When the Enemy Comes…Rise Up

Return to Me. Remember. Restoration. Revelation. 

These are the themes we have explored as we’ve journeyed through the book of Joel. Our fifth and final point of exploration in this final message of our series is “Rise Up”.

I imagine that when you read those words, it conjures an image in your mind. Let that image develop for a minute. What does it mean to you to rise up? What picture do you see?

Undoubtedly, the pictures we see have been formed by what we’ve been taught, what we understand of both our God and the world around us, and our own personal beliefs. Our cultural understanding informs the images we see. Our theological understanding does as well. What we have to discuss today–whether you agree or disagree–is vital to our understanding of God, to the way we follow Jesus within our faith communities, and to our own personal journeys with Christ.

These are the passages Pastor John highlighted in Sunday’s message:

Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swordsand your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say,“I am strong!”Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, Lord! (Joel 3:9-11, NIV)

The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the Lord will be a refuge for his people,a stronghold for the people of Israel.“Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. (Joel 3:15-17, NIV)

When we read these verses and think about the phrase “Rise up!”, it immediately appears that the exhortation is one of standing strong as warriors against our enemy.

And it is… as long as we know who that enemy is…and as long as the weapon we carry is the one He has sanctioned.

It would also appear that God is calling for and advocating violence as a means of protection from our enemy.

This is where it gets messy, friends… As Pastor John explained in his message, we can take many different passages of scripture–these verses included–to make a case for retributive righteousness: a moral vindication for all that’s been done wrong, a “getting even” and beyond. Many within the Church, especially here in the United States, buy into this understanding, teach it, and proclaim it as biblical truth. If you’ve any doubt of the truth of that statement, take a quick peek at the social media accounts of many prominent voices who identify as Christian. It’s impossible to miss the connection between many of these voices and the anthem of retribution–this perceived “right” of Christians to treat others the way we’ve been treated, and the subsequent rejoicing in the failings and eventual demise of our “enemies”.

But wait… If I’m remembering correctly…

…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)

Our “enemies” aren’t other people… We don’t fight against fellow flesh and blood. But somehow, we have come to understand that there are those who are “enemies” of us and of our God. And we assume that God does, in fact, enact retributive righteousness–or justice–upon them.

How did we come to this understanding? Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we forget to connect individual verses to the rest of the story. We cannot grasp at certain verses and build a case without first looking at those verses through the lens of all of scripture, and through the filter of the character of our invisible God revealed in the person of Jesus. We have discussed this here before, the importance of seeing, thinking, and understanding through a “Jesus filter”. Verses are taken out of context all the time, and perhaps the most grotesque misapplications of scripture are those that would distort the image of God into an angry, vengeful warrior that looks a lot like the “enemy” we want for Him to conquer on our behalf…

But, thankfully, our God doesn’t look like that. And He doesn’t act like us. He sees judgement and justice differently than we do… How do I know? Because,

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation…(Col. 1:15, NLT)

When it comes to Jesus’ beliefs regarding violence, His position is clear. He believed in–and taught his followers the way of–nonviolence. Somehow, His church has moved away from this understanding, but His early followers got it, and lived it.

And it led many of them to their death.

Which is why, I believe, we’ve adapted a new belief system about violence. One that advocates, at the very least, self-defense; and one that–at it’s most heinous–has been used to enact “sanctioned” genocide.

We forget that our real enemy is actually a liar–and the father of lies–and he would love nothing more than for us to buy into a distortion of the heart of our God. A distortion that whispers to our hurting, offended hearts that while God goes to great lengths to rescue and pour out His love on us, He will not do the same for them. No, they will get what they deserve. And we love this lie. Because it makes us feel justified in our anger and disdain, in our thirst for revenge… We don’t like the thought of turning the other cheek, of following in the footsteps of our Savior–because, unlike the saints referenced in Revelation 12:11 who, “…did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die...”, we do love our lives. And our comfort. And our power. And our sense of control. And our “rights”.

I stated above that Jesus believed in nonviolence. I don’t want to make that kind of assertion without telling you how I got there… I have not investigated every verse recorded in the gospels that could be (mis)used to show Jesus as an advocate of violence. I did look at several of them today, though, in the context in which they were recorded. And I have read commentary from people much smarter than me who have put hours and hours of study into this subject.

One of the most compelling articulations I’ve come across is from pastor & author Brian Zahnd, who spoke on Jesus’ stance on violence at the Simply Jesus gathering that I attended in July. Brian spoke about the encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with the mob and the soldiers that came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (You can read his full message here.) Brain asserts that the Bible is a violent book, not because God is violent, but because we are. He reminded us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, should we fight?”, immediately followed by Peter cutting off the high priest’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!”, immediately followed by Jesus healing (we could use the word “restoring”) the man’s ear.

Tertullian (160-220 AD), a second century church father, said:

“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.” 

Zahnd also spoke about the most quoted verses by early church fathers during the first three centuries. From the Hebrew scriptures, it was Isaiah 2:4,

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

And from the New Testament, the most quoted verse of the early church was Matthew 5:44, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”

The verse that directly precedes this one is, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” (Matt. 5:43)

“But I say…”

What is our faith built upon? What is your final authority? My answer? Jesus. He has the final authority. He fulfills and extends the Law. His way of love, so often made to look like an easy way out of religious requirements, is actually much more difficult than the old way of the law. At one point, “an eye for an eye” was law.

But Jesus says… “love your enemies.”

He knew we would get caught up in the constraints of religion and self-serving theology. He tried to make the truth clear to those who looked at scripture as the final authority when he said, in John 5:39,

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (NLT)

Brian said in his message, “Violence belongs to the old age that [passed] away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom. It’s the radical alternative to the violence that lives within us. It is the answer to the broken systems that are based in retributive justice. Because the Kingdom of Jesus, the way of love, is all about restorative justice. This is the kind of justice that makes all things right. This is–and always has been–the heart of God for every person He has ever created… To reconcile each heart to Himself.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “God will make all things right consistent with how He has treated me.” And, “The heart of God beats for you… and that heart is the same for each of His children.”

Even those we would like to regard as our enemies.

You see, there is one kind of violence advocated by Jesus under His new covenant… It is that of our putting to death our old selves, with our self-serving, vengeful desires, that we might live as children of light in His Kingdom–here and now–to show others the self-sacrificial way of love. This altogether “other” way that was evidenced by Paul and the disciples and the early church–those who never fought back, but willingly gave their lives to show the world the way of the One who modeled for us what it really means to “Rise up”. Which is to take up the weapon of God’s love, and live for the sake of His Kingdom, as Image Bearers, by the power of His Spirit… Rising up God’s way looks an awful lot like laying down… His is an upside-down Kingdom. And we’re invited to participate in His story–the whole story–not of retribution, but of restoration.

–Laura

Whenever we find ourselves thinking in binary ways that pit us against other image bearers, it’s wise for us to pause and remember all that Laura wrote above. As both she and Pastor John pointed out, we must take the context of all of scripture rather than picking and choosing verses to meet our own mindsets. We can justify a lot of ungodly behaviors by using scripture to back up our own meanness–but it’s hard to read His word through the lens of Jesus–the image of the invisible God– and treat other people poorly.

All the way back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose themselves and their desires over God’s desire for them, God–in His goodness– clothed them with garments and covered their nakedness. There were consequences to their actions, but God still cared for them.  They didn’t deserve God’s kindness, yet he gave it to them anyway.

The first act of violence recorded in scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel. When God speaks with Cain, he tells him that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground. In an “eye for an eye” kind of world, Cain deserves to be killed, yet God places a protective mark on Cain so that he won’t be killed.  Cain didn’t deserve God’s kindness, but God gave it to him anyway.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references Abel’s blood crying out from the grave, and says that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, speaks a better word. (12:24) The blood of Jesus speaks “It is finished.” the blood of Jesus speaks “Behold, I am making all things new.” The blood of Jesus speaks life and love and peace and reconciliation. It is new wine in a new wine skin–a whole new way of doing things.

We are called to be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for (you), an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:1-2)

We’ve been called to a new way of life: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)

Romans 2:4 Tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance meaning that if Christ is in us, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, our kindness may lead people to God.

Yet, as Laura wrote above, many people only know of Christians as mean spirited therefore they want nothing to do with God. The anger that is spewed in His name these days is alarming, and heartbreaking. I’m afraid we’re advancing the wrong kingdom.

Jesus was pretty forthright about anger and contempt in his sermon on the mount when he said 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.  (Mt. 5:22)

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy writes that anger is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.  Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it. Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. The constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us (are) the natural outcome of choice of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil. There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.

The Jesus way is absolutely contrary to the way of our flesh. That’s why He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit. The only way to live the Kingdom life on earth is to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. The Spirit can help us to not fly off the handle, to not be reactionary people, but to be people who live by a different standard.

Haim Ginott, a twentieth century teacher and child psychologist wrote:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

I believe Ginott’s thoughts go well beyond that of a classroom. We have tremendous power to affect the world by the way we handle ourselves, and the way we treat others. As a matter of fact–us treating others the way God has treated us is the plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth–but it’s not about our moral behavior. It’s about the transformation of our very beings into the likeness of Christ.

And you know what? The world still takes notice of those who live differently.  Last week the Coptic Christians of Egypt were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to retaliate in violence against their persecutors. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are under constant threat. You may remember a few years ago when ISIS beheaded some of them. They refuse to fight back, and the world is noticing–just like centuries ago when Christians were led into arenas in Rome. They did not fight back. They created curiosity by singing songs of worship and/or praying as lions were sent into the arena to kill them for sport. The way they chose to honor Jesus and his ways as they died pointed people to Him.

The world still doesn’t understand this. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his followers (us included) that we’ll be hated by the world, but not hated because we’re mean, hated because we do not belong to the world’s systems. (John 15:18) We don’t choose the weapons of this world. We don’t choose flesh and blood enemies. We refuse to take sides. We are for all people because God is for all people. We choose the third way, the way of reconciliation.

In Matthew 24, when Jesus is talking about the signs of the end he says that things are going to get tough for his followers, that many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other–and then the phrase that haunts me the love of most will grow cold (v. 12).  I pray often that my love will not grow cold. I see it happening all around–may it not be true of us. May we remember that:

Kindness is powerful. Grace is powerful. Love is powerful.

I’ve eluded before to the fact that my late childhood and early adolescent years were chaotic. During that time, my grief and confusion sometimes spilled over in rage. One particular evening, I was raging at my dad and ended my tirade by yelling that I hated him and wanted him to put me in foster care. I did not want to be part of our family any longer. He did not yell back. He stood there as I stormed off. A few moments later he came to find me and asked me to get my sweater. I got my sweater and got into the car. I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He took me to play miniature golf, and then to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait. We barely spoke–I didn’t need words. I needed presence, and that’s what he gave me. While we were at DQ, he finally used words. He said, “I know that life is tough right now and that you’re hurting.  I want you to know that I love you, and that I will always love you.”  No lecture, no removal of privileges, no harsh words–just presence and love. My self-destructive season lasted for another 9 years or so, but there were no more fits of rage and I never doubted the love of my father–and when I was finally ready to come home– my earthly father’s example helped me to embrace the fact that my loving Heavenly Father was not mad at me, but was rejoicing that I was coming home. Neither father gave me what I deserved, and my life is forever changed as a result.

Psalm 103:10 says God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  

Aren’t you grateful?

Let’s choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and treat others the way God has treated us. Doing life His way, the counter cultural way,  is the only thing that has the power to change the world.

Lord, may Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth…

-Luanne

 

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When the Enemy Comes: Revelation

The last few weeks Pastor John has been teaching us how to navigate seasons of devastation by leading us through a series from the book of Joel.

We have read verses in Joel that tell us about the hoards of locusts that wiped out the land and the crops. We’ve read about the drought and the fire. We’ve read the verses in which the Lord encourages the people to return to Him with all their hearts (2:13). We’ve read about His compassion and love (v.13). We’ve read Joel’s words as he begins to remember who the Lord is and exclaims “Surely He has done great things!” (v. 20 and 21). We’ve read God’s promise to restore the land with the result being that His people will praise His name and know that He is their God, that there is no other, and they will never be shamed again. (vs. 25-27)  Joel teaches us to:

  1. Return–cry out to God.
  2. Remember-recall who God is and all that He has done.
  3. Restore-regain perspective that God is good, that He is for us, that He loves us, and this week:
  4. Revelation-God’s invitation to be part of what He is doing through His Spirit.

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (2:28-29)

The Hebrew word “prophesy” means to speak or sing under the influence of divine spirit. It can mean to “pour forth words”, to declare, to speak by divine power, sometimes it rebukes the wicked, sometimes it declares events to come, sometimes it means to sing holy songs as led by the Spirit of God, it can mean to teach, to declare God’s truth.  The Greek word expounds a little further, it can mean to impulsively burst forth in praise or discourse, it can mean to comfort someone, to declare a thing which can only be known by divine revelation.  Basically, it is to be open to whatever the Spirit of God wants to communicate from God or about God in whatever way He chooses. God is, after all, God.

Joel’s prophecy was written at a time when the Holy Spirit only came upon certain people empowering them to accomplish God’s purpose in that season. They were typically empowered with great strength, or powerful speech, as in Samson, David, the prophets, some kings, some priests, some judges. They carried out the work of the Lord. One man who sometimes gets overlooked in all of this was Bezalel, so I want to give him a mention here. In Exodus 31, God told Moses: See, I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of crafts…(Ex. 31:1-4). Even a craftsman/artist can be filled with the Spirit of God to accomplish God’s purpose and point us to God through his/her art. I love that!

The people of Joel’s day did not see the fulfillment of that particular prophecy.  As a matter of fact, another prophet, Amos, prophesied that God would send a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, (Amos 8:11) The Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi and God’s plea for His people to return to Him. They don’t, which leads to 400 years of silence from God.  I can’t begin to imagine!

After those 400 years, Jesus is born.

God, right here.

Visible, touchable, relatable.

God, showing us who He is and what He is about in the person of Jesus. God showing us His loving heart. God showing us His power. God showing us His kindness. God showing us that there is no life in religious ritual.  God showing us His righteous indignation at injustice. God showing us that there is no “us and them” in His kingdom. God lifting the marginalized, the oppressed, the invisible. God showing us that we are all precious to Him. God showing us His sacrificial nature.  And God making a way for us to become part of His family and His mission to restore all things as His kingdom begins to expand across the world.

Before He was crucified, Jesus told his closest friends that the gift of the Holy Spirit was going to come to them (John 14). After his resurrection, right before he ascended, he told his closest friends that they would receive power to be His witnesses when the Holy Spirit came upon them. (Acts 1:8) After he ascended, his friends returned to Jerusalem, went upstairs to the room where they were staying, and spent time in prayer. Luke makes sure we know that Mary and the women were with them in that room. (Acts 1:14).

And then, in Acts 2 it happens. The Holy Spirit came upon them–all of them. They were filled with the Spirit and the Spirit enabled them to speak in other tongues. They went outside and began to speak to people from every nation. Those people were bewildered because they each heard their own language being spoken–and what were they hearing? The wonders of God being declared!

However, as is often the case when the Spirit is on the move, there were naysayers in the crowd who were making fun of them and accusing them of being drunk. And then Peter, who in his fear had denied Jesus just a few weeks before

Stood up

Raised his voice

And explained the mystery of what was happening to the crowd.

He began with Joel’s prophecy:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below….and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  (Acts 2:17-21).

Then Peter, with the other apostles standing with him, went on to explain who Jesus is. He reminded the people that they rejected Him, but that they were being given a new opportunity to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. He encouraged them to repent–to change their minds about the way they thought about Jesus–to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, to receive the Holy Spirit–and about three thousand people became followers of Jesus on that day. Wow!

The rest of the book of Acts records the amazing things that the Holy Spirit did through the apostles, through Paul, through the followers of Christ and the early church as they were filled with the Spirit. The same Spirit is still available to all of us today–available to women and men, to rich and poor, to educated and uneducated, to every tribe, every tongue, every nation, every individual–all of us. 

So, the question for us is–do we give the Spirit free reign in our lives or are we afraid to allow that? There were naysayers in Peter’s audience, and there were those who were open to Peter’s pretty hard and pointed message. Those who were open felt their hearts being “pricked” which led them to ask “What shall we do?”  Then Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit shared with them how to come into a relationship with Jesus and how to receive the Holy Spirit.

Where do you find yourself? Are you a naysayer? Are you open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit? Are you open to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit? Are you open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life, producing the fruit of the Spirit in your thoughts and actions? Are you open to giving the Spirit full reign to use your talents, your gifts, your personality, your all to bring glory to God and draw others into His presence and kingdom? Are you open to things you don’t understand and can’t explain? Are you willing to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit even if it feels a little weird and uncomfortable to your flesh? Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit stretch you and teach you new things? Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit “mess in your business”? The fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy is still happening today. The purpose of the prophecy remains the same–that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

I truly believe that without the presence, empowerment, and ministry of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives, we cannot have unity in the Church, loving relationships, compelling lives, and be part of the fulfillment of God’s heart desire for all people to know Him. It’s a big deal. Where do you stand?

…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:13. 

For the sake of His kingdom and glory–are we asking?

–Luanne

I am going to pick up exactly where Luanne left off…

“For the sake of His kingdom and glory–are we asking?”

Our individual answers to this question will be more nuanced than a simple yes or no. To answer honestly, we have to consider the role that the Spirit played in our original theological framework. What we have heard, seen, and been taught about the Holy Spirit drives our thoughts, expectations, and fears related to this mysterious entity that cannot be fully explained or understood.

If our answer to this question is yes, there are some follow-up questions…  Why are we asking? Are we asking because we want to prove our superiority or spirituality? Have we been told we should? How are we asking? Are we asking with open hands and hearts, willing to receive whatever God chooses to give? Or are we asking with conditions and specific expectations?

If our answer is no, there is one follow-up question: Why not?

When Luanne wrote about Pentecost–when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples and friends like a rushing wind, with flames of fire–she mentioned that those who heard them speaking after this pouring out, under the empowerment of the Spirit, were bewildered...

Bewildered: deeply or utterly confused or perplexed (Merriam-Webster.com)

I read about this very thing recently in a book titled How to Survive a Shipwreck, by Jonathan Martin. He writes:

“When the Spirit blows in, the first sign of the divine presence is not order, but confusion. When the early disciples were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, the world around them was bewildered. It is the first and most neglected sign that God is up to something extraordinary–bewilderment… Only the people who don’t know what they are doing or where their lives are headed are open to the Spirit in the wind. The trademark of the Spirit is to first bewilder, not clarify. The fog that comes doesn’t always obscure the Spirit–sometimes it is the Spirit. To welcome Pentecost is to open ourselves to the possibility that God may be working in that which at first only appears to be confusion.”

I’m going to go ahead and say here that we do not like this. We tend, as followers of Jesus from many different backgrounds, to pray for clarity, for peace that calms the chaos, for answers-not more questions.

But if our God is really God, then part of what differentiates Him from us is our inability to grasp Him.

And yet, we try…

Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably before that…) we, as humanity, have been attempting to box God in. To simplify all that He is into terms we can understand and explain. We long for a sense of order and control, and we have tried to control God. We have convinced ourselves (and sadly, many others along with us…) that God can be managed, manipulated, and controlled if we follow certain sets of rules and color within the lines. Religiosity replaces relationship and we think that neat and tidy looking lives are evidence of our right standing with the Creator of all things.

My heart aches as I type, because this understanding of “faith” that so many have adapted and then taught, reduces our beautiful, mysterious and incomprehensible Creator to a list of dos and donts. This is a tragedy. No wonder the world around us wants nothing to do with our “God”. People aren’t really rejecting us and our “God” because of declining morality, or even an aversion to our “Christian” intolerance.

They just don’t want the picture we have painted of our God.

There’s little that is appealing about how modern “Christianity” displays our Leader. The depravity in the world is deepening because followers of Jesus have picked up artificial light that is powerless to pierce the darkness, and set aside the true Light that has the power to draw ALL men to Himself…

We have largely rejected the mysteries of God, because of our inability to control what we don’t understand. And the greatest mystery of God, or at least one of the greatest mysteries, is His Spirit.

Luanne wrote, “So, the question for us is–do we give the Spirit free reign in our lives or are we afraid to allow that?”

If our core desire is to maintain a sense of control and order in our lives, then I think we have to own that–when it comes to the uncontrollable, bewildering Spirit of God–we are, in fact, afraid.

Luanne asked a series of follow-up questions, one of which was, “Are you open to giving the Spirit full reign to use your talents, your gifts, your personality, your all to bring glory to God and draw others into His presence and kingdom?”

If we can get past the fear in the previous question, and begin to embrace the “free reign” of the Spirit in our hearts and lives, this next question contains components we MUST wrestle with…

If we give the Spirit full, unmediated access to our talents, gifts, and personalities–the very make-up of who we are–that means we are saying God gets to determine the how, when, where, and why about what we are and what we have. He gets to decide move us and move through us His way. If we thought we were losing control before, this part can pretty well undo us… We have ideas about what we can and can’t do. We know what we would like to do with the gifts we have been given, and where we like to use them. We know what we’re comfortable doing and saying within the scope of our own personalities, and what is well beyond our comfort zones.

But the thing is… the Spirit of God can move within us and empower us with talents and gifts we didn’t know we had. The Spirit, at times, even unleashes gifting within us that we’ve never had and couldn’t dream of having. But in order to experience this kind of empowerment, we must let go of our preconceived notions, our expectations, our assumptions, and all of our conditions. We have to assume a posture of receiving with humility, expectant that God will show up, but without presumption of how He will choose to do that.

Peter knew something about this. He, along with the others, had been told to wait for the Spirit to come. Jesus didn’t really give them more detail than that. Wait for the Spirit to come upon you. So, together, they waited. Expectant, but wholly unprepared for what was about to happen. And when the Spirit showed up with the force of a mighty wind and with fire, they received the empowerment. But it went further than that. They didn’t simply receive… they also moved. They moved out among the people with a boldness not their own.

Both John, in his message, and Luanne in her portion of this post, referred to Peter’s first sermon. They both reminded us that Peter stood up with the others and spoke to the crowds–and about 3,000 were added to their number that day. He spoke bold words, for sure. But the more baffling mystery here is that he spoke at all

This is Peter… Peter, who famously had denied Jesus not long before this day, in front of those he was now speaking to, yes. But beyond that, this was Peter, who, up to this point was known for being anything but eloquent… We have evidence throughout the gospels of the trainwreck that often occurred whenever Peter would open his mouth. He was always saying the wrong thing. He was most definitely not a natural, gifted speaker. Obviously. This was not a talent he had been born with. It was was a gift that he was empowered with when he chose to give the Spirit full access to all of himself

What we also know about Peter is that what he lacked throughout the four gospels in eloquence, he made up for with his inexhaustible trust in Jesus. In fact, it was his bubbling trust and belief that led him into some of the verbal blunders that we have recorded in our Bible.

I believe it was this same trust, belief, faith, reliance on Jesus that freed Peter to stand up and speak, empowered with a gift he didn’t know he possessed.

The same is available to us. If we can overcome our fear and lean hard into the mystery of our God and the freedom of His Spirit, we can be empowered with gifts we’ve never had before, too. We won’t all speak, or sing, or prophecy in the very same way. That would negate the very mystery we’re attempting to embrace. The empowerment can take innumerable forms, because we follow an uncontainable, unexplalinable God. If we are willing to receive the mystery, to be empowered by what we cannot understand, and to move within that empowerment, we will begin to see and experience what Jesus was talking about when He said these things:

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. (John 14:12, NLT)

It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you. (John 16:7, Message)

How do we do the “greater works” Jesus prophesied we would do? Under the empowerment of the friend that was given to us, that Jesus said was better for us than even His physical Presence among us.

Jesus told us the indwelling power of His Spirit was better for us than Him remaining here would be… That is huge. Jesus wouldn’t have said it if it were not true. If we believe him, friends, we had better be asking for this “better” that has been already been given. Whatever we may or may not have been taught about the Spirit in our upbringings or faith traditions–however impactful those words and ideas may have been–if we’re followers of Jesus, His words have to carry the most weight. He says we need the Spirit. And He says we get to have as much of this gift as we want. The question is, do we want it?

“…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

–Laura

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When the Enemy Comes: Restoration

“Where are you, God?” 

After journeying through the first two steps of what to do when the enemy shows up in our lives–Return to Me (God), and Remember–this seems a bit of an odd question to ask. It is a question, though, that is often part of our third step: Restoration.

When the enemy comes–regardless of what form that “enemy” takes, whether as a result of our own choices or not–we experience loss. This week, we’re looking at what God says He will do in the wake of that loss. The message this week comes out of Joel 2:25-27:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.” 

What God is talking about here is the process of restoration for His people who have lost so much. Notice that I said process. There are times when it may appear that restoration happens in a moment. And when it comes to a material thing that’s been lost being returned, it can in fact be restored that quickly. The kind of restoration God is talking about here, however, is a process. Because real restoration goes much deeper than getting back the physical thing we have lost…

Here is what the word “restoration” means:

“a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

We’ll come back to this definition in a moment…

When we’ve lost something, we have a pretty clear idea of what the restoration of that thing we’ve lost should look like. We want all of the broken, lost pieces put back together again. On Sunday, Pastor John offered that our perspective of restoration is only half of the story, though. He told us that there is always something greater at stake than the loss of what we had, whatever that thing might be. There are three things that he identified that are at stake when the enemy comes into our lives:

Knowing God is here

Knowing that God is for you

Remembering that He is the One & Only

In the midst of all of our loss, in the middle of the storms, we lose sight of who God is, of His goodness. This is the greater loss. This is what really needs to be restored. It is this loss that leads us to ask the question, “Where are you, God?”  

When we forget that God is with us in the midst of our loss, we begin to feel very alone, which leads us to forget that He is for us as both our powerful Lord and our personal God. When we forget that He is for us, all we can see is who or what is against us. Our focus shifts to our enemy and then we forget that there is no other God. In our grief and desperation, we accept counterfeit gods in His place.

One of the counterfeit gods we accept is OUR picture of what restoration will look like.

Once we accept a counterfeit god, we begin to worship it, and our lives begin to revolve around it. We make decisions and form beliefs around the thing we worship, the thing that has our focus. And we can, without even being aware of it, convince ourselves and the world around us that this thing we are seeking is God’s will for us. Because He says He’ll restore what’s been taken, right? When we find ourselves in this place, the restoration we need is far greater than we know. It will have to go much deeper than receiving back what we think we have lost. And it often begins with God turning our initial question around to us. We are desperate and asking Him, “Where are you?” And from the space within us and beside us that He never actually vacated, He asks us the same thing…

 “Where are you?”

He has some follow-up questions… What are you seeking? What is it that you want? What is it that has stolen your focus? What-or who-has become your god? 

These questions are often the beginning of the restoration process. If we stop looking at restoration as getting back what was taken from us and begin to see that it is actually   “return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”, we can begin to see God’s heart in restoration. The “something” that needs to be returned to it’s former, original, unimpaired condition is not the thing we lost. It is us. Our hearts. Our perspective. In seasons of loss, when enemies wreak havoc in our lives, our perspective of everything shifts. Especially, as we’ve been looking at, our perspective of God. We lose sight of who He really is, and our belief in His goodness is often shattered, along with our discouraged, broken hearts. Both require reconstruction. Our hearts and our beliefs. This is God’s heart in the restoration process. To restore us to the place where our hearts are whole–and wholly dependent on Him. Not whatever it is we thought we lost. 

Here’s the thing… there are things we lose that we will never get back. This verse from Joel about God restoring the years the locusts have eaten has been manipulated and taken out of context over and over again to mean what we want it to mean. We want it to mean that our finances will be put back in order, that the relationship will be good as new, that we’ll get that position we lost, the job we were fired from will be ours again, the disease will be healed, the stock market will turn around, etc…

Sometimes, these things do happen. God is certainly capable of doing all of these things and more. But this is not the restoration He cares most about.

I am here. I am the Lord your God. There is no other. 

This is what He offers in the midst of our loss. And until this becomes enough for us, nothing else will be. 

When we find ourselves asking, “Where are you, God?”, will we be brave enough to let Him ask the same of us? To look around at where we are right now–not where we’ve been or where we want to be–and be honest about what has our focus? What it is that we really want? And can we then silence the desperate cries of our longing for whatever it is that we think we’ve lost long enough to hear the voice of One we can never lose?

He is here. He is for you. He is the One and Only.

This is where restoration begins…

–Laura

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. (Ps 23:4)

Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will hold me close. (Ps. 27:10)

Restoration: “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

Laura wrote above: Once we accept a counterfeit god, we begin to worship it, and our lives begin to revolve around it. We make decisions and form beliefs around the thing we worship, the thing that has our focus.

I don’t know too many people who deliberately worship idols. I certainly don’t intend to worship idols, yet God has shown me during seasons of loss how many idols I actually worship. Ugh.

Last week I wrote about a devastating season in my adult life. During that season, I truly did lean into God, and He met me and ministered to me where I was. However, during that season I also had idols stripped from me, and I lived in some tremendous fear. It became painfully aware to me during that season,  that I had placed my hope in another human being. I relied on another person to meet my needs, to provide for my sustenance, to be there for me emotionally, and to take care of me. All of that was stripped from me and my idol was exposed.  I was afraid. I lost my (false) sense of safety. For months and months I lived with tremendous anxiety over whether or not I was going to lose my house, over how the bills were going to be paid, over keeping a good credit score, over whether or not we would have enough food to eat. So. Much. Fear. And in all of that, I had also lost emotional support, I wasn’t sure who would be “safe” for me, who I could turn to with the depth of my fear. It was awful.

If anyone had asked me, I certainly would never have admitted to worshipping an idol. I wasn’t even aware of it myself. But I had solidly transferred my dependence from God to a person.

We truly were in a bad way in terms of material provision.  Many people helped us during that year. Sometimes I knew who they were, sometimes gifts came anonymously. There was never excess, but there was always enough. There were multiple times when I sat down to pay bills, knowing that we didn’t have enough to cover them, and yet there would be. It made no sense. I would sit at the table, look at the bank statement and try to figure it out–where did this money come from? I feared spending that money because I was afraid the bank would tell us it was a fluke and then we’d owe them.

One particular Saturday morning, when I was wracking my brain trying to figure it out, I heard God say to me, “Stop it. I am providing for you.”  It stopped me in my tracks. I wish I could say that I had no more fear after that point-but I still struggled. However, what I can say is that it lessened considerably, and each month, somehow we were able to cover our expenses.

We didn’t lose our house, even though logic would tell us we should have. We didn’t have our utilities shut off, even though logic tells us we should have. We didn’t go hungry, even though logic tells us we should have. (I just paused to shake my head…it still amazes me.).   Yet the ability to pay our bills and buy food, as crazy as that was, was not the restoration. The restoration began in a much deeper place as idols were exposed, idols were brought down, and God was put in his rightful place. It was not fun (at all!), but wow, was it transforming!

To this day, when we pay bills, I thank the Lord for HIS provision of our finances. When we sit at the table to eat, my gratitude is genuine. I know our food came from His hand. And even though those are material things, it is not about the material things.

There were other things in that season that died and that had to die. Things that didn’t need to be “restored”  in the way that we understand restoration. And those things were painful, excruciatingly painful–but God was using all it (I’m not saying he caused it…but that He used it) to recalibrate my being.

Psalm 23:1 begins with the phrase The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I remember pondering that verse years and years ago when the Rwandan genocide was taking place. I remember the images on the news of hordes of people trying to flee Rwanda. Many of them were massacred and/or lost their entire families. I knew that many Rwandans were Christians and I was struck with the thought-what does Psalm 23:1 mean to them in this situation? It can only mean one thing. The Lord–He alone is enough. If everything else is lost, if the enemy destroys everything, I shall not want, because the Lord alone is enough, and He is with me. Restoration.

My maternal grandmother passed away when she was 93 years old. She outlived eleven siblings; her husband (my grandad), died of cancer before I was born. My mother died of cancer at the age of forty. My uncle, her only other child, died of cancer six years later, also at the age of forty. She had every reason in the world to be a bitter, bitter woman, yet she wasn’t. I inherited her desk, which had been mostly cleaned out before I got it, but in the bottom drawer there was one typed sheet of paper on which she had written some thoughts. She wrote it while my uncle was hospitalized, and the end was near. As she processed and wrestled with yet another devastating loss, she came to the following conclusion and closed her thoughts with this phrase: I have come to understand that it is better to know God than to know why. 

Restoration.

Restoration: “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a representation or reconstruction of the original form”

In our original form we were made for relationship with God. From the beginning of time, we were made for relationship with God. We get pulled a million different directions. Our “form” gets impaired. We choose a million different things to worship and place our focus on (including ourselves). They all leave us wanting.

But the Lord–He speaks to us: I am here. I am the Lord your God. There is no other. Call out to me. Return to me. Remember me. 

He has provided everything we need through Christ Jesus to be restored to our original, unimpaired condition.  His love knows no bounds. He is here, He is the only true God…

Is He enough?

–Luanne

 

 

When the enemy comes: Remember Me

Last week, in the first message of our Joel series, we were reminded to return to the Lord when the enemy comes. The enemy had come upon the land of Judah in the form of wave upon wave of locusts, then drought, then fire. The people, the animals, and the land itself were devastated. The Lord encouraged the people to return to Him in the midst of the devastation-to turn to Him with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and to call out to Him.

I really appreciate the fact that in the returning there is not only permission, but there is encouragement to weep and mourn. I get frustrated with people who throw out spiritual platitudes during hard seasons–you know, the folks who say flippantly God works all things together for good, or similar things that feel dismissive and really aren’t helpful in the moment. God Himself was telling His people to weep and mourn. Feel it all. Acknowledge it all. It’s the only way to be truly authentic in any relationship, including our relationship with the Lord.

But after the weeping, the mourning, the lamenting, sometimes in the midst of the weeping, the mourning, and the lamenting,  we move to remembering who God is and what He has done. In verses 2:19-20 God promises to send grain, new wine, and olive oil–enough to satisfy them fully, and to drive the horde of locusts far away from them.

Then, in verses 21-23 of chapter two, Joel interjects his own thoughts for a few verses-it’s as though he can’t contain himself and has to give his people a word of encouragement and hope, as he writes:

Surely He has done great things! Do not be afraid, land of Judah; be glad and rejoice. Surely the Lord has done great things!  Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures and the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for He has given you the autumn rains because He is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.

Personally, when I read those verses, I think Joel is having an outburst of rejoicing. To rejoice means to have a sudden physical reaction–to spin, to circle, to dance. I love that in the middle of God’s narrative, all of a sudden Joel exclaims He has done great things!-and he’s exclaiming it, not only to people, but to animals and land. I think he’s really excited, even jubilant as he remembers God’s faithfulness. Maybe he hopped up and did a little dance. It makes me smile to picture it.

One morning, a few years ago, I was taking a walk and pondering things. One of the things I was pondering was the opposite of the word remember–is it really forget?. (Weird, I know, but it’s what I do.) I had an aha!  moment when I realized that the opposite of remember is not forget, it’s dismember. When we remember something, we connect ourselves to it again. Joel is connecting himself to God’s faithfulness, to the history of all that God has done in the past. He is no longer focused on the current devastation, he has instead reconnected with who God is and all that God has done, and it has led him to rejoice.

Last week I wrote about my season of “dismembering” myself from God for about ten years, which did not take me to good places. I don’t recommend that method in a storm. Re-membering leads to much better places.

In November of 2011 my world exploded and I was faced with a decision. How would I handle this devastation?  Would I dis-member or re-member?

Four months prior to that explosion, I was sitting in my backyard praying over the unrest that I was feeling but couldn’t put my finger on, when a yellow swallowtail butterfly flew over my backyard fence and made a beeline straight toward me. As it came my way, in the depth of my being I heard the words, I see you. You are not aloneI had no idea in that moment how those words would become my lifeline.

There were a few more God sent encounters with yellow butterflies that summer. One landed on a potted plant right next to me in my sister in law’s back yard,  one was in a large downtown area–not a plant in sight. We stepped out of our hotel onto a sidewalk, and the butterfly led us along. Each one reminded me of God’s words, I see you. You are not alone. Each time, I was in a place where I needed the reminder, still unaware of the explosion to come.

When November came, and I was thrust into the darkest season of my adult life, I spent many nights in a crumbled heap. However, this time I did not dismember myself from God. I remembered Him and He met me in my fasting, and weeping and mourning. I would come home from work, go to my bedroom and lie on the floor in the dark. I had no words, but as my “random” worship playlists would move from song to song, God, Himself sang over me. He saw me. I was not alone. I heard some songs for the very first time, such as Kari Jobe’s I Know You are For Me.  I heard songs that I hadn’t heard for a very long time such as Paul Wilbur’s Dance With Me. (And I did–I stood up from the floor and danced with Jesus.)  And I heard songs that met me right where I was and offered hope, like Bebo Norman’s We Fall Apart. Over and over, God met me in song lyrics.

And then, in His amazing way, in the throes of our Wyoming winter, God sent me a yellow butterfly. It was January. My dark season was still very dark. I could not determine my future and I desperately wanted out. I was praying for God to release me, to kill me to get me out of the pain, begging Him to take me home.  In the middle of that dark place, I got a sweet letter from one of the children I sponsor through World Vision. Of course, she had no idea what was going on in my life-but she had drawn me a card and on it was a yellow butterfly. I laughed when I opened it–probably the first time I had laughed in two months. I am smiling even now as I tell you about it. I see you. You are not alone. It can still leave me speechless.

Rejoicing in the midst of devastation. Is it possible? Yes. It is possible. It doesn’t mean that you ignore your circumstances, it doesn’t mean that the pain will go away or that it won’t still be hard. It does mean that your focus shifts from your circumstances to your God. It does mean that you look for Him everywhere. It does mean that you connect to Him; remember Him. He is the God who meets us where we are. He is the God who lifts us out of the slimy pit. He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way. He is, after all…

The Lord your God who is with you, the Mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love; He will exult over You with loud singing…(Zeph 3:17)

He is rejoicing over you. Rejoice in Him and remember….

-Luanne

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

Tears sting my eyes as I read Luanne’s portion and prepare to write my own… how deeply her story resonates within the chambers of my heart. Not because our stories are at all alike–but because we both have experienced the same fancy, gift-giving, loving God in the middle of our darkest days.

This morning–without warning–I was thrust into a few moments of remembering… I was going through a bag of paperwork that had been thrown together during our recent move. I was sorting school papers, coupons, lease information, etc… In the middle of all of the paper, I was surprised to find one of my gratitude journals. I have several, but this one is a special one–every line is filled. I opened it to a “random” page and found myself pulled back in time–into one of the most devastating seasons of my life. I’m so glad I kept naming gifts, that I continued to write them down during the darkest days, because the remembering now offers unexpected beauty. I want to share my remembering with you, the gifts I was grateful for during a heartbreaking season…

#562: Mom was able to come to church

#570: Realizing that “Holy Week” doesn’t come with any guarantees of holy days or holy moments–and it’s okay if days are hard

#595: Being able to walk and move freely–I’ll  never take it for granted again

#625: The hard eucharisteo–Mom’s re-diagnosis. Nothing could’ve prepared me for today, but He is still here with me…

#627: Wonderful friends and family, support that is so needed

#630: She got her own hospital room–answered prayer!

#633: She’s not in pain for the first time in a while

#641: Worshiping hard in a hard time, soul connection to my Father

#658: So many friends who want to celebrate Mom

#667: So much love for Mom on her birthday–everyone showed up

#670: Great concert–Mom was there, and beaming

#694: Beautiful waterfall–first time this year. She got to come and hear the water–even if all she could do was sit at the bottom of the trail

#729: A God who always knows what will be as we sit in the foggy now

#737: Friends that cry with me AND cheer me on

#772: Laughs with Mom before bed, all of us smiling

#778: Sweet husband taking care of Mom’s coffee before I wake up

#780: Mom’s going fishing with us…making memories

#782: Time to love well…as long as God gives us

#783: Looking at old photos on Mom’s bed with her

#784: Sean and Dani made it in time

#785: Laughing with Mom, the 4 of us kids, late into the night

#787: We were with her at the end, loving her, peaceful

#788: She’s with Jesus, free and full of life…and BREATH…

#789: Waking, and smiling at memories through the tears

#792: Long, sad embraces and the hope of all of our future homecomings

#801: Waking up and feeling okay…the sense of loss isn’t as crushing today

#816: Blue jay out my window this morning

#818: Long, tearful, healing talks with a friend of my heart

#847: Memories so vivid my heart aches

#848: The time I did have…so grateful that mine and Mom’s days intertwined for the time we had

#870: A huge heart-shaped leaf placed in my path

#875: A dream–cuddled up with Mom, talking with her, hearing her voice again

All of these “gifts” were recorded over a few short months. There are many in between the ones I listed that aren’t connected to my mom, her illness, or her death. But all of these were gifts I was given in the midst of the season that was breaking my heart. As I read through these this morning, I wept. Loudly. My eyes are full again now… Reading any one of the gifts I shared with you takes me back to that day, that moment. I didn’t mean to jump back into these days today. It wasn’t part of my plan at all. I hadn’t yet read any of Luanne’s words. But I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I found that journal today. Or that Luanne chose to share about her yellow butterfly gifts…

God gave me gifts during my hard season, too. I didn’t get butterflies–I got blue jays, a heart-shaped leaf, and writing in the clouds. The clouds and the leaf were one time gifts. But the blue jays… they came over and over again. They still come, over 4 years later. And always when I need them most. They are God’s little whisper to my soul. His answer to the silent, hidden cries of my heart that no one else hears. And there’s nothing you could say that would convince me otherwise…

I am so grateful for the gift of remembering. So grateful that I can reconnect to all of the yesterdays and all of the joy and grief that they contain. The remembering can trigger deep wells of grief. Hard questions can resurface as memories flood your consciousness. But remembering is also where I can most clearly see the evidence of God’s hand, of His Presence with me in the dark. It’s often hard to sense Him in the moment, when the chaos is swirling and the clamor of life drowns out His voice. But He is easy to see in the looking back. Joel obviously knew that. He and his people may not have seen God in the middle of the circumstances they found themselves in, in the face of crushing loss and utter devastation. So Joel reminds them of who their God is. He encourages them to remember. And as He does, joy floods his soul and it spills out of him.

Rejoicing… dancing… these are the unexpected gifts of remembering. The dance is often one of grief AND gratitude, joy AND pain, because these things are not mutually exclusive. They exist together. Like Perfect God AND imperfect me, or imperfect you… What is essential is staying connected to the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, looking for Him everywhere and taking the time to look back when our hope is running out. Because…

“He is the God who brings beauty from ashes, and sends us gifts of hope along the way.”

-Laura

When the Enemy Comes: Return to Me

Have you ever experienced a season of devastation? A season so seemingly hopeless that you wonder if God is even there–and if He is, why won’t He intervene?

My guess is that most of us have been there. Times when our lives have felt attacked and invaded… Times of loss and crisis…

Our new series comes out of the book of Joel, when the people of God were facing such a time. Locusts had invaded their land, and they didn’t only come once. Swarms of them came upon the land, over and over again, until absolutely everything was devastated. All of the crops were gone. They had nothing. And then, after all seemed lost, a fire and a drought came…

I can’t relate to this on an agricultural level. I’ve never farmed or relied on my own land to provide for myself and my family. But I know what devastation and loss feel like. I have experienced attacks and invasions in my own life–and it’s probably safe to assume that you have, too.

In this new series, Pastor John will give us five things we can do when the enemy shows up on our doorsteps, adapted from the book of Joel. We’ll look at how God, through the prophet Joel, invited His people to respond to the calamities they faced. And we will see that His invitation to them is the same one He extends to us today.

It’s important to note that the “enemy” can show up in a few different ways… It can be in the form of Satan, who is always aiming to steal, kill and destroy. But we can’t blame every storm we face on Satan. Our enemy can also be seen in the things that have been done to us, people coming against us in one way or another. It could be circumstances outside of our control, devastation that–like the locusts–appears and invades every corner of our lives. And sometimes, what is wreaking havoc in our lives is ourselves, our own choices. All of these are “enemies” that can land us in seasons of crisis.

Before I write any further, I want to acknowledge that this is hard. Devastation, hopelessness, loss–these aren’t easy or fun things to think about, much less talk about. If you, like me, have experienced seasons of trauma and loss, I know that the last thing you may want to do is remember and relive those times. You may be in a season like what I’m describing right now. Your world may be in a state of utter chaos and despair. Wherever you find yourself as you read our words, I hope that you’ll hang on. Keep reading–there is hope to be found. I don’t say that lightly. I know that when we’re in the midst of the pain and the struggle, the last thing we want to hear is a sunny platitude that seems beyond our reach. This is not that. What Joel offered to his people–what Pastor John presented to us, and what we’re now presenting to you–is a lifeline that will keep us above water even as it churns and slams against us.

So…what do we do? When our lives are invaded and devastated, whether by our own choices or not, where do we turn?

Chapter one in Joel details what the people were experiencing. And then in the beginning of verse 19, Joel cries, “To you, Lord, I call…”  Step one: Cry out to God. Even if you’re not sure He’s listening. Even when you’re doubting His goodness. Even when it’s your own choices that have led you to a place of devastation and you feel too ashamed and unworthy to even speak His name…. Cry out to Him.

In Joel 2:12, God responds: “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now… no matter whose fault it is, no matter how far away you might be… return. The word return is an interesting one. It means to turn back, like we assume it does. But there is an undercurrent to the word in this context that I find so beautiful–and so telling of the heart of our God. It carries an implied meaning of being brought back, or being restored. Those aren’t things we do for ourselves. This changes the way I understand the call to return. Because sometimes, crying out takes all I have left. The energy required to turn back and move toward God is more than I can muster. And He knows that. He knows that He’s the one that does the moving. We see it throughout the whole of scripture–this God that runs. This father that gets to where we’re going before we do and meets us there–wherever “there” might be. We see it in the stories of Gomer & Hosea and the prodigal son & his father that John referenced on Sunday. Both Hosea and the father went after–ran toward–the one they loved that had wandered from them. Both represent the heart of our God, though He goes even further. These stories paint a picture of love, forgiveness and restoration. A love that says “Return to me”, and doesn’t wait until they find their way back, but goes after them and actually brings them back home. 

God does the same for us… and more. I can’t help but think of the psalmist, David, and the words he penned that we find in Psalm 139…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

(Psalm 139:7-10)

There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run to, where God isn’t already there waiting. There is a song that was penned recently, based on the words from this Psalm. This is part of it:

“You meet me there, Spirit you meet me there. You go before me, Your love surrounds me, Spirit you meet me there…

You don’t give up, even when I do. You don’t walk out when I threaten to. You are steady when I can’t be still, Your love finds me, and it always will.”

Returning to God is not an intimidating, tedious process. It doesn’t begin with a long, lonely walk of shame. it begins with simply realizing that He is already there–wherever our “there” is. He’s there, and He’s waiting for us to open our eyes and look up and find His love staring back at us. His face doesn’t hold judgement or condemnation. He’s not ready to scold our lack of faith or belittle our weakness. He is, as Joel 2:13 describes,

“…kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” (Joel 2:13b, Message) 

Kind. Merciful. Patient. Extravagant in His love… The God described in Joel is the same God David wrote about in the Psalms. The same God whose character and heart were made visible in the person of Jesus when He came and walked the earth as the exact physical manifestation of God the Father. (Colossians 1:15) That’s who we see when we open our eyes and find Him already there looking back at us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a long road to walk–but it does mean that we never have to walk it alone.

But what about the “…always ready to cancel catastrophe…” part? This line slammed into my heart like a wrecking ball on Sunday. I found myself asking, “Then why didn’t you, God? If you’re always ready to cancel catastrophe, why haven’t you done that? Why have so many of my pleas for you to do exactly that gone unanswered?”

The very next line of Joel goes on to say this: Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. (Joel 2:14a, NLT)

Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t like this part. We have a God who is always ready and able to “cancel catastrophe”… but sometimes He doesn’t. Why?

I don’t know.

I hate typing those words. For myself and for you. Because I told you to hang on, that there was hope coming. And I want to be able to say that your reprieve is coming. That circumstances are about to change and it’s all going to get better. You and I both know I can’t say that, though.

But here is what I can say… The “enemy” has come and taken a lot from my life. I wouldn’t choose to relive the storms that left me devastated and barely hanging onto hope–except for the part where I discovered the truth that I wrote about above…

God, my good, gracious Father, was with me in every moment. He met me in every hell I found myself in. There was nowhere too far, nowhere too dark, that He wasn’t already there waiting for me. I used to say that all of my life, Jesus has pursued me and gone after me when I’ve run from Him. But it’s even better than that… As I’ve grown and changed and looked back, I’ve realized that yes, He’s always pursued me. But not from behind me, like an animal chasing it’s prey. No. He’s pursued me from the places I’ve run into-He was there waiting, loving me back to Him, before I could even get there… In the deep darkness of the cult I was born into, in the fear of my very heavy-handed earthly father… In the rooms of my teenage promiscuity, and the hangovers from nights of being used… In the real possibility of burying my baby-more than once… In the weeks my marriage felt hopeless and in the loss of my presumed identity… In the room where my mama took her last breath, and in the terror at the thought that maybe her death was my fault… In unemployment and moves that knocked the wind out of me and in callings that seem far beyond my reach… In betrayal and accusation… In my own webs of lies and unforgiveness… He has been there. There is nowhere I’ve been that I haven’t been in His presence. No choice I’ve made that is so ugly He’s turned his face away. No moment that I’ve ever been alone.

Would I have loved for God to cancel some (or all…) of these catastrophes? Of course. Some of them left me reeling and believing I would never recover. I wouldn’t choose to walk these roads. But it’s been on these roads that I encountered the power of the love that didn’t look away. Didn’t walk away. Didn’t accuse me. Didn’t use me. But brought me back home to the arms that have never stopped holding me…

These seasons have taught me to cry out, and to turn my eyes to the One who can restore everything. The One who can re-story my story–and has, in so many ways. He’s the same One who can re-story yours… fix your eyes on the eyes that have never looked away from you, cry out to Him, and let His love bring you home…

–Laura

 

I looked out my window early today

I saw a big gray blanket

When I walked into it, it opened so that I could pass through

Then closed again behind me

Leaving me surrounded

In a cold, gray world

I wrote those words in my 8th grade English class. It was a poetry assignment that unbeknownst to me would be entered in a city wide poetry contest. I won the contest. My poem was published in the newspaper, my dad used it in one of his sermons, but I didn’t care. I didn’t make the poem up out of thin air– I was describing my life at the time. I was three years into ongoing “locust” devastation and could not see an end in sight. My mother had died from cancer when I was in the fifth grade-eleven years old. In the midst of that storm, just a year later, sixth grade, my dad married a widow with four children of her own. I finished out my sixth grade year with all of the kids I’d been in school with since first grade, but we had moved to a larger house to accommodate our larger family, so seventh grade I began junior high in a school with no friends. I was sharing a bedroom with a step-sister who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I never felt safe at home. I discovered the hard truth in my new school that “good” kids who’ve been together for a long time don’t embrace new kids very well. I was accepted into the group of other hurting kids; we were all trying to numb our pain without knowing that’s what we were doing–we called it “partying” but there was no joy. I would continue making increasingly self destructive and others destructive choices until I was in my early twenties. Many times during those years, I would sense the voice of God drawing me back, and sometimes I would come, but I’d never stay long.

Laura wrote above that sometimes our “locust” seasons are the result of a direct attack from Satan, sometimes they are because of something done to us by someone else, sometimes they are the consequence of our own choices. In my above season, I felt like God had done something to me. I was so, so, so angry with Him. In my understanding, a God of love would not have allowed my mother to die, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed life to have stayed so hard for so long afterward. In my anger, I turned my back on Him with an “I’ll show you that I don’t need you” attitude, and then reaped the consequences of my own poor choices. It brings up a great deal of emotion just writing about it.

How did I get back?  Joel 2:12– “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now. Right now. Today.

I was twenty-two years old and was with a friend leaving a night club at closing. We were held up at gunpoint as we headed to her car. She managed to get in the car–I didn’t. The gun was held to my stomach. In the end, my purse was taken and I was not physically harmed. There were police close by who caught the young man with my purse. My friend and I went to night court to positively identify him, and then I went home and got in bed. While lying in bed, I heard God ask me “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”  His voice wasn’t angry or scary, but it was very direct. My answer was “No. This is not the legacy I want to leave.”

Even now, return to me…Like Joel, I cried out and asked God what I needed to do. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, it was summer so I wasn’t in school. I asked my manager at work if I could take a leave of absence, and he said yes, so I moved home to Missouri for a couple of months. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing Joel 2:12–fasting, weeping, mourning…

I was welcomed home with love and given lots of space and time to process what I needed to.

I was “fasting” without knowing that’s what I was doing. Pastor John defines fasting as giving something up so that our focus can be on God–not trying to get His attention, but giving Him ours.  I sought Him for those two months. I didn’t do anything with friends. I stayed home, spent a lot of time on the back patio with my Bible and a study on how to forgive yourself (I’d made some horrific choices), and dug in with God.

There was a great deal of “weeping”, which Pastor John defined as the outward evidence that something is going on inwardly.

And mourning…acknowledging loss. There were so many things lost that needed to be acknowledged, brought into the light and mourned.

The hard thing for me to grasp, is that God’s embrace happened instantaneously. I kept acknowledging that I didn’t deserve anything from Him, and felt as though I should be  “lesser than” in His kingdom work. I felt that way for a long time.

Grace is powerful, and so difficult for us to understand, but what’s true, is just like Hosea’s wife, just like the prodigal son, God met me when I chose to rend my heart and not my garments”and I  returned to the Lord my God and found Him to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13). I was fully restored, even though I didn’t “feel” it.  Over time (years) I began to “believe” it.

I won’t say that I was completely healed in my two months home, but I was deeply in love with God and knew that my life was much better in His hands. When I returned to college, I moved out of the house I’d been living in, moved back into the dorm, began attending a small group Bible study and was fully embraced there, which  led to attending a church where I learned how to worship in a new way. I left my old “friend” group behind and found new friends, one of whom became my husband.

I don’t know what season of life you are in. If locusts have come to devastate you, even now,  in this very moment, God is with you. His grace, His compassion, His love will meet you right where you are. Cry out, return to Him with all your heart–He will meet you there.

The “locust” season may not come to an immediate end, it might still be really hard-but you won’t face it alone, and in the words of an old Steven Curtis Chapman song:

His strength is perfect when our strength is gone.                                                                           He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on.                                                                                         Raised in His power, the weak become strong.                                                                                His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect. 

He is a good God. Life on a fallen planet is not always good, but God is always good–always full of love, always for us. Turn your attention to Him, take your questions, your mourning, your weeping to Him,  and let Him meet you where you are.

–Luanne

 

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:14-23

We have come to the final verses in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and I think it’s important to note that Paul’s letter is just that. It was a letter to a church who partnered with him in ministry, who supported his work, who loved him, and whom Paul loved in return. His letter wasn’t divided into chapters and verses, it was one seamless letter which thanked them, and encouraged them to keep going after Christ.

The introduction to the book of Philippians in my Bible states it like this:

…as we read through the text we see that the crucial and urgent subject matter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the gospel. The apostle Paul is grateful for the Philippians “partnership in the gospel” (1:5, 4:15) and preoccupied with their continuous progress in faith/gospel (1:25). He is in chains for “defending  and confirming the gospel” (1:7, 1:16) though happy that his imprisonment serves “to advance the gospel” (1:12). Finally, in the key verse of the letter, which expresses the essence of his message, Paul exhorts the Philippians to live “in a  manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27)…only as they manifest their heavenly citizenship will they be responsible earthly citizens….Two important parts of the letter exemplify the kind of life he envisions: the example of Christ, his obedience, humility and concern for others (2:1-18); and the example of Paul, who gladly lost everything in order to gain Christ (3:1-21)…. There is an important connection between  theology and ethics…which is seen in the close link that Paul makes between believers’ identity and their behavior. Their life in society should reflect their double citizenship (3:20)….Being a Christian is not about being religious. It is rather about being faithful to the one who was crucified and rose again and brought into being the new creation thus fulfilling God’s story to redeem the world, to bring peace and justice and love…

In the very first part of the letter, Paul prays that our love (agape) may abound more and more in knowledge an depth of insight, so that [we] may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.” (1:9-11)

Pastor John highlighted some excellent points as he wrapped up this series. He said:

*Healthy churches don’t just happen–it’s an intentional choice to love Jesus and others well.

*Being a healthy church is about giving others a second chance because we’ve been given one.

*Church is about entering into the lives of others; as God gives to us, we give to others.

*Worship is loving God and letting it flow out to others so that we can connect them to God’s love.

*We lay our lives down, not because we are the Savior, but because we know Him.

*Ministry is living with the mindset of–how can I serve you, how can I connect with you, how can I pray for you, and the entire Church is part of this ministry.

None of this flows from obligation. It all flows from being filled with God’s agape love for those around us, which is impossible apart from us knowing His love personally, and in choosing to live life His way through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We have seen, as we’ve worked our way through Philippians, that the verses we pluck out of context to make them personal promises don’t actually hold up in light of Paul’s entire letter. A relationship with Jesus, salvation in Him, is very personal, but it is not about us–it’s about becoming part of The Church that exists to advance God’s kingdom of love peace, and the restoration and flourishing of all things, across the face of the globe.

Another verse that we’ve taken out of context and turned into a personal promise from Philippians is:

AND my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (4:19)

I know that I’ve been guilty about claiming this promise for myself, without regard to the full context in which Paul wrote it. He is sharing his final thoughts before he closes his letter and he has just thanked the Philippians for sharing in his sufferings, for giving generously to him (even though they themselves were poor), for being an encouragement to him, and for partnering with him in advancing the good news of Jesus. He is letting them know that because of their generosity, he is amply supplied–that their generosity is a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice pleasing to God. AND my God will meet all your needs… They have met Paul’s needs; God will meet their needs.

Paul has leveraged his life to advance the kingdom of God. The Philippians were recipients of the message, took hold of the message, and have generously and sacrificially partnered with Paul in advancing the kingdom of God. They have sought God first…

As Pastor John was reading Philippians 4:19 , I heard Jesus’ words–Seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you. (Mt. 6:33). 

Jesus spoke those words in his sermon on the mount right after he told his listeners not to worry about what they will eat, what they will wear–that unbelievers make their lives about those things…but that we are to make our lives about the Kingdom, and God will take care of the rest.

Paul is commending the Philippians for their friendship and partnership with Him in sharing the gospel, acknowledging their sacrifice for the Kingdom and assuring them that in living with a God first mindset (not worrying about or chasing after the things of this world) that God will take care of them.

I believe this is what Jesus was teaching in the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer begins with acknowledging that God is Father of us all, that His name is most holy and set apart. Then comes the request–May your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The prayer ends (in Matthew’s gospel)  with “Yours is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever”.

Jesus mentions the Kingdom twice in this prayer, and sandwiched between those two mentions he teaches us to ask for God to supply our daily needs, to forgive us as we forgive others (we cannot love like Jesus and hold grudges against people), to not lead us into temptation, (which can lead us away from doing life His way), but to deliver us from evil–which is sometimes translated as the evil one.

That entire phrase is interesting…the Greek word “evil” used there has been translated as annoyances, hardships, something that causes pain and trouble, of a bad nature or condition, wickedness, or ethically bad. (Strongs).

James, in his book writes: but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed…(1:14). 

Is it possible that Jesus is saying–pray that your life will be all about living under God’s rule in His Kingdom doing His will so that His Kingdom can advance across the face of the globe to all people–don’t get distracted by going after your own “daily bread”, trust Him to provide for your needs as you seek His Kingdom first–Love others well, with God’s agape love-don’t hold grudges against people, and ask for God’s help to keep you strong when you are enticed to lose your way due to hardship, or your own desire to chase after other things–  God’s Kingdom is available to you, His power to carry out His will is available to you, and when you live this way His glory will be seen?

Is this what Paul is saying to the Philippians when he commends them for their partnership in making Jesus name known, in advancing the gospel of the Kingdom of God which is now available to everyone through Christ, and in seeking that Kingdom first? As they pour out their lives for God Paul assures them that God will supply all their needs….following that up with “To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Dear Church, would the watching world say that our lives are defined by agape love, sacrificial living,  and supernatural power for the glory of God? Does the watching world want what we have? If yes, glory to God!  If no, are we willing to reboot and do this His way?

Lord Jesus-help us, the individuals who make up your Church,  seek Your kingdom first and trust you to take care of everything else, so that the world can know that You, Emmanuel, are here, and have come to deliver God’s love and life to them, right here, right now. Forgive us for living for ourselves and chasing after the things of this world. Holy Spirit, please empower us to live for the glory of God.

-Luanne

Luanne highlighted several points that Pastor John made in Sunday’s message. I want to highlight one more:

“Love like Jesus. Offer grace. Sacrifice self. Live like Jesus, in the power of Jesus.

Be. Like. Jesus.”

I love that Luanne mentioned that this book, Philippians, was written as one seamless letter in its original form. It wasn’t broken up by chapter and verse, or by headings and subtitles. It was a letter from a man to his friends who had been and still were faithfully supporting and encouraging him in his work. And the point I highlighted above? It is even more meaningful to me when I remember that this was a letter between friends.

Pastor John talked about the beauty of this friendship that Paul and the Philippians shared. He used the word Koinonia, which is an intimate, deep, communion between those who believe in Jesus; it is sharing and entering into the trouble and struggles of one another, coming alongside each other. Only the presence of Jesus can create these connections and bind hearts together this deeply. This is the relationship that existed between Paul and the church he was writing to. If you have experienced the joy of this kind of friendship, you know what a blessing it is.

With this in mind, read the point I highlighted above again… In a letter to his friends, the bottom line was clear. We have written about it every week of this series. It’s all about Jesus. We see it all over this letter. You may be thinking, “Okay, Laura. We get it. It’s about Jesus. Why is this such a big deal, again this week?” 

This is why it’s a big deal. Still. Again. Think about it… If you wrote a long letter to some of your closest friends, what would stand out? What would the bottom line be? What would be the undercurrent of your message? Maybe you’re not a letter writer. I am. And when I think about letters I’ve written to people I dearly love, I am fairly certain they don’t sound like Paul’s.

And they don’t have to.

I am not suggesting that the way we communicate with those we love should always, only be about Jesus. I am certainly not in favor of adapting a template that is modeled after the letters of Paul–I’m not in favor of templates at all, actually–for so many reasons. In fact, I’m not suggesting that we model anything after Paul. It’s not about Paul at all–except that Paul modeled his life after Jesus. And encouraged his friends to do the same. In his beautiful words, long-preserved, he encourages us to do the same thing, too.

I don’t believe Paul was trying to write something “churchy”and “religious”. His letter flowed from his heart of gratitude and love. That’s why it’s so beautiful. That’s why it matters that he kept bringing it back to Jesus over and over again–because he got it. He understood that real life is not about a list of dos and donts. It’s not about obligation or duty. It’s not about fear and shame and punishment. No, he had experienced something other. Something that changed everything. He had encountered Jesus and was filled with His love-a love that had to pour out because it was never meant to be hoarded as an individual gift, and because once you know that kind of love, you want everyone else to know it, too. He had an encounter with the Kingdom come, the Kingdom Luanne wrote about so poignantly above. And he believed that the Kingdom lived and breathed in the people around him. He was absolutely convinced of the power of Jesus and His Spirit among them. It was his reality. Jesus and His Kingdom were at the center of everything Paul believed and he longed for those he loved to know and remain in that truth. And so, when he wrote a letter to his friends, it was all about Jesus. Because nothing in his life was separate or disconnected from Jesus. Everything revolved around Him. He didn’t have to try to write something spiritual–he was living and breathing the Spirit in every moment. He didn’t have to muster up affectionate words–the Agape love of Jesus was flowing through him.

Luanne asked us, “Dear Church, would the watching world say that our lives are defined by agape love, sacrificial living, and supernatural power for the glory of God?” 

Paul’s life was. And his letter evidenced that. I think it was less “how to” and more “cause and effect”. His words overflowed from a heart completely convinced and compelled by the Love that had won his heart. And because it was the natural overflow of his heart, I don’t think he had to try to say things just right in his letter. I think he simply wrote what he knew to be true, and he believed that as his friends continued to experience the grace and love of Jesus, they would be completely overtaken by Him, too.

The other night in a prayer service, the man leading asked this question…

“How often do we miss God while we’re looking for truth?” (Pastor Beau Gamble)

There’s a lot to ponder within that question… But as it relates to what we’ve been studying together, this book called Philippians, I think I have an answer.

Every time–we’ll miss God every single time–if we’re looking for truth outside of the person of Jesus. I have read this book, Philippians, so many times. I have many of the individual verses memorized. But I’ve read it through lenses focused on personal promises, individual growth, shoulds and shouldn’ts. And somehow–even though we’ve spent the summer writing about how it all points to Jesus–I hadn’t seen it before. How did I miss it? How did I miss that this entire letter points to Jesus and becoming one with Him so as to become like Him and carry His love and His Kingdom to the world? How?

It’s easy to do if it’s all about us. If we’re looking for truth for ourselves, personal promises like Luanne wrote about, we run the risk of missing the point entirely. The point of not only this particular book, but the whole of Scripture... Jesus Himself. He is the point. Jesus. He even tells us in John 5:39-40, “You pore over the scriptures for you imagine that you will find eternal life in them. And all the time they give their testimony to me! But you are not willing to come to me to have real life!” (JB Phillips)

Thirteen messages that have covered four chapters of our Bible. And ultimately, they all point to the same thing. Jesus. Pastor John summed up the whole series in the quote I opened with:

“Love like Jesus. Offer grace. Sacrifice self. Live like Jesus, in the power of Jesus.

Be. Like. Jesus.”

Dear Church… this is really what it’s all about. Do we believe it? Do we believe it so deeply that our lives revolve around it? Around the person of Jesus and all of His ways? So much that if we wrote a letter to our closest friends, our love and intimacy with Jesus would be the undertone of every line–simply because it’s who we are?

Dear Church… it’s our turn. How, then, will we live?

–Laura

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Dear Church #12: Philippians 4:10-13

This week, we looked at a short passage in Philippians that contains one of the most frequently quoted verses in our Bible. I bet that if I gave you the first few words, you could complete the sentence without even having to think about it.

“I can do all things…”

You know what comes next, right?

“…through Christ who gives me strength.”

You have probably seen this verse on coffee mugs, greeting cards, calendars, bumper stickers, and beyond. It’s what we say and pray when “all things” includes something overwhelming that we don’t feel equipped to handle. This verse, though, like the rest of the Bible, was not written as a stand-alone thought. There is context around it. And that context is important.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13, NIV)

The verse we quote so often actually comes at the end of our passage, and apart from the verses that preceed it, we have a tendency to make it into a personal, individual promise. We have to read it in context, without skipping over the familiar things, if we want to understand what Paul is telling the Church.

At the beginning of Sunday’s message, Pastor John asked us what we think “content” means. The assumed definition is “happy, peaceful, satisfied”, or something along those lines. And then he shared with us that, in this passage, it actually means a barrier/shelter against the wind. When we understand this definition and connect it to “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, we find that the secret Paul is talking about here-the secret of contentment-is that we become the wind that pushes back the barriers.

If your Bible is anything like mine, you probably have notes at the bottom of the pages that add insight to the verses. My note for verse 12 says this:

“Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content and the source of Paul’s abiding strength.”

Upon first glance, the “secret” that Pastor John identified doesn’t line up with what the Bible translators came up with. But if we look beyond the words, I believe we’ll find that they actually are saying the same thing…

As individuals who have come to know Jesus under the banner of Western (and especially American) Christianity, we love the idea of Jesus being our refuge. We highlight verses that support that claim. So many of our worship songs reference Him as our shelter, fortress, refuge, hiding place, etc…

And He is. He is our shelter. 2 Corinthians 12:9 in the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition says this:

But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me!

Clearly, Jesus is our covering, and we can absolutely take refuge in Him.

BUT… When we stay inside the tent too long, it becomes a prison that keeps us from becoming His “Kingdom come”. We get focused on ourselves, and on our blessings–so much so that blessing–which means a special or undeserved favor or gift–becomes our expectation, rather than something we are humbled by and grateful for. We crave the happy, peaceful definition of content, and all that matters to us is our own satisfaction. Staying locked inside the shelter may keep us safe… but it also keeps us selfish, silent, and still. We may think we’re satisfied in this space, but if we stay there, we will never experience the God of the impossible in our midst. We won’t see the bread multiplied. We can’t walk on the water. We can’t hear the Kingdom singing. We won’t taste the water-made-wine.And we’ll never know the thrill of sharing the gift we’ve been given with others. Hiding in the shelter makes us apathetic and unaware of the world around us.

We all experience seasons when we need the shelter of Jesus. Sometimes, we need Him to “pitch a tent over us” so we can hide in Him. Here’s the thing, though… this is why Pastor John & the Bible translators are both right in their interpretation of what the secret to contentment is:

We can be “hidden” in Christ, in the shelter that is Him, and simultaneously be (through  Him, by His power) the wind that pushes back the barriers. In fact, we MUST be hidden in Christ, in our union with Him, to successfully push against the strongholds of this world.

The Message words verse 13 this way: I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (emphasis mine)

Remember, the Bible notes say, “Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content…” Union is an intimate word. And I love that the Message uses the words “in the One”. We must be in Him, and He in us, to be content. I agree with the notes.

But, what does us being in Christ and He in us really mean? I don’t think it means we get to live a quiet, happy, little (and it would be little…) life with our safe and protective personal Jesus. Nope. Pretty sure that’s not it.

I believe it means our life will be joined with His. That we die to self and are raised to life in Him. That His life begins to manifest itself through us as we live and move and have our being through Him. I think it means our perspective on what blessing means changes and we begin to believe that the “blessed” are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It means we are given a heart of flesh that, like the Jesus living within us, sees and moves toward the marginalized and the oppressed, the overlooked and impoverished, and loves them with the love we’ve received. A love that touches, comes alongside, listens, and leverages the abundance we’ve received on behalf of those who have not.

Union with Jesus means that we have the opportunity to experience the love and protection of being in the shelter of Him and at the same time extend that love and protection to those around us. Living this way means challenging the systems and structures that create barriers that keep some people from flourishing. Jesus pushed back against the systems and structures, the stereotypes and supposed roles of His time for the sake of people He loves who bear the Image of God–and He has entrusted us with the same mission. Part of His Kingdom coming on earth as it is in Heaven is absolutely becoming the wind that pushes back the barriers. We can’t be united with our Jesus and moving with Him, through His power alive in us, without joining Him in pushing back the strongholds that are keeping people in prison.

So I agree with John, too. I believe both statements ring true, and we can’t really have one without the other. We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

Maybe the first stronghold we need to join Him in knocking down is the one we’re hiding in. So that we can carry the Jesus that is living in us and through us to the world He loves that needs what we’ve been hoarding for ourselves…

–Laura

Laura wrote: We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

So, my question is, are we living like this? Are we seeing the power of God move in and around us? Are we experiencing His power moving through The Church (that’s us) that Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against? Which kingdom do we believe is stronger? The kingdom of this world-or the Kingdom of God? What we believe is what we live. Therefore, the way that Paul ends this paragraph is hugely important.

Different translations of the Bible highlight different elements from the Greek, so I’ve written out a few versions of Philippians 4:13  for you to ponder the various nuances (bold print mine):

I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” NIV.

 “I can do all things through Him who gives me power.” Complete Jewish Bible ”

…for I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power.” Living Bible

I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me.” New American Standard

I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.” J.B. Phillips.

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose–I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.] Amplified.

The secret that Paul has learned begins with a mindset of belief. I can is a mindset; do implies action; through takes us from one place to another, and all of this implies that Paul is part of, (and that we are part of) the ongoing, moving, active, advancing Kingdom of heaven coming on earth–not in our own strength, but in His.

Many of us in this western American culture were taught that our relationship with Jesus is all about us-personal, private. Like Laura wrote above–I don’t believe we can come to that conclusion if we take off our cultural lenses and ask the Holy Spirit to give us fresh perspective as we read scripture. When we come into a relationship with Jesus, it is extremely personal. We fall in love with this precious Savior who gave everything and suffered much so that we can live in Him and He in us–so that we can know the love of God the Father, and so we can experience the power to carry out the will of God because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I can do…through Him…who empowers is all about His Kingdom. Pastor John highlighted the story of the the rich young man who came to Jesus (Mark 10:17-27) who wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The young man told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments. Mark tells us that Jesus felt love for him, so He told him that He lacked one thing—Jesus told him to go and sell all he possessed, give it away to the poor, gain treasure in heaven by doing this, and follow Jesus. The young man went away sad–the New American Standard Version says that he felt grief–and he walked away, because he had much wealth. He responded to the extreme invitation of Jesus with an “I can’t” mindset.

The grieved young man wanted his religion to be about himself and his behavior. Jesus was teaching him that in His kingdom his religion was to be about others. Jesus own brother writes in his book “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James 1:27 NLT  (Religion is the outward actions that reflect the inner work of Christ in you.). We think of being corrupted by the world as wild partying and sex, however, the rich young man shows us that being corrupted by the world can include being a “good” person, but holding wealth too tightly.

Paul writes that even when he is well fed, even when he has plenty he relies on the power of Jesus who empowers him to carry out the will of God.  Our stuff can become our prison. We must hold all worldly possessions loosely and acknowledge that it is all God’s and He can do with it whatever He wants. It’s not easy, given the way our culture has discipled us, but Jesus, when talking to His disciples about His encounter with the rich young man acknowledges that His way of life is hard, but that nothing is impossible with God. If we believe that nothing is impossible with God, then we believe I can do all things through Christ….because they are the same thought.

And our I can do is all about being the answer to “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done right here on earth as it is being done in heaven.  God’s Kingdom comes when we are living in the power of the Holy Spirit and carrying out the will of God. (Just a hint…His will has nothing to do with us being mean or hateful to anyone, it has nothing to do with placing inscribed Bible passages in public places, it has nothing to do with political parties–it has everything to do with loving others, with sharing our lives, and with pushing back the kingdom of this world with kindness, grace and Christlike love.)

So, where does this power come from?  Jesus ends the Lord’s Prayer  with “Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the power, Yours is the glory forever. Amen”. 

The Kingdom…God’s life, God’s presence, God’s rule, God’s ways, God’s will, God’s love,  God’s power right here, right now- (This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God, and Jesus who you have sent. John 17:3).

The Power…the energy, the strength for all of this to happen belongs to God–and He shares it with us through the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in Romans 8:11 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. He prays in Ephesians 1:19 for us to understand the incredible power that is available to us who believe. Peter tells us that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3). You all, we have more than we need to carry out the mission of Christ. Do we believe it?

Last week I was preparing for a devotion and was digging into kingdom, power, and glory. Believing what the New Testament says about Jesus making all things, that without Him nothing was made, that in Him all things hold together, and that the visible world points to the invisible reality of His kingdom, I read some science journals and textbooks.  I learned way too much to write about it all here, but I was fascinated by a couple of things.

One: The air (in us/around us) is made up of gasses one of which is oxygen.  Humans need oxygen to live. We breathe it into our lungs where it gets in our bloodstream and goes to every part of our body. Oxygen infuses our muscles with the ability to exert the energy they need to carry out every movement we make. Every blink of the eye, every pump of the heart, every intentional movement…all oxygen in the blood infused.  We don’t exhale oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide that the plants need to take in so that they can produce the oxygen that we need. Nothing is static, everything is dynamic–there is a whole lot going on all the time that we take for granted. There is no such thing as an “empty glass”. It’s full of moving gasses that are keeping us alive individually and are shared by all of us. If you are like me, you don’t pay much attention to the miracle that is happening in and around us all the time, but this all the time miracle is the physical world pointing to the realities of the very real spiritual world that is dynamic in and around us all the time.

Two: Our earth is able to sustain life because of energy that comes from the sun. Without the sun, everything dies. We don’t produce the energy that comes from the sun…as a matter of fact, I read in two different science books/articles that energy can’t be created and it can’t be destroyed, but it can be lost. If we don’t eat for a few days, we lose energy, but the potential to regain that lost energy is always available as soon as we fuel our bodies with food. Our cars don’t go anywhere if they have no fuel. The potential for the car to go is still available as soon as it gets the fuel it needs. God has given us the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God working in us. Power, strength, energy—these are all synonyms. So, the power, the energy, the strength of God is available to us at all times. We can’t create it, we can’t destroy it, but we can lose it. Paul warns us not to quench the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to “be filled” with the Holy  Spirit, which implies action. We must spend time in the presence of God to have the Holy Spirit fuel that we need to carry the heart of God, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), the message of Jesus, to the world, so that His kingdom of life, light, and love will advance one person at a time across the face of the globe.

Air, energy from the sun–in us, around us all the time giving us what we need for life. God–Father, Son, Spirit–in us, around us, all the time giving us what we need for His life to be lived through us.

In Him, you have all you need to carry this out. Do you believe it?

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose…I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace. Phil. 4:13 (Amp).

-Luanne

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.  (Phil. 4:8-9 Amplified)

As I typed out the scripture above, I could feel within myself a deep longing to do better about living with the mindset that Paul is encouraging in those verses, and a deep desire to see the followers of Christ, the Church,  live like that. Our actions flow from our minds.  Taking our thoughts captive, renewing our minds, having the mind of Christ–these are all concepts that we are encouraged to put into practice, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us who truly does give us the power (the energy) that we need to live godly lives. But man–the mind is a battlefield!

In preparing for his sermon, Pastor John did a Google search and typed in the words: “Why are Christians so…”  The responses that come up are: mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…, yet Jesus said that his followers will be known by our love. What has happened? How did we get so off track-and what can we do to get back?

I think it’s super important that we each pay close attention to the voices that we are allowing to “disciple” us. To be discipled means to be taught. To be a disciple of someone means that you learn from them, that you model what they do. I’m afraid that in this culture of constant chatter, constant noise, constant opinions, choosing sides, etc….we are quickly digressing.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to be discipled by him when he writes: The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and he tells us that the result will be the peace of God in our lives. When the peace of God rules in our lives, our mindset–our heartset becomes about the flourishing of others, and, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount–the peacemakers will be blessed by being called–or recognized as children of God. (Mt. 5:9)

Pastor John pointed out something that has frustrated me for quite some time which I believe has led to our meanness, our misery, our judgmental attitudes and our intolerance. Somehow in our individualistic western mindset we have made Christianity about “self” rather than about building God’s kingdom. We’ve made personal salvation the main point–when personal salvation, or entering into a relationship with Jesus is the beginning point–the new birth that leads to a new way of life that is completely others focused. It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…and we’re the plan.

Yes–it all starts at the cross. Without the cross, we have no hope for a relationship with God. But there is a cross, and it not only reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is also a reminder of how we are to live in complete and total surrender to God.

Pastor John gave us three very practical ways to look at the cross:

  1. As a plus sign. In mathematical equations, the plus sign indicates things that are added. There is tremendous personal benefit in coming into a relationship with Jesus–no doubt about that. Jesus adds incomparably more to our lives than I think we can even fully recognize.  But the plus sign also serves as a reminder that we are to be about the business of bringing God’s peace, love, and message of His grace to those around us. His heart is for everyone to know about the life that He offers through Christ.
  2. As a minus sign.  Picture the crossbar as a minus sign (a takeaway), and the vertical  bar as the letter “I”.  If I take myself and my will out of the equation so that God’s will can be done in me and through me, I am much more inclined to be the light of the world and salt of the earth that Jesus said I would be. When I’m not worried about or focused on myself, I am much more inclined to lift Him up, and He said that when we lift Him up, He will draw all people to Himself.
  3. Picture the vertical bar as the symbol that God has raised us up to a place we could never be on our own, and the crossbar as the reminder to reach out beyond ourselves to others.

Pastor John shared with us the results of a study put out by the Center for Attitudinal Healing that stated all conflict begins with a mindset of “lack”; focusing on what we don’t have and allowing our thoughts to be obsessed over how to get what we don’t have. As I began to ponder that thought I saw a great deal of truth in it. Becoming aware can help a great deal. When we begin to feel angsty inside, rather than lashing out and reacting, can we begin to sit in that angst and get to the bottom of what it is that we think we lack?  Is it God’s love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Is it material goods? Is it a certain talent?  Is it political power and persuasion? Is it fairness? Is it inner peace? Is it not getting our way? What is it?  If we don’t figure this out, it will lead us to anger, bitterness, and conflict. Every war ever fought–whether a personal internal war, a domestic war, a cultural war, or war on a global scale is about someone trying to gain what they “lack”–whether lands, or power, or the obliteration or oppression of an entire people group so that the “conqueror” can have dominion and supremacy, or (on a much smaller scale) control over the remote control, a mindset of lack has led to it. Think about it…

This same Center for Attitudinal Healing said that the solution to conflict-the pathway to peace- is to learn to love others well, and to receive the love that is extended to you.   The Center for Attitudinal Healing is not a Christian Center–they are secular, yet their approach sounds just like Jesus.

Does it work? This week I read an article on nbcnews.com about a former white supremacist, former grand dragon in the KKK, former Nazi,  who was part of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march last year, but whose life has changed completely because of a woman of color who offered kindness to him as he was struggling from heat exhaustion at that rally. Her kindness began to change the narrative in his head, which led to him begin having conversations with an African-American neighbor, who just so happened to be a pastor–resulting in this former white supremacist coming into a relationship with Christ in an African American church. He was baptized in that church, he belongs to that church, and is now telling those who he used to recruit to get out of the business of hate–that it will ruin their lives. (Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville  nbcnews.com). Love works–just like Jesus said that it would.

So, what does all of this have to do with this week’s verses? Everything.

In every situation, are we (am I/are you)  willing to have the mind of Christ? Are we willing to renew our minds and think with the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh? Are we willing to pause, get our thoughts under control, examine what’s going on under the surface, surrender our wills to God’s greater will and purpose, and “be the change that we want to see in the world”? Are we willing to keep our minds focused on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy?  Are we willing to put into practice the things that Paul is encouraging the Church to put into practice in his letter? If so, the peace–the shalom of God– will be with us and will naturally spill out to all of those around us-leading to their flourishing in all ways, and we will be known as Jesus’ followers by our love. His way is always the better way, and to know His way means to know Him- our true, noble, righteous, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy Savior.

–Luanne

We’ve said it over and over again since we began this series in Philippians: It is all about Jesus. And this week is no exception. Paul is writing to the church and exhorting them (and us) to think rightly so that God and His peace would be with them. Our passage, these two short verses, do not directly reference Jesus. But marinating in the words reveals what we have seen repeatedly in this letter–it all revolves around Jesus. Let’s look at the words Paul uses to tell the Church what to think on:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…”

True. Honorable. Worthy of respect. Right. Confirmed by God’s word. Pure. Wholesome. Lovely. Peace-bringing. Admirable. Of good repute. Excellent. Worthy of praise.

What do these words describe? I could use the word honorable to describe my husband. I might say the fresh snow is pure white, or use it in reference to the water in a mountain lake. I could call food or old T.V. shows wholesome. There are MANY things I call lovely–skyscapes, butterflies, flowers, birds, my dear friend who wrote the first half of this post… peace is used frequently and in a variety of contexts. We can call hard work admirable, and use the descriptor of good repute in reference to candidates we are backing. Excellent is used often in the world of academia as well as in athletics. Worthy of praise is less often used than the others, but we could find areas where it, too, could apply.

But can you think of one thing that all of these words together describe? One thing that fully embodies the meanings of each adjective?

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

And us, the Church, when we’re living in the fullness of His life in us.

These words do describe the things I mentioned above. But none of those things, on their own, fully embody the meaning of the word used to describe them. At least not when held up to the standard of Jesus himself.

So, without overreaching or hypothesizing too much, I think it’s fairly safe to say that when Paul told the Church to “think on these things”, he was encouraging them to keep their minds trained on the life, ways, and person of Jesus. Pastor John mentioned that Paul didn’t go into the meanings of the words he chose. He didn’t explain what he meant.  He wrote the words and moved on. Maybe that’s because if we know the real Jesus, we already have the most complete picture of what these words mean. Maybe his readers knew that. Because he goes on to say  “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” (vs. 9a, NLT) What did the church at Philippi (and what do we…) learn, receive from, hear and see Paul doing? Ultimately, what Paul modeled was what being a disciple looks and sounds like. He taught and gave what he learned and received from the person and ways of Jesus. The words he wrote in his letters are sometimes difficult to understand and to swallow, and we read things in them that appear to contradict each other–he was human, after all, and his work is most likely not without its flaws. He knew this about himself–he understood his own humanity, his own brokenness. And so he did two distinct things: He pointed his readers always to Jesus himself as the authority and standard. And–and it’s a big and–he had the audacity to imply that we, the Church, could actually live up to the standards of Christ, by the power of the Spirit at work within us. NOT by striving or trying harder to achieve all that we aren’t. But by accessing the power (energy) of the Spirit.

I also believe that “these things” include one another, when we’re operating out of the mind of Christ. We don’t think of one another this way if we’re operating out of our self-focused mindsets of lack. But if we understand the ways of the Kingdom, the life and character of Jesus, his way of abundant love that is available to us, then what we see when we look at each other is the Imago Dei. The image of God in each one, our shared humanity, made beautiful in the Agape love of Christ.

Luanne wrote above, “It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…”

None of us could refute that statement. It truly is impossible to come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self if we actually read these accounts of his life. Nothing that Jesus said, did, or taught is responsible for the self-absorbed, I want more, individualistic “faith” many of us find ourselves trapped in today. In fact, it is precisely because we have ignored (if we’ve read them at all) the words and life of Jesus that we find the Church in the condition she is in today… full of people the world around us identify as “mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…”

We wonder why our lives are filled with conflict and chaos and we long for the peace we hear preached from the pulpit, the peace that Paul writes about at the end of our passage. He tells us to think on “these things”, to put into practice what we’ve heard and seen. And, “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 9b, NLT)

Remember when I said that the whole passage points us to Jesus? These final words are no different. If we read these verses and don’t pause to ponder their deeper meaning, we can read these two verses through an “If this, then that” filter. It sounds like cause and effect. Do this, think on these things, act this way–and then you’ll have the peace of God with you. I believe it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

For he himself is our peace… (Eph. 2:14a)

This verse has been a favorite of mine for many years because it always reminds me that peace isn’t a thing, or even a state of being. Peace is a person–the person of Jesus. He, Jesus, is our peace. He doesn’t give us peace. He IS peace. If we have Him (and He is accessible to any and all who desire to know Him–this has nothing to do with church and everything to do with relationship), then we have peace. Period.

So what does this verse mean then? And what about all the times we feel like peace is beyond our reach, even though we know Jesus?

I think, like many things we write about, this has a lot to do with choice. I can have a refrigerator full of food, but if I never open the door and take out food to eat, I’m going to feel hungry despite the fullness that is available. In regard to peace though, the study that John presented to us, that Luanne referred to, better shows us why we often find ourselves peace-less.

It is all about the mindset we choose. Do we choose lack? Or love? Is there never enough? Or is there abundance? Jesus, if we know Him, is always with us. His life lives in us. We always have Him–and He IS our peace. But the thing about the life of Jesus within us is that it’s like a faucet. The supply of water is no less present in a faucet that is turned off versus one that is on. But the water only flows when the faucet is open. And do you know the quickest way to turn off the water of Jesus’ life within you? Get focused on yourself. Because self-focused living is completely contrary to Kingdom living. It is impossible to experience the peace, the Shalom, the setting-all-things-right life of Jesus while focused on self. When the secular study declared that giving and receiving love is the pathway to peace, they hit on the central principle of the Kingdom, the only standard that mattered to Jesus and His ministry because everything else flows from it: Love God (which is impossible without learning to receive the love He has for you); Love your neighbor (Everyone. ALL people, everywhere–including yourself)Giving and receiving love is the opposite of living a life focused on self. And it is the only way to access the peace of Jesus that is always living within us. The well of peace does not run dry because it’s full of the eternal, unending, forever-flowing living water that is Jesus himself.

I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the letter to the Philippians by repeatedly stating that it’s all about Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is everywhere, if we’ll only look. And He is the authority, the rock, the foundation, that the Bible and every other created thing is built upon. Seeing how every word Paul wrote is made complete in the person of Jesus expands my heart and my mind, as well as my view of scripture–because I’m finding Him there. I hope it does the same for you, as we continue to dive into the depths together.

This week, think on “these things”: Jesus—in all of His beautifully simple complexity, and those all around you who bear His image and inhale and exhale His Life. As you do, love will replace the mindset of lack, and Peace will overflow…

–Laura

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What Is Your Standard? (“Dear Church” #8)

What is the standard of your life?

This is the question Pastor John opened with on Sunday morning. He reminded us that we all have standards that dictate our thinking, behavior, work ethic, hygiene, relationships. They define us and how we live.

We each have a measurable “standard of living” as well. This refers to  “the level of wealth, comfort, material goods, and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class in a certain geographic area, usually a country…closely related to quality of life.” (Wikipedia)

But neither of these explanations is the “standard” that Pastor John spoke to us about.

He explained to us that, originally, a “standard” was defined as a conspicuous object on a pole, a banner, something that calls people to action. It was a rallying point in battle, an emblem that represented the people. A standard, by definition, is not a set of rules, not a benchmark. It is not striving to live up to the “shoulds” that have been spoken over us, or meeting a set of expectations. It is not reaching in order to obtain something we don’t yet have. It is, rather, something we have already attained. 

 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

The “standard” that was presented to us this week comes out of verse 16 in our passage: Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  Our standard is what we already have. 

What do we already have?

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferingsbecoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead(Philippians 3:7-11)

What we already have is Christ. We are found in Him, invited to participate in His sufferings and raised from death into His life. And we have a conspicuous object, a standard, that calls us to action.

Our standard is the cross of Christ. It represents what we have already attained–Jesus Himself. Paul exhorts his readers to live up to what they’ve already attained, and then says that they can follow his example. What example is he referring to? He is referring to the verses we covered last week, verses 12-14:

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

His example is one of vulnerable humility, transparency regarding his lack, and an unrelenting focus on the One whose example he is following–that of Jesus himself. Paul’s standard was most definitely the cross of Christ. But not as it related to him and his personal salvation. He saw the standard of the cross as the rallying point, the invitation, to follow our Savior into His example of suffering on behalf of others. The rally cry of the cross is the message of humility and self-sacrifice. It is an invitation to lay down everything we utilize for our own power and authority, to set it aside on behalf of others. What does this look like, practically? If we’re white, it could be our whiteness. For men, their maleness. It could be our family tree, our bloodline, who our parents are. It could be our level of education, or our economic status. It could be the nation we were born in, or a particular group that we belong to. It could be our religion, and the way we view “others”. Whatever grants us power and authority, we are invited to lay these “standards” down at the feet of the only standard that matters.

Most of us aren’t willing to truly follow the standard of the cross, however. We have set standards about what we want to obtain rather than what we have already attained. We have set our sights on earthly things and have chosen a personal salvation that revolves around us as individuals. Pastor John had some strong words regarding this form of “Christianity”:

“When the cross is about you, you render it useless.”

When we refuse to follow the example of Paul, which was modeled after the example of our suffering Savior, our standard, the cross, becomes useless. Not only that, we set ourselves up as enemies of the cross of Christ (verse 18). In this verse, we read that Paul is telling his readers this “with tears”. This particular translation does not quite convey Paul’s heart the way he wrote in the original Greek. The word he used is klaiō, and it means to mourn, weep, lament, wail aloud. This exemplifies Paul’s focus on others, rather than himself. He was lamenting that there are some who set themselves in opposition to the way of the cross, who refuse to accept the cross as their standard and who live focused on themselves–those who render the cross useless. Being an enemy of the cross is scorning the way of selflessness. When we choose self, we set ourselves up against the message of the cross.

Interestingly, when Paul writes in this verse of the “cross of Christ”, the word translated “cross” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it means… The root word for cross in this verse means “stand”. The definitions that follow include “establish, be kept intact (as in a family or kingdom), make firm.” No joke. When I was looking up definitions in the Greek, I almost didn’t check it for the word “cross”. Because, surely it means exactly what we think it means. Except that it doesn’t. I am so glad I looked it up. Using the definitions and root words, this is what we can piece together:

Paul was weeping and lamenting the fact that some are hostile, hateful and opposed in their minds to that which stands and establishes, that which keeps the family and kingdom intact and makes firm. Our standard is the stand that is the cross. It is what establishes us and keeps us-as a family-intact. Those that stand in opposition to the message of the cross may appear to be strong in number–there are in fact (sadly…) entire congregations that subscribe to this other variety of “Christianity–but in reality, they each stand alone, focused on their personal standards for their individual lives.

Paul-and Pastor John-put before us a better way. The example of Jesus. The way of humility. The way of laying down the things that grant us power and privilege on behalf of others. This is the example we have been  given. This is the Jesus we have already attained.

Dear Church, will we follow in this way of humility? Or will Paul’s wailing be joined by the desperate weeping of the “others” around us that we cannot see or hear for the sound of our own selfish standards ringing in our ears? Will we roar for our own power, for our rights? Or will we adhere to the roar of the rugged cross, that bids us to come and die so that we may truly live? Church, what is our standard?

–Laura

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Dear Church #7: Philippians 3:12-14

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What does it mean to “obtain” something? In this case, it means “to lay hold of” or ‘”to make as your own”. So Paul begins this passage by pausing in his exhortations to the Church, and letting his readers know that he hasn’t yet made “all this” his own. What is the “all this” he is referring to? It is everything he has written about to this point, everything we’ve covered in the first six messages of this series. By this point in the book of Philippians, Paul has encouraged the Church to begin where we are right now, to love those around us with the love of Jesus, to take the story of what Jesus has done in our lives everywhere, to “live as Christ” which is to die to ourselves, to model humility, to abandon ourselves and embrace Christ’s life in us as we focus on Him as our Lord–as the One thing that really matters. He outlines all of these things (and more), and then in the middle of chapter 3, he pauses. He stops to say that he hasn’t yet obtained these things, he hasn’t made them his own. And that pause is an invitation to stop and take a breath, to reflect and consider all that we’ve heard thus far. And to remember that, once again, this walk is not something we do in our own strength.

This passage highlights the tension between the now and the not yet. There is this picture of the ideal walk of faith that Paul has been painting for us, what it looks like to die to ourselves and live fully for Christ. And then there is the reality that we all-including Paul-fall short of that ideal. But rather than allow the truth that we’re not there yet to make us feel defeated or to cause us to lose hope in the process, Paul encourages us once again to remember that we are not the ones holding our lives together. He reminds us that we are not actually in control–and that is precisely why we can breathe and just keep going.

Where am I getting that? Paul says that he has not obtained all this, he hasn’t arrived, hasn’t yet taken hold of “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”In these few verses, he is contrasting his own shortcomings-he hasn’t yet made all of this his own-with the surpassing power of Christ, who has already made him (and us) His own. The crux of verse 12 is not that we keep pressing on in order to take hold of Jesus, to cling to Him, to make Him our own. It is that we can keep moving toward Him, because He’s already holding onto us. It’s imperative that we see this rightly, or we live a life of striving, of attempting to grab hold of Jesus, but always falling short in our own strength.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.   (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Just as dead people can’t make themselves alive on their own, humanity can’t manufacture the strength to hold onto the Divine, to the eternal. But because Jesus first took hold of us, we can now, in His strength, reach back to Him. This reaching, though, is not what we might think of when we think about “holding on” to something. It is not a white-knuckled grasp, a secure grip so as not to lose what we’re holding onto. Because it’s impossible to lose something that has taken hold of you-unless that thing lets go. We have zero control of our ability to hold onto Jesus. And realizing that is pure grace. What we may have perceived as a need to “hold on tight” becomes an invitation to completely let go. Because that which is holding onto us is Jesus himself. And He will never let go. There is nowhere we could go that He wouldn’t already be there waiting for us. We cannot lose Him, because He’s grafted us into the vine of Himself and placed His very life into us who were dead, and there’s no separating our life from His. It is a sheer impossibility. Inhale. Exhale. And find yourself completely safe within the hands that knit each one of us together and put His own breath in our lungs.

So what is the “pressing on” that Paul writes of, then? It’s an invitation to keep going. Understanding that Jesus has already made us His own, that we are forever held by Him, we can take the next step. We can stop worrying about all that we have to “do” to cling to Jesus and live present to His leading today, in this moment. Our “pressing on” is simply taking one step at a time on our journey of being made like Christ and living for Him.

If we see ourselves as responsible for holding onto Jesus, we’ll find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences of Him–and we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. In verse 13, Paul writes of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. Straining, in this context, means “to stretch out in the direction of something”. It is less about straining in the way we think of strenuous exercise or effort and more about which direction we’re going

When I ponder this section, I can’t help but think of Isaiah 43, where God, through Isaiah, instructs the people to simultaneously remember and forget. Considering the two passages together, I believe the point is our orientation to time, because it determines what and how we see what’s happening in the now. In the beginning of Isaiah 43, and more specifically in verses 16-17, God reminds the people of all He has done, of how He has been their Deliverer, their Savior. And then, in verses 18-19, He says this:

Forget about what’s happened;
    don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
    rivers in the badlands.” (MSG)

So God tells the people first to remember, then to forget. Why?

Sometimes, we get fixated on what God did then, and how He did it before. Maybe the remembering is to remind us that God is and always has been, in the case of this particular passage, our Deliverer. But the forgetting is about the way He delivered then. It is a laying down of our expectations of how He will show up this time. The miracle of parting the Red Sea is not the miracle the people needed in the middle of the desert, when there was no water in sight. They needed to remember who God was to remind them that He still is that same God. But they needed to forget the circumstances of then, so that they could live present to nowIf we find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences with Him–we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. 

In our passage, when Paul says he is forgetting what is behind, it is in order to remain present to the Jesus who lives with us in the now. So that we can keep moving toward what’s to come. Dwelling on the past, whether it be about what we’ve done or failed to do, or how we’ve experienced Jesus before, robs of the gift of today. The depths of Jesus are unsearchable. We cannot dive deep enough to explore the breadth of all that He is. We can only see and grasp what He reveals of Himself to us. And if our eyes are fixed on what is behind us, if our expectations are based in who Jesus was to us then, we essentially dig our heels in and cease moving forward. We cannot continue to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus if we fix our gaze on a faded photograph of how He appeared to us back then. And as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the opposite of looking back  is not looking forward. We have to have a different view of our now. We have to let go of our white-knuckled grip on the faded photograph of yesterday so that we can live fully present to our today, which will allow us to take the necessary steps that will get us to our tomorrow. That’s how it works.

Dear Church… we haven’t arrived yet. We didn’t have it together back in “the good ole days” (those days are an illusion-for so many, they were anything but “good”), we don’t have it together today, and-spoiler alert-we aren’t going to have it together tomorrow either. And that’s okay. We aren’t the captains of this ship-we never have been. What we are responsible for is waking up to now, to the leading of the Spirit in this moment. We can only take one step at a time, trusting that the One who has always been holding onto us will continue to hold us firmly within His capable, loving hands, and will lead us on until the day we are perfected and made complete in His presence, as His beloved Bride. Until that day comes, we practice all that we’ve learned so far, all that has led up to this point in the letter. We learn from Christ and we allow His life to overcome ours. We experience His love and then we share that experience everywhere we go. And when we feel overwhelmed by all that we have not yet obtained-we press pause. We breathe. And we remember that we can make Jesus our own only because He first called us His own. And we can only run after Him as He draws us in. We were dead. He made us alive. And we get to live for Him, one step at a time.

Dear Church… keep moving forward.

–Laura

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