THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day started on Saturday for me this year. I went to the store to buy flowers. Some for my kids, to congratulate them at their upcoming last concert of the year, and some to take to the cemetery. It’s my fifth year of saying “Happy Mother’s Day” while kneeling in green grass beside a small headstone. I was tender, but not overwhelmed.

I realized my kids needed thank you cards for their section leaders, so I made my way through masses of last minute shoppers to the card aisle. I perused the section marked “Thank You”, and was on my way out of the aisle when my eyes landed on a beautiful card. Almost instinctually, I picked it up and began to read it. It was a Mother’s Day card for a daughter from her mother. And the words could have been written by my mama, to me. Each phrase read like words from her heart to mine, and by the end, I could hardly breathe. Tears spilled as I made my way to a check stand, avoiding eye contact with everyone on the way. I held it together long enough to pay and get out of the store, but I unraveled as I got into my car. I drove to the cemetery through tears, keenly aware of how lonely I felt… I stood in the quiet sunshine after I laid the rose on the black granite, whispering through tears to the woman who gave me life, how much I love and miss her.

Two days prior, I had learned that a good portion of my family, the one I was born into, would be together over the weekend, celebrating my nephew’s first birthday as well as my Dad’s. Over Mother’s Day weekend. There was no conspiracy to leave me out–we live far away and logistics prevent us from being together as much as we’d like to be. But, nonetheless, I hadn’t known about this plan. This feels a little too vulnerable (and selfish…and ugly…) to admit here, but one of my initial response (internally) went something like this: “Oh, wonderful. You all enjoy celebrating together–I’ll be here taking flowers to our dead Mom by myself.” The ache of loneliness settled deep into my heart.

Sunday morning brought a flood of conflicting thoughts and emotions. I’ve come to expect that on this particular day. My sweet husband and kids showered me with the gifts of heartfelt words written inside beautiful cards, gorgeous roses, and other thoughtful gifts. The tears started early…

As I got ready for church, my mind drifted to a daddy in Tennessee and his two precious babies–ages 1 & 3–who lost their beloved mama at age 37 just one week ago. I thought of another mom who is in the hospital now, recovering from extensive injuries, and of her children–and how, once she recovers, she will begin a new chapter of her life as a widow. I thought of a mother in the faith, and the firestorm she has been in lately, how she is modeling Christlike love in the midst of hateful attacks and criticism. I thought of those who long to be moms, and aren’t yet. Those who have buried children. Other children, like me, who have buried their mamas. I thought of broken families, of kids who don’t see this day as a celebration because their moms failed them in catastrophic ways. I thought of tense family situations–the ones that look okay from the outside but are wrought with strife behind closed doors and closed hearts. I thought of mothers who are estranged from their children through no fault of their own, and how they ache to hold their babies–even if they’re grown–in their arms once more…

To say that Mother’s Day is a day of mixed emotions is an understatement. 

That is how I walked into church on Sunday–full of mixed emotions. I had some idea of what to expect. I knew Pastor John would be interviewing Carolyn Smolij and Sumer Hansen about their experience as mothers and with their mothers. I had no idea what they would be sharing about, specifically.

If I had known, I may have stayed home–and missed all that my broken heart needed to hear…

A book could be written about the many wise, grace-filled things these two beautiful sisters shared–I definitely don’t have the space to cover all of it here. Instead, I invite you to join me on the journey their words brought me into.

Sumer began by sharing that, “My mom gave me Jesus.” I nodded, as the first teardrop formed. Me too… She shared that It was her grandma that gave Jesus to her mom, and then her mom passed him along to her. We sang a song before the message that contains this line, “The father’s love came pouring down for us…” I thought of those words as Sumer began to share about her mom. I think sometimes we most feel the love of God pour down to us through the vessel of our mothers. Our first experience of God often comes through the selfless, tender nurturing of women who love us well. More on that in a bit…

Sumer went on to say, “My mom is my champion.” Without my permission, my body slumped into the shoulder of my husband next to me as the first tear multiplied. He didn’t have to ask why. He’s heard me use that exact phrase to describe my mom–the only difference is the verb. I’ve said many times over the past almost five years, “My mom was my champion.” My biggest fan. My encourager. My cheerleader. The one who believed in me more than anyone–and told me so, often.

Then she said, “I see Jesus in the way she champions me.” Did I? Did I recognize Jesus in Mom’s big love for me? Did I see that it was his life in her that spoke life into me? I want to say yes… but if I’m honest, I think I have to say that often, I just see her. The beautiful woman with the larger-than-life ability to love. And I miss her voice, her texts, her cards full of encouragement. She believed in me when I couldn’t dream of believing in myself…

Our final song on Sunday was “Breathe”. It was my grandma’s favorite song, the one we played at her funeral, and my mom loved it, too. I couldn’t sing a word of it during the first service. But as the music swelled and the words washed over my hurting heart, the chorus stood out to me…

“And I…I’m desperate for you. And I…I’m lost without you…”

I tried to push away the question knocking at the door of my heart; tried to will myself into a different frame of mind. But it wouldn’t leave. As I listened to those words of longing, who was I longing for? Jesus? That’s who we were singing to, who I’m “supposed” to long for. And part of me could say yes, it’s Jesus I long for–any moment of any given day, this wouldn’t be a lie. I love him, need him, long for him.

But… in this particular moment, that wouldn’t have been the whole truth. Because, while I always want Jesus, the one I longed for as I wept was the woman who first showed me Jesus. I was desperate for my Mom. And in so many ways since her death, I’ve felt lost without her.

I knew what was coming as I settled in to take notes through the second service. And by the time we got to the last song, I was able to sing along a little bit. At the end of the song, the worship team added this tag:

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

I sat down on the pew, and wrote these words in my notebook:

“You’re the only thing we can hang onto that will remain…”

I was reminded of John 20:17, after the resurrection, when Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t cling to me…” He was telling her she couldn’t hold onto the Jesus she had known, for his physical form was about to leave them. But the risen Christ, present all around us, among us, within us? We can hold onto that reality. When we face loss, pain, rejection, heartbreak, loneliness–there is One we can be sure will never leave. One who sees us in the moments that are hidden from even those who are closest to us. One who delights in us and champions us in a million little ways.

I’ve held up the way my Mom loved me as the gold standard of how to love well. But what I’m seeing now, in new ways, is that she was mirroring to me the supreme love of God. She was my first experience of the unconditional love of God. I love that, because it reminds me that God created both male and female in his image. He is both father and mother. Scripture speaks of him in maternal language many times. One of my favorite instances of this is found in Isaiah 66:13,

“As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:13a, AMPC)

Just as our “Good Father” God can fill the gaps left by earthly fathers who may have been absent, abusive, or taken from us too soon, so can he fill our mama gaps. Whether we have never felt the love of a mother, or we’ve been loved by the best of moms; whether we have time left to grow our relationships, or we’ve had to say goodbye too soon–God loves us with a love that is as matriarchal as it is patriarchal. He is big enough to be both. 

This is really good news, friends… It means that, whether we are mothers or fathers or children–wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God, as Sumer shared with us. Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet. As Carolyn bravely shared about, there is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but that as we commit these things to God, “he will bring life to it.” Carolyn also reminded us that we are “a people of hope”, and that God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” She encouraged us to create the space so that healing can take place.

What space might you need to create? This conversation will land differently with each of us, depending on our experiences. For me? After Sunday’s message, I am realizing that I need to create space by letting go… It hurts to write those words. When you’ve experienced loss, the words “letting go” can feel insensitive, harsh, and like an unnecessary blow. I am wrestling with all of that… But I believe that Jesus is trying to impress upon my heart that he has been my champion all along. That the love I felt from my mom was a beautiful expression of his love that poured out through her. I think he wants me to really know that, just as he is “Papa God” in the moments when I need him to be, he is also “Mama God” when my heart aches to be held by the nurturing love of my mom. I’ve believed this about him for a while, but I’m not sure it made it beneath my surface level understanding until now…

I’ve been “clinging” to my mom, and her absence has left me feeling alone, living with the belief that no one could love me like she did. In human terms, that’s probably true. No one will ever take her place in my heart. No human being will love me with that same mama love that formed me into who I am today. But the God that birthed all of creation and continues to bring new life into being every day wants to birth new life in me. My “This I Know” has included that feeling alone is just part of my story now. It doesn’t have to be. I can miss my mom, honor her beautiful life and legacy, and be grateful for everything she taught me. Mother’s Day will never be easy or uncomplicated for me, and it’s okay and good if I cry when grief visits again. But I can choose to focus on the greatest gift that she gave me rather than on the loneliness that has been a constant companion.

Just as Sumer shared about her mom, my mom gave me Jesus. She wasn’t perfect, but she pointed me to the one who is perfect love. And I get to offer my kids that same gift, knowing that the gaps in my love will be filled by a greater Love, and that my weakness is good, because God’s power can shine through. The story isn’t finished yet.

What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?

–Laura

Laura asks What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?  This is a good question to sit with. Pastor John reminded us at the beginning of his message of the song “Jesus loves me, this I know”, and then he asked us what has clouded our “this”.   Maybe, God wants us to know (or to remember) that we are loved and that His love is enough.

Mother’s Day can be so hard. Some of us have lost our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our children, some of us have not been able to be moms for whatever reason, some of us have just become moms and are filled with excitement and insecurity–we carry all of this with us. We carry our incomplete dreams, our grief, our self blame, our comparison, our longing, our love, our happiness, our joy right into church with us on Mother’s day and there we are–a mixed bag of everything coming together in that place. It’s hard on Mother’s Day to keep our eyes on Jesus and not on our own lack. So there we are.

As Laura mentioned, we heard from two beautiful mothers on Sunday morning, and both of them were honest about their own weaknesses and pointed us to God. One comes from a line of Jesus following women, one did not become a Jesus follower until her daughter was two.  Both recognize that we can’t do this perfectly, and that we must trust our Savior with ourselves and with our children.

Carolyn, who admitted that she had no idea how to be a mother and acknowledged that we’re all just thrown into it, knew enough to pray “God, protect her” over her daughter,  because she knew that God is faithful and trustworthy, and that God is in our midst even when it feels to us “like it’s all going off the rails.” She went on to say, “It’s all about trusting God. We don’t have to worry about the final outcome or try to control it.” She reminded us to offer grace to ourselves because we don’t know what we don’t know. She reminded us not to have regrets, because regrets will kill us, but to make space for one another today with lots of grace.  She reminded us to learn to walk in forgiveness because life is all about relationships. She reminded us to own the things that we need to own–and again, to offer grace to ourselves and to others.  And she reminded us that the story is not over, and not to ever give up hope.

Sumer showed us a clip of a video from when she was a beginning violin student and was playing for her mom. The music wasn’t beautiful, Sumer was still just learning, but her mother’s voice of encouragement, of absolute delight, of edification would make one think that Sumer had just played like a virtuoso. Sumer wanted us to remember that this is how God sees us. He delights in us. He encourages us on.  He is not pointing out our flaws or how we don’t measure up. He is loving us into becoming our real selves.

Maybe what God wants us to know, whether or not we fall into the motherhood category, is that in all of our relationships, in all of our life situations, His grace is sufficient, that forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and that He delights in us.

No matter what your  “this”  has become, the absolute truth is that Jesus loves. Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves all of us, this I know–and that’s a great place to start.  The love we receive from others, the love we offer to others is a gift and a reflection of who Jesus is. None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.

–Luanne

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Next Steps: One Vision

Last week we learned that Nehemiah’s heart was broken when he learned of the devastation in Jerusalem. He wept, he prayed, and came away with a vision of restoration. He asked for, and was granted permission from the King of Susa to go to Jerusalem. When the time was right, Nehemiah went to the Jewish leaders and said to them, ‘“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.” (Neh. 2:17-18).  The leaders immediately agreed, and joined Nehemiah in his vision.

Before I move on, I want to back up to verse 10 of chapter 2. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he appeared to the governors of that area with his letters from the king. Their response– When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.  We need to pay attention to this point. The people in power were not very happy that someone had come to help those who were oppressed and downtrodden. They didn’t make things easy for Nehemiah, but he was a person with a vision and he was not going to be distracted.

Vision. One vision. And as the people worked together under the leadership of Nehemiah, the things that were broken were restored.

One vision. We can trace God-ordained leaders all throughout scripture who were given a vision from God, but I want to focus on the one vision that was given to us.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they said he was, Peter responded with the words: You are the Messiah; the son of the living God. (Mt 16:16). Jesus responded by letting Peter know that it was God who had revealed that truth to him, and Jesus went on to say …on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (16:18). 

That’s a familiar verse and we brush over it pretty quickly, however, there is more to that verse than meets the eye.

The word translated “build” can mean to actually construct something, but it can also mean to embolden.

The word translated “church” is the Greek word “ekklesia” which has nothing to do with a building. It literally means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly”. 

Ekklesia is a compound word made up of two words, one which means “from” or “out of” and the other means  “to call” “to invite” “to give a name to”.  

The word translated “Hades” means “the realm of the dead”, “the grave”“the place of departed souls”.  

And the word “it” actually means “her, it(-self), one, the other, (mine) own, said, (self-), the) same, ((him-, my-, thy- )self, (your-)selves, she, that, their(-s), them(-selves)”  The word is not speaking of an inanimate object, but of people.                                                                 (All translations from Strong’s Concordance; http://www.blueletterbible.org)

What if we read Matthew 16:18 like this: On this testimony, this foundation that I am the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, I will embolden my invited, called out ones–the ones I will give my name to, the ones who will be my citizens in the public arena, and death, the place of the dead, the grave will not prevail against them.

If we read that verse in that way, the vision of Jesus for his people, the citizens of his Kingdom, the Kingdom that he talks about throughout his entire earthly ministry all of a sudden makes sense in light of “the church”.  The vision includes all of us who call Jesus our Lord. It doesn’t highlight a specific denomination, a specific type of church, or a specific type of people.  Anyone who recognizes the lordship of Jesus and lives his/her life from that place shares in the one vision.

What is the one vision? Laura and I have written about it over and over and I’ll write about it again. The one vision is the combination of “the great commandment” and “the great commission”.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (Mt. 22:37-39)
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:18-20)
One more translation–the phrase “make disciples of” is actually the word “teach” and means to be the disciple of one; to follow his precepts and instruction.
Jesus gave this commission to his disciples, so basically he is saying–you who follow my precepts and instructions, go to everyone, full of love for them and immerse them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–model what this looks like (teach), so that they too can learn to follow my precepts and instructions.
Nehemiah shared his vision with the people and they worked together for restoration.
Jesus has shared his vision with us. Will we work together with him for the restoration of people? His vision is not program based, it’s people based. It’s a living vision. Can you imagine if every Christ follower across the face of the planet decided that loving people right where they are, and teaching them, modeling for them, Jesus as he presents himself in the gospels was the goal of their lives? It starts with each one of us deciding individually that we want to live that way.
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4: 1-6)
One vision–the Kingdom of Heaven expanding on earth. Are you in?
–Luanne
“Jesus has shared his vision with us.Will we work together with him for the restoration of people? His vision is not program based, it’s people based. It’s a living vision…”
A living vision…
I’ve been rolling these words that Luanne wrote around in my head. A living vision… How would you define that?
I looked up the definition of “life” and “alive” in a few different dictionaries, as well as the characteristics of living things according to biology curriculum from several different sources.These traits were listed in every source I read as characteristics of a living organism:
capacity for growth, ability to reproduce, functional activity, continual change, responsiveness, breath
The vision Jesus gave to his followers that Luanne described above contains all of these signs of life. It is–indisputably–a living vision.
So what, then, would we call a vision that lacks these traits? A vision that centers on inanimate objects like buildings or furnishings; one that resists change; one that has no capacity to grow or reproduce; one without functional activity or the fluid elasticity to breathe? If what I defined above is a living vision, then a vision without those traits can only be considered, by contrast, dead--or, at best, dying
How is our vision? Are we joining Jesus in his living vision, understanding that his ways revolve around people, not programs? Do we follow his lead to engage with people like he did, allowing the spirit to breathe kingdom life through us into those we encounter? Or are we clinging to a vision that’s barely hanging on, one that is on life support, one that depends on the machine of systems, programs, and power to live? Are we carrying the mantle of a dying vision?
If we find that we are, in fact, operating with a dying vision, we can take heart… Luanne mentioned above that we can work with Jesus for the restoration of people. And sometimes the people that need restoration are the ones staring back at us in the mirror. Restoration is synonymous with revival. To revive something is to restore life or to bring something back from the edge of death. Restoration breathes new life into the dying. Restoration is a kingdom value, one that Jesus demonstrated over and over again during his ministry–and one that he employs today in big and small ways in all of our lives.
I experienced this on Sunday morning. It had been a whirlwind of a week, and I felt pretty depleted. The knowledge that the coming week would pile even more on top of my already overflowing plate left me feeling weak in the knees, like they might buckle beneath the weight. And then, in the middle of a gorgeous song about communion, this line washed over me:
I am the bread, given for every man… I sustain you.
It was as if Jesus himself spoke the words into my core through the beautiful voice of my friend… Something came alive in me that had been dying… My eyes filled as my heart swelled and I knew that my restorative Savior had come to revive me, to pull me back from the edge of depletion and frustration and exhaustion to remind me that all the things I have to do, all of the deadlines and demands I must meet–I don’t have to rely on my own reserves. He sustains me. He fills me up. He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (Psalm 23) in the middle of the battlefield. He brought life to back to the vision that was dying in me. And while this week has already been exhausting and frustrating in many ways, I have remembered those words, “I sustain you”, over and over. And even when it’s hard to say, much less believe, leaning into those words really does bring new life. A deep breath. Every single time.
This is only one example of how Jesus brings restoration and revival, how he breathes his living vision into us. The vision, it’s not ours. We didn’t come up with it. The vision, this living vision for all of humanity, for our world–it is Jesus’ vision. We carry it because we carry his breath in our lungs, and when we start to run out, he breathes it fresh into us again. If we are carrying a vision that doesn’t line up with the kingdom Jesus brought to earth, we are bearing the weight of a dead or dying vision. One with no power to bring restoration or new life. One that causes brokenness rather than bring restoration. One that cannot unite but only divides. If we find that’s what we are carrying, we are free to take it off and put it down. And when we do, we can pick up the living vision of Jesus. It will first restore our own souls. But we’ll find that is a living, breathing, changing, growing organism that will move us out toward those at the edge, those who also need new life to rescue them from the dying.
Luanne ended her writing with this: One vision–the Kingdom of Heaven expanding on earth. Are you in? 
What if we all said yes…?
–Laura
world-map-in-black-and-white-marlene-watson

Next Steps: Brokenness

Brokenness. It’s all around us. It’s in us. None of us will escape it, yet it doesn’t have to be our forever. We can seek personal healing, and we can help others find healing–which may just be the mission of our church.

Pastor John began on Sunday by showing us a series of paintings, painted by his mother, that hang in his office. Each one has a path as the central element. One path leads to a house, two lead into the woods, one of those is heading toward a sunset, one path leads through the snow. Each one looks different, yet each path beckons the viewer to take a step. It’s hard to look at those paintings and not feel some sense of longing–some sense of yearning to move down one of the paths.  I suppose one could casually observe the paintings and move on; however, when one takes a moment to “see” the paintings, the desire to move, to take a step, overtakes the viewer.

The paintings serve as a metaphor. Are we casual observers of what’s going on around us, or are we seeing? If we are seeing, what steps are we taking to enter in?

In the Old Testament account of Nehemiah, he asked one of his brothers about the condition of Jerusalem and those who lived there. His brother replied: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3). 

In this moment, Nehemiah has a path before him. He had asked about the Jerusalem and learned that it was in a desperate state. He could have responded with something like, “Well that’s too bad, I’m sorry to hear that”,  and moved on. That’s not what he did. Instead, scripture records his response: When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.(Neh 1:4). The broken condition of the city that was the heart of his nation and the despair of his people mattered deeply to him. He cried out to God, confessing his sins and the sins of his nation, reminding God of his promises, and asking God to grant him the possibility to head straight toward the brokenness–broken walls, vulnerable people, despair.

Pastor John highlighted three categories of brokenness that are all around us: broken lives, a broken nation, and broken churches. Are we “seeing”? If so, how are we responding?

Last weekend, there was another synagogue shooting by a man with white supremacist ideology. Another place of sanctuary invaded by violence. In the school where I work, anxiety is off the charts–each lockdown drill, each real lockdown, each active shooter training, each incidence of a school shooting in another town rocks the core of our students. I grew up in another generation and never considered the thought that I might die just by going to school. Our society is broken. Are we seeing?

Brokenness takes many forms, and comparing one person’s brokenness to someone else’s is not beneficial. We get hurt by what others have done to us, we get hurt by choices we’ve made, we hurt others by being insensitive or even cruel, sometimes tragedy strikes, illness strikes, relationships end, and on and on I could go. I don’t imagine anyone reading these words responds with the notion that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Are we “seeing” each other?

Our nation is a mess. Our politicians are a mess. Pastor John said that if our government leaders would remember the rules we learned in kindergarten about how to get along and be kind, we might actually get somewhere. I agree with him. The lack of civility, the name calling, the power mongering and position protecting, the lack of listening or cooperating is off the charts, and it is being publicly modeled for our children to see.

The “ethos” of our nation–the cultural spirit that oozes out of us as citizens–is primarily “it’s all about me”.  We are people who value the individual. Our American dream ideology has swung too far, and instead of becoming anything we want to be for the sake of community, we’ve become anything we want to be for the sake of self and at the expense of others.

Where are many churches in all of this? Sadly, many are just as broken. Speaking in generalizations, there are two primary mindsets. One is the mindset that “our church will survive”, and many of this type of church tries to survive by holding on to what they’ve always done. It worked in the past, it will work in the future.  They cling to tradition and hunker down. The other generalization are the churches that have become so intertwined with the principality of nationalism that they believe worshiping country is synonymous with worshiping God and they will protect country and leaders over and above the real message of Jesus which is about love, about unity, about healing. The sad fact is that 100-200 churches close their doors for the last time in this nation every week. 6000-10,000 churches dying each year.

Are we “seeing”? And if so, how are we responding? Are we pointing fingers at others placing the blame on them? Or are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us? (Just for the record, I’m writing to myself too.)

The mission of the church is to advance the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the love of God, the awareness of the nearness of God, to those we encounter. It is to build a community that “sees” the oppressed, the broken, the hurting, the sick, the outsiders and to bring them into the family. It is to be part of the family, using the gifts and talents we’ve been given to serve God and one another. It is to forgive offenses, to live a counter-cultural type of life that is about the greater good and not about self. Jesus models this type of life.

Here’s the part where we (I) struggle. Nehemiah was the cup-bearer for the king in the citadel of Susa. He was a servant, possibly even a slave– he was in a position to be able to insulate himself from the despair of his people. When he learned about the condition of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for him to excuse himself from doing anything because he had a “job” in Susa. But that’s not what he did. He was willing to give some things up, to do some things differently, in order to make a difference. It was going to cost him something–and he was willing.

Are we willing to “see”? Are we willing to sacrifice some things for others? Are we willing to reach beyond ourselves, our families, our friends, our comfort, our traditions, and begin to engage the brokenness of the world? Do God’s image bearers who live in brokenness know how precious they are? Are we willing to see them, to love them, to embrace them? Will we head toward the devastation and let Jesus live His life through us as we encounter the world?

–Luanne

Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3).

Those who survived are in trouble. Disgraced. Their walls are broken down and their gates have been burned…

Luanne asked us a couple of questions that I want to reiterate here:

“Are we seeing each other?”

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

When we ask ourselves if we’re seeing one another, we have to evaluate what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing. Our “ethos” of individuality, for those of us who live in the United States, clouds our vision and blinds us to the actual realities of those around us. We have a tendency to play the victim–and to get defensive when someone calls out that tendency in us. (Like Luanne said, we are talking about ourselves and the things we struggle with, too.) It’s why, when we read the bible, we tend to see ourselves in the stories of the Israelites, and not the Canaanites, Babylonians, Romans, etc… But most of us have never been the oppressed. Most of our lives are marked with privilege. Power. Wealth (at least relative wealth, compared to the rest of the world). Opportunity. Most of us look a lot more like those who, historically, played the role of the oppressor. It’s so important that we take an honest look at who we are in the story.

Why am I bringing this up? I bring it up because it’s easy to look at the verse I opened with and think about what I have survived. What my trouble and disgrace feels like. Where my walls are broken and where my gates have burned. And these thoughts are valid and they are where our minds naturally go when we’ve grown up in a culture that glorifies individuality. Having these thoughts doesn’t make us bad people. It’s the way most of us read scripture–until we learn to see each other rightly.

Do we all have brokenness? Yes. Absolutely. No one gets out of this life unscathed. But can we look beyond ourselves and ask: Who’s really in trouble? Whose walls and gates have been demolished to the point that they are now utterly defenseless? Who is trying to survive an involuntary vulnerability? Can we see them? It may take some time, a change in focus, a new perspective, an honest assessment of ourselves before we can see those around us–and then, it matters how we see them and what we do with what we’ve seen. Again, here is Luanne’s question for all of us to consider:

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

Once we see, what do we do about it? Do we move toward the brokenness in our world with humility, hearts that are willing to listen–to be a safe place for the vulnerable? John said on Sunday, “You make a difference when you do something different.” What do we do differently when we encounter broken things, broken people? Maybe it begins with looking again. Not just seeing once and moving on, but choosing to look, to see until we feel something. None of us like to feel pain. It’s so tempting to look away. But what if we choose to lock our gaze on what’s broken until the walls around our own hearts break? We just might find that entering into the brokenness around us is what frees us from ourselves and invites us to adopt the ethos of the Kingdom of God…

What oozes from kingdom-minded people? Rather than individuality, the spirit of the kingdom is grounded in community. It looks like self-emptying love for the sake of the other–all others. In the kingdom, brokenness is transformed into blessing. This modern take on the Beatitudes captures Jesus’ heart toward the broken:

Blessed are the ones who do not bury all the broken pieces of their heart

Blessed are the tears of all the weary, pouring like a sky of falling stars

Blessed are the wounded ones in mourning, brave enough to show the Lord their scars

Blessed are the hurts that are not hidden, open to the healing touch of God

Blessed are the ones who walk in kindness even in the face of great abuse

Blessed are the deeds that go unnoticed, serving with unguarded gratitude

Blessed are the ones who fight for justice, longing for the coming day of peace

Blessed is the soul that thirsts for righteousness, welcoming the last, the lost, the least

Blessed are the ones who suffer violence and still have strength to love their enemies

Blessed is the faith of those who persevere–though they fall, they’ll never know defeat

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

Hope is in the Lord, keep your eyes on him…

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

The words of this beautiful song call us to see differently. To become people who honor the brokenness in others rather than hiding from it, belittling it, exposing it, and exploiting it. When we look long enough to really see those around us, a path appears. This path is an invitation, a beckoning toward change. And that change will cost us something–change always comes with a cost–but choosing to take the step will impact lives.

And among those impacted by the steps we take together in community, the steps we take in the direction of the brokenness around us, we will find ourselves. Working together for the healing, the restoration of the faces around us is where we often find the healing our own hearts are desperate for. It’s not the reason to move toward brokenness–but it is a byproduct of entering into the lives of others. It is cyclical. We engage brokenness as a community, and as one finds healing, it leads to the healing of another… and then another… and so on. It is contagious. And it is beautiful. It stands in opposition to the way of self, the way of the individual. It is a path that beckons us to take another step, to keep going, because brokenness abounds. Will we take the next step? Will we keep moving down the path without knowing where it will take us, trusting that when Jesus called all the “broken” things “blessed”, he actually meant it?

This week, as we encounter brokenness around us, I pray we will slow down enough to look. To really see. To feel deeply the pain of another, and take a step toward that pain. I pray we’ll lay aside the ethos of our nation for the ethos of the kingdom, and take that path–wherever it may lead.

–Laura

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This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

I had this realization as my pen flew across the page of my notebook moments ago, furiously trying to get the thoughts out of my easily distracted mind and into real words on real paper. As I turned an ink-filled page and continued to fill empty lines, my breath caught in my chest. The lump that had formed in my throat as this post came to life in my heart grew a couple sizes larger when I noticed it–the messy mix of cursive and print that I would recognize anywhere. It is my Mom’s handwriting. If I hadn’t watched myself move my pen across the page, you couldn’t convince me that it was I who wrote it…

Why right now? As I scratched down notes like my life depended on it because I knew if I didn’t, I’d lose them?

Because, I think , it connects beautifully to where this post is headed…

I want to walk you through my Easter Sunday, and–if all goes as planned–when I get to the end, we’ll circle back around to my Mom’s handwriting.

My Sunday began with church… Pastor John preached on the resurrection of Jesus, from Mark 16:1-20. He concluded our “This is Love” series by expounding upon what we may regard as familiar stories, but he did so with a freshness that led me to a new sense of wonder over the events. Many of his words will make an appearance in this post, but I won’t spend any more time on it right here…

Between church and a meal with family, I was devastated to read about the horror of  what our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka experienced. Nearly 300 families on Easter Sunday mourned the senseless deaths of loved ones, killed by explosions in churches and hotels while much of the world celebrated Jesus’ victory over death. The words, “O death, where is your sting?”, reverberated throughout sanctuaries everywhere, while hundreds felt the very real sting of death.

At home, after sharing a meal with family, I watched the movie “I Can Only Imagine” for the first time. Hot, salty tears ran down my face several times as I took in this story of pain and redemption, grief and joy, love and loss… It hit me on many different levels, but it pierced my heart deeply for one specific reason: My mom loved that song... From the day it debuted on Christian radio until the day she told me which songs she’d like on the playlist at her funeral. It gave her hope and breathed life into her dying lungs on her worst days. I haven’t listened to it much since we lost her. It’s not sad, necessarily. The song is gorgeous in its simultaneous simplicity and depth. It speaks of hope beyond the pain of today. But it stirs memories. And memories can rarely be classified in either/or categories. Most happy memories aren’t solely happy, but rather contain traces of other emotions, feelings we don’t always want to access. This song is like that for me. I can’t hear it without thinking of her… The moment the first few piano notes grace my ears, I’m transported to another place and time… And I don’t always want to remember. It was this week in April, five years ago now, that she was re-diagnosed with the disease that would take her from this world. Every year around this time, my subconscious reminds me of the pain–hers and mine both. Sixty days after that diagnosis, she breathed her last. Her death still stings…

After the movie, I opened my Twitter app to find the hashtag #prayforRHE all over my feed. Following the hashtag, I found out that author and faith leader to many, wife and mommy to two littles, Rachel Held Evans, is in the ICU in a coma due to constant seizures in her brain that were discovered as she was being treated for an infection. Rachel, while controversial in some circles, is a woman whose voice I have come to deeply respect, and whose authenticity encourages so many others to bravely explore the questions that can, left suppressed, terrorize our souls. I read posts from her friends, from people whose lives she has impacted greatly, as they shared prayers and thoughts about all Rachel means to them. For those closest to Rachel–and for anyone else in a battle for life and wellness–the fear of death stings…

O, death, where is your sting?

Everywhere. When death–or the fear of death–comes, it stings. It hurts like hell. It aches with a ferocity I didn’t know I could live through.

But there is another line that accompanies this one… A companion question that sits beside it in scripture (1 Corinthians 15:55) and in every song we’ve written about it since:

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

It’s why I call Jesus my Lord. My King. Why I identify as one of his followers.

Jesus transforms lives. Period. I, admittedly, don’t have exhaustive knowledge of other faith traditions. I know the basics about some, and I respect the heart and intentions of them all. One of the most beautiful, insightful conversations I’ve ever had was with a devout Muslim brother who shared with me about what loving one’s neighbor, and forgiveness, mean to him. I have a lot to learn from other traditions that differ from the framework I was raised in and identify with today. But this is what I know…

One God came down into human history, suffered in solidarity with the suffering of humanity while enduring our brutality and our violence. One walked in skin he created and modeled self-emptying love unto death, at the hands of his own creations. One rose again to lead us on in his ways.

His name is Jesus, and this is why I follow him–and why I always will. Because no other story rewrites my story. No other story ignites hope that outlives death. Because only one defeated death itself. Pastor Brian Zahnd said, in his Good Friday sermon, “Death swallowed Christ, but death cannot digest divinity. Christ did not descend to the dead to be dead, but to do something else!” 

The story we celebrate every Easter is the story of resurrection, of the ultimate Life, the ultimate Love, defeating death. We rejoice over the account of the stone being rolled away, and Jesus’ absence from the tomb. But, as Pastor John preached on Sunday, “The stone wasn’t removed to let Jesus out, but to let us in!” For us to believe, to be filled with awe and wonder over the miracle of resurrection, we had to see that Jesus wasn’t in there. The tomb was empty–but if the stone hadn’t been rolled away to reveal that truth to watching eyes, it would have stood between us and the risen Jesus. Doubt, fear, conspiracy theories–these arguments would have won… but a few women saw the empty tomb. They looked up and saw inside, and there the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection began…

Death, where is your victory? It’s gone. Forever. Because Life has the final word.

So on a Resurrection Sunday when the families of Sri Lanka, and many around the world, weep and mourn; when a faith leader fights for her life as doctors work round the clock to find answers; when we are reminded of, and grieve, our own many losses and heartaches–all of the stories where the sting of death is very real–we can know that death won’t have the last word. Fear no longer rules the day. We don’t have to live in the miry, regret-filled pits of the past.

Because Hope LIVES. Joy LIVES. Forgiveness LIVES. Love–a Love like no other–LIVES. Because Jesus LIVES! This. Is. Love. That our God came down and entered into our stories to show us that there is another way. That our ways of law-making and rule-keeping could never lead us into love, but would only ever lead to more rivalry and competition and violence. But his way? He showed us that his way can handle the both/and of a grief-filled Easter Sunday. His way can hold the tension of life and death, suffering and hope, joy and grief. He came into our suffering and suffered with us, not promising a life of ease without struggle–quite the opposite–but bringing tangible hope to the realities of pain and death.

I experienced the tension of the “both/and” a few times on Easter Sunday. I saw it expressed in the authenticity of a precious worshiper who praised with fervor and enthusiasm–undoubtedly moved by his deep love for Jesus–and then wrestled, pacing near the altar, after the service concluded. Real joy and real suffering graced his face. He expressed both, and didn’t attempt to stifle one or the other. I saw the presence of real worship and real wrestling. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it in the prayers that many have posted for Sri Lanka. Many of these posts, written on Easter Sunday, contained words of grief and sorrow for the ache of our world and words of hope, solidarity, and life–in the face of so much death. As days pass, I believe we’ll see what we always see when tragedy strikes–we’ll see helpers and stories of beauty and hope that rise up from the ashes of death and destruction. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it as I read a twitter thread between prominent Christian women who find themselves sometimes at odds theologically, but who love one another and who came together with love and prayers for Rachel, despite the many differences between the three of them. I cried as I read their exchange. It was beautiful, because it was the way of Jesus. The way of self-emptying love. These three women may not have a lot in common–and their respective followers may find even less to agree upon–but they modeled the love that binds them to the One they follow, the same love that binds them also to one another. They have different beliefs–and…love supersedes their differences.

And I felt the tension as I saw my own handwriting… The bitter with the sweet. The memory–both happy and sad. The awareness of how much of her lives on in me, even though she is physically gone. The ache over my mama’s death, and the pulsing Hope that lives to tell me I’ll see her again.

Easter Sunday isn’t only a celebration, though it is one, certainly. It isn’t only life, though life will conquer all death in the end. It is a collision of the tension of living in the now and the not quite yet. It is the kingdom of God absorbing the kingdoms of this world–but absorption can take time. We live with the presence of both at the same time. We live with the sting of death, and with the guarantee of victory.

As long as we can look up at Jesus and see that the stone has been removed, as long as we can peer into the grave and find it empty, we can hold the tension of life and death until we, too, enter into the victory Love won for us all. But all of us, at certain points, find ourselves face to face with a stone that obscures our view. We can’t see into the empty tomb. It may be partially blocking our view, or it may be covering the opening entirely, but we all have things that keep us from seeing the truth. The sting of death–or even just the fear of it–can be a major culprit that keeps us from the truth that death holds no claims to victory. There are other things, many things, that can keep us from seeing.

Throughout this series, Pastor John has asked us questions each week, to get us to think a little more deeply, to get us involved in the story in a more intimate way. This week, the question is:

What’s your stone? 

Whatever it is, it isn’t keeping Jesus away from you. He keeps coming, keeps moving toward us all. But it may be preventing you from seeing the truth, from recognizing that no matter how hopeless you feel, no matter how dire your circumstances might be, the suffering Savior fought death–and won. Death and the pain that comes with it does sting–but Jesus holds the victory. And that is a truth worth celebrating, even as our lives and our world groan in pain. Death has died–and Jesus lives.

–Laura

I almost hesitate to write this week; Laura’s post has so much beauty, so much truth, so much real and raw that I find myself wanting to sit with it for awhile before moving on. Death has a very real sting. Grief for those we’ve loved and lost to physical death cycles in and out of our lives and it never waits for a “good” time. All of a sudden we find ourselves in that place–a song, a smell, even our own handwriting–and there we are remembering and feeling the sting of death. And yet…death never has the final word. The final word belongs to God alone–always.

The resurrection is what sets the Christian faith apart from all other faiths. Like Laura, I have learned and continue to learn much from people of other faith traditions; they are not my enemy. However, also like Laura, I have met a very alive Jesus and He is still transforming my life. Everything about the version of Christianity–of Christ following that was lived out in the early days was about transformation– love breaking down barriers,  and hope–incredible hope.

Before I continue, I want you to think about where “your” Jesus is. Is he the Christmas Jesus born in a manger? Is He the crucified Jesus still hanging on the cross? Or is He the risen Jesus who Peter, in his first bold sermon after the resurrection declared God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36).  Some versions translate the word Messiah as Christ. Both are powerful words, hard for those of us who’ve never lived under a king to grasp well. Both mean The anointed One. 

How we see Him matters.

All of Jesus’ earthly life He was shaking things up. His conception was announced to a single woman. His birth was announced to “unclean” shepherds by angels. King Herod wanted to find him and kill him because he was a threat to earthly power. Magi of a different faith tradition and from a different country traveled a long distance to see him, bring him gifts, and worship him.

As a child we learn that he grew in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52), and when he was twelve he stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover listening and asking questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2: 47). 

When it was time for his public ministry to begin, he was baptized by his cousin who supernaturally knew that Jesus was the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29).

And then Jesus really started to shake things up. He called normal, regular, guys to be his followers. His group was an eclectic mix–fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, etc. And his followers included women. He touched lepers, he ministered to people who weren’t Jews, worked on the sabbath, reinterpreted the law,  he valued and “saw” the unimportant, the invisible, and he confronted the religious leaders of the day, which eventually led to his crucifixion and death. And everyone thought it was over. The religious leaders, his followers, his mom.

Mark tells us in Chapter 15 that at the crucifixion Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (40,41).  Don’t you wonder how many women were there? We picture in our minds three; however, Mark tells us that there were “some” women from Galilee and some from Jerusalem who were present with Jesus in his suffering. It had to have been excruciating to their hearts, but they loved him and weren’t going to leave him alone. Presence—what a huge gift. 

I cannot begin to imagine how frustrated the women must have been to leave the body of Jesus and rush home to begin Sabbath. But when Sabbath was over, and the sun began to appear in the sky–a daily reminder of resurrection–the three women who were mentioned by name at the foot of the cross bought spices and took them to the tomb.

They were not expecting resurrection. They were prepared to encounter a dead body. They were women on a mission. I love the fact that they were just going…they didn’t have all the details worked out, which is indicated by the fact that they wondered who was going to remove the stone for them. (16:3). It was the mission that mattered, not the details.

But when they looked up they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb… (I love their boldness) they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side (little details) and they were alarmed.

From this point on, the white-robed young man fills them in on what happened. He tells them not to be alarmed because Jesus is no longer dead but has risen. He asks them to go tell his disciples, and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 14:28). 

So many things are happening in this moment. One, the most important message of all time was being entrusted to women during a time when the testimony of women was not to be trusted and when religious leaders thanked God in their prayers for not making them women.

Two, they were entrusted with a message that was a reminder of a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples just a few days before at the last supper before his arrest.

Three, during that same conversation in Mark 14, Jesus told the disciples that they would all run away, but Peter declared that he never would, that he would die with Jesus if it came to that, and Jesus told Peter that no, in fact Peter would deny him, which is exactly what happened.  So the young man in the tomb tells the women–go tell the disciples, and Peter…

The beautiful grace of Jesus blows my mind every time. He wants Peter to know that he hasn’t blown it, that he is still loved, still chosen, still has a place in the Kingdom.  (And so do you–no matter your story).

The resurrection is not an event. It is a paradigm shift that changed everything; it still changes everything. Christianity didn’t begin before the resurrection, it began after. The second chapter of the book of Acts describes what happened. Christianity didn’t start as a religion of rules, it started as a transformation of lives by the power of the Holy Spirit that would spill out to every tribe, tongue and nation as the followers of The Christ shared the message of God’s love, God’s nearness, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and invited people to live in a new kingdom under the reign of a loving God right here on earth.

Christianity is not about death, it’s about life–and it’s about life that is full of hope.

When did the ways of the world begin to change? After the resurrection.

When were there no longer hierarchical structures and sub-groups such as slave, free, male, female, Jew, Gentile (or any other opposing categories you can think of) for all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28)?   After the resurrection.

When were the followers of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit? After the resurrection.

When did the previously afraid Peter preach a powerful message of hope that led to 3000 people coming into relationship with God? After the resurrection.

When did the disciples fall so deeply in love with Jesus that they no longer ran and hid, but gave their lives for him?  After the resurrection.

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

We are post resurrection people.  The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us (Romans 8:11).

This is the Spirit who, when we lean in and listen, transforms us. We are all at different places on the journey, but there are ways that we can tell if we are living in the Kingdom of the resurrected Christ. Is our heart position becoming more “we” than “me”, and is that “we” expanding more and more as we grow in the ways of Christ? Do the people that mattered to Jesus matter to us? Do we find empathy growing in us? Are we using our voices for good and not evil, to unite and not to divide, to lift up and not to tear down? Do we love people, whether or not they ever see the world like we do, or do we make people our projects? Do we embrace everyone, no matter their lifestyle, because God is love—always, and His kindness, shown through us, is what leads people to Him? Is the fruit of the Spirit becoming evident in our lives?

Resurrection living is not a “to do” list. Resurrection living is not based on a set of theological statements. Resurrection living is Spirit living which only happens when we fall deeply in love with Jesus, spend time with Him, get to know Him, and allow Him to live His life in us and through us–and as He does His work in us, as we become more fully alive in who He has made us to be, hope, love, mercy, co-suffering, joy, and grace become contagious, leading to resurrection all around us.

Are we people of death or people of life–pre-resurrection or post resurrection?

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
Image result for learning to walk in the dark

This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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This Is Love: Suffering & Silence

“What if love was greater than…hate, war, fear, failure, brokenness, loss? What if love… came down? Gave hope to the broken? Came to die? Came to save?”

These words are from the video that introduced our new series. We’re staying in the book of Mark, but now we’re looking at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. The goal of this series is to show us what love looks like. But before we look at what love is, we have to see what it is not.

We picked up the story in Mark 15:1-20, with a quick glance back to 14:61-62. In these verses, we see Jesus questioned by the high priest before all of the gathered religious authorities reach their decision about him. He is then handed over to Pilate for questioning, and, before the end of the passage, sentenced to crucifixion.

Pastor John highlighted four main points from these verses, and a fifth that we’ll look at later. He talked to us about:

The malice of the chief priests… We saw the religious leaders gathered at night, initially, but no decision could be made at night, according to their laws and codes. So they waited until “very early in the morning” to declare what they’d already decided to do with Jesus. But their code-keeping stopped there. Their anger toward Jesus caused them to rewrite codes that they lived by in the moment. They managed to twist the charge of blasphemy (which was not grounds for execution) into a charge of treason–an offense punishable by death. And we see them act immediately once they make a decision, rather than waiting the required 24 hours between sentencing and carrying out the sentence. We see throughout the gospels that the religious leaders had been looking for grounds to kill Jesus for a while. They never really found the grounds they searched for, but we see them here, finally overtaken by their hatred, anger, jealousy–and something else we’ll look at in a moment that I believe might have driven these more obvious emotions.

The political expediency of Pilate… Pilate was available so quickly because he had moved into Jerusalem during this time of Passover. He did this because it tended to be during Passover that riots and rebel activity were more likely to happen. His job depended on his ability to contain the community he oversaw, so he got closer to them during this time. Once Jesus was brought before him, he questioned him briefly, but then relinquished his authority to the masses, though he believed in Jesus’ innocence. Interesting side note–if anyone had grounds to be enraged by Jesus’ supposed acts of treason, it was Pilate. It was the Roman  government he worked for that would have ultimately been threatened by a new “king” rising up onto the scene. And yet… we don’t see anger from Pilate. I believe he, too, was driven by something else…

The fury of the crowd… Pastor John said that there is a good chance of fatal error when the masses are left to make a decision. It is vital that we pay attention to this point. Crowds can be swayed. This crowd was. We see in Mark’s account that the chief priests “stirred up the crowd.” The Greek word for ‘stirred up’, as John pointed out, has the same root word as “earthquake”. The religious leaders (who this particular crowd was pretty loyal to) incited the crowd, and it was like an earthquake as their fury rose. What did the chief priests say that caused this reaction? We don’t know for sure–but we can make an educated guess…

It appears that part of Pilate’s decision to leave Jesus’ fate in the crowd’s hands had to do with his belief that they would surely choose his release over that of a known insurrectionist and murderer, the one called Barabbas. See, it was the custom for him to release a prisoner that the people requested during the Feast each year. Before they made their request, they were stirred up by the chief priests. It ended up that the crowd didn’t want Jesus–they surprised Pilate by, instead, asking for Barabbas.

Many of us have seen movies that depict Barabbas as a bit of a crazed lunatic, which makes it difficult to see what was really going on. A more accurate description of this man would be that he was a political leader to many who wanted to see some changes for the Jewish people. He was all about, as Pastor John articulated, “Making Israel Great Again.” He represented loyalty to their people, their ways–he was their nationalistic hope. He led an insurrection, during which he committed murder. He was not a bloodthirsty serial killer, as some of the images of him that have been painted would lead us to believe. The people were not concerned about his crimes–after all, it happened in the name of nationalistic pride, and riots and wars naturally come with casualties…

With this knowledge, it makes sense to assume that the priests stirred the crowd by playing on their political leanings. It is the fastest way to get a rise out of people. We experienced this as we listened to Pastor John on Sunday… He asked us to listen to him describe a few things and rate where our reactions landed on a 1-10 scale. He began by talking about spiritual things, the activity of our church and such. We were attentive as we listened, but the reaction landed within the lowest numbers on our scale. He moved to talking about personal things, how we feel when someone speaks negatively about who we are, our physical attributes and such. This topic moved us up the scale, but not too much.

Then, he began to speak politically. He brought up President Trump, the state of our nation, our feelings about our flag, etc… and the temperature of the room changed. The moment he mentioned politics, there was a palpable electricity in the air around us. People shifted in their seats, cleared their throats, whispered to those near them, laughed nervously… He didn’t take a position, or even speak specifically about a particular policy. All he had to do was mention politics, and we were stirred. (I don’t have time to go into this here, sadly,  but the question begs answering–Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?)

Now, imagine the crowd standing before Pilate being reminded of the nationalistic hope Barabbas represented. Perhaps they contrasted the direction Barabbas wanted to take their nation with the kingdom Jesus talked about bringing–an upside-down, inclusive kingdom that looked nothing like what they expected their Messiah would establish–where the last would be first and the meek and marginalized would be blessed. Could this have stirred them up? Absolutely. Because, once again, they preyed on something that lived beneath their outward fury, something that drove them–whether they knew it or not.

The “humor” of the soldiers… This group tortured and humiliated their prisoners. They represented the military might that people believed then–and believe still–was necessary to establish a kingdom. They replaced their humanity with humor as they mocked and mutilated Jesus. Once again, I believe there was something else driving them.

So what is it? What is this thing that I’ve eluded to in every character I’ve described?

FEAR.

Fear is powerful. And often, it is driving more obvious emotions. These groups may have been afraid for different reasons, but I believe they were all acting out of their fears. Fear, left unchecked, is deadly

The chief priests and all of the other religious leaders saw what was happening as Jesus taught. His following grew, the loyalty of many was shifting from them and their laws to this new way that Jesus introduced. They heard him speak about establishing a new kingdom–one that threatened their power and control and everything they held dear. He introduced a new way of thinking, a way of living that they had never done before. If Jesus took over, everything would change. Do you think it’s a stretch to say that this stirred up their fears? How do we feel when the way we’re used to living is threatened? Is anger our first response, or is it driven by deeper fears?

Pilate appears to be fairly nonchalant during the whole process. But I don’t think he was–not really. His position and his own well-being depended on him keeping the Jews he presided over quiet. It’s why he moved closer to them during Passover. If he failed to put out the fires that started among them, he could be removed from his post…and worse. So, while he disagreed with the crowd’s decision, he knew that agreeing to do what they asked would appease the earthquake of their emotion, and maintain the “peace”.

The crowd… We would be wise to see ourselves in this group, though we might also identify with the religious leaders who were so afraid of change. When the chief priests stirred up the people, they were preying on their fears first. Their fear led to their fire and fury. Fire and fury is never the starting point. It is an expression of a deeper emotion. Sometimes, it is loyalty or love that leads us to anger. In this case, however, I believe the culprit is fear. The chief priests were not fans of Barabbas. He was a rebel, a problem. But not as big of a problem for them as Jesus. And they knew that they could work with what he stood for, and use it to provoke the emotions of the people. Jesus threatened the belief system that their lives were built upon. His new way felt, to many of them, like a betrayal of the religion they held dear, and of them as a nation. Because Jesus’ allegiance was not to Israel. His way would bring a new kingdom in an upside-down way–he was a threat to those who built their lives on power, success, and control. They were afraid. And the fear of the leaders certainly inflated the fears of the people. Anytime a leader operates out of a place of fear, it influences their followers–especially those most loyal to them.

Lastly, we have the soldiers. They had a job to do. A terrible job. Not doing any part of the job they were given would have cost them. Part of their job included carrying out executions. Maybe these men were bloodthirsty sadists who actually delighted in the taking of life. But maybe they weren’t… Maybe they were people who bore the image of God the same as everyone else–including the criminals they had to kill. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t carry out their orders. Maybe they were afraid that if they didn’t trade their own humanity for tortuous humor, they wouldn’t be able to carry out the inhumane act of taking life from another human being. I’ve known many soldiers throughout my life. I’ve never known one who doesn’t deal with some amount of fear, no matter how brave and strong they might be. I have to assume these soldiers who mocked and humiliated Jesus also dealt with fear.

Why did I spend so much time talking about fear? Because it’s dangerous. Because it changes how we see, it drives our decisions, and it robs us of our humanity when we let it overtake us. We cannot see the image of God in another–or in ourselves–when fear steers our ship. It leads to blind hatred without reason, and it changes us at our cores. It feeds on our vulnerability and grows like a ravenous weed in the soil of our souls. It leads us to say and do the unimaginable. We’ve seen how, over the last few years, fear of the “other” has led to growing hatred and violence in our own nation. Fear is powerful.

But there is a place where fear can’t live… something that drives it out. Every. Time.

Love. 

Love… it is absent in this story… until we look at the fifth and final point Pastor John spoke about:

The silence of Jesus… The mystifying silence of Jesus in this passage speaks volumes. How was he able to stay silent, and to speak no words in his own defense? How was he able to stand as a suffering servant, with humble dignity, in the face of false accusation, humiliation, and eventually torture and even death? In a recent podcast, Father Richard Rohr said of Jesus, “He neither plays the victim, nor does he create victims. That is liberation–first of all from the self…” This is love. Self-emptying love that pours out for others. It is the only force powerful enough to scatter fear. Fear is always connected to self in some way. Loving like Jesus frees us from our fears by freeing us from ourselves. Jesus’ silence was the depths of love on display. And it spoke louder than the chief priests, louder than Pilate, louder than the furious crowd, and louder than the mocking soldiers. Because their voices were driven by fear. Jesus was driven by love…

–Laura

Religious leaders,

Pilate,

The crowd,

Barabbas,

The soldiers,

Jesus.

Earthly power,

Anger,

Fear,

Violence,

Shouting,

Silence,

Love.

Pastor John’s sermon, and Laura’s post above took a familiar passage and broke it down causing us to have to take a closer look. Most of us are familiar with this account of Jesus before Pilate. Nothing in the story was a surprise to us, but like we do with many familiar things, we read it from a detached place. The way that Pastor John broke it down made it impossible to stay detached….and it happened when he mentioned politics. Laura asked Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?

These are good questions to sit with. What are your initial reactions to political things? If anger comes up frequently–why?  When I was in counseling a few years ago, my counselor pointed out that anger is often a secondary emotion and that underneath it is typically fear or sadness. We don’t often take the time to get to the underlying emotion because anger feels more powerful. Power can be addictive, yet Laura pointed out above that the power of the Religious Leaders, Pilate, the crowd, and the soldiers was actually a cover up for their fear. Uninvestigated anger, and uninvestigated fear leads to violence.

As I was listening to the sermon, I found myself wondering who I am in the story. I think that’s a good exercise for all of us. We each have within us the capacity for tremendous good, or evil. Sometimes we don’t recognize the evil for what it is, and because of our human nature, we typically like to paint ourselves in a favorable light, but we must be willing to look at ourselves truthfully, see those areas that are not in line with the character of Jesus, and lean into the Holy Spirit’s power to be convicted, counseled, and led into truth.

Are we the religious leaders? Have our traditions led us to a place where there are concrete barriers around our understanding of faith and of God, and anything outside those barriers is a threat to the foundation upon which we’ve built our lives?

Are we Pilate? We, like Pilate, can see that Jesus is unlike anyone else. We know deep within ourselves that to really follow Him will cost us something, and we’re not willing because we’d rather please our leaders and our crowd, yet at the same time we try to excuse ourselves from any responsibility in that decision.

Are we the crowd? Have we become followers of humans rather than followers of Christ? Have we fallen victim to “group think” which is defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”(Miriam Webster Dictionary)? There is much published material about “group think” and one of the characteristics is that it leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision making. People who fall prey to “group think” make group decisions without critical evaluation of different view points; they believe that whatever decision their group makes is the right decision,  even if they have questions, they don’t feel like they can bring up a dissenting view point and therefore they justify the behaviors of whomever they are following in order to feel less inner conflict. Group think is easy for all of us to fall victim to, which is why it is so very important that we follow the advice of Jesus’ brother James who says “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to you…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1: 5, 19-20).  We never see in Jesus’ ministry that He was “mainstream”. We must be willing to evaluate ourselves.

Are we Barabbas? Have we tried to force our nationalistic beliefs into becoming reality? Have we been willing to use or justify violence as a means to an end?  Have we usurped the role of God and His ways and His timing in order to make anything “great again”? Have we viewed ourselves and our interests as superior to those of other image bearers? Have we lost our minds and hearts to nationalism?

Are we the soldiers?  Whether the soldiers enjoyed what they did or not, they were quite obviously detached from seeing the image of God–the value, the divinity, and the preciousness of their victims. Whether they detached themselves as a means of self-protection, or sheer contempt because they thought they were superior, it did not appear to bother them to laugh inappropriately as they inflicted pain. What is our response to the pain of others, especially those who are different from us? Do they deserve it? Are we able to detach ourselves emotionally? Are we able to see the unique image of God in others? Do we value every human equally?

Are we Jesus? Jesus who didn’t fight back against the system–the earthly system. Jesus, who didn’t defend himself. Jesus who could have wiped everyone out in an instant and made himself King. (Remember the temptations at the beginning of his ministry?) Jesus who could have chosen earth’s violent corrupt ways, but instead chose the crazy way of unconditional love.

This morning in my devotional reading I read:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love...” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I have pictured myself many times at the foot of the cross. I have not, until this morning, pictured myself looking out from the cross. It changes everything.  If I have been crucified with Christ (Galations 2:20), the vantage point of the cross is one I need to look through.  We know that Jesus was looking at the crowd, the soldiers, his mother, his friends, all of them with love–with grace–with all encompassing forgiveness–no malice, no grasping for earthly power, no harsh words–just love and a desire for each one to be forgiven. Wow. Is that how I see? Is that how I love?

We can all be any of the human characters in Mark 15, it comes naturally. We absolutely can’t “be” Jesus in our own strength, but we have everything that we need in the Holy Spirit to live with godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). It’s His gift to us. May we seek the face, the wisdom, the ways of Jesus and look at those around us from the vantage point of the cross choosing to be instruments of peace in an incredibly divided world.

–Luanne

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Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

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JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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