmer. The word “rich” is truly insufficient for the level of wealth this one man possesses. His storehouses are full to the brim and his fertile land is still producing an abundance of crops. So the farmer thinks to himself… (Note that he does not consult anyone about any of his decisions–he makes these choices unilaterally.) He thinks, “Soul, you have many good things stored up, [enough] for many years; rest and relax, eat, drink and be merry (celebrate continually).” (verse 19, AMP) In the story, God responds directly to the man, saying, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you…” Jesus finishes the story by telling his listeners that this is how it will be for anyone who hoards what they have and is not rich toward God.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and continues teaching them about the dangers of greed. He cautions them against cultivating a mindset of scarcity and makes it clear that, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we already live from a place of abundance. He tells them not to worry about anything–worry itself is futile–and reminds them of how even the most insignificant flower is clothed in dazzling beauty. Jesus exhorts his closest followers to live generously and completes the monologue with a statement that is very familiar to many of us: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verse 34)

There is much to unpack in this rich passage. First, Jesus encounters two brothers. As Pastor John pointed out in his message, both displayed a different form of greed. This is likely why Jesus said, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” Greed doesn’t always look the same. It is insidious and it can wear many different masks. One brother was hoarding his father’s wealth, wealth that wasn’t his to begin with. He had received abundance, and was unwilling to share any of it–even with his own family. The other brother felt entitled to what was his by birthright–simply because he was a son. He didn’t work for it, but he wanted what he felt what his. He was longing for more, discontent with what he had.

Can we identify with either brother? 

Perhaps both?

Do we find ourselves hoarding and protecting what is “ours”, withholding from others when we have plenty to offer? Do we constantly grope and grab for more, longing for what is just out of our reach? Ponder these questions with me as we continue…

Jesus refused to settle the dispute between the brothers, and as was common for him, chose to instead tell a story. In the story of the rich farmer, we saw a man who was already very rich. He had more than he needed. When he saw that even more was coming his way, he consulted his soul–his mind, will, and emotions–and no one else, about what he should do. He decided that all of his excess, everything he had been blessed with, should be kept in massive storehouses, hoarded for his own private enjoyment. He had prepared for himself an extravagant retirement. He decided to take it easy, live the good life, relax and be happy.

How are we like the farmer? 

What do we do when we run out of space to store all of our abundance? What have we prepared for ourselves without counsel, without thought of anyone else? Is there something we have that we’re holding onto for our own enjoyment? What have we become enslaved to? What has possessed us and stolen our souls, our attention, our love?

When Jesus addressed his disciples, he said, “For this reason I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (verse 22) For what reason? To protect them against the power of greed that can rob us of our souls. Jesus went on to remind them that they need not worry about earthly wealth, what they’ll eat, what they’ll wear. Why? Because they have already been given the kingdom, if only they will access what is already there:

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.” (vs. 31-32)

This entire passage may appear to be dealing with material wealth. It is–but there is more to it than that. What we have goes beyond our finances. It includes our gifts, abilities, talents, skills, time, and energy. Being “rich toward God” as Jesus instructed in our passage indicates being rich in relationship toward him, being rich in the ways of the kingdom. This would then include the fruits of the spirit produced in us and offered to others; it would include willingness, passion, and courage. Being rich toward God naturally makes us rich toward others, as we are living out of the abundance of the kingdom where God meets our needs with his presence.

Trevor, one of our elders, read a couple of passages of scripture before Pastor John’s message in our second service. As far as I am aware, he did not know what the message was about. Both passages he read struck me:

I thank you, Lord, and with all the passion of my heart
I worship you in the presence of angels!
Heaven’s mighty ones will hear my voice
as I sing my loving praise to you.
I bow down before your divine presence
and bring you my deepest worship
as I experience your tender love and your living truth.
For the promises of your word and the fame of your name
have been magnified above all else!
At the very moment I called out to you, you answered me!
You strengthened me deep within my soul
and breathed fresh courage into me.

(Psalm 138:1-3, TPT–emphasis mine)

Ask, and the gift is yours. Seek, and you’ll discover. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Matthew 7:7, TPT)

In the Psalm, we read David’s words of worship to God. He thanks God with all the passion of his heart, sings loving praise, and brings his deepest worship. Why? Because he called out, he asked God to show up, and being the good Father that he is, God did just that. He showed up and strengthened David deep within his soul. He breathed fresh courage into his mind, will and emotions, and this empowered David to respond with overflowing richness toward God.

We have constant access to this same overflow. Jesus told us in Matthew 7, Ask–you’ll receive; Seek–you’ll find; Knock–the door will be opened. What door? The door to the kingdom, and all of the abundance therein! We have nothing but ourselves to offer to our God. Everything else that we regard as “ours” was given to us. We can only be rich toward him when we’ve opened ourselves to receive the abundance of his kingdom and allowed it to change us. He has given us everything. He has been pleased to give us the kingdom. That line leaves me flabbergasted every. single. time.

What are we doing with all that he has given? 

When the father of the two brothers died, the mantle of “patriarch” fell to the older brother. It was his duty and honor to provide for and care for his family. But his heart and soul had been captured by greed instead.

We have been given the kingdom. The whole thing. An all-access pass to the presence of God and the gifts of the spirit. We who know Jesus are patriarchs and matriarchs–fathers and mothers–of our faith. How are we stewarding the abundance that we have been given? What are we doing with the abundant, generous, overwhelming love of Jesus that has been lavished upon us? Are we hoarding it for ourselves, cushioning our lives with it, using it as a barrier to keep others out rather than inviting them to the table to share in it alongside us? Are we using our gifts in a way that mirrors the self-emptying love of the one we say we follow, or are we using them to fill our own storehouses to overflowing? Are our hearts set on the kingdom? Are we passionate about sharing the abundance that has been poured out for all the world? Or are we attempting to contain it in a box that we’ve designed, a box that we can lock and hide and keep just for ourselves? What kinds of fathers and mothers are we–do we hold what we have just out of reach of those who need it most, or do we intentionally swing the doors wide and set a table of welcome to the bottomless feast of the kingdom?

Whatever our answers to these questions might be, take heart friends. If greed has possessed our souls, it’s not too late. There is an antidote. We can choose to give, and when we do we’ll find that giving reverses our greed. We can learn the mindset of abundance as we breathe in the fresh, healing air of the kingdom and clear the cobwebs of scarcity from our souls. But first, we have to get honest. And we must recognize our Source, and ask for what we need so we can change. We’ll find that our Father is pleased to give us access to all that he is and all that he has. He is pleased to entrust us with his kingdom. What will we do with it?

–Laura

This is a challenging message for those of us who live in a consumeristic, capitalistic nation. Having stuff we don’t need is our normal. Our culture’s definition of success absolutely lies in the abundance of our possessions, yet Jesus tells us: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions. (Luke 12:15 NASB)

Our lives do not consist of our possessions. It’s interesting to note that in this verse, the Greek word for life is zoe which is what we normally think of as life–living, breathing, full of vitality…  However, farther down in the passage, when Jesus tells the story of the greedy rich man, some translations say “your very life will be demanded of you”, which makes it sound as if it’s the same word used in verse 15. It’s not. The word translated life in verse 20 is the Greek word psyche. Psyche indicates our inner selves, the way we think, the emotions we feel or suppress, our convictions and passions…those are all part of the psyche. The King James Version translates this verse in a way that is closer to the original meaning when it says:

I will say to my soul (psyche), Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul (psyche) shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (19,20)
God’s response sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Why? Because greed, living for self, accumulating, hoarding, coveting, having a sense of entitlement is the anti-thesis of the Kingdom of Heaven, in addition, it leads to bondage, to worshiping other things, to chasing the kingdoms of this world, and to losing our psyches to worldly pursuits. God loves us and wants us free. Jesus came that we may have life and experience it in overflowing abundance (John 10:10).
What does that abundant, overflowing life look like?
Jesus tells us over and over and over that it looks like living by the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven where love for God and love for others is the highest priority. Jesus tells us that if we seek the Kingdom of God as our top priority, every other need we have will be taken care of.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom of God and for God’s will to be a reality on earth.
What does this kingdom look like?  Full and total inclusion. Jesus excludes no one. He gets frustrated with those who live with a religiously superior attitude, but he doesn’t exclude them. Not only does Jesus not exclude, he elevates the least likely…women, foreigners, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, the sick, the Samaritan; he ministers to the Roman Centurian, the Pharisee, the thief on the cross, the demon-possessed…  Is this what today’s Jesus’ followers look like? Is this what our churches look like? Is this what I look like?
Laura walked us through Sunday’s passage above, so I won’t go into it much here, but Jesus tells us to consider how God cares for the created world, he tells us not to worry about our clothes or our food and he goes on to say:

For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (30-34)

Even typing that out, I keep reading and rereading those verses. I need to do a constant heart check here. How am I doing in living generously? How many items do I have in my closets (yes, plural) that I rarely wear? How many extra dishes in my kitchen? Do I mindlessly spend money on myself? Yes. I do. I run after the things of the world and they add zero value to my life, my inner being, my essence. And as Laura mentioned above, these verses aren’t only about material things, although they certainly include that, and include caring for those less materially fortunate. What else has God generously blessed us with that we can use to bless others? What about grace, unconditional love, forgiveness, talents, gifts, wisdom, time, and on and on we could go. I’m not suggesting that we be doormats– Jesus is our example for how to do this. He had solitary moments where he pulled away from people and allowed God to restore his soul. He spent time alone time with his close friends. And, he ministered to the world.

In verse 21 Jesus tells us that whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God loses themselves along the way. We can become slaves to what we own or what we covet and self-destruct in the process.

What does it mean to be rich toward God?  Maybe being rich toward God means that we learn to pay attention to whether we are living in “I will…” rather than “Your will”.  The rich man who lost his soul to his riches said over and over again, I will tear down my barns, I will build bigger ones, I will store all my extra stuff, I will take it easy, I will eat, drink, and be merry, I, I, I, I,…  Maybe the opposite of being rich toward God is “I did it my way”. Maybe being rich toward God is what the apostle Paul encourages in Philippians 2: 1-5

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy.  So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. Be free from pride-filled opinions, for they will only harm your cherished unity. Don’t allow self-promotion to hide in your hearts, but in authentic humility put others first and view others as more important than yourselves.  Abandon every display of selfishness. Possess a greater concern for what matters to others instead of your own interests.  And consider the example that Jesus, the Anointed One, has set before us. Let his mindset become your motivation. (The Passion Translation)

You may be thinking–I can’t live like that. It’s too hard, I’m too human, yet God, who has been pleased to give us the kingdom, has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to live this kind of life, to love God’s way, to know His abundance, to share all that we have and all that we are for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, and he gives us new beginnings over and over and over again.

 Jesus, who loves us and wants us to experience life his way spoke a pointed message to a New Testament church and then offered a beautiful invitation:

I know that you are neither frozen in apathy nor fervent with passion. How I wish you were either one or the other…For you claim, “I’m rich and getting richer—I don’t need a thing.” Yet you are clueless that you’re miserable, poor, blind, barren, and naked…. Behold, I’m standing at the door, knocking. If your heart is open to hear my voice and you open the door within, I will come in to you and feast with you, and you will feast with me…           (Rev. 3:15,17,20)

His table is open to all. His feast is abundant. He is generous. His way is life.

Will we give it all and enter in?

Luanne

Image result for table set for feast outside

 

Giving Shapes Our Love

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

Wrestling. Desperation. Wanting to be close to God, yet not knowing how. Have you wrestled with questions like these? Have you ever asked “God, what do you want from me? How can I come before you? How can I draw near to you? How can I live in a close relationship with you? What tasks can I perform to please you? I’m willing to do anything…even sacrifice my own child to pay for my sin. What, God, do you want?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

 …do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…(NASB)

do what is right, to love mercy,  and to walk humbly with your God…(NLT)

What do these requirements look like in practice? Jesus showed us in the way he lived and interacted with people. He also showed us through a story that would have been shocking to his listeners. To set up the context in which Jesus told his story, Luke 10 tells us that…

Just then a religious scholar stood before Jesus in order to test his doctrines. He posed this question: “Teacher, what requirement must I fulfill if I want to live forever in heaven?” (TPT)

It’s important to note a couple of things about this question. The scholar (or lawyer as he is called in some translations) is not asking about how to have a relationship with Jesus. He’s not asking to be transformed. He is testing Jesus. He’s trying to show his superiority over Jesus. There was a time, earlier in the book of Luke that Jesus responded to Satan by saying: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Lk. 4:12). Same word. So Jesus answers the scholar’s question with a question:

 “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” 

The scholar replies: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus affirms that he got it right. And tells him do this and you will live“.  (Remember the scholar’s original question- what must I do to inherit eternal life (future). Jesus says…love like this, right here, right now and you will live). 

So the scholar wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.

Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.

Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.

Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return. 

Then Jesus asks this question: Which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?” 

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

Most of us are very familiar with this story. It’s a great deal more straightforward than many of Jesus’ parables. He wants us to get it. However, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the story because we don’t fully grasp the relationship that Jews and Samaritans had with each other in those days. The Jews considered the Samaritans “less than”. They did not associate with them. They despised them. If the story were told to religious Americans today, I wonder who Jesus would highlight as the example? Maybe a Muslim, someone from the Middle East, maybe someone from the LGBTQ community, maybe an immigrant whose legal status has expired, maybe an immigrant who never had legal status…without a doubt, it would have been someone unexpected and someone who would cause us to bristle.

So Jesus, after telling his shocking story asks the question: tell me, which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

(What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

The scholar, in testing Jesus, wants to know how he can have a good inheritance in his afterlife. Jesus responds if you want to live, see people and act; care for people; share what you have; make sure their needs are met; show tender compassion to others. 

If we pause to ponder all that the Samaritan man gave, it’s staggering. He was on his way somewhere;  he gave up his agenda, his time, his possessions (olive oil, wine, and whatever he used for bandages). He used his physical strength to place the injured, man onto his own donkey. With the injured man on his donkey, he most likely walked. He took the man to an inn, carried him into the inn.  The. Next. Morning. He gave the innkeeper money (the NIV tells us it was two silver coins—a hefty amount), and asked him to take care of the man until he could return.

I have a question…did he spend the entire night caring for this man who he didn’t know, most likely a Jewish man? Did he get a separate room and sleep? My gut tells me that he cared for the man the entire night, but I can’t know that for sure. Either way, he did not abandon the man.

Jesus is clear that the “religious” had no time to actually minister to someone in deep need. Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.

Pastor John gave us some excellent illustrations to help us see more clearly some ways in which we don’t love our neighbor well (most having to do with a sense of entitlement–my place in line, my seat at the movie theater, my appointment time, as if any of those things truly belong to us) and some ways in which we love ourselves more than we love others. For the sake of time, I won’t go into all of them, but one stuck with me.

If you (or I) injure ourselves in some way, maybe cut a finger, sprain an ankle, etc., do we pause to determine if we need to take care of that injury? Do we question whether or not we’re worthy or if we deserve to be taken care of? Do we question whether or not we have time? Or do we immediately stop what we’re doing, hold the injured portion of ourselves, and begin to figure out how to care for our wound? Do we see and love others in this same way? It’s worth thinking about.

The teacher of the law, the scholar, wanted to know how to have a good eternal life. I thought about how Jesus qualifies eternal life.

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

And I thought of John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I thought of Jesus’ emphasis on teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like–it’s what he taught about more than any other thing.

And I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife–when Jesus teaches Do this my way, the way of my Kingdom–here, now–and you will live abundantly–right now. I came to show you how. Follow my example. Get to know me, get to know the one true God. Your life in me isn’t just about heaven in the future, it’s about bringing heaven to earth today. “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is his will? It’s the lawyer’s reply to Jesus first question:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

I write it often because I believe it so strongly: when we draw near to God, when we allow the Holy Spirit to have access to the deepest parts of our beings, the beautiful fruit of the Spirit becomes the natural outflow of our lives-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We no longer live with the mindset of us and them, or I’m taking care of myself and my people because no one else matters as much, or I don’t like those people. All of humanity becomes our loved ones. All. Of. Humanity.

As I write this today, I am very aware that it is Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was a good Samaritan and paid for it with his life. He confronted unjust systems, he highlighted injustice, and he did so using peaceful means. His letter from a Birmingham jail is a pointed statement to the religious community who refused to see. It’s well worth a read. He said many things that I love, but maybe my favorite quote of his is:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Love God. Love others…

…do justice..love kindness, and…walk humbly with your God…

–Luanne

Pastor John began his message with the reminder that God loves us. Each of us. Equally. I immediately thought of William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, and how “Papa”–the Father God part of the Trinity–expressed love for all people. Papa didn’t say the words, “I love you,” in the story. Rather, the God character said “I am especially fond of you.” This was Papa’s sentiment regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. I love this subtlety in the story, because it challenges the narrative many of us learned along the way that God has to love us because he’s God and he is love. Young’s interpretation of God’s love is personal, intimate, and lavished equally over all of God’s children.

I don’t think I would be wrong in supposing that most of us struggle to believe, much less understand, that this really is how God feels about all of us. Sometimes our disbelief is rooted in our own sense of unworthiness–“There’s no way God could love me as much as (fill in the blank),” and sometimes it’s our own arrogance–“There’s no way God could love that murderer, rapist, heretic, immigrant, porn star, absent parent, school shooter, politician, transgender youth, etc… as much as he loves good Christian people like me.”

Whatever our thoughts, questions, and hangups might be, the scriptures we’re looking at this week confirm the lavish, relational, available-to-all love of God. In the Micah passage, the prophet asks, “What should we bring to the Lord?” The list of considerations includes thousands of animal offerings, ten thousand rivers of oil (which they didn’t actually have to give–the writer is emphasizing the point by listing such an impossible, extravagant gift), and even their firstborn children. If God were the transactional Being many of us grew up believing he is, superfluous sacrifices would matter to him. There would be a hierarchy of preference based on what we could offer to him. He would be especially fond of those who could give the most.

Sometimes I think we would prefer a transactional God. I think the religious scholar who asked Jesus what he needed to do to maintain his standard of living forever wanted a list. If we’re honest, sometimes we do, too. Luanne wrote above,

“…I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife…”

Is it possible that Christianity has, in many circles, morphed into this one-time transaction because the way of Jesus actually feels much harder to accomplish? Could it be that checklists, commandments, and a quid pro quo approach to God makes us feel like we have some measure of control and say in our destinies? We’re terrible at getting it all right, of course, but if the bottom line is one transactional, salvation moment, then we feel safe. We’ve done the important part.

Micah 6:8 challenges this way of thinking, and it was penned long before Jesus arrived on the pages of history. What is the important part according to God? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. How do we formulate a checklist for those commands? We can’t. These values are cultivated within a living, growing relationship with our God. If I were asked to teach a how-to class on loving mercy, I think I’d run quickly in the other direction. There’s no step-by-step process for learning how to love mercy. This is only learned by walking in step with the one from whom all mercy flows.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that in Micah 6:8, we don’t find God saying, “Don’t do___________.” It doesn’t say, “What does the Lord require of you? Stay away from people who don’t think like you, don’t go to that part of town, don’t befriend those disgusting pagans…” or anything like that. No part of the verse tells us what not to do. It simply tells us to do. Act, love, walk… these are action words. But what motivates these actions?

Let’s look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. Luanne wrote,

“Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.” 

Tender compassion. This automatic response–from someone who, according to the church crowd of that day, was an outsider at best–had to flow from somewhere. Compassion is a gut-level response of co-suffering love. It is a response that first sees and then identifies with the plight of the one suffering, feels it as if it were our own, and moves us to respond. It doesn’t “just happen” unless we’ve been conditioned to see beyond ourselves and our own individual needs.

All three men highlighted in the story saw something. But only one of them felt something–tender compassion–and was moved to do something. What stopped the first two men from doing something wasn’t that they didn’t see the need. They saw him… and they moved away from him rather than toward. Why? Because they didn’t feel anything. The man’s condition didn’t penetrate the walls of their hearts. Their preoccupation with themselves didn’t blind their physical eyes from seeing the needs around them. But the eyes of their hearts were blindfolded. By what? Perhaps by the same thing that consumed the religious scholar whose questioning of Jesus led to this story being told? A desire to maintain their lives as they were, to go about their days white-knuckling what belonged to them, to sustain their current quality of life on into eternity? Yeah… these things will absolutely tie a blindfold around a heart.

As Luanne pointed out, tending to the injured man cost the Samaritan. When we walk in the way of Jesus, with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of the others around us, we surrender our ability to maintain our lives as they are. Moving toward others, choosing to really see each one, will break us wide open. Loving like Jesus includes feeling like Jesus. This requires us to embrace vulnerability, to soften, to be woundable. Loving like Jesus means giving in the ways that he modeled, the ways that set his kingdom apart from every other kingdom that has ever existed. The Samaritan modeled kingdom values. It is costly to live this way. But it is what loving our neighbor looks like.

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

Where do we find ourselves as we ponder what God requires of us? Are we attempting to maintain a certain standard of living? Are we consumed with what is ours, with our positions and what we’ve earned? Are we simply trying to secure a spot in heaven? Do we arrogantly look down on certain others; do we cross the street when we see them? When we see a need, do we feel anything? Or do we, with hardened hearts, look the other way?

These are hard questions. They probe the depths of our priorities and they challenge our “me first”, individualistic mindsets. But we need to ask them. And we need to answer them honestly. We cannot say that we are people who love if we are not also people who give. Love motivates the heart to give, to break open, to embrace all others. Loving like Jesus means that, as Luanne wrote, all of humanity becomes our loved ones. No exceptions. God is especially fond of each one. All of us. Becoming like Jesus means that we will become especially fond of them, too.

–Laura

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Giving Goes Beyond You

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

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

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

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

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

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

And she included this beautiful quote:

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

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

–Luanne

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Giving: Forgive Before You Give

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bankrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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