The Lord’s Prayer #1

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name, 
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done, 
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those
who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, 
and the power, and the glory, 
for ever and ever. Amen.
I assume that most of us, regardless of our various upbringings, are familiar with some version of the prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The above rendition is probably the most common. What is your experience with this famous prayer? Is it part of your prayer life? Did you memorize it as a child? What does it mean to you? We will spend three weeks diving deeply into this prayer that Jesus gave his followers as he taught them how to pray–it will form and teach us, if we let it.
On Sunday, Pastor John shared that this prayer defines and explains what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount. We find it in Matthew 6:9-13, right after Jesus talks about what not to do when we pray. Here is that section again, to refresh our memories:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:5-8)
After talking through prayer practices that he does not endorse, Jesus says,

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)

These twenty-two words are the focus of this week’s message. The rest of the prayer will be covered over the next two weeks. I am grateful we’re taking it slowly through this section of the sermon on the mount. There is so much to explore, to discuss, to thoughtfully consider within these words. We have an opportunity to look more deeply into what might be very familiar to us, an opportunity to hear the words in a new way. If we lean in with open hearts and minds, seeking to learn and be transformed, we will not be disappointed with what we discover. It is my favorite thing about scripture, the way the Spirit comes into the words and brings them to life in fresh, new ways, revealing more than we had seen before.

On a personal note, this prayer has been a key part of my own prayer life for several years. Ever since the concept of “the kingdom” became a focal point of my journey with Jesus, praying “Your kingdom come…” has become an important part of my life. I don’t know that I thought much about it or what it meant when I was younger. It was actually Luanne who brought it to my attention. As she was captivated by this kingdom Jesus brought to earth, and began to share what she was learning, I was captivated also. If you read this blog often, it’s not news to you that both of us are still quite captivated by the kingdom and what kingdom living looks like for Jesus’ followers today–we write about it probably more than any other topic we cover.

Here’s the thing about what I just shared… Though this prayer has become a key daily component of my own prayer life, there is still more for me to discover in these five verses. There is more treasure to mine in these twenty-two words that Pastor John walked us through on Sunday. I love that. I never want any part of scripture to become stale or commonplace to me. I want to keep digging in, to continue to learn and ask for Holy Spirit revelation to breathe fresh, new life into ancient words. There is always more. As evidence to my point, I have wrestled with what to focus on in my portion of this week’s post. There are so many directions to go! One thing Pastor John highlighted stood out to me above the rest, though, so that’s where I’ll spend my time here.

Something I’ve been learning a lot about for the last couple of years is dualistic versus non-dualistic thinking. It’s especially intriguing to me when I look at the ways that dualism has slithered into western, evangelical Christianity, specifically here in the United States. I understand dualism to be either/or, black and white, this or that ways of thinking. It can lead to an us versus them mindset and often divides rather than unites.

Non-dualism, on the other hand, embraces the both/and, and that way of thinking and relating allows us to be comfortable living in the tension of the and. It allows us to think more broadly, more collectively. It connects rather than divides. But non-dualism leaves things a little undefined. To embrace non-dualistic ways of thinking, we have to learn to embrace mystery, to get comfortable with not having all the answers, to allow ourselves to be led beyond our comfort zones. Non-dualism asks us to consider ways of thinking that challenge our previous understanding. I believe breaking free of dualistic thinking is an essential part of growing in our walks with Jesus.

Pastor John introduced two concepts in this week’s passage where, in his words, “Jesus breaks the dualism.” 

The first is in our understanding of how prayer is meant to be handled. Jesus has just finished talking about prayer being something that ought to be done in private, between us and God, not for show… But this prayer focuses on “us”, right? So it’s not an individual prayer? But it’s meant to prayed as a private, individual prayer?

For those of us who have been raised in some version of westernized Christianity, it’s likely we have a very individualized approach to our faith and our prayers. Much of the teaching we grew up with probably focused on our personal relationships with God and our prayer lives probably reflect that.

What Jesus is teaching us in this passage is how to pray individually and collectively simultaneously. We can pray privately, but our focus is not on ourselves. We’ve written a lot about how early Christianity was communal in nature. We have moved so far away from that in our individualism that even praying the way Jesus teaches may not naturally make sense to us. Other cultures who embrace a more community-focused way of life probably aren’t challenged the same way some of us are when reading Jesus’ instructions. It’s so important that we notice and pay attention to the ways our either/or thinking invades even our study of scripture.

Jesus invites us–by beginning this “personal” prayer with the word “our”–to move away from dualism. He does so again in the way he presents God in his opening words. He says, “Our Father,” including all of us in his own father/son relationship with the God of the heavens,”the universe, the world, the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it” (Strong’s Greek Lexicon). He continues, “…hallowed is your name.” Hallowed means set apart, most holy, above all. 

So in the opening line of the prayer, Jesus identifies God as our collective, personal father, that we–along with Jesus–are in intimate relationship with, and identifies him also as entirely set apart, above all, distinctly holy. So, in which way do we relate to our God? The answer is: both. Right away, Jesus invites his listeners to enter into a new understanding of how to relate with God. Is he our father that we are intimately connected to, or is he altogether set apart, holy, different from all others? Yes. The answer is not an or, but an and.

It matters that Jesus addresses these things right away. It will serve us well to pay attention to what he is revealing. Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The entire sermon on the mount up to this point has been teaching us what it looks like to be kingdom-people, beginning with our hearts. In this prayer, Jesus moves our understanding further–beyond heart change and into a community-focused space, where our prayers are transformed as our hearts come into alignment with the kingdom he is introducing.

Where do the opening lines of this famous prayer find us? Where do Jesus’ words land in our minds and hearts? Have we prayed individually with a collective focus? What might Jesus be wanting to transform in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to praying? I look forward to following where Jesus is leading us together, as we continue to explore his words.

–Laura

As Laura wrote above,  I have been captivated by the kingdom of heaven coming to earth for years now. She and I were trying to remember how many years ago my obsession with The Kingdom here and now began–at least eight or nine. I can’t remember what sparked that flame, but even as I write about it now, my heart burns within me and my fingers tingle as I type. I believe that understanding God’s desire to establish his kingdom on earth, right here and right now, is the key to understanding what Christianity is all about.

Laura set us up beautifully for the Kingdom words Jesus taught us when she wrote: Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into.

A both/and understanding is imperative. Pastor John pointed out that we waffle back and forth between God as our Abba–our daddy, our father and God as the Holy One, the Almighty who is powerful and therefore, (in our minds) sometimes scary. Jesus combines the two…God is close– intimacy with God is possible, and God is Almighty and Holy and completely “other”.
Once we have this understanding, the rest of the prayer makes more sense to us. So here we go. The next fourteen words say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Full stop. Read it again. Pray it again. This is God’s desire for earth. 
I don’t know how we miss this, and I missed it for a lot of years; however, a close reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God on earth more than any other subject. It was his priority, and he embodied what it looked like in the flesh. In the Sermon on the Mount he is teaching those willing to hear, what Kingdom people look like.
Quick recap: He saw the crowds, went up the mountain, sat down and began to teach.
He started with the beatitudes–this is what my people will look like: Compare the beatitudes to Philippians chapter 2…have this mind (attitude) in you which was also in Christ Jesus…) 
Next: My followers will be salt and light in the world.
Then a reinterpretation of the law that focuses on our hearts and our treatment of others: You’ve heard it said…but I say…  
And then the three when you statements: When you give… when you pray… when you fast…
Right in the middle of those statements, this private prayer, prayed from the position that “I” am part of the “we”, that focuses on God’s will for the entire earth, is taught.
What are we praying when we pray Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
I was introduced to an expanded version of The Lord’s Prayer through Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri, that clears it up. In that expanded version, this portion of The Lord’s Prayer says:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy government come, thy politics be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy reign and rule come, thy plans and purposes be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
May we be an anticipation of the age to come.
May we embody the reign of Christ here and now.
This is the deep cry of my heart. God’s kingdom, not ours. God’s will, not ours. God’s government, not ours. God’s politics, not ours. God’s reign and rule, not ours. God’s plans and purposes, not ours. God is the only One who can establish God’s kingdom, yet it has everything to do with us and our understanding of God’s sovereignty and desire for intimacy with us.
God’s kingdom comes through us–through our relationship with God. God is here. Your will be done is what God’s kingdom coming looks like–it comes as we do God’s will.
This is where we struggle. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts as we ask ourselves am I aligning my life with God’s will?  In our individualistic thinking we ask God, what is your will for my life? That’s the wrong question. The right question is God, what is your will?  Period. And then we align ourselves with God’s will.
Jesus is the best example of this. How does Jesus relate to God? He models constant intimacy. Jesus never goes rogue…he does only what he sees the Father doing. (John 5:19). And he tells us to stay connected to him: I am the vine, you (all) are the branches, if you (all) remain in me and I in you (all); you (all) will bear much fruit. (John 15:5). All of those pronouns in the Greek are plural.
What fruit will we bear? The fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
We are a people who are to be known for those characteristics.
you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation (a kingdom), God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
 Where is the kingdom? (Jesus) was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he gave them this reply: “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you. (Luke 17:20-21 J.B. Phillips)
And to quote Jesus from this very sermon:  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  (Mt. 5:14-15)
The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. 
To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected to the vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. In the New Testament we see that the Romans prioritized Rome, the Jews prioritized Israel, the Samaritans prioritized Samaria, etc. I’m a citizen of the USA, and I lived in Brazil for a decade. Should I prioritize those countries? If so, which one? No to all of this. When we follow Jesus, we become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Earthly kingdoms have to take a back seat to this.
The Apostle Paul understood this and he wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.  In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us...Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. (Col. 3: 10,11-13 NLT)

What categories do you suppose Paul might highlight if he were writing today? Think about it and repent where you need to. (I’m doing the same.)

Citizens of the kingdom of heaven, during the reign and rule of Rome, were beaten, imprisoned, persecuted, falsely accused, killed. They sang in prison, counted it joy to be persecuted for following Jesus, were scattered to other countries as a result of persecution and took the love of Jesus with them, they died in such a way (sometimes in arenas in front of crowds) that they created a holy curiosity about who Jesus was. Their priority was God’s kingdom, and sometimes they paid a high (earthly) price for living that way. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

N. T. Wright in his book “God and the Pandemic” writes: ...the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’…it’s about mission….God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort….When people look out on the world and its disasters…they ask…why doesn’t he send a thunderbolt…and put things right?…God does send thunderbolts–human ones.  He sends in the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people…They will use their initiative; they will see where the real needs are, and go to meet them. They will weep at the tombs of their friends. At the tombs of their enemies. Some of them will get hurt. Some may be killed. That is the story of Acts, all through. There will be problems…but God’s purpose will come through. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, will be the answer…

Where, you may be asking, does personal salvation fit into all of this? Rich Villoda’s, in his soon to be published book The Deeply-Formed Life writes:

Eldon Ladd, in his short but seminal book on the gospel of the kingdom, wrote, “The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future life to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationship of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world.” At the core of the gospel, then, is the “making right” of all things through Jesus. In Jesus’s death and resurrection, the world is set on a trajectory of renewal, but God graciously invites us to work toward this future. However, this work is not an individual enterprise; it is one orchestrated by the collected efforts of a new family…” (Emphasis mine)

A new family.

Our Father…Abba’s Kingdom…Abba’s will…on Earth…through us.

–Luanne

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Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

We are in the second week of a mini-series within our series–the three “When you…” statements Jesus made in the sermon he taught on the mount. Luanne introduced us to all three last week before she expanded on giving, the first topic Jesus addressed. Here is a snippet of what she wrote to refresh our memories:

“Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… (Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting. So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.”

Pastor John spent a few minutes on Sunday articulating that while Jesus spoke first about giving, then praying, then fasting, the order doesn’t indicate priority. All three pillars are important. If we leave one out, we cannot fully understand the other two. I think in pictures a lot, so as he spoke to us, I pictured a triangular platform balanced on three pillars. If one pillar is removed, the whole structure tumbles. That’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. But what if one is beefed up, reinforced, well taken care of, while one (or both) of the others is neglected? The corner supported by the maintained pillar may be strong and for a while the whole structure may appear to be in good shape. But, eventually, the weaker supports will begin to sag and give way, collapsing the whole thing–including the part that felt strong. An equal emphasis is necessary in our application of these three principles if we want to live a healthy, fruitful, kingdom-driven life. In order to apply them effectively, we have to first understand them.

Luanne explained beautifully Jesus’ instructions about giving last week. That post is linked in the first paragraph above if you missed it. This week, our focus is prayer. Our passage is Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” (The Message)

Pastor John shared with us about the prominence of prayer in ancient Judaism. There are prayers that were (and still are, for some devout Jews) prayed at specific times throughout the day, and many shorter prayers that were integrated into their daily lives. History tells us that, in ancient Judaism, followers were committed to prayer. When we think about religions that emphasize prayer today, we might think of Islam and the way that many Muslims integrate times of prayer into their daily lives.

But what will history say about prayer as it relates to Christianity? John asked us.

Hmm. Good question, right? Jesus modeled prayer many times during his earthly ministry. And as Luanne’s words from last week reminded us, the early church was committed to prayer. But what about now? What about us, today? What does our prayer life look like–individually as well as in our homes, our churches, our communities?

Pastor John identified that many of us pray three times each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we’re not too uncomfortable to do so… If we’re honest, how many of us can say that we have a prayer life that goes deeper than that?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may recall that my history with the Church and with God is a bit complicated. My home life was also challenging in many ways. However, my Mom’s unwavering faith set an example for me that still impacts my walk with Jesus today. Her example, especially in the area of prayer, is a gift that I am deeply grateful for.

I was not always a fan of her prayer life, though. I found it a bit embarrassing and idealistic, even a little silly at times. She prayed about everything. Literally. Everything. A break in traffic to make a left turn… A parking spot at the mall on a rainy day… A good clearance find at the store when money was tight… A short line when the schedule was tight… She would pray short, conversational prayers–out loud, of course–about all of these things. And I would roll my eyes and hide a little–especially if my friends were with us. She simply talked to God. All throughout her day. It was as natural as breathing to her. I may have been annoyed in my adolescence… but I heard her. I heard other prayers, too, spoken in the same conversational way, every day that I spent with her. Prayers like:

I need a miracle to pay this bill this month, when she was working three jobs and raising my brother and I alone.

Please let me live long enough to see my kids graduate, when she was wrestling with the terminal illness she’d been diagnosed with.

Give me your grace to forgive…again, as she grieved the betrayal and rejection of her husband.

Will you give me the gift of a friend? And a husband who will love me? I’m so lonely…, as she dealt with feeling isolated and alone.

Draw my kids’ hearts to you, heal their hurts, be their Father, she prayed for us repeatedly, especially as we grew into adulthood.

I want to live for Your Glory, whether here or in heaven, as she wrestled with her failing health.

In addition to prayers like these, she prayed for other people constantly. Her name was Constance–everyone called her Connie–and she lived out the meaning of her name. She was constant, consistent, committed. I was recently reminiscing about her with Luanne, and remarking about how great she was at connecting with others, how she was the best at being a good friend. If she said she would pray for someone, she meant it. She’d usually do it right there, wherever “there” happened to be, and however uncomfortable it made my brother and I in our younger years. She would also write their names in her prayer journal. I don’t think she missed one day of prayers over those names until her last couple of days on this earth with us. On her most pain-filled days, when breath was most elusive, I’d often catch her praying more, spending hours with her journal, loving so many people through her conversations with her God.

I didn’t know it at the time, but her example was forming the woman I would become. Somewhere along the way, I started talking to Jesus about everything, too. Even the “silly” things that used to make me roll my eyes at my mom. We have a running conversation, he is part of my days, my hours, minutes–because I had an example to follow that was real. Not showy, not performative. Authentic, continuous, even quirky and quaint at times–but it wasn’t for anyone else. Mom’s ongoing conversation with God was both evidence of the deep relationship she had with him and the way that she remained connected to him. She was aware of her deep need for his presence in every area of her life, so she made talking with and listening to him a priority.

I didn’t know how formative her example would be. Here are some of the ways I pray throughout my days now…

Exclamations of gratitude when I’m in nature and the beauty fills me with wonder and delight.

In my car, imagining Jesus in the seat next me, conversing about whatever is going on that day.

Silent pleas for wisdom as I navigate hard conversations with my kids–or friends in crisis–and don’t know what to say.

In the middle of worship, between song lyrics, whispering prayers for the Spirit to bubble and flow all around.

Requests for patience and a facial expression that doesn’t betray my frustration when dealing with other imperfect and sometimes impossible humans like myself…

Prayers that I will have a tender, listening heart, and be present in the moments ahead while I’m on my way to meet a friend. 

Requests for wisdom around how to help in some way as I drive through town and see people in hard situations.

Do I also pray about breaks in traffic, good deals, and other “silly” things, like my mom did?

Yes. Yes I do.

Because when talking with Jesus is woven into every aspect of your life, there’s no area you don’t invite him into. It’s like finding that friend that becomes your person–the one you feel safe enough with to be silly, speak the truth, express deep emotion, share everything. My mom had that kind of friendship with God. And it was evident in her prayers.

It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk with God in these ways. I referred to my Mom’s example as formational in my life. And it was, and is. But there is so much more to prayer than the friendly, conversational way we can engage in it. There is a depth that comes with more structured prayers, and I want to touch on that briefly before I wrap up…

I am still fairly new in my experience with using a liturgy for prayer. But, friends, it is transforming my prayer life. I virtually attended a prayer conference led by Pastor Brian Zahnd in May, and I’ve been using portions of the morning prayer liturgy he shared with us these last couple of months. It is powerful to pray some of those prayers day after day and see the ways God moves through them. The prayers prepare my heart to encounter my God in a deeper way. And I am being formed as I lean into prayers that have been around for a long, long time. There was a time I thought of these prayers as rigid, outdated, void of life. Not anymore.

Pastor Brian said, regarding this liturgical way of praying, “Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. It’s true or false. What’s alive or dead is the person praying.”

He shared with attendees that the word liturgy comes from the Greek liturgeo, which means “worship, the work of the people.” I love that. Liturgy is the work of the people, it’s worship. It was such a shift of perspective for me.

Zahnd also said, “Prayer is like a trellis for a vine to ascend–a structure so that which is alive can ascend. . . We must surrender ourselves to prayers that are wiser than we are.”

Prayer forms us. However shallow or deep our prayer life, it is forming us. What is our goal as we pray? Do we want to be seen, applauded, rewarded for our devout ways? Or are we content to be seen by God in the secret places, and to experience the reward of seeing–and being satisfied in–him? My mom’s prayer in the secret place spilled into her daily life. I was blessed that her conversations with God splashed into my consciousness. But she was never praying to be seen by me. She was unknowingly modeling a consistent relationship with God. I don’t walk around town proclaiming the liturgy I am adapting into my prayer life, but it is forming me as well, it is changing me. An honest, consistent prayer life will do that. Once again, as we’ve discussed throughout this whole series, Jesus’ focus is on what is happening within our hearts. What is happening in our hearts as we pray? What changes might we need to make in our prayer lives?

–Laura

I love Laura’s testimony of prayer–how her mother modeled a vibrant, ongoing prayer life, and how Laura (despite her adolescent embarrassment), has adopted a similar approach. I also like her move toward a more liturgical practice as part of her prayer life. I attended the same online prayer seminar, and am experiencing a deeper, richer more profound prayer experience than at any other time in my life through that practice.

We’ll revisit that in a bit, but for a moment, let’s return to this week’s scripture. Laura used The Message paraphrase above…I love it–especially this portion: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Peri Zahnd, during the prayer seminar, shared these words: “Our work is bringing more of ourselves, not more of our words.” Think about that. What would it look like to bring more of ourselves to our prayer time–to be in God’s presence as simply and honestly as we can be?

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus, in this portion of his sermon, was actually pushing back against what had become a fairly common practice. The NIV translation of Matthew 6:5 words it like this: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… 

As Laura pointed out, in the Jewish faith, praying three times a day was a normal practice. Three times a day they were called to prayer. Their lives revolved around prayer. However, some of the leaders in Jesus’ day had lost the heart of the matter and were more concerned about being “seen” as devout than about actually being devout. Jesus addressed this issue more directly in Matthew 15:8 when he said to the Pharisees,You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'”

Or this parable from Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus was pushing back against this practice of self-righteous, look at how holy I am, praying.

Has anyone besides me done anything for show? True confession time: I went to a Christian college. For many students, going to church on Sunday was a given. I was still doing a fairly decent job of getting away with my double-life living, and rarely went to church on Sunday. However, I lived in the dorm and ate in the dining hall, so on Sundays I would sleep in, but would get up in time to dress in my Sunday best as though I had been to church before I heading to the dining hall. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a heathen. Good grief! That’s pretty much the definition of a hypocrite–a role player–an actor.

Back to The Message: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

My own prayer journey has been complicated. Being the pastor’s daughter as I was growing up, meant that I was often called on to pray in Sunday School, or youth group. I hated it. When God didn’t heal my mother of cancer, I was pretty convinced prayer didn’t work, so I’d go through seasons where I didn’t pray at all until I wanted God to get me out of whatever crisis I was in–the messes I’d gotten myself into.  Or, I wanted him to change someone else.

As I got older, my prayer life still went through cycles. I wanted to be more consistent, to pray more deeply, to hear from God, but I just wasn’t getting there. I read numerous books about how to pray. I tried various formulas. But it seemed like my prayers always cycled back into being very “me” focused.

During the prayer seminar, Pastor Zahnd said that we typically pray out of our own pathology. To be pathological means (of a person) unreasonable, or unable to control part of his or her own behavior. (dictionary.cambridge.org) That has been true of my prayer life; but at the seminar we learned “The primary purpose of prayer is not to try to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”

When the idea of adding liturgy to my prayer time was brought up, I pushed back. It felt impersonal to me, until Zahnd pointed out that Jesus had a prayer book–the Psalms. Hmmmm. Good point. I’m sure that in addition to the Psalms, Jesus also prayed the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions…the title given to the central prayer which is said three times a day by all observant Jews. It is also known as the Shemoneh Esreh (‘Eighteen‘), the Tephillah (‘Prayer‘), or the ‘Ami. dah (‘standing’) because one stands to say this prayer. (The Journal of Theological Studies)

Jesus prayed written prayers. Hmm. As Laura wrote above, liturgy is not dead (as I had assumed). It’s neutral. The life in the liturgy comes from the heart, mind, and soul attitude of the one praying the liturgy.

So, for the last couple of months I’ve been praying liturgically. The structure I am praying includes prayers that have been around for a long time, scripture including The Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Beatitudes, a short gospel passage and a Psalm.  There are moments of intercession, prayer for family, a prayer of confession, and sitting quietly with Jesus. The famous prayer of St. Francis (Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…) is part of it. Many of the written prayers address each person of the Trinity. Most of them are communal and global in nature. In truth, it felt clunky at first, but as I returned morning after morning; as I began memorizing; I found the prayers being planted deeper and deeper within–their content becoming part of me.

I’m finding that when I wake up in the morning, I’m hungry for this time with God. I’m bringing more of myself, not more of my words, and I am coming as simply and honestly as I can. I’m no longer praying out of my own life cycles–or my own selfish desires. I can bring my requests to God, and I do…but somehow, it’s different now. It’s been a beautiful experience–one that I will continue.

It’s common in Christian circles to tell people–just pray, talk to God. However, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them words to pray. We’ll study that prayer in a couple of weeks, but it’s important to note that he didn’t send them off to figure it out on their own.

If you’re curious about liturgy–there are many liturgical prayers that can be found online. The Shema and “Eighteen” can also be found online. It might feel weird at first, but dedicate a set amount of time to stick with it. We were encouraged to stick with it for 40 days. I’m glad we did. It’s changed our prayer lives, and is deepening our relationships with God.

I’ll close this post with two of my daily prayers: “Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.” 

“Save me from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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What Did He Say?

Right & wrong. Black & white. Open & closed. Good & bad. 

We have all been conditioned to think in such dualisms. Some of us are more prone to investigate the gray while others of us hold more tightly to these either/or narratives, but all of us are affected by this way of thinking more than we realize. It is dangerous when all of life is filtered through these dualisms because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to a superior/inferior, “us versus them” kind of mindset. Dualisms limit growth, keep us stuck, and are not compatible with kingdom living.

Pastor Beau began his sermon on Sunday by acknowledging his own tendency to see life in a black and white, dualistic way. He admitted he struggles to see all the gray, all the nuance that lives between the two fixed points, and shared with us that his journey to see beyond those dualities is a difficult one. His message was not part of Pastor John’s Sermon on the Mount series, but it was connected. He took us back to Matthew 5:17 and reminded us that Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. He explained more about what that meant culturally and historically–it was fascinating! I’m going to move into some of his other points, but if you want to hear more about that part, you can watch the full sermon here.

Beau shared that the “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements from Jesus that Pastor John has highlighted these past few weeks have really stuck with him. He told us that he sees these statements as an invitation to repentance. Before expanding on that, he reminded us what it actually means to repent. The three words in the Bible that are translated “repent” in English mean a strong desire to change; a change of mind, purpose, and action. He went on to emphasize the importance of changing our minds, the way we think, over defaulting to the behavior modification that our westernized understanding of repentance often implies. He told us that if we change how we think, our actions will follow–it doesn’t work the other way around.

Beau reminded us that Jesus had strong words for those who were all about behavior modification but not advocates for deep, real change. In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says to the teachers of the law,

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.” (NLT)

Cleaning up what people see on the outside is not enough. Jesus cares about what’s inside. And, as Pastor Beau shared, that begins by changing how we think. Are we willing to see things differently? To take a hard look at ourselves and say to God,

“…I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through;
find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on, and lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139:23-24, TPT)

Beau told us that he doesn’t see repentance as a one-time prerequisite to salvation. He sees it as a lifelong journey, a part of our daily walk with Jesus. I agree. Luanne and I have written many times about regularly praying the words above out of Psalm 139 and about the importance of asking Jesus to search our hearts because there are things within all of us that we can’t always see on our own.

What does repentance actually require? Beau highlighted a few things:

Honesty. 

Humility.

Critical evaluation of our beliefs and behaviors.

If we are willing to be honest with others and with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t, we will realize how much we still have to learn. Honestly admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to changing how we think. Humility flows from this place. When we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know and that we have areas where we need to grow, it puts us into a posture to learn. It also allows us to lower our defenses as we engage in honest critiques about ourselves, which we must do with Jesus as our guide. This part is not about burning everything down. It is simply being willing to empty our knapsack, lay everything we’ve packed in there out on the table, and ask why we’re carrying those things. Why do we see things a certain way? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we engage in the behaviors we engage in, and what habits do we have that are shaping how we live and interact with God and others?

Pastor Beau identified that critically evaluating these things is different than criticism. We all tend to push back when we feel criticized. Sometimes, we are so critical of ourselves that no one else has to say anything at all–we beat ourselves down and put up our defenses all on our own. Deconstructing parts of our lives that need to be taken apart and rebuilt can feel this way. That’s why it is so important that we do so with Jesus as our filter and our companion. We ask him as we investigate what we’ve been carrying, “Does this serve you, me, the kingdom well? Does this belief line up with your ways? Do these behaviors line up with your way of love or do they further separate and divide us as brothers and sisters in the kingdom?” 

And then?

We listen.

We learn.

We remember that Jesus is our teacher and we are his disciples. Which means that we place ourselves under his authority and learn from him. Then we share with others–by how we live, not what we say--what we have learned. We disciple others by loving them the way that we experience being loved by Jesus.

What God desires most from his children is our hearts. He longs that we be his from the inside out. He couldn’t care less about “good” behavior or “right” living that isn’t rooted in  love and knowledge of him. He cares plenty about us bearing good fruit, but he sees right through the fake fruit that we try to pass off as authentic. Here’s some of what the Bible tells us he has to say about this…

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

(Hosea 6:6 NLT)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

(Amos 5:21-24, MSG)

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.”

(Isaiah 1:13-17)

The prophets wrote down God’s words to his people in these Hebrew Scriptures. Beau emphasized that God was saying to his people, as he says to us today,

It’s not about doing all the things! Don’t simply do things! Bring me your heart, your love. Come. To. Me.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33,

“A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” (NLT)

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. As Pastor Beau identified, this is a reorientation of our whole person. We have to get more comfortable with saying things like,

“I don’t know.”

“I’m still learning.”

“I was wrong.”

“We were wrong.”

One of the prayers I pray nearly every morning contains these words:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent... (emphasis mine)

We humbly repent. Change how we think. Daily. Moment by moment. As we listen to and learn from and become more committed disciples of Jesus, our Teacher. This is not a one-time action, or a project to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of becoming more and more like Jesus.

May we have the courage to be honest, to humbly evaluate our inmost being with the Holy Spirit as our guide, and to reorient our whole being toward our God. Jesus is calling us to radical repentance, especially in these days of deadly dualism. How, Church, will we respond?

–Laura

Richard Rohr Quote: “I think most human beings are dualistic ...

How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

You’ve Heard it Said…

We are in the fourth week of our Sermon on the Mount series. As a quick recap, Jesus began with the beatitudes–how his followers are to “be”, then he said we are to be salt and light in the world, which will happen organically if we are “beatitude” people, then he taught that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to complete them, to help us understand their original intent.  This week, we look at one of those laws and the first of Jesus’ statements “you have heard it said…but I say…”

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5:17-20)

You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder’–it’s one of the 10 Commandments. I imagine we’re all familiar with those words. I imagine there are very few of us who have committed murder so we can feel pretty good about ourselves as far as that commandment goes. Right?

Well, not so fast. Jesus hops right over murder and addresses the heart-the issue of anger that happens before we escalate to murderous rage. Murder is an outward action. Anger is an inward emotion. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

If you recall, the first murder that took place in the Bible is recorded in Genesis chapter 4 and was an older brother killing his younger brother. Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, was very angry (v. 5) because God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, but not his. God, in His mercy, came to Cain and said:  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (v. 6-7).   

Cain did not rule over his anger, instead, he allowed it to rule over him, to burn in him until he killed his brother. His consequence–his judgment, for killing his brother was separation– he was driven from his land, lost his home, and lived in fear that he would be killed. The Lord didn’t remove all of Cain’s consequences, but he did place a mark on him that would protect him from being killed (v.15).

Did Cain deserve the protective mark? Not according to the Levitical law that came a few centuries later. By the code of Levitical law, a murderer was to be stoned (Lev. 24:17). Stoning is the consequence that those listening to Jesus would have been familiar with and would have thought of as just punishment for such a heinous act.

So Jesus, in addressing murder, ups the ante.  He addresses anger and says “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Subject to judgment? That makes sense in terms of murder, but for being angry? What does that even mean?

Get this… the Greek word for judgment is krisis. If that reminds you of the English word crisis you are exactly right, and according to vocabulary.com The noun crisis comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it’s a critical moment…

So, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to crisis, to a turning point, a critical moment that could get better or worse. 

I understand that. I’ve not ever been angry enough that I wanted to kill another person, but I’ve certainly been angry enough to be in crisis mode, emotional turmoil, and dishonoring toward another human being with my thoughts and words. It never leads anywhere good. There have been other times in the critical moment, I have taken a deep breath, valued the relationship and handled myself in a much calmer manner, seeking a solution and reconciliation. Our response to anger, the critical turning point in how we’ll handle ourselves, is our judge.

Anger is a God-given emotion. Some things are truly worth being angry about, but we’ve got to be careful with our hearts. Jesus is addressing the heart matter, the crisis moment, the turning point.

Jesus’ brother James, one of the early church leaders, offers wise words for how we are to comport ourselves: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness (justice) that God desires. (Jms 1:19-20)

The Apostle Paul advised,  In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:26-27)

Paul also wrote:  …rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:8 & 12-14)

Jesus constantly points to valuing people and relationships. He sternly warns against demeaning others with our words. He encourages us to settle disputes before having to get the judicial system involved.  He encourages us to reconcile with others before we bring our gifts, our worship to the altar of God so that we are rightly related with others and therefore, rightly related with God. Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.

Jesus’ order of topics in the Sermon on the Mount was not happenstance. He talks about anger right after teaching the beatitudes and letting us know we are to be salt and light in the world. I think it would behoove all of us, myself included, to reflect and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our heart attitudes toward others. Have we demeaned others, or supported others who are demeaning in their treatment of people? Have we been divisive? What do our social media accounts look like? Our political posts? Our Covid19 posts? Our humor? Proverbs 18:21 tells us the tongue has the power of life and death. Jesus taught us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45). Are our words murderous? Do we ingest the murderous words of others and allow those to taint our hearts?

Have we been righteously angry about the right things such as gross, sometimes murderous injustice against image-bearers of God–many times because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their station in life? Even in our godly, righteous anger would our posts, our words be defined as wise? As loving? As peacemaking? Do they represent the salt and light, the principles of the Kingdom of God, or do they goad?

Let’s reflect once more on the heart attitude, the “be” attitude Jesus desires in his followers. He desires followers who are humble and totally dependent upon God, who mourn (feel deeply), who are gentle and kind (meek), who hunger and thirst for right relationships and equity, God’s kind of relationships among all humankind with each other and with God. He desires followers who are merciful, who are pure in heart and can see God’s presence in others and in the world, followers who strive to make peace, those who live so counter-culturally that they are persecuted, lied about and insulted for being like Jesus, (which is exactly what Jesus experienced at the hands of an angry group of powerful people who stirred up an angry mob).

Can we be like the beatitudes in our own strength? No. But we have the Holy Spirit within us and can pray, like Paul prayed for the Ephesians: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (3:16) 

Anger flows from the heart. If left unchecked it leads to crisis, broken relationships, the demeaning and blaspheming of the image of God in others, superiority attitudes, separation, condemnation, condescension, division, violence, abuse and murder.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…

So, search (us), God, and know (our) hearts; test (us) and know (our) anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in (us) and lead (us) in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139: 23:24)

Create in (us) a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within (us). (Ps 51:10)

Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life. (Prv. 4:23)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8)

–Luanne

As difficult as this week’s passage is, I have been eager to get to it. Everything Jesus speaks in the sermon on the mount is revolutionary, but this section that we are getting  into is one that has been transforming the way I see, believe, and walk out my faith for a few years now.
Sometimes people say–and I’m pretty sure we’ve written similar things in this blog more than once–that Jesus condensed all of the Law into two commandments that really are one. Love. Period. In Matthew 22, when a Pharisee quizzes Jesus about which commandment is most important,
 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you.’ This is the great and supreme commandment. And the second is like it in importance: ‘You must love your friend in the same way you love yourself.’  (vs. 37-39, TPT)
Sometimes when this is brought up, people call it watered-down, negligent of the whole Law, too grace-based. The argument is that saying Jesus is all about love lets people off the hook to do whatever they want, that it’s a bit of a loosey-goosey, free-for-all theology. Jesus would disagree. He completes the above statements with these words:
Contained within these commandments to love you will find all the meaning of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:40, emphasis mine)

“All of the Law and the Prophets” are contained in Jesus’ commandments to love God with our whole hearts and to love others in the same way. That’s a pretty big deal.

You might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound at all like this week’s passage…” 

And it doesn’t–at least not on the surface. What we are looking at this week lays the groundwork for what Jesus will say later. If Jesus had made his Matthew 22 statements prior to his lengthy explanations in the sermon on the mount, I can’t imagine the riot it could have caused. He had to move slowly into this space, to meet the people where they were, so that they could see the truth:

Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside.

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

The Law’s intention from the beginning was to form God’s people in the way of love, as we discussed at length last week. But that’s not how it was being used, and Jesus wasn’t about to stay quiet about it. A little later in Matthew, we come across these words,

“Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.”

(Matthew 23:1-3, MSG, emphasis mine)

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say…,” he is reorienting the hearts of his listeners to the why behind the Law. Each of the Ten Commandments was designed to form the people in the kingdom ways of loving God and loving neighbor. But those in attendance had no idea. They were living in a generation that had been totally overtaken by those in positions of power and privilege, and they didn’t know the heart of God. They knew the list of what they could and couldn’t do, and they were doing the best they could with the skin-deep theology they were taught.

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

They had ingested the “wisdom” of their teachers and, while it may have kept them from breaking the law, it also left them starving for the God those laws were meant to keep them connected to. The wisdom of their teachers wasn’t wisdom at all. According to James,

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

(James 3:17-18, MSG, emphasis mine)

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

“Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.” 

This matters deeply to Jesus. So he takes the law and seemingly makes it even harder to follow. And it is–if we’re not being formed in the way of Love.

My morning reading yesterday included Psalm 139. Luanne included a bit of it above. As I read it slowly, the spirit spoke deeply to my heart, connecting it to Sunday’s message. I’ve included the whole Psalm below. I encourage you to read it slowly, and ask Jesus to be your guide as you read this. Last week, at a prayer school that was put on by pastor and author Brian Zahnd, we were encouraged to “…go into the Hebrew Scriptures escorted by our Messiah.  Let Jesus teach us. He’s our (as we are Gentiles) Jewish sponsor…” Reading Old Testament passages with Pastor Brian’s exhortation in mind has made a difference in how I see. I hope you can read the words below in this way, with Jesus as your guide and the lens through which you see.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me. You perceive every movement of my heart and soul, and you understand my every thought before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord. You read my heart like an open book and you know all the words I’m about to speak before I even start a sentence! You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of my past. With your hand of love upon my life, you impart a blessing to me. This is just too wonderful, deep, and incomprehensible! Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face? If I go up to heaven, you’re there! If I go down to the realm of the dead, you’re there too! If I fly with wings into the shining dawn, you’re there! If I fly into the radiant sunset, you’re there waiting! Wherever I go, your hand will guide me; your strength will empower me. It’s impossible to disappear from you or to ask the darkness to hide me, for your presence is everywhere, bringing light into my night. There is no such thing as darkness with you. The night, to you, is as bright as the day; there’s no difference between the two. You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord! You even formed every bone in my body when you created me in the secret place, carefully, skillfully shaping me from nothing to something. You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. Every single moment you are thinking of me! How precious and wonderful to consider that you cherish me constantly in your every thought! O God, your desires toward me are more than the grains of sand on every shore! When I awake each morning, you’re still with me. 

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139, TPT)

I want to share with you a few things that spoke to me as I read these beautiful words, but I don’t want to say too much or linger too long. I hope each of us will sit with these words and invite Jesus to speak through them, to shed light on what it means that he came to show us the way of Love, and to help us understand why he had to clarify that what we have heard said may not capture the whole picture.

The psalmist writes these words,

You read my heart like an open book. . . Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face?. . . How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

He reads our hearts. Not our outward behavior, but the attitude of our hearts. There’s nowhere we can hide from his constant gaze. This understanding brought the psalmist wonder and strength. Why? Because there’s nowhere to hide from a love like that. We are thoroughly known and seen… and loved. Jesus wants his listeners in our passage this week to get this deep into their bones. God knows the hearts of each one–their teachers included. What they had heard said might have been correct on the surface, but we don’t follow a shallow God, and his love grows from the depths outward–not the other way around. The people didn’t know the truth until the Truth came to walk alongside them. The only way he could exhort them later on to live according to the greatest commandment of love was to first reveal that love through himself.

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

When I read this part of the Psalm yesterday, I wept. Because as I read it with Jesus as my guide, it changed into this…

God, come and slay the bloodthirsty, murderous ways that live within me… Rid me of the parts of me that don’t line up with your way of love. I cry out, ‘Depart from my mind, my heart, and my words, you wicked thoughts, criticisms, judgements, comparisons–all you do is blaspheme the image of God in my brothers and sisters. You lift yourselves up against the wisdom of God that is peace-seeking, kind, patient, and gracious, and all you care about is being right. But you can’t out-right the Holy One.’ Lord, I despise the ways in me that despise your command to love first. I hate that my love can grow cold in the valley of selfishness, arrogance, and pride. When I see how far I’ve moved away from your heart, I grieve, and sorrow carries me into wells of my own tears. I am disgusted by the image of me that parades around my soul as your ally, your counterpart. That part of me knows not your humility and is an enemy of your image alive in me. Your enemies are my enemies, and they are out to devour my soul. I am at war within myself–the parts of me that attempt to deceive me into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil fighting with the presence of your Spirit in me that invites me to dine at a table set under the tree of life, in the presence of the enemies that live within… 

While all of that is true, I need not fear. For he is with me. He’s the one who prepares the table in the dark corners of my soul, in the presence of the pieces of me that aren’t yet fully formed in his image. And he invites these parts of me, these “enemies” to bear witness to the disciple in me as I sit and dine with the one who leads and guides me. As the enemies within behold the feast, they come to know that they are also invited to come sit and be formed in the presence of Love.

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.

See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on–anywhere in me that came upon a crisis and chose wrongly and has ended up in the valley of the shadow of death, on the winding road away from love–and lead me back to your ways.

Jesus’ way calls us to live in a whole different dimension while remaining present where we are. That’s what living in the kingdom is all about.

We have heard many things said… But what does Jesus say? May we listen well to the author of life as he leads us beneath the surface and into the real.

–Laura

Psalms 139:23 God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart ...

Sermon on the Mount: #3

The year was probably 1997. Our family had lived in Brazil for a little over a year, and had truly been adopted by a wonderful Brazilian family. One of their daughters was thrilled to have “foreigners” in their midst that they could love on like scripture teaches, and they loved us well! One particular day we were on their back patio; my then 5-year-old middle child was running, fell, and got a pretty good, icky, oozy, bleeding scrape on his knee. Before most of us could react, his Brazilian “aunt” swept him up, put him on the kitchen counter, grabbed a handful of salt and rubbed it into our screaming son’s wound. I didn’t know what to do–had never seen anything like that. After the initial sting of the salt wore off, Phil continued to play as if nothing had happened, and you all—that knee healed faster than anything I’ve ever seen!

Salt. Just Google its history and you’ll find more information than anyone could read. Wars have been fought over salt. It was highly valuable in the ancient world; it was traded ounce for ounce with gold. It was used for preserving foods, for purifying, healing, and for flavor. It keeps people alive. The Vintage News tells us “When Napoleon’s forces retreated from Moscow, many of the troops lost their lives as a result of salt deficiency and consequently, a low resistance to disease“. People suffer malnourishment from salt deficiency.

The Latin word for salt is “sal”. Roman soldiers transported salt, and salt was part of their pay package…our word “salary” comes from that root. Salt was valuable. It still is. Did you know that “over 50% of all drug molecules used in medicine exist as salts”? (Drug Names and Their Pharmaceutical Salts). I think it’s important to acknowledge the incredible value of this very common item before we get to this week’s scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

Right after the “beatitudes”–the how Jesus’ wants his followers to be statements—Jesus says: You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  (Matthew 5:13)

In order to understand the impact of this statement, let’s learn more about how physical salt affects things and try to translate that awareness to the spiritual realm. In Chef Samin Nosrat’s fabulous science-based cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” she writes:

Salt is a mineral…it’s one of several dozen essential nutrients without which we cannot survive. The human body can’t store much salt, so we need to consume it regularly in order to be able to carry out basic biological processes, such as maintain proper blood pressure and water distribution in the body, delivering nutrients to and from cells, nerve transmission, and muscle movement…

The primary role that salt plays in cooking is to amplify flavor…[it] also affects texture and helps modify other flavors…Does this mean you should use more salt? No. It means use salt better. Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form.” (Emphasis mine)

Flavor lies at the intersection of taste, aroma, and sensory elements…When a recipe says “season to taste” it leads to “flavor ‘unlocking’…as salt helps release the flavor molecules that are bound up within proteins.”

And maybe my favorite spiritual salt application:Salt also reduces our perception of bitterness, with the secondary effect of emphasizing other flavors present in bitter dishes. Salt enhances sweetness while reducing bitterness in foods that are both bitter and sweet…”

I can’t help but think about the beatitudes as I ponder salt. Blessed are we, when we’re poor in spirit, when we mourn, when we are persecuted, when we experience the bitter side of life, because in the principles of heaven’s kingdom, God’s sweetness can be enhanced, seen, experienced, and known, even in the bitter.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to eat at a Brazilian steak house (or better yet, eat meat in Brazil), you’ve experienced the miracle of what salt can do to a piece of meat. As the salt penetrates the meat, it tenderizes it and seasons it from within.

This may not seem like a very “spiritual” blog post up to this point, but Pastor John pointed out in his sermon that salt doesn’t affect anything if it doesn’t touch it, and that salt completely loses itself to the object it is flavoring.  You are the salt of the earth. Hmmm.

Right before Jesus talks about salt, he said “be this way”…not “do these things”. Acts 17:28 tells us that in him (Jesus) we “live and move and have our being“.  Jesus himself tells his followers: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to having the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

Eugene Peterson in the book Reality and the Vision writes: “For most of us, the desire for beauty and the good proves infinitely frustrating, for we are mainly aware of what we are not. When we “do” things well, we get satisfaction. When we “are” well (holy) we are unconscious of it and so get no satisfaction, at least not in the sense of ego-gratification.” 

Peterson goes on to write:  “Who are the people who have made a difference in my life?… The ones who weren’t trying to make a difference.” 

As we immerse ourselves in Christ, he gives us himself, and our very essence changes. Just as Nosrat wrote about salt–we can’t maintain salt in our bodies, we must come back continually for more.  When we stay connected to Jesus, our presence, our being makes a difference in the world. We touch the world and bring healing, flavor, tenderization; we preserve good things and keep them from rotting, our presence adds value to our environments as we lose ourselves to Christ’s mission for the sake of his kingdom on earth.

You are the salt of the earth…

Did Jesus pause before he moved to the next enormous statement?  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:14-16)

Light. Another humongous subject. When Jesus spoke these words, there was no electricity. Light came from the sun, the moon, the stars, flashes of lightning, and fire. The first recorded words of God in scripture are “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3).

Light absolutely makes a difference. A nightlight helps to alleviate fear in the dark. Light makes the unseen seen. Light keeps us from stumbling. Light causes things to grow. Light is invaluable to life. Even the smallest light makes a difference.

While we still lived in Campo Grande, the father of one of our Brazilian “family” died after hitting his head in a fall. Brazilians bury their dead within 24 hours, so his funeral was held at 10 p.m.  The church was full, and there was much grief.  I had been asked to play the piano, so I was sitting at the front of the church perpendicular to the rest of the people. During the funeral we were thrown into complete darkness as a sudden massive power outage covering three Brazilian states occurred (pre-cellphone era). It was dark. The sound system ceased, the fans stopped blowing air, everything about the lack of power made the tragedy seem that much heavier, that much darker. The service continued in the dark. I was praying for my friends and praying about darkness in general when a lightning bug flew into the church through one of the open windows. From my vantage point, I could see it fly back and forth over every single pew, and then fly back out. It was the only light in the building and it was tiny, but it was powerful. It does not take much light to make a difference. And you know what? Darkness cannot extinguish light. Light, even tiny light, extinguishes darkness.

The Apostle John wrote of Jesus: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 1-5)

Or in the beautiful Passion Transation:

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspiration this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him! Life came into being because of him, for his life is light for all humanity. And this Living Expression is the Light that bursts through gloom—the Light that darkness could not diminish!

So Jesus says to us–you are the light of the world. He goes on to say: Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The goal of our light is to show people the unseen, so they can experience the unknown, and come to know and glorify the God who loves them so much that he became THE Light of the world who gave it all so we could know him.

We can’t muster up our own light. Just like my electric lamp can’t shine without being connected to its source of power, we must abide in Jesus if we are going to shine.

Two weeks ago, as we were beginning this sermon series with the beatitudes, I referenced Philippians 2…(have this attitude/mind in you which was also in Jesus).  In that same chapter, Paul wrote: God will continually revitalize you, implanting within you the passion to do what pleases him. Live a cheerful life, without complaining or division among yourselves.  For then you will be seen as innocent, faultless, and pure children of God, even though you live in the midst of a brutal and perverse culture. For you will appear among them as shining lights in the universe, offering them the words of eternal life. (Phil. 2:13-16 TPT). 

Jesus is the Living Expression of God. We are the Living Expression of Jesus. Jesus is the light of the world, we are the light of Jesus to the world. Jesus is the salt of the earth, we are the salt of Jesus flavoring the world with his presence and love.

You are salt; you are light… it’s who we are–not what we do…for In Him we live and move and have our being.

–Luanne

Pastor John began his sermon on Sunday by reminding us that it is important to be aware of the context as we dig into scripture and to pay attention to the order of things, to their placement. With that in mind, I want to remind us who Jesus was speaking to and what he was introducing…

The setting is a mountain in Israel, a nation occupied by a foreign power. The people listening are largely poor, some desperately so. There are stirrings that this Jesus is possibly the promised Messiah. To a people barely surviving, oppressed and hungry and mistreated, Jesus offered hope of a new kingdom. His listeners understood kings and kingdoms the only way they knew how–they were established by way of conquest and force, maintained by power and violence. They had never seen any other kind of kingdom. They were tired of oppression and injustice, and the prospect of a king who would free them from Rome stirred their hope. This is the community Jesus addresses on the mount–a people hungry for justice and freedom, a people who knew hardship as a way of life and marginalization as a way of being.

Jesus introduces the kingdom he has come to establish. He moves into who is blessed–who is seen and heard and honored in his kingdom. His hearers must have been stunned, because what he says is unexpected, to say the least. This new kingdom would be established on a foundation of who it includes, not who it excludes. Until this point in history, kingdoms were established to be exclusive. Conquering any and every “other” had been a guiding principle of the kingdoms of the world–even those kingdoms that claimed the name and favor of God operated this way–since the first kingdoms were established. It was simply how power was gained and maintained. Who’s in? Once that was established, all those who were out were kept out by any means necessary. The rich and strong had all the power and influence, and they lorded it over those who had not.

So… Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee, gathering his disciples, speaking about a new kingdom, and “healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23) He was gaining quite a following. “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.” (Matthew 4:24-25)

Jesus was healing “every disease” and all manner of infirmities and speaking of a new kingdom to a people long-oppressed and desperate for change. Is it any wonder that his following grew so rapidly? Matthew tells us these things that I included above and then the very next line of scripture reads:

“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said…” (Matthew 5:1-2)

Jesus saw the large crowds following him.

Can you imagine the excitement in the air? In my mind, the scene is electric bordering on frenzied. These people had hope for the first time in a very long time. This “teacher” just might be the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who would change everything. I imagine there was lively chatter, some cheering, maybe dancing and singing, rejoicing from those who had already been healed. Maybe there were even shouts of revolution ringing out from mouths that had been silenced for too long. Can you see it? This is no solemn procession.

Jesus saw the crowd…

This is an odd line, right? Jesus had been traveling and teaching and, as he did, the crowd around him continued to grow. He was aware of the people around him, certainly. He didn’t suddenly notice that there was a huge crowd pressing in to get closer to him. So why does Matthew include these words? 

Again, context, and digging deeply into what we’re reading matters here. The Greek word translated “saw” in English is a word we’ve discussed before. It is horaō. It means much more than to simply “see.” It means to see with the eyes, the mind; to perceive, to behold, to become acquainted with; to pay heed to and care for; to stare at and discern clearly; to attend to. This definition changes my understanding of the verse entirely. Of course Jesus had “seen” the people following him. But here, before he begins to preach the most famous sermon ever recorded, he beholds those following him. He pays heed to what is happening, perceives and discerns beyond what the eye can see, and chooses to attend to and care for this group of people, hungry for revolution.

Perhaps he discerned that their passion was rising, that their expectations were fueled by a desire to overthrow their oppressors? Perhaps when he beheld their hearts and saw into their minds, he saw the need for his light to permeate their darkened understanding. We aren’t told exactly what he saw–only Jesus knows that. But whatever it was, it gave him pause.

He sat down to teach them.

As Pastor John shared with us recently, when Jesus sat down to teach, he was doing what the rabbis of his day did when they taught. What did he see when he looked at them that caused him to choose this moment to teach them these things?

Could it be that he saw their excitement was misguided? Could it be that he saw where their ideas were leading them, and it seemed necessary to change directions? I know I am speculating beyond what we are told in the text, but I find it helpful to think through the scene. When we don’t pause to think about the who/what/when/where, it is far too easy for us to cast ourselves into the story, in roles that were never ours to play.

When Jesus spoke the words that became the sermon on the mount, his original audience was a group of oppressed, impoverished, less-thans who were hungry for revolution. Of course the words of scripture are for us, too. The Holy Spirit illuminates them and teaches us as we ingest the words of life. No one is excluded from Jesus’s kingdom. No one. Not the poor beggar. Not the leper. Not the rich oppressor. Not the powerful leader. Not you. Not me. Because of his great love and kindness, all of us are grafted into the vine, branches that are valued and significant and called to bear much good fruit. But originally, Jesus was not giving a prescriptive list of how to inherit the kingdom. He was telling those who were used to being the “leasts” and “lasts” that, in his new kingdom, they were already “firsts”. He acknowledged their lives of smallness, meekness and called them blessed, because it was to them that the kingdom had come. He knew their expectations were misinformed and misguided, and so he sat down, calmed the scene, and gave them the inside scoop…

You who have spirits that are broken, you who have mourned, who are seen as small and insignificant, who are hungry for justice and who have suffered violence–you’re already blessed in my kingdom. You’re seen, you matter, your lives have significance. 

But then he turns their ideas upside down when he shares more about what it means to live in this kingdom he is establishing. This promised kingdom that was stirring their hopes would not be founded through force, nor would it be maintained through violent means. It would be built on a foundation of mercy, justice, devotion to the truth and to the way of love. It would be established through peacemaking–and it would come with much persecution.

Jesus outlines what his kingdom looks like and who is included. Great news–they’re already in. They are already called “blessed” and they can rejoice, even in persecution, because Jesus has elevated these who are used to being the least.

So far, no problem right? They’re included. Great! Let’s get this thing moving. So who is excluded? Definitely the Romans, right? The powerful, the greats, the “haves”?

I imagine the people may have been hungry to hear who Jesus would name as the “cursed” ones.

He says nothing about anyone being excluded. Nor does he say that those who don’t fall into the outlined categories are not blessed. He makes it clear that being great in this kingdom doesn’t mean what they think it means, he honors the significance of the small, and continues…

He moves from identifying with the “leasts” straight into the kind of impact their lives would make if they lived according to the principles of the kingdom.

These previously unseen ones, the ones Jesus calls blessed–he says to them “YOU are the salt of the earth. . . YOU are the light of the world. . .” 

You… you who have lived seemingly insignificant lives, lives of silence, lives without recognition or influence, lives marked by poverty, grief, chaos, injustice–you will show the world what my kingdom is all about. You will show those who have excluded you–those you’d like me to exclude–who God really is. 

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“The goal of our light is to show people the unseen, so they can experience the unknown, and come to know and glorify the God who loves them so much. . .”

Light reveals what’s already present. It shows us what’s already here. Sometimes, what is already here is hidden or obscured. The image of God had been misunderstood, covered, and marred by imperfect people who didn’t understand that he is love. When Jesus appeared on the scene, he came as The Light, the one who would shine on and reveal the truth of who God is. The people had become used to earthly kingdoms and kings. Power and violence ruled the day.

Then the Light appeared. To reveal the truth of God’s love for all people. Jesus told his listeners that, as they lived as citizens of his kingdom, their light would shine just the same. They were to abide in him (Like Luanne wrote, it’s so important to remember that none of this can be “done” apart from Jesus. It’s not about doing. It’s about abiding in the Vine, and “being” a branch that bears his fruit.) and let his light pour through them as they seasoned the world with his great love. And as that light poured forth, it would shine on and reveal the truth about God and his kingdom, and would glorify him. God. Their light was to glorify God.

Brazilian Pastor Ed René Kivitz once said,

“It wasn’t Rome who was the light of the world–but the disciples and those who had taken into themselves the kingdom. He chose the things that are not to confound the things that are. . .”

Luanne did a remarkable job of guiding us through salt and light, so I won’t add anything more to her beautiful words here. I’ve already written too many…

I know I went backwards a bit today, perhaps even down some rabbit trails, but I did so on purpose. Aside from sensing that this was where I needed to go, I know my own propensity to insert myself into these stories in the role that is most appealing to me. It’s tempting to turn the scriptures into prescriptive lists of, “If I do this, then that is the result.” There is so much more for us to find in these old teachings, treasures to mine in the shadowlands of scripture that are unfamiliar to us because our lived experience is so different from what we encounter there.

Jesus blessed and elevated the marginalized, the leasts, the forgotten, the outcast. We see it all over the pages of scripture. He invited these voices to speak and teach and lead. He identified their plight and called them blessed; told them that they were salt and light and that they would influence the world. We are invited to do the same, to live according to the ways of the kingdom and in doing so, shine Jesus’s light to the glory of God. But we are invited to do so in the same way that Jesus himself did. Which means acknowledging that, more often than not, we are not the leasts Jesus identified. We need to step back and leverage our power on behalf of those on the margins, listen to–and elevate–their voices.

The ways of the kingdom are not easy, especially for those of us (most of us…) who struggle to see that we are already blessed according to the kingdoms of this world, and maybe cannot identify very easily with the lives of those Jesus called blessed. We are included, yes. But power is not ours to wield; power is ours to relinquish on behalf of those who don’t have it. It’s important that we acknowledge that there are those who are the living beatitudes, seasoning and lighting up the world, showing us what Jesus looks like with skin on. Look to the leasts, to the margins, to the outcasts, and like Jesus did, bless them who already embody what the kingdom of heaven looks like on earth. The way of the kingdom is upside-down. It is ever pouring out, always willing to humbly learn, constantly moving down so that others may be lifted up.

Do we really want to live like this?

–Laura

You are the Salt of the Earth & You are the Light of the World ...

Sermon on the Mount #1

I am extremely excited about the new series Pastor John began on Sunday. For the next 22 weeks will be diving into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  For those of us desiring to follow Jesus (his way) on planet earth, the words he spoke in this sermon are of utmost importance.

With that being said, today we are going to look at the first 5 verses of the fifth chapter in Matthew. Before we hit our passage, let’s briefly skim over what Matthew covered in Chapters 1-4 of his gospel: Chapter 1 contains the genealogy of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb. Chapter 2 contains his birth story including the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the return from Egypt; Chapter 3 contains Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son. Chapter 4 contains the temptation Jesus endured in the wilderness, the calling of his first disciples; we learn that “From that time Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent (change the way you think), for the Kingdom of heaven is here” ( Mt. 4:17). Matthew 4:23 tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom“. Matthew 4 goes on to say Jesus traveled, healed the sick and freed the demon-possessed. If I counted correctly, in these four chapters there are seven verses in which Matthew mentions that Jesus’ life and actions were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so before we ever get to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

One more detour before we get into the sermon itself–Jesus is doing a new thing. Everything Matthew has told us so far is mind-blowing as he establishes the true identity of Jesus. Large crowds from lots of regions can’t get enough. So Jesus goes up on a mountainside, he sits down (as was the posture of rabbis in that day when teaching). The disciples drew near (disciples are students—those who wanted to learn from what Jesus had to say, not just experience what he could “do” for them).

“Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he opened his mouth to teach them saying…”(4:25, 5:1-2)

He opened his mouth (that’s the literal Greek phrase)–I believe this is very intentional because in the Old Testament we learn:

Isaiah 55:10-11As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

And he taught them saying…(Mt. 5:2).  

It’s important to note that Matthew ends his entire gospel with these words of Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

Teaching is different from telling. Teaching is interactive; teaching requires relationship; good teaching requires modeling, good communication, and willingness to come alongside the student. The goal of teaching is for the student to learn something that will affect his/her life. We know that we have “learned” when the lesson becomes part of us and we can teach it to someone else. A good teacher loves his/her subject and loves his/her students. A good French teacher not only knows and loves French but knows how to help his/her students to learn French. Students don’t leave that teacher “doing” French. French becomes part of them.  Jesus, the Son of God, not only knows what the kingdom of heaven on earth looks like, he knows how to help us learn so the kingdom of God can become part of us and flow out of us like language flows out of the French speaker. Learning requires being challenged; learning requires watching, listening, practicing, making mistakes, correcting mistakes; learning requires humility.

…he taught them saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3 NIV), or worded another way: What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom. (TPT). 

Right away we see that the word “blessed” in the NIV is translated very differently in The Passion Translation. Pastor John informed us that “blessed” is a very difficult word to translate…it’s much larger in concept than our traditional understanding conveys.

The Passion Translation has a footnote regarding how they translated the Aramaic word which teaches us: “The Aramaic word toowayhon means “enriched, happy, fortunate, delighted, blissful, content, blessed.” Our English word blessed can indeed fit here, but toowayhon implies more—great happiness, prosperity, abundant goodness, and delight! The word bliss captures all of this meaning. Toowayhon means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Bliss means perfect happiness, great joy…hmmm.

The Greek word translated “blessed” is makarios. Lutheran commentator Brian Stoffregen helps us to grasp its significance by writing: “In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people…”

Hmmm.

Pastor John shared with us that “blessed” is the essence of wholeness–being made whole.

This first of the nine beatitudes about the “poor in spirit” being blissful, being made whole, living beyond all the cares of life–is the subject of the first “be like attitude” for kingdom of heaven people. It’s the first phrase of this sermon from the open mouth of Jesus that will water the earth and not return empty. Paul wrote about this poor in spirit attitude in Philippians 2, when he wrote:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privilegeshe took the humble position of a slave…he humbled himself in obedience to God…(NLT)

Going back to The Passion Translation’s footnote we are reminded again that in translating “blessed”: The word bliss captures all of this meaning… to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

There are many who are born into poverty who must truly depend on God for every morsel of food. Yet, if you’ve been graced with the opportunity to be among the poorest of the poor, you will observe that even in the midst of great hardship–enviable, abundant joy and rich generosity exist in their communities. It makes no logical sense–but Jesus didn’t tell us to look for logic in the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It’s beyond logic and goes into the beautiful realm of mystery.

There are others who are born into privilege. God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. “This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Aaagh….there’s so much more to write, and I’m barely even scratching the surface of the first of the three beatitudes Pastor John talked about on Sunday, but I must leave room for Laura to write, so I humbly close my portion here with one final thought. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are sheltering at home these days. We aren’t able to hug our friends, to meet together as a body of Christ, to visit family. Some of us are not able to work, have lost jobs that seemed secure, have become sick, or have lost loved ones to this virus. Things that we thought we had some form of control over we’ve discovered we have no control over. This is a perfect time to humble ourselves before God, confess our true and total dependence upon him, allow him to meet us where we are and teach us about reliance during this time.

Blissful are those who recognize that we are all in this together; we can’t depend upon ourselves for our material lives, physical lives or spiritual lives; we are utterly dependent upon God for every heartbeat, every breath. Living with the humility of our acknowledged utter dependence opens the doorway to living in and living out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. (my paraphrase)

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am bursting with excitement about out new series. I have been enamored with the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes for a few years now, ever since I was challenged to read through scripture differently. I attended a conference–one Luanne and I have each referenced in previous posts–that stirred a hunger in me to read the Bible in a new light. We were challenged to look for the leasts, to see from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed, and to think deeply about the setting and culture. Most importantly, we were invited to set aside our default way of looking at the text and to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see all of scripture through the lens of Jesus alone.

I returned home with a desire to dig into the words of Jesus like I had never had before, and I started in the book of Matthew. The Holy Spirit reveals truth, and Jesus is the truth. And when I began to search for the truth, for the treasures that lie beneath surface readings of scripture, the Spirit opened the floodgates!!! I began to see Jesus, his ways, his priorities, and mostly his kingdom–the thing he spoke about more than anything else--everywhere!!

There may be no better illustration anywhere in scripture of the upside-down ways of Jesus’ kingdom than what we see in the sermon on the mount. It’s that good, that telling of the heart of the one who opened his mouth to teach it to his followers. It’s a bold assertion to make, I know. At the end of these 22 weeks, you may agree with me, or you may not. But for now, at this point in my journey with Jesus, nothing illustrates kingdom principles better than the words recorded in these three chapters.

Luanne did a masterful job of setting the scene for this new series. There is nothing I feel like I can add to her introduction, so I’ll pick up where she left off. Before I do that, though, I wanted to share some thoughts from some people you have probably heard of regarding the importance of the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes.

“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the sermon on the mount.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dallas Willard defines the discipleship Bonhoeffer referenced this way,

“Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”

The process of becoming includes–according to Jesus–becoming like a child, and also includes the humility Luanne wrote about:

“Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in. Whoever continually humbles himself to become like this gentle child is the greatest one in heaven’s kingdom realm.” -Matthew 18:3-4, TPT

How do we become like children again? Henri Nouwen said,

“Becoming like a child is living the Beatitudes and so finding the narrow gate into the kingdom.” 

James Bryan Smith asserts that,

“The Beatitudes, far from being a new set of virtues that further divide the religious haves and have nots, are words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized.”

Regarding these marginalized that Smith speaks of, Mother Teresa believed that, “In the poor, we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”

How do we find our way into living in this upside-down way Jesus presented in the sermon on the mount? Pope Francis believes it’s by way of the Agape love we extend to one another. He said,

“Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”

High praise indeed from well-respected, faithful voices. But what difference would it actually make if we reorganized our lives around the principles Jesus teaches in this sermon? Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think it would make all the difference. He said,

“I doubt if there is any problem in the world today–social, political, or economic–that would not find happy solution if approached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Do we have social, political or economic problems in the world today? Perhaps more than ever before, especially now, in these challenging days… What if all of these voices are right? What if this upside-down kingdom ushered in by the one we say we follow actually made a difference in the way we live our lives? What if we listen to his words, but more than simply listening, allow ourselves to be taught, changed–so that the words become part of us? So that we embody the ways of Jesus and his kingdom in a way that changes the church and the world?

There is power in the self-emptying, others-seeing, humble, upside-down way of Jesus. It will never line up with the power-grabbing ways of the kingdoms of this world–that’s not who our God is. Are we willing to take a closer look, to lean in and learn, to let ourselves soften and be changed? I hope so. Because I happen to agree with those whose words I listed above–this sermon has the power to change the world, because it is the heart of Jesus. But before it can change the world, it must come to life within us.

Luanne covered the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The second is,Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

(Matthew 5:4, NIV)

Have you mourned? Grieved? My guess is we have all felt the ache of mourning. A deep dive into root words and etymology reveals that the Greek word used here that was translated “mourn” in English means, “to lament, wail; to feel grief and sorrow; to suffer.” Blessed are those who experience this kind of ache?

Yes.

Why?

“…for they will be comforted.”

If you’ve been in the throes of grief–perhaps you’re there now–you have likely experienced the inexplicable comfort, the withness that seems to come into our lives as a companion to grief. This comfort that Jesus speaks of here, it is the Greek word parakaleo. This word means to come alongside, to encourage, exhort; to be with.  It is strikingly similar to another Greek word, parakletos. Jesus uses this word four times in scripture, and each time he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter he promised would come once he was no longer physically with his disciples.

We are blessed because we do not grieve alone. We are blessed because the same deep, caring comfort we receive from the Spirit in our darkest moments lives in us and empowers us to extend that same comfort to others. Have you been the recipient of love that moves toward you in your sorrow? Have you had the opportunity to move toward others in their grief? I have been fortunate to experience both, and I can say with no hesitation, I have felt blessed by these Spirit-filled moments of comfort–the receiving and the giving.

This mourning goes beyond grieving a personal loss. It is also our response to the needs around us; it is what drives us to move toward suffering, injustice, corruption, brokenness. We are able to respond to all that is hard because we are empowered by the Comforter, the Spirit who lives within us and leads us on.

The last beatitude Pastor John covered on Sunday is, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” ( Matthew 5:5, NIV) Meek can be a tricky word for us. We tend to think of it as a synonym for weak. It can conjure thoughts of smallness, timidity; of one who is fearful, shy and quiet. Let’s look at it how it is phrased in the Passion Translation:

“What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you will inherit the earth.”

The word gentle can carry some of the same connotations in our minds as the word meek. But what it means might surprise you. The footnote in the Passion Translation tells us,

“Jesus is saying that when you claim nothing as yours, everything will be given to you. The Aramaic word, makeekheh, implies being both gentle and flexible.” 

Pastor John reminded us that gentleness is a response somewhere between anger and apathy. He shared that it is both a posture and an implied action. It is a fruit of the Spirit that moves us to engage, challenges our indifference and empowers us to respond with both flexibility and restraint.

In this beatitude, we are told that those in whom gentleness dwells will “inherit the earth.” In the original language, this is quite the gift. It means, “to become a partaker of, to receive their allotted portion of the land as an heir; to receive a place to stand on the ground of this earth.” Wow. The gentle, the flexible, those who are moved to act but not out of anger, those who don’t take anything for themselves–these “meek” ones will receive what is set aside for them as heirs. Those with no ground to stand on will be given a place of their own to stand. I don’t know how this one plays out in Jesus’ kingdom, but it is beautiful. Especially when I consider those who are driven from their lands, who are refugees in a foreign land, and all those who exist between two lands, waiting for a place to call home. Jesus says these gentle ones, they are heirs that have ground to stand on in his kingdom.

We are invited in these first three beatitudes to begin to see differently. Jesus taught differently than the other rabbis of his day. He carried in his words none of the arrogance that marked other prominent teachers. He spoke highly of the downtrodden, the marginalized, those who were used to being at the bottom of the barrel in the eyes of the culture of the day. He elevated the “leasts”, and as we learn from him, we have the opportunity to do the same–“to live in and live out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now,” to borrow Luanne’s beautiful words.

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

–Laura

File:Aerial view of Masada (Israel) 06.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Teach Me to Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we already know the model friends…

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

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

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach me to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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