Lent: A Personal Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week…

Laura

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Lent: An Extravagant Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I unwilling to celebrate?

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

Who am I unwilling to worship alongside?

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

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

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

—Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

Last week, we talked about a parent’s priority: to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God. Part of that conversation included acknowledging our own shortcomings as parents. Our parents made mistakes, and we make mistakes, too.

This week, Pastor John talked to us about what it looks like to love well when our children have made mistakes. It is a message that absolutely speaks to how we love our kids–but, beyond that, it is a message about how everyone needs to be loved.

Pastor John began by simply stating:

“Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

The self-emptying love of God is illustrated in many places throughout scripture. It is most clearly seen in Jesus’ death on the cross, as he proved there was no length he, the perfect image of our invisible God, wouldn’t go to in order to show his love for us. It is also captured beautifully in the story of the prodigal son. It is this story that Pastor John opened with on Sunday. I’m including the whole story, out of the J.B. Phillips translation:

Then he continued, “Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property that will come to me.’ So he divided up his property between the two of them. Before very long, the younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a foreign land, where he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance. And when he had run through all his money, a terrible famine arose in that country, and he began to feel the pinch. Then he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. He got to the point of longing to stuff himself with the food the pigs were eating and not a soul gave him anything. Then he came to his senses and cried aloud, ‘Why, dozens of my father’s hired men have got more food than they can eat and here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But his son said, ‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more…’ ‘Hurry!’ called out his father to the servants, ‘fetch the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and get that calf we’ve fattened and kill it, and we will have a feast and a celebration! For this is my son—I thought he was dead, and he’s alive again. I thought I had lost him, and he’s found!’ And they began to get the festivities going. “But his elder son was out in the fields, and as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants across to him and enquired what was the meaning of it all. ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has killed the calf we fattened because he has got him home again safe and sound,’ was the reply. But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him. Then he burst out, ‘Look, how many years have I slaved for you and never disobeyed a single order of yours, and yet you have never given me so much as a young goat, so that I could give my friends a dinner? But when that son of yours arrives, who has spent all your money on prostitutes, for him you kill the calf we’ve fattened!’ But the father replied, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32, emphasis mine)

There are so many layers within this restorative story. We won’t fully plumb its depths here, but let’s dig in and see what we find…

The first point worth noting is found in the opening line of the story:

Once there was a man who had two sons…

Often, this story is taught with an emphasis on the younger son, the prodigal. But the story is about both sons and their relationship with their father (and, I think, with one another, but I don’t have time to get into that part today…). The opening line of any story emphasizes who or what the story is about–this story is about two sons. Two sons, deeply loved by their father, who had a home with him, wherever he was.

When we read the part where the younger son asks for his inheritance, we tend to be so appalled by his audacity and disrespect that we miss a very important detail, one that keeps big brother in the center of the story:

So he divided up his property between the two of them

Little brother’s payday was a fraction of what big brother inherited that day. In ancient Jewish culture, the oldest heir was to receive double the inheritance of any other heir. Big brother may not have asked for it, but he received his father’s overwhelming generosity that day, too. This is highlighted later in the story, when the father says to his oldest son, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours.’ Indeed, everything the father had was his. He divided up everything he owned between his boys, living as though dead while he was still alive. When the younger son squandered his portion, everything else that had once belonged to the father, now belonged to his oldest son. Everything he had was his.

The self-emptying love of the father was displayed as he withheld nothing from his children. He gave all he had. He had nothing left, and as far as we can infer from the text, that part didn’t bother him one bit. But he also didn’t have his boys’ hearts. This is what grieved him. It’s all he wanted. Emptying himself of all of his material possessions wasn’t enough to win their affection, to woo them into relationship. I don’t think he was trying to earn their love at all–he was showing them that there was nothing he would withhold from them. He was willing to give them everything because of his great love for them. They didn’t reciprocate his love…

He gave them his material wealth, which included laying down a measure of his power and authority, though he still ran his estate. What did he have left to give?

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He would have lost some respect within his community when he chose to give his possessions to his sons while he was still living. But this, to lift his cloak and run to his son–to move toward him and go to where he was–and then to embrace and kiss this boy who would have been “unclean” according to their laws and customs? This was a disgrace to the man’s dignity. This boy had slept with prostitutes, he had lived among and fed dirty pigs. What was the father doing?

He was, once again, modeling self-emptying love to his son. He couldn’t wait for his boy to get to him. He wasn’t hard at work, anger etched into his face, rehearsing the admonishment he would give him if he ever saw his face again. He didn’t “stand his ground.” No. He was watching for him, waiting with hope that, against all odds, his son would come home. Home… This young man had no expectation that the home he had known as a child would still be there waiting for him. In fact, he had a speech prepared to give his father, to ask him for a place as a servant on the property. But as he’s in the middle of his groveling, his father interrupts him. I love the way the Message phrases verse 22: “But the father wasn’t listening.” Instead, he called to the servants to bring a robe and the family ring, to kill the fattened calf and prepare a celebration feast in his son’s honor. No mention of the many offenses the son had committed. The boy had already endured the consequences of his choices–his father had no intention of further punishing his son. In fact, he doesn’t even make mention of any of it. He chooses instead to remind his son with his actions that he has a home. A secure home, a forever home. He acknowledges his presence and his place in the family, and doesn’t admonish him even once for all he had done. He emptied himself of the right to be right, displaying self-emptying love once again. 

What about our other main character, the older son?

The father went to him, too. While big brother hung around and displayed the “right” behavior, the father knew he didn’t have his heart, either. He gave to this son in the same ways he did to the younger, always sacrificing himself to love them both. When big brother refuses to come in and celebrate his little brother’s return, his father once again breaks custom to leave the party he is hosting so he can go to where his son is. And again, what we see is not admonishment. He says to him only,

‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’

He could have said so many things… Change your attitude. Get inside. What is wrong with you? Don’t you love your brother? Why do I still have to chase you down like a toddler and listen to your tantrums? You’re keeping me from our guests, I don’t have time for your whining! I’ve given you everything, and still it’s not enough for you! You’re selfish… Arrogant… Immature…

I’m sure there’s so much more he could have said. But he says none of these things.

When I picture this scene in my mind, I imagine the father speaking softly, tears glistening in his kind eyes, the tenderness in his voice imploring his son to turn around and look at him so he could see all the love he has for him. I imagine the son with his back to his father, arms crossed, years of entitlement, anger, and pride held in his stone-cold gaze over the property that all belongs to him. I imagine the father reaching his weathered hand out toward his son’s shoulder, but pulling it back, knowing that this boy’s heart was still not inclined to receive his love, but hoping one day that would change. I can see the hope flash bright in his glistening eyes, because he had never given up hope for his younger son, and today, his hope was rewarded with a homecoming so sweet, he’d remember the moment forever. With that moment fresh in his heart, I see dad straighten, stand a little taller, as he resolves to hold onto hope that this big brother will come home to him one day, too…

We don’t get to know how this particular story ends. What we do know is that the father loved both of his boys with the same, steadfast, self-emptying love. We know that home was wherever the father was, and that home was secure. No matter how long it took, he would be there waiting, hoping, actively moving toward his kids, acknowledging their presence, knowing there were chapters yet to be written in their stories.

We all might need this story for different reasons today. Some of us may need it to show us an example of how to love our children well in the day-to-day. Some of us may need to be reminded of how we can have hope for children who have wandered. Some of us only received admonishment as children, and never felt seen or acknowledged, and we need to find healing. Some of us just need to be reminded that we have a home in God, and he is always pursuing us, regardless of where we’ve wandered. Regardless of where it lands for each of us, I pray that we’ll all see that everyone needs to be loved like this. Everyone is aching for Shalom, for wholeness, for a stable home. Everyone needs to be pursued and sought out. Everyone longs to be acknowledged. We get to do that for our children, for each other, for the world around us. We have the opportunity to love like Jesus by drawing near to others, closing the gap, being present, listening. We get to go to all of them, see them, value them, love them exactly where they are. In the midst of their failures. And in the midst of our own…

–Laura

I want to reiterate what Laura reminded us of above–Pastor John began by simply stating: “Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

Pastor John also said “How we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice our children made.”  I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I have seen adults struggle with their self-worth because their parents tore them down rather than built them up.  Gratefully, that is not my story.  I am the daughter of a dad who loves me like Jesus loves.

I was an at-risk kid, and in a recent blog post we reiterated that children in pain don’t know how to articulate their pain, which was true of me. One September evening when I was 12 or 13, I was having a particularly tough time, and I unleashed my anger on my dad. I said hateful, mean things, and ended my tirade by telling him I no longer wanted to be part of our family; I wanted to live elsewhere and asked him to put me in the foster system.

My dad didn’t say a word while I screamed at him. When I was finished, I went downstairs and sat in front of the TV. My dad came down a few minutes later and asked me to get my sweater. Fear kicked in. I thought he really might be taking me to a foster home, but I wasn’t going to let on that I was afraid. I got my sweater and got in the car. We rode in silence. He took me to the miniature golf course and we played a round of golf. After golf,  he took me to Dairy Queen and let me get a Peanut Buster Parfait (it’s important to note that being one of seven children, we didn’t get treats like Peanut Buster Parfaits. If we went to Dairy Queen, we got a soft serve cone. My treat was extravagant and it was undeserved.)

I didn’t say a word the entire evening. My dad said very few words, and most of them came while we were at Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was having a hard time, that I was hurting deeply, and he told me that he loved me and would always love me. He did not address my behavior at all.

I’d love to say that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him, but I didn’t. I still did not speak, and when we got back to the house I went straight to my room. Yet, the assurance that my dad loved me, even after I had been so horrible to him began to change me. So, when Pastor John says the way we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice the children made–that can be a positive thing too.

For those of you with children who have wandered away like the prodigal son–I was that child. It was another ten years before my dad saw lasting fruit in my life. I’ve apologized to him multiple times for the pain that I caused him during those years, and he assures me that what’s important today is who I am now. My past is never thrown in my face. My dad showed me what grace in action looks like. I often say that grace is the most powerful force on earth. The reason I know is because I have been a recipient of extravagant grace, and over time, I have been transformed by grace. God’s grace offered to me through my dad–and through my Savior.

Just in case I’ve left the impression that I was never disciplined– I was. Discipline in my house involved a one on one conversation with my dad. He sat in one green chair, and whichever child was “in trouble” sat in the other green chair. He was not shy about telling us that we had disappointed him, and would let us know why, but there were no raised voices, no yelling–just conversation.  Sometimes I was grounded, sometimes I lost other privileges, but all discipline in my house was carried out through relationship. I hated that! It killed my heart to know I had disappointed my dad. Why? Because I knew he loved me, and I loved him. Relationship. Love. My dad loves us like Jesus loves.

I tried to love my children and raise them the way my dad raised me. I hope they know, that as imperfect as I am, they have always been loved and nothing could ever change that. My husband and I have decided more than once that we choose relationship over being “right”, and we’ve never once regretted that choice.

Bradley Jersak in his book “A More Christlike God” writes, Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith….He was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy…the repentance that he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. 

So–the answer to how we parent when our children fail? We love them. We pursue them. We draw near to them. We build relationship. We maintain relationship. We hold on to hope. We try to love like Jesus. Jesus came to us–He didn’t tell us to “come here”.  He closed the gap. He died for us while we were still all kinds of messed up. (Romans 5:8) He is our model for what it looks like to love.

Therefore; love your children as if Jesus was loving them through you–because He is.

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

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This I Know: A Parent’s Priority

Any of us who have raised or are raising children figure out pretty quickly that they don’t come with an instruction manual. If we have more than one child, we figure out that each one is unique, that what works with one doesn’t necessarily work with another one, and that parenting is hard, can be confusing, and many times we are just trying to make it through the day without losing our minds. It’s hard to keep a greater goal or purpose in mind. If you are a parent, and I were to ask you what you want for your children, how would you respond? Many times I hear the response, “I just want my children to be happy.” While I don’t think any of us would say that we want our children to be unhappy, is that the best we can give them?

Pastor John shared that a parent’s priority is to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God He encouraged us to love intently and lead intentionally. He gleaned those truths from Deuteronomy 6:5-9.

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NLT)

This I know–God loves us and desires that we respond by loving Him in return. Loving God is also at the heart of transformative parenting. Loving God with all that we are, living that relationship out in front our children, and having God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times helps us in the process of transferring our children’s dependence from ourselves God. Talking about God with our kids doesn’t have to be weird or stilted. Look for opportunities that fit naturally with what is going on in the moment. There are moments in everyday life that lend themselves very easily to conversations about God. For example, spring has finally come to Wyoming; our trees have green leaves on them, as a matter of fact, between trees, grass, border plants, and my herb garden, there are multiple shades of green on display. It’s not hard to talk about God’s creativity just by pointing out the multiple shades of green. We also have lilacs and tulips in bloom. The colors are gorgeous. We are surrounded by beauty that God created for God’s glory and for our delight. Get close to a tree, study the leaves and notice that while each one is similar, no two are alike. Neither are two of us alike. Nature gives us incredible opportunity to discuss God’s love and character.  Ask God to show you how to naturally share God’s attributes and character with your children throughout the day. The ways are endless. Then as they grow, and they begin to have questions about God, listen, converse; if they ask you things that you don’t have answers for, tell them that’s a great question and seek answers together. If the questions are unanswerable because we’re human and God is God, teach about what it means to have faith. If dark seasons come, wrestle openly, let your children see that sometimes life is hard and we adults have questions too. Pray with them. Intercede for others with them. Share with them insights from your personal time with God. Let them see your dependence on God and your relationship with God lived out in real time.

You may be saying to yourself–yes, those are good tips, but the verses above don’t talk about that, they talk about God’s commands. That would be correct, so let’s look at those commands for a moment.

In our modern existence, the concrete display of the ten commandments in public places has become a thing over which people have lawsuits. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind. Others use them as a behavioral litmus test and permission to point fingers at others who “break” a commandment. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind either. I heard a sermon once that reshaped my thoughts around the commandments and made a lot of sense to me which I’ll share below. First,  I’m going to paraphrase the commandments, but feel free to look up them up in Deuteronomy 5 or Exodus 20.

First, God tells us to love Him with all we are (heart, soul and mind) and not to worship any other gods. I think we worship other gods all the time, but don’t recognize it for what it is. We live in a consumeristic society and we worship possessions, wealth, comfort, famous people, politicians, ideologies, sports teams, our own nation, our children, and ourselves.  The things that we pursue often show what we worship. What would our children say we worship based on our priorities and pursuits?

God tells us not to misuse his name. Again, that can happen in many different ways. Obviously, there is cursing which involves the name of God, but God’s name can also be misused by imposing our interpretations of God (which don’t line up with God as revealed in Christ) on others. We can misuse God’s name by misusing scripture to manipulate situations. We can misuse God’s name by portraying images of Him that aren’t accurate such as the man upstairs, the lightening bolt god who’s just waiting to punish every wrong deed, the Santa Claus god who exists to give us everything we ask for, or any other man-made portrayal. How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Near? Caring? Harsh? Authoritarian? Permissive? Uninvolved? Kind? Angry? Punitive? Forgiving? Scripture tells us that God’s nature and character is love, and that God’s boundaries and guidelines are for our good. Would our children know that based on how we parent and how we portray God to be?

God tells us to rest. We’re lousy at this. In the Deuteronomy account of the 10 commandments, God reminds the people that they used to be slaves, but they were brought into freedom; as a reminder of their freedom they can rest. We are free in Christ.  We can rest. We can take a day off. The revolution of the earth is not on our shoulders. Life will continue after we are gone. The world won’t fall apart if we take a day off. Resting, ceasing for awhile, even while there is work still to be done,  is a beautiful declaration of dependence on God. It’s also a reminder of His love for us–it’s good for us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. We are commanded to rest and spend time with those we love.

God tells us to honor our parents. None of us had perfect parents, and that’s not the point. To honor them means to value their role, to have respect toward them in our attitudes and actions, and to respect their position. We can do that even if we have difficult parents. I’m certainly not a perfect parent, and I remember telling my children that we could discuss anything as long as we did so respectfully; if they disagreed with one of my decisions, they could certainly let me know; however, they needed to approach the situation with respect. Parents, it also helps if we are willing to apologize when we need to, to change our minds when we need to, to treat our children with respect and to honor them as image bearers of God.

In the remaining commandments God tells us not to murder people, not to commit adultery, not to steal from others, not to lie about others, and not to want what others have–their spouses or their stuff.

If we take the time to reflect on the theme that runs throughout these commandments, they are all about valuing relationships. Value your relationship with God first and foremost, and then value your relationships with other people. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)

The commandments are all about relationships. So, when we are encouraged in Deuteronomy 6 to repeat them again and again to our children, to talk about them at home and on the road, to tie them on our heads and hands as reminders (could heads be a reminder about our thoughts and hands a reminder about our actions?), to have them on our doorposts and our gates (reminders at our entrances and exits into our homes and into our communities) what is it that we are to repeat again and again? Is it a list of dos and don’ts– or how to love God and others?

If we believe it’s about teaching our children how to love God and others, then we must ask ourselves how we are doing with that in our personal lives?  A long time ago, my husband and I were having a beautiful conversation with a friend, Jeff,  who shared with us, that in our flesh we are incapable of loving God the way he desires, so he prayed that God would love himself through him (Jeff) and love others through him. Try praying that, if you are struggling to love God. If you grew up in an environment where love was manipulative, or withheld, ask God to teach you about His love–Jesus, and the ways that he interacted with people, is a great place to start. If your heritage and lineage is not full of stellar parenting examples, choose to be the one who changes it for the generations that come after you. I’ve learned a lot from other parents along the way. It’s okay to seek help. We need one another. 

My children are all young adults, and John and I did the best we could, but we know that we didn’t parent perfectly. Gratefully, our kids have felt secure in our love despite the times we didn’t measure up. I’ve told all of my children that we know we didn’t do it perfectly and that if they ever need to seek counseling for wounds we may have caused, we won’t feel threatened by that at all. Our desire for them is that they be healthy and whole in all ways, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.   My prayer for each of my children is, and has been, that they fall deeply in love with Jesus and go wherever he leads them. I trust God to meet them where they are, and pray that they discover that God is their source for everything.  God is the best parent of all so teaching our children to love and depend on Him is the best priority we can have as parents–this I know.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “This I know–God loves us and desires that we love Him in return.  I also know that the heart of transformative parenting is for parents to love God with all that we are, to live that relationship out in front our children, and to have God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times.” She also asked us this question:

“How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children…?

How we see God matters. It matters in every area of our lives. The way we view ourselves hinges on how we see God. The way we view the current issues in our world is deeply connected to how we see God. Our understanding of God has been built by those who “parented” us when we were young–for better or for worse. Many of us grew up with mixed messaging about who God is and what he wants for/from us. Some of us grew up with a beautiful picture of a loving God, full of grace. Others grew up under the weight of a punitive, angry, and critical God. All of us are, at least in part, products of the various “parents” in our lives. And we are raising, or have raised, children who are products of our parenting, for better, for worse–and probably a mix of both.

We model and mirror what we believe. The way we understand God, our picture of who he is, is transferred to our kids as they watch us parent them. Our perception of God becomes their truth. Our influence, especially in their younger years, is foundational. Their belief system will, at least initially, mirror what they see in us. What we model to them about the character of God is what they will hold as true about him. Children don’t have another point of reference when they’re young. We are their introduction to authority figures, their first picture of what parents look like. Their picture of God is constructed with the material we give them–what we model and mirror.

Our influence as parents (and simply as adults who “mother” and “father” those around us) is strong. That’s why it is so important that we have an authentic relationship with the God we say we believe in. Going to church every Sunday so we can check it off of our list is not the same as having a living, breathing relationship with our God. If we go for show, we mirror to our children a God who wants our performance rather than our hearts. If we attend a service one day a week but don’t wrestle with or put into practice what we’re learning, and don’t let it make a difference in how we live day-to-day, we model to our kids a God who is uninvolved and doesn’t really care how we live. As I thought through the importance of modeling an authentic relationship with God for our kids, my mind drifted to verses I have been studying in Matthew 23. The language is strong, but the concept is important:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15, NIV)

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.” (Matthew 23:13, MSG, emphasis mine)

Throughout the chapter that these verses come from, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, and pointing out the ways in which they make it difficult for people to come to God. All of us act like Pharisees at some point. We don’t mean to, and honestly, I don’t think the Pharisees meant to most of the time, either. They had been taught the laws and missed the love. They kept the rules, but had no relationship, at least not one that was authentic and growing. And this is what Jesus is talking to them about in the verses above. In the first verse I referenced, he’s talking about the lengths to which they’ll go to win others to their side. When they do, because they model what has been mirrored to them, the new “converts” are even worse off than the Pharisee that brought them in, because they’re one layer further removed from the God they think they’re serving. In the second verse, the Message paraphrase calls these scholars “roadblocks to God’s kingdom”. Regardless of which translation you read, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re not allowed to enter the kingdom. He doesn’t say they won’t eventually enter. He talks to them about their choice not to come in, their refusal to enter, and how that prevents others from entering into the kingdom that is already present among them.

In the past, I’ve read these verses in a detached way, a little taken aback by the language Jesus used to talk to these guys. In more recent years, my understanding has grown and I have heard it differently as I’ve been overwhelmed by the heart and love of God. When the verses came to mind as I listened to this message about parenting, I was a little surprised at first, but I believe there’s much we can glean and apply to our understanding of our influence.

These Pharisees were spiritual “fathers” in their communities. They were the most educated in the ancient scriptures and they were the ones trusted to hand down to the people the truths about God and what he expected of them. What they mirrored and labeled “godly”painted a picture of who God was to those they presided over. But they weren’t living out an authentic, living relationship with God. They believed in a punitive, authoritarian God, and so that is what they showed the people. And beyond that, they performed their “faith” in showy ways that didn’t match their inner lives. They had the same access to the kingdom as everyone else, but they chose not to enter. And because they held those beneath them to the same standards they followed, they didn’t allow them to live according to kingdom ways either.

We have the capacity to live this same way… And to teach our kids to do the same.

If our church attendance is stellar, but our Monday thru Saturday lives don’t match up, if we say the right things, but don’t step into the flow of loving God and others–the kingdom way Jesus modeled, we’re modeling this way of living to our kids. And because their truths are built around what we model, if we do this, we raise kids who are one generation further removed from the truth of who God really is.

But the alternative is also true… If God is our first priority, if we love him and seek him, and continue growing in our relationship with him; if we enter into the kingdom that is here all around us and live with self-emptying love, the way Jesus did, our kids see a very different picture. And rather than being a roadblock that prevents them from entering the kingdom, we become a doorway that introduces them to the reckless, overwhelming love of God–and they get to see that he is the best parent of all.

In order for them to see God in this way, he must be our priority. Is he?

Luanne asked us above what our children would say is our priority. Far too many children grow up in homes where work, substances, media, or prominent social lives are their parents’ dominant priority. But I see another trend as well…

I wonder how many of our kids would say that they are our first priority? I see it all over right now, how so many parents build their schedules and lives around their kids and their activities and desires, how mom’s life or dad’s life-or both-revolve entirely around their kids. It’s tempting to hold on too tightly in this fast-paced world we’re living in, to cling to the moments that are gone all too soon. In these families, it’s clear that the kids come first. God, the parents’ marriage, and everything else comes after. In this model, kids tend to feel very secure in their parents love. They have their full attention. They feel connected and protected and provided for. They don’t want for anything, because they’ve never known a longing that mom or dad hasn’t satisfied. Church and God may be a part of their world, as long as that doesn’t interfere with vacations, activities, sports–and of course, that’s only if the kids want to go. These families often appear to be overflowing with love and joy. It looks like it works. It can feel like it works… Until the day comes when that child experiences a longing mom and dad can’t satisfy. And that day will come. For everyone. Because we were all created in the image of our Creator and there is a bit of the eternal, the divine, in each of our hearts that longs for our true home. There is a craving to discover our ultimate identity, and that is found in our God–not in our parents.

This is why it’s so essential that our priority is to gradually transfer our child’s dependence away from us until it rests solely on God. 

This is impossible to do if our kids are our first priority. We have to learn to let go, so that we’re able to point our kids to the One who can truly meet their every need, reveal to them their true identity, love them perfectly, and hold them securely. When we hold on too tightly and our children depend solely on us to provide for their needs, we assume the role of God–and we cannot love them the way he can, regardless of how hard we try. If we try to fill all of their holes and answer all of their questions, we rob them of the chance to experience their own flourishing as sons and daughters of God. We become roadblocks to God’s kingdom–we don’t enter and we don’t let them in either.

Perhaps we’re tempted to prioritize our kids because our dependence was never transferred to God. Maybe we haven’t experienced the flourishing I described above ourselves. Maybe what was mirrored to us was an authoritarian god who required our performance, and we hopped onto the Pharisee train without even knowing it. The good news is, the story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. God can rewrite all of our old narratives and show us what healthy love looks and feels like. There is always hope for a new day–in our parenting and in everything. May the question “What is your priority?” be the beginning of a brand new chapter for all of us.

–Laura

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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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Stories: Shelly Ann

I have to begin this by identifying that I’ve typed and deleted my opening sentence half a dozen times… I feel the weight of the gift we were given this Sunday, and I deeply desire to honor the one who gave it. The gift Shelly gave us was not easy for her to give. While we needed to hear it in all of its interwoven grief and joy, she didn’t owe us her story. She chose to share her experiences, drenched in grace, and I have to acknowledge that before I write anything else. She gave us the gift of courageous vulnerability and a window into her reality–a reality that most of us in attendance will never understand for how much it differs from our own.

I know Shelly as my friend. I know her to be a woman of great strength who stands up for equity and serves many of the marginalized in our community in ways many people don’t know. I know her as a committed follower of Jesus who deeply desires to embody His love for all people. I know her as a friend who gives and gives… and then gives some more–from a heart that selflessly wants to help. I know her as a mother who would stop at nothing to provide an environment where her children can soar–but also understands the value of letting go so their wings can unfurl. She is a learner who asks hard questions–and doesn’t stop at easy answers. I know her to be feisty and fiery in all the right ways. Conversations with her can leave me doubled over laughing as easily as they can leave my eyes full of tears. This is a short summary of the Shelly I am blessed to know.

Shelly shared with us a couple of other descriptors of who she is. She is a twice-divorced mother of two, and she is an Hispanic woman. These are facts that make up part of who she is. Unfortunately, the world around her–including the part that lives within the walls of the Church–has failed to see beyond these two pieces that are only part of who she is…

She described being a single mom as overwhelming, a role marked with insecurity, self-doubt and second-guessing herself. She expressed that she “didn’t want to screw [her] kids up.” She talked about carrying the weight of all of the decision-making and not wanting to ask for help. “When you have to ask for help, you’re vulnerable,” she said. So she kept her two children in tightly clenched fists, and did her best to keep their world safe. Until she couldn’t do that anymore…

“I finally had to realize I couldn’t make my kids who I thought they should be…I had to give them back to the Lord and ask Him how to love them best.”

And so, in the vulnerability of asking for help, Shelly began to realize she wasn’t alone. She began to look for safe people who could speak encouragement to her and her children. She also heard a quote from Andy Stanley that shifted her focus as a mom:

“Your ministry may not be what you do, but who you raise.”

And I can attest to the fact that she has raised–and continues to guide–two incredible human beings who display the same love and light that is evident in their mother.

I mentioned that Shelly began to look for “safe” people for herself and her kids. It’s hard enough to be a divorced single mom. The struggle can be magnified by church culture that often ascribes higher value to married couples and “whole” families than to divorcees and their children. I spent half of my childhood as the daughter of a hardworking single mom. I saw the struggles my mom experienced and I felt the pang of our “difference” in our church experience, though there were certainly those who loved us well. What I cannot identify with–and never will be able to say that I understand–is the role that ethnicity has played in Shelly’s story. She didn’t only have to look for people who would be safe for a single mom and her kids–she had to find people who would be safe for an Hispanic single mom and her Hispanic children.

This is the part of Shelly’s story that makes me cry the most. It is also the part I feel most intimidated to write about. So I will share with you what she shared with us, and I invite you–especially those of you would identify as part of the majority culture (white people)–to listen. It took courage for Shelly to share her experiences–and those of her children–with an audience that has contributed to their pain. It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

With the exception of two years spent in Southwest Texas, Shelly and her children have lived their entire lives in Casper, Wyoming. This is their home. Here is some of what they have experienced here, in the community they call home:

Assumptions that they’re from Mexico, and when they say that they were born here, they are often asked, “When did your parents come over?”

Racial slurs and “jokes” out of the mouths of teachers and coaches.

Assumptions that they’re on welfare and have no manners.

Assumptions that they all speak fluent Spanish.

Continually being treated as “less than”. 

Enduring racial comments and condescension from students within our own church youth group.

These examples are a smattering of the prejudice Shelly and her children endure on a regular basis. So when she shared that she needed to find “safe” people, that wasn’t an easy step to take.

Shelly also shared with us that it was about a year ago that she realized who she is. In her words,

“I am His precious daughter and I have worth and value. And I want my kids to know that about themselves before they’re 44 years old like I was.”

As she spoke these words through tears, much of the room cried with her. This precious, beautiful woman has experienced a world that has repeatedly left her feeling less than. A world that has made assumptions. A world that has refused to acknowledge our part in her pain, and has made excuses to try to justify our behavior. But after 44 years of life, she began to see her preciousness as a daughter of God. I am so grateful that she sees this deep truth and holds onto it, that she lives from that place and knows she has worth.

But Shelly’s identity in Christ does not replace the other parts of her identity. Oftentimes, we who are part of majority culture want it to, because it lets us off the hook. There is a real temptation, especially within Christian circles to subscribe to “colorblindness”. But as Daniel Hill wrote in his book White Awake, “Colorblindness minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage…The ideology of Christian colorblindness is fortified by theological truths that are unfortunately misapplied to cultural identity. The short form usually sounds something like this: ‘God did not create multiple races; there is just one race: humankind.”

This may sound good–it certainly sounds easier. But taking a culturally neutral approach strips all of us of the intricacies of the Imago Dei (the image of God) represented in all of our differences more than in our sameness. All of us bear the image of God–every tribe and tongue. It is problematic to choose colorblindness as a way of interacting with one another because we each have different cultural experiences, traditions, and ways of being in the world that make us who we are. It is also a problem because colorblindness will always most benefit the majority culture. It protects us from listening, and from repenting and lamenting the pain we’ve caused. It gives us an excuse to keep things “normal”. And it keeps us from seeing and hearing the beauty in experiences that differ from our own. We all have to be aware of the temptation to sacrifice pieces of how God fashioned us on the altar of our identity in Christ. Is our identity in Him the most important identity we carry? Yes, I believe that the Imago Dei is the defining characteristic of all of humanity. But the image of God is grossly misrepresented if we choose to subscribe to a monochromatic version of who He is, and then try to call it equality. 

In regard to Shelly, her ethnicity contributes to who she is, as much as her gender does. It is a beautiful part of who she is and should be regarded as such. It would be naive of us to try to separate this part of her from who she is. It can’t be done.

This story was especially poignant after a week full of hatred…

11 Jewish people are dead–gunned down in their place of worship… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity. 

Two Black people are dead–gunned down in a grocery store… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity.

Many other stories have surfaced recently that evidence a mentality of white superiority. There has been a rise in hate crimes and fear is running wild. Colorblindness is not the answer to the violence and hatred.

Embracing one another as image bearers of God, as human beings who have inherent value and dignity, and choosing to see the beauty in our differences–choosing to love and listen to and learn from those differences–is where love can begin to grow and overpower the hate.

Church, the Kingdom Jesus brought to earth is not a white kingdom. It is also not a colorless kingdom. Our Jesus took on a human form that was Jewish and brown. The Bible speaks of every tribe and tongue–distinct, yet unified under the banner of Christ and His love.

Shelly gave us the gift of her story, her life experiences. We now have the opportunity to let her words pierce our hearts, to repent where we’ve caused hurt, and to choose to live our tomorrows differently. When we operate out of our judgement, assumptions, and prejudices, we distort the image of God in others and in ourselves as those who proclaim to love a Jesus who doesn’t share or approve of our superior mindsets. Let us choose instead to acknowledge, honor, and uphold the image of God in one another.

–Laura

Laura wrote:

 It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

I want to reiterate that it is not the role or responsibility of the stereotyped and marginalized to teach us about their experiences. It is costly to do so. It is our own responsibility to learn. There are wonderful books, fabulous podcasts, conferences, Facebook groups, etc. available to help us learn, but in order to learn, we have to be willing to face some uncomfortable truths.  Laura reminded us that it is our responsibility to listen without getting defensive or questioning the validity of another person’s pain.

This is where we get stuck. We get defensive. We push back. Some of us deny the valid experiences of others because they are not the experiences that we have. Some of us listen with sorrow, and then push back by saying “I’m not a racist, I see everyone the same,” which takes us back to Laura’s comments about color blindness. We can’t be color blind when it comes to people. It’s not realistic and it’s not Christ like. God made us in all of our wonderful diversity. We are to value one another–celebrate one another–learn from one another. Instead we “other” one another.

And Laura wrote: it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

…assumptions and prejudices that we may not even be aware we carry.  My prayer is that Shelly’s courage will bear good fruit, and we will begin to open our eyes and hearts to what many in our community, our nation, our world experience. I pray that we won’t just have our hearts open, but we will truly move toward making it different with the genuine love of God flowing out of us through the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that when assumptions begin to appear in our thoughts, that we’ll take those thoughts captive and replace them with Imago Dei thoughts.

We must understand that racism isn’t just about individual behavior, it’s much larger than that. And please, please, please, please don’t jump to political categories as you read through the next portion of the blog. Please don’t see “liberal” and “conservative”, “right” and “left”.  Racism is about human beings created in the Image of God. It is a spiritual issue that matters deeply to the heart of God. We must be willing to go there.

In the article “Understanding Whiteness–Calgary Anti-Racism Education” (University of Calgary), they write:

…racism is the result of The power of Whiteness manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 46-47).

Whiteness is multidimensional, complex, systemic and systematic:

  • It is socially and politically constructed, and therefore a learned behavior.
  • It does not just refer to skin colour but its ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour (Frye, 1983;  Kivel, 1996).
  • It represents a position of power where the power holder defines the categories, which means that the power holder decides who is white and who is not (Frye, 1983).
  • It is relational. “White” only exists in relation/opposition to other categories/locations in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness. In defining “others,” whiteness defines itself.
  • It is fluid – who is considered white changes over time (Kivel, 1996).
  • It is a state of unconsciousness: whiteness is often invisible to white people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference which is a root cause of oppression (hooks, 1994).
  • It shapes how white people view themselves and others, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned (Frankenberg, 1993). Cultural racism is founded in the belief that “whiteness is considered to be the universal … and allows one to think and speak as if Whiteness described and defined the world” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 327).

Okay–take a deep breath. There’s a lot to take in and process on this journey. A lot of squirming and discomfort involved–a strong desire to separate ourselves from it because it’s ugly and doesn’t feel good, and we don’t want to be part of it or perpetuate it. I know. I’m on the journey too. I’ve been one of the people who’s pushed back with “…but not all white people…” and “I’m not that way…”. And while those statements are true, they completely overlook the fact that I am part of a system that began long before I walked this planet, that benefits me over others. That’s what we must be willing to see.

So, what do we do?

We bathe ourselves in prayer, in scripture, in the life of Jesus, we ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us–to show us. We educate ourselves about systems and policies and accurate history, we allow ourselves to feel the pain and suffering of others, and we use our voices to make a positive difference, and we step into uncomfortable spaces as He leads.

God’s heart for all people is consistent throughout scripture.

In Genesis we are told that he created male and female and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world…not dominion over one another.

In Exodus 22:21 God tells us do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

In Leviticus 19:33-34 God says to us When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The Ten Commandments are all about loving God and treating others well, therefore Jesus could say that they are summed this way:  “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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22:36-40)

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it very clear that our neighbor is everyone. As a matter of fact, if you look closely at the gospels, often times the nationality of a person was mentioned…the Samaritan woman at the well (the disciples questioned the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman, and to a Samaritan woman at that), the Roman Centurion, the Syrophoenician woman (Canaanite) woman, and others.

The disciples struggled with prejudice, and Jesus called them on it. In Luke 9:51-54 we read  As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him;  but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.  Why is the Samaritan refusal to let them stay not reverse racism? It’s because they were the oppressed. Their frustration to the Jewish disciples made sense based on the way they’d been treated as second-class citizens through unjust treatment and systems that had been happening at the hands of the Jews since the Babylonian exile hundreds of years prior (when exiled Jews and Assyrians married). 

In the book of Acts, God continues to makes it clear that all people are precious to Him, it matters to him that the Hellenistic Jewish widows (those who had adopted the Greek customs and language) were being treated differently than the Hebraic Jewish widows in the daily distribution of bread. (6:1-7)

In the 10th chapter of Acts, Peter is confronted with his own prejudice- his own national and religious pride- and, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable for him; however, he allows God to change his heart and teach him that God does not show favoritism (10:34).

Paul dealt with the type of racism that Shelly has received…assumptions were made about him that weren’t accurate and he was treated poorly as a result of those assumptions.

Acts 22: 25-27 tells us what happened:

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.” The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered.  Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

I could cite example after example in scripture of the mistreatment of those considered different and/or less than, and how it is completely counter to the character of God–but here’s where I want to land-

If we are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model for how to live. Jesus loved the marginalized, the oppressed, the foreigner, the overlooked citizen, the Jew, the Gentile, even the Pharisees and Sadducees who caused him so much grief. He loved the rich, the poor, and His desire for all of them, for all of us, is that we love one another, and work for the flourishing of all people everywhere. That’s what His Kingdom looks like. It’s the restoration of the dignity and worth of all people–that they, like Shelly, come to know that they are beloved children of God. Everyone equally valued and loved.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2: 8-9)

Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)

Let’s love our Lord well by loving His Image Bearers well. Let’s humble ourselves, listen,  learn, let’s be sensitive with our “humor”, with our influences. Let’s speak light into darkness, let’s be aware that the tongue has the power of life and death (Pr. 18:21). 

God has entrusted us with one another. Let’s live lives worthy of the calling we’ve received (Eph. 4:1) leveraging our lives for The Kingdom, and doing life the Jesus way.

–Luanne

If you want to learn more:

Books:  White Awake (Daniel Hill), The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

Facebook Page: Be The Bridge (Latasha Morrison)

Twitter: follow Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She’s amazing!)

Related image Related image

 

Stories: Ashley & Allyson

Ashley, Allyson, their birth children, and Jase—it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story, the only one that matters.

Ashley shared that he was raised in a Jewish home, his parents divorced right around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, and he spiraled down, down, down. After a few years of living in the pit, an African American family invited him to a prayer service. They explained through the scriptures about God’s love and who Jesus is. Ashley met Jesus that night, and his life was forever changed. Then, the African American family took Ashley under their wing. They discipled him for six months and he became part of their family. I love that so much! The picture of the Kingdom of God, the reaching out across ethnic groups, the spiritual adoption of Ashley by God, and the spiritual adoption of Ashley by a beautiful family that loved God and loved Ashley is what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.

Allyson shared that she was raised in an atheist home with 14 kids, 11 of whom were adopted. There was a lot of dysfunction in her home, and much pain. She did not think too highly of the whole adoption thing. She came into a relationship with Christ when she was 18, shortly after she met Ashley.

Fast forward a few years, Ashley and Allyson have three daughters and a son. Life is good. They are happy. And boom! At a high school soccer game, a friend of one of their daughters asks the daughters if their family would be interested in hosting a little boy from China for a few weeks. She gives them the information she has, they take it home and show it to their parents. Because the little boy’s initial paperwork had been lost, it was crunch time, so a decision needed to be made in about 24 hours. Can you imagine?  Well, Ashley and Allyson and the kids prayed about it, and decided to say yes to hosting Li.

Six year old Li arrives, he speaks no English, he has no idea what is going on, and he’s a little wild. They keep calling him Li but he doesn’t answer.  Eventually they discover that he’s not answering because that’s not his name. His Chinese name is difficult to pronounce, and thus the hosting begins.

While they are hosting Li, Ashley sends a letter to some of their friends asking them to pray about a forever family for Li; they are praying at home too. Each evening after they put Li to bed, they ask their kids what God is saying to them and showing them in scripture. The two girls who still live at home are absolutely sure that Li needs to be part of their family, the 13 year old son, who is sharing his bedroom with Li, wants to send him back to China.

Ashley begins to get confirmation through scripture that God wants them to adopt Li. He is pondering verses like Psalm 68:5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”  Psalm 146: 9 “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow…”. Luke 14: 21b “…go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”  And James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. “  He is beginning to believe that they are the “forever family” that they are praying for.

Allyson is in her own wrestling match. Her family of origin adoption story left her feeling less than warm and fuzzy about it all, and as she wrestled through her reasons, she realized that any reason she had for saying no was basically selfish. God reminded her that adoption is his idea and asked her if she’d be willing to let him do a new thing, but she didn’t get to her “yes” until they were on a trip to Yellowstone and Li jumped out of the car and almost got hit by another car. The whole family was shaken up. Allyson said that she was struck by the fact that if he’d been hit by a car, he could have died, or been hospitalized and would not have been able to return to China at the expected time. Then it dawned on her…no one cared if he returned. There was no one in China wondering about him, no one who cared if he was getting enough to eat, or getting enough sleep, or if he was learning anything. There was no one for him to return to in China. She realized that she loved him, she cared about all of those things, and she was ready to say yes.

There was still the hurdle of the youngest son. He and Li struggled. Li broke his toys, blamed him for everything, and had changed his world. One particularly difficult day, the son accidentally shut Li’s fingers in the door while trying to get away from him. He felt horrible. That night, as the family convened to see where they were, both Ashley and Allyson were convinced that their son would again say “send him back”, especially after the difficult day. But instead, with tears streaming down his face, he said, “We need to adopt him. He needs a daddy to love him, he needs a family, we need to bring him home.”

Fourteen months later, they went to China and brought him home. They changed his name to Jase (which means healing) Jackson (God is gracious).  And anyone who has come into contact with Jase, knows what a special young man he is.

Ashley and Allyson each have their own story of past brokenness. They came into relationship with Christ because other people reached across perceived barriers and loved them into the Kingdom. As they walk closely with their Heavenly Father, they listen to Him, seek Him, and step out in faith to follow in obedience, without having to know all of the details. Through this relationship, they became the physical manifestation of the love of God to Jase. The friend of their daughters who spoke up about the need reminds me of something that Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission says. He says that raising awareness is doing the work of justice. She shared a need that she knew of, and God used her sharing that need to change a little boy’s life, and a family’s life. The daughters were enthusiastically ready to embrace Jase from the moment they knew that he existed. They joyfully embraced the idea, and welcomed Jase with open arms. The youngest son, who wasn’t  too excited about the idea, who  resisted the change and closed his heart for a season, let God do a work in him, and finally opened his heart to receive and embrace his younger brother.

This is a living illustration of the church. We have a loving Father who wants everyone to come into His family. His arms are open wide. Are ours?  The entire Bright family had to make adjustments when Jase joined them. Allyson says that he was wild when he first came. Ashley says that he resisted being touched, but would allow Ashley to carry him because he was weak and couldn’t walk well. Allyson said he wasn’t wanted in China because of a birth defect, so he was considered damaged goods, and she reminded us that we are all damaged goods.  Allyson also learned that in the orphanages, often times the names they were called  were merely descriptions for their physical disablilties or identified what orphanage they were in…labels, not names.  And now? Jase has a beautiful new name with a new meaning, he has a family who loves him, siblings who love him, and God is using his story to reach many many others.

If we think about Jase as the representative of the lost people around us, are we willing to make room at the table for them? Are we willing to love them as they are in all their “wildness”? Are we willing to carry them until they gain health and strength? Are we willing to patiently teach them a new language, the language of grace, of love? Are we willing to look past their labels, see them as beloved, chosen, children of God and call them by that new name? Are we willing to embrace them with joy? If we are still honestly struggling with reluctance because embracing someone new will change the “family” dynamics, are we willing to wrestle it through because we know that the world needs a Daddy who loves them? Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?

—Luanne

I will start where Luanne finished:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Adoption stories, redemption stories, they stir our hearts. They make us feel. The sniffles and tears were not isolated to a few of us as the Brights shared their story. Many boxes of tissues were depleted as we listened. I think part of the reason for the emotion is exactly what Luanne shared above, “…it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story…”. We see ourselves in these stories-because it’s our story, too.

I am concerned, though, that many of us stop there. We hear the beautiful story, shed a few tears, and go on about our lives. We stop short of embracing our call-the call that God has given ALL of us…

Ashley identified that throughout his spiritual journey, the Word of God built the foundation for his eventual willingness to adopt Jase into his family. He learned that God is a Father to the fatherless and that He calls us to take care of widows and orphans, that how we treat “the least of these” and the “lasts” among us matters to Him. That caring for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized is actually the “pure and faultless religion” that our God requires.

This call that Ashley sensed through Scripture is not unique to him. It is the call for all of us as the family of God. It won’t look the same for each one of us, but it does apply to all of us.

This is where it gets hard, friends. Here is Luanne’s question again:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Making sacrifices is difficult, because, well, they’re sacrifices. One of the definitions of the word is “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else“. 

Ashley said that bringing Jase into their family required learning new steps in the dance that they were accustomed to. Taylor, Jase’s big sister, added, “We didn’t just have to learn new steps-we received a whole new sheet of music”. Not only did the natural rhythm of the Bright family have to adapt to include another member–their entire soundtrack was replaced with songs that were completely new to them. Their taste in music had to change in order to fully embrace this precious, newest member of the family. They had to surrender their old soundtrack, for the sake of someone else.

Are we, as a family of believers, willing to let go of our old familiar steps and learn a new dance in order to welcome in those who need a family? Are we willing to be flexible with our song sheets and make adjustments when necessary? Is bringing someone home more important to us than clinging to what has become routine, normal, “just the way it’s always been”?

If we desire to see the family grow, we have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of those we long to bring home. What those sacrifices are will vary person to person, but here are some things that we can apply from the Bright’s story…

We will have to be willing to sacrifice our time and our energy on behalf of others. Allyson shared that the first month that Jase was with them, family members had to physically hang onto him to keep him alive. He wasn’t aware of all the ways he could be in danger, and when he was aware, he wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way. He needed their physical presence to protect him, to teach him how to stay out of dangerous situations. The same can be true for new believers. If we are going to embrace the broken, addicted, damaged sinner (…this is all of us at different points in our journeys…), we have to be willing to be proximate. To commit to the process, the long-haul, the discipling that we are all called to do when bringing others into the family.

But what if they push us away? We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Jase stayed “an arm’s length away” for a while. He wouldn’t allow himself to be embraced. He had never before known what being chosen felt like and he needed time to learn to trust his new family. Can we give new family members the grace and time they need to learn to trust us? Can we love them well from as close as they’ll allow us to get to them and be patient with their broken hearts? Or do we have an agenda that we will demand adherence to before we will accept someone new?

Ashley said that they asked their kids, “Are you willing to give up the house if we have to?”. That question hit me pretty hard. A family’s home is their sacred space, a reflection of who they are, a refuge. But the Bright’s house isn’t what gives their family its identity. Rather, its their family that differentiates their house from any other grouping of walls and rooms. If they had to, they would have left their house and made a new home elsewhere in order to bring Jase home. He was the priority. He needed a family, not a house. They were willing to do whatever they had to do, to surrender whatever they had to for the sake of one. For their son, their brother, the missing piece of their family.

So how far are we willing to go? Is our goal to bring more people into the house? Or to set the lonely in families, to provide a home for widows and orphans? Will we sacrifice everything for the one? Will we have the courage to set aside the “house rules” and welcome the foreigner, the brother or sister that doesn’t look like us, talk like us or dance like us? And could we not only welcome them into our family, but allow them to change us for the better? To learn new notes and new steps from them and their experiences and add them to our own? If we are willing to do whatever it takes to bring our family home, we will find ourselves dancing to a song that sounds a whole lot like what Revelation 7:9-10 describes:

“I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!” (MSG)

So I’ll ask what Luanne asked, one last time:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

 

–Laura

Image result for i will not leave you as orphans

Who Are We? Colossians 1:1-8

I love the book of Colossians and am super excited that we will be in that book for the next 10 weeks. Paul lays out a beautiful picture of the supremacy of Jesus in this letter–one that I think if we truly “got” would change us to our core.

In the first message of this series, John highlighted verses 1-8 of chapter one—Paul’s greeting. It says this:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. (NIV)

So many things stand out in this passage–
*Paul’s call “by the will of God”– Every person in Christ has a call by the will of God, including you and me.
*Paul’s acknowledgement of Timothy– Paul does not do ministry alone; neither should we.
*His acknowledgement of the believers in Colossae as “holy” or “saints”, not because of superior morality, but because of their position in Christ, they belong to, are set apart by the presence of Jesus in their lives. We too, are saints, holy–because of Jesus. Can those around us perceive that we are different? Not superior, but different.
*Paul encourages the Colossians, builds them up, acknowledges that he has heard about their faith, about their love for one another, about their hope in God’s big plan, about their acceptance of the gospel and the growth in their region because they are sharing it, about their understanding of the grace of God, and he lets them know that they are not alone–that the gospel is spreading throughout the whole world. And he mentions Epaphras, and says beautiful encouraging things about him. Building one another up, sharing life together, speaking life to one another, are indicators of the presence of Christ. Is that how we, the body of Christ, are living today? Are we known as life speakers? As encouragers?

John threw out some nuggets of his own in the sermon:

*Knowledge means nothing if it’s not connected to your heart.
*The ability to have faith and love comes from our hope–hope in all things becoming right, complete, because we know how it ends, we see the big picture and what God is doing in the big picture.
*Christianity was pushing into a world that didn’t necessarily want it.
*False teaching began to come in and Christianity was being twisted to meet the desire of the people, so Paul wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to keep Jesus Christ at the core of who they were, to shape their lives around him.
*We belong to Jesus, He does not belong to us.
*My identity, your identity is that we are followers of Jesus Christ. It’s all or nothing.

In the midst of all of these beautiful and profound things, my heart landed on Epaphras. Epaphras, the “fellow servant” of Paul and Timothy, the “faithful minister of Christ” to the Colossians, the man who presented the message of Christ so beautifully that the Colossians “truly understood God’s grace” and it changed their lives and their community forever.

We don’t know much about Epaphras. He is mentioned in one other book of the Bible– Philemon, and at that point he is a prisoner with Paul and is sending his greetings to Philemon who was a leader in the Colossian church. But what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.

Can that be said of us? Are we “fellow servants” with others in the ministry of sharing Jesus? Are we “faithful ministers of Christ”? Do we know and love Jesus enough that those around us can “truly understand God’s grace”? Are we in-all or nothing-as followers of Christ? Are we willing to push into a world that doesn’t necessarily want Jesus? Have we lost our hope? Do we feel alone?

John shared this video with us:  https://youtu.be/9h0zTWHQGP4

Isn’t that encouraging? While it’s true that Christianity is growing at a slower rate in the United States than our population growth, the annual world population growth is at a rate of 1.2%, and the annual evangelical growth rate is 2.6% (GMI.org) Just like Paul wrote: “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world.” There is a permanency to the gospel. It is powerful, it will not be stopped, the gates of hell will not prevail against it! (Mt. 16:18)

So the question for us, who live in a part of the world where the gospel is not growing as fast…who live in a world resistant to the message of Christ (because, unfortunately, he has been so misrepresented here), are we each willing to be an Epaphras? Are we willing to fall in love with Jesus, recognize His beauty, His supremacy, ask Him to teach us to love the world, to connect our knowledge to our hearts–to His heart–embrace God’s will, God’s call in our lives,  and allow the Spirit to flow through us to those around us? May hope in the fulfillment of God’s big mission birth faith and love that leads to action in each of us.

–Luanne

I find myself a bit scattered as my fingers land on my keyboard… How can it be that there is so much packed into eight short verses? There are so many directions to go, points to expound on, thoughts to explore. As I read through Luanne’s words and re-read the verses a few times, one thought stuck in my mind.

All of the people mentioned in these verses were “all in”, fully committed to the work before them and fully committed to one another.

The letter is written from Paul-and he includes Timothy-to the church at Colossae. We know from all that is written by-and about-these two that they were committed to furthering the Gospel of Jesus. But what stood out to me about them in this short passage related to their commitment to the Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you… (vs. 3)

I think this short verse is so beautiful. The two words I highlighted above, “always” and “when” say so much about the hearts of Paul and Timothy toward their brothers and sisters in Christ. “When” we pray, let the church know that they were being faithfully prayed for. And when they prayed for them, it was always with thanksgiving. We aren’t privy to all of the other things Paul and Timothy may have prayed in regard to this church, but we know that they always thanked God for them. What if we prayed that way for each other? First, that we actually pray–that’s the “when”. And second, that we always begin by thanking God for whoever it is that we are praying for. Thanking Him for the work He is doing in the people we pray for, starting there. Not with the gripes and a critical spirit–with grateful hearts that can see the life of Jesus working in fellow believers. I have this feeling that if we changed just this one tiny thing in our prayers, we would find that our own hearts would be changed and our relationships would grow stronger.

And the people they were praying for, the Colossians, they were “all in”, too. John gave us a breakdown of their story. He laid it out this way:

They were once disconnected from God, dead in their sin–us too, right?

They heard the Gospel, and they accepted it. We have heard-have we accepted it?

Their sins were forgiven and they were baptized and began living a new life. Do we know our sins are forgiven? Have we been baptized and have our lives been made new?

Jesus was Lord of their life. They lived in a way that testified to His Lordship. Where are we in this step? Can people look at our lives and see us unashamedly living Jesus’s way?

John also said, and Luanne mentioned this earlier, that they were pushing into a world that didn’t want them there. We will come back to this point…

I think it’s safe to say that the church at Colossae was “all in”.

And then there is Epaphras. Luanne wrote about him so beautifully, so I will use her description again here:

“…what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.”

Again, he was “all in”. Paul & Timothy, the Colossians and Epaphras-all of them lived lives fully surrendered to Jesus and fully on mission. These eight verses tell us more than enough about them to come to the conclusion that they were committed. They were in. Period. No turning back. And that is why they were “pushing into a world that didn’t want them there”… and having success.

When John spoke those words, I couldn’t help but relate it to us today. As Luanne mentioned above, the United States is one of the few countries where Christianity is growing more slowly than the population of the nation. It is not at all a stretch to say that, in our present day and culture, the world around us doesn’t really want us here. I agree with Luanne that a major contributing factor is that we have so misrepresented who Jesus is and what our faith is all about, but regardless of the “why”, we are definitely unwanted in the nation we call home.

What are we doing about that? Could it be said of us that we are “pushing in” to a world that doesn’t want us, as the Colossians did? Or are we allowing the world around us to influence us more than we are influencing them? Are we being shaped by culture or are we shaping culture? As individuals and as the collective church?

I believe that the reason the Colossian church was successful at pushing into and changing the world around them was because they were all in. Their understanding of who they were-ambassadors who represented Jesus, brothers and sisters who all were important to the family of believers and saints because they belonged to Jesus-directed every facet of their lives. They got it. They accepted it. And they lived in a way that proved that they believed it.

What about us? Can we effectively push into a world that doesn’t (know) they want us? The answer, I believe, is yes. If we go all in. If we can follow this beautiful example and live fully committed lives, we can and will see the statistics in our nation and the world change for the better. I want to live an “all in” life. Will you join me?

We would love for you to enter into the conversation with us through the comments section!

-Laura

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