You Have Heard it Said: Oaths

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:33-37, NIV (emphasis mine)

“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” 

Matthew 5:33-37, The Message

What do you think of when you hear the word “oath?” The most common usage of the word these days is likely in reference to testifying under oath in a courtroom. But what does it mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an oath is “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” It is similar to a vow and stronger than a promise.

When we look at the Hebrew scriptures (what we often refer to as the Old Testament), we see that honesty was held in high regard. Pastor John shared that their communities were built on three pillars: justice, truth, and peace. Oaths back then acted as a guarantee of one’s word. But they had become more than that, and the use of them had created a toxic climate for the people. Enter: Jesus.

As we have seen over the last several weeks, Jesus had a lot to say about the traditions and teachings that had become lists of laws for the people to keep. Each time that he has said the words “You have heard it said…” in the sermon on the mount, his “…but I say…” has been seemingly more demanding than the original. But as we look deeper into his words, we find a common thread:

It’s all about the heart.

The way of the kingdom, the way of love, will always take us farther than the limits of the law. We have discussed this at length during this series. This week’s subject does not deviate from that course.

Pastor John shared a lot of information in his message about the history of oaths and their severity in the community of the people of God. He shared that oaths are frivolous and evasive and that they add nothing to who we are–in fact, they diminish us and the person(s) we’re giving the oath to. He said, “Who we are strengthens what we say.” It’s our character, consistency, integrity that back up our word. Again, he took us back to the heart.

John encouraged us to look at our hearts and identify what’s inside; to be pure in heart–living lives of connectedness within, undivided, whole–so we can see God; and to then reflect the heart of Jesus–to understand him, look at him, see him and mirror his life to others.

Psalm 24:3-6 in The Passion Translation says this:

Who, then, ascends into the presence of the Lord? And who has the privilege of entering into God’s Holy Place? Those who are clean–whose works and ways are pure, whose hearts are true and sealed by the truth, those who never deceive, whose words are sure. They will receive the Lord’s blessing and righteousness given by the Savior-God. They will stand before God, for they seek the pleasure of God’s face, the God of Jacob.   (emphasis mine)

Jesus is saying this same thing in the sermon on the mount. If truth lives within us, truth will come out of us, out of undivided hearts committed to Jesus, hearts that are becoming more and more like him. Pure, whole hearts, unclouded by the burden of being divided among many gods, can see God. And what we see and gaze at, what we take in, is what will be reflected out to others as the kingdom comes first to us and then through us. I love the way Psalm 24:7 calls to us:

So wake up, you living gateways! Lift up your heads, you ageless doors of destiny! Welcome the King of Glory, for he is about to come through you! (TPT, emphasis mine)

Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus unveils what his kingdom looks like, what it demands, and how we are to be--from the inside out–if we choose to follow him. Every bit of it comes back to our hearts, to who we are and how we love. I don’t want to get too far ahead here, but a little later in our series, we’ll hear Jesus say,

“In everything you do, be careful to treat others in the same way you’d want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12)

I want to be able to take others at their word. If someone tells me they love me, I don’t want them to have to add, “by the moon, and the stars, and the sky,” or any other frivolity to convince me that it’s true. I would like to be able to trust that the people in my life mean what they say, period. Yes or no. Full stop. That said, there are people in my life I can’t trust because they have proven that their lives–who they are from the inside out–don’t match their words. They are also those who use oath-like language to try to convince me that I can believe them. This is hard. It’s hurtful. And there’s nothing I can do about it. If they choose to be dishonest and deceiving with their words, that is their choice.

What I can do, though, is choose my way of being in the world. I can listen to Jesus–invite him to search me and know me and plumb the depths of my heart–and allow him to cultivate the kingdom within me as I look to him as my model.

Jesus didn’t make oaths. He didn’t exaggerate or embellish the truth. He simply told it. Wouldn’t it be a better world if those around us did the same? Isn’t that how we would like to be treated by others? If so, Jesus says, “Then do that. Be that way. Let your life be changed first, and treat them in the ways you’d like to be treated.” We cannot change others, but we can be willing to be changed. It all begins in our hearts–they are the “living gateways” for the kingdom to flow through into the world.

I want my heart to be “true and sealed by the truth.” I don’t want to deceive. I want my words to be sure. I want my yes to be yes, and my no to be no. I want those around me to know they can trust me because my life speaks louder than my words, because who I am strengthens what I say. This is my work to enter into with Jesus. He is the Master Gardener, the one who sows the seeds of truth in my heart and grows them up to bear fruit that is solid, honest, and good. I can’t produce that fruit on my own–none of us can. But we can all fix our eyes on Jesus, let our gaze linger on the beauty of who he is long enough to let the vision of him change us, and then reflect what we have seen out to a world in need of truth, beauty, and goodness.

–Laura

Laura wrote above, and I want to reiterate Pastor John’s information that in Judaism, the three pillars on which a healthy community can be built are justice, truth, and peace. If one of those three is missing, the community suffers. This can be family community, church community, work community, national community, or global community. Based on what Jesus has been teaching, I believe he would say those pillars are foundational…period. Oaths weaken those pillars.

Laura did a beautiful job of expressing that our inner character is what determines whether or not our word is good, whether or not we are people of integrity, and whether or not we can be trusted because the fruit of our lives proves our character. Our word and our actions match.

I work with at-risk students in a public high school and I can’t tell you how many times a student will say to me about an assignment, “I swear that it’s almost done. I’m going to turn it in tonight.”  I will follow up with something like, “Fabulous! I’ll check with your teacher in the morning to make sure they got it.”  Sometimes students will go ahead and confess that they truthfully haven’t started the assignment and need help. That truthfulness gets us somewhere positive. Other times students will  give me a thumbs up and not be concerned at all. When I follow through with the teacher the following day, I learn whether or not the student was truthful. If they got their work turned in, it’s kudos all the way, and I know that student does what he/she says. If they didn’t get the assignment in, the next time they tell me that their assignment is almost done, I ask to see it. If they don’t happen to have it available, I ask them why I should believe them this time? Then we talk about why character matters.

It does matter.

When we say “I guarantee what I’m saying is true because of this oath I’m making”, we basically say…you can’t really trust just me, so I’m going to add extra weight to this promise. That way you’ll know I’m truthful.

The Jewish people had developed quite an elaborate “oath” system by the time Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. They had binding oaths and non-binding oaths. A binding oath invoked the name of God and could not be broken. A non-binding oath could be broken (what?!!).

So, not only could an oath reflect the wishy-washy character of the one making it, it could also be a poor reflection on the character of God. There is an Old Testament story that has always bothered me; Pastor John’s sermon helped clear it up. In Judges 11 we learn about Jepthah who is getting ready to lead a charge against the Ammonites. In verses 30 and 31 we read:

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Notice that the Lord did not ask Jephtah to make a vow–he did that to himself, but because he invoked the name of the Lord, it was a binding oath according to their tradition.  And I’m sorry, but what a really poorly chosen vow to make…good grief!

So, Jephthah is successful in battle, he comes home in triumph and the first thing to come out of the door of his house is his daughter, his only child. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”  (v. 35)

She agrees that he can’t break his vow to the Lord, asks for two months to visit her friends and mourn the fact that she’ll never marry, and after the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. (v. 39)

Jephthah made a careless vow and used the Lord’s name as part of it. He carried his vow through, but do we think more highly of Jephthah as a result? I don’t.  There is also a danger in this type of vow because it could suggest that God somehow approved of this behavior–yet what could be further from the heart of God?

We must be so careful with our words! We must be so careful with our hearts. Jesus tells us that out of the overflow of our hearts our mouths speak. (Mt. 12:34) If we feel like we need to back up our words with oaths and other things, we need to check our hearts.

Jesus ends the oath section of the sermon of the mount by saying, let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.  Many English translations say anything more comes from the evil one; however, in the Greek it is translated more often as just evil, or wicked. 

Jesus isn’t condemning anyone in his sermon, but he is saying let’s get this figured out…if you can’t just say yes or no, it’s evil, it’s wicked.

Author Greg McKeown makes this point really clear. He writes “Remember that a clear no is more generous than a vague or non-commital yes. The medium yes or maybe is the worst. Stringing people along or delaying the inevitable decline is a thousand times worse than a polite but clear no on the front end. People know when they are getting a lukewarm placeholder. Further, they know when they are receiving wild, made-up excuses. We must stop doing this. We are fooling no one. It is actually better, easier, and more mature to say what you mean right out of the gate.” 

That’s true, isn’t it? Haven’t we all experienced it–that non-commital stringing along where we hang in limbo and our relationships get awkward as a result? And I imagine most of us have done it to others at some point.

Being a person of integrity is brave and worthwhile. Letting our yes’s be yes, and our no’s be no creates stronger relationships; the kingdom of heaven is all about relationships. Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word...Jesus Christ himself.

–Luanne

Let your yes be yes. Quote | Quotes, Wise words, Let it be

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 ...

Rescue: The Thief and The Garden

If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.

Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.

Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:

Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.  

Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.

As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)  

There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.  

Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.

It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34),  is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”?  Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.

The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus).  If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.

And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)

We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.

The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence;  he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it.  His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.

Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.

Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.

This same word  paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.

I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.

God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.

God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.

In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.

Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:

He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.

Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…

–Luanne

I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:

Jesus’ life is available now.

Our personal rescue is available now.

The healing of the nations is available now

Jesus rescues us.

Jesus remembers us.

Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.

Paradise begins here

All true. All beautiful. Even now.

As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?” 

I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.

And yet, I know

I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.

To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.

It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved.  Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.

Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.

Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)

Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?

None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.

I think that is an important point to note, to remember…

The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.

He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”

What did he mean?

“After we lost your mom.”

He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.

We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.

Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…

None of us are on the outside. 

Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.

Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”

He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)

We are all branches on the vine. The vine is Jesus. We grow connected to his life, his love, the nutrients we need for survival. We grow together on this vine. He invites us to make a home inside his love, to stay there, to find that attached to the source, we have all we need. He is the vine that bears the weight of each branch and all the branches. He is the source and the witness to the growth of each one and the fruit they produce. He is the channel through which our lives are nourished, sustained, upheld.
“Love one another the way I love you.”
He invites us to learn from him, and then to do likewise with and for one another. We are connected. Whether we want to be or not. None of us can walk through these days alone. Not one of us is strong enough to carry the burdens of the others. Only the vine can bear the weight of the collective branches… But each branch can bear witness to the branches around it. 
This Easter Sunday will look different. Church buildings will be empty. Family get togethers will be cancelled. Neighborhood egg hunts for the littles won’t be held. Our arms will ache to embrace another, and lonely tears will fall. Unknowns will abound–but don’t they always, anyway? Fear may bubble to the surface, grief may steal our breath.
And–
Our Jesus, who conquered death and holds its keys, is with us in this place. He sees. He knows. He chooses to bear witness to our pain, to suffer alongside us, to grieve our losses as his own– and, as he models the kingdom value of co-suffering love, he invites us to do the same. To lift our eyes and see. To enter in with those around us and allow them to enter in with us. Because he knows what we sometimes forget–
As we lift our eyes to bear witness to the pain, we can’t help but also see the beauty of the kingdom all around. He knows that paradise exists where love presides. He shows us the way–will we follow?
–Laura

 

Wild flowers in lush bright colorful plants

 

 

Lent: Rescue Through Deliverance

Pastor John has been taking us on a journey through this Lenten season, a journey of rescue. We have looked at how the rescuing love of God pursues us and rescues extravagantly, radically, and personally. This week we heard about how the rescuing love of God brings deliverance when we are enslaved.

Our passage this week is Exodus 6:6-7:

Therefore tell the Israelites: “I am God. I will bring you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt. I will rescue you from slavery. I will redeem you, intervening with great acts of judgment. I’ll take you as my own people and I’ll be God to you. You’ll know that I am God, your God who brings you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt.” (MSG)

The Israelites were slaves in a foreign land. Pastor John told us that to be a slave to the Egyptians was to be completely stripped of one’s dignity; it was as though even their rights to be seen as a person were removed. They were living—calling it “living” is a stretch—in a land they were not created for. They were far from home. They were seen as less than human and they began to forget their identity. They forgot that they bore the Imago Dei–the very image of God.

Sometimes we forget that, too.

We are all image-bearers of our Creator. Every one of us who has ever lived and will ever live bears the image of the one who made us. Everyone. Full stop.

When we meet the love of Jesus, the image of God comes alive in us. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do, how we see, and—more than anything else—how we love. As we grow in him, we begin to look more like him. We follow in the steps of our self-emptying God and as we are emptied of ourselves, we become like Jesus.

But sometimes we lose our way.

Sometimes the pull of power, fame, wealth, safety, health, security—all branches of the tree of selfish ambition—feel too strong for us to resist. Instead of emptying ourselves to be filled up with the Spirit and her kingdom fruits, we gorge ourselves on the bread of self-indulgence and find ourselves enslaved in a land we weren’t made for. This land erects walls around us, holding us hostage to the god of consumerism, conquering us with promises of safety, getting us drunk on the wine of power and wealth. The walls keep rising, holding us captive, blinding us to what lies just beyond. The pace keeps quickening, we’re out of breath; our gods demand more and more from us as we become further enslaved to them. They stuff us full of lies and strip us of our hope. The noise level keeps rising, the cacophony is maddening—

Until, suddenly, a voice breaks through…

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14, NIV)

“I will rescue you…I will redeem you…” (from Exodus 6:6-7)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you [from captivity]; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1b, AMP)

The walls fall, the mountains crumble. The gods who held us captive are nowhere to be found.

It is silent.

All that exists is us and the God who pursues us even when our mouths are too full of our own gluttony to utter a single cry for help. The rescuing, radical, extravagant love of God comes to us personally to deliver us from our bondage—whatever that bondage might be. Because that’s what love does. That’s Who love is.

We are in a unique season, all of us. It looks different depending on our physical locations in the world, but the whole of humanity is experiencing this tragedy together. We are finding ourselves more isolated and less connected in spaces where there is less noise. We are being forced to slow down. . .

When we pause, when we get quiet, hidden things can rise to the surface. Tragedy, crisis, fear, grief—when imposed upon us, these things can be very revealing. Our response to them can uncover our bondage. Many of us may be coming face-to-face with the truth of what we have been enslaved to, the things that have tried to crush the image of God out of us.

It can be hard to face the truth. But Jesus is the author of truth. He is the truth that sets us free. And when we look into his face, we see eyes of compassion, eyes that weep with us, that see into our darkest corners and choose to look at what they find there. Eyes that reflect into our own the truth of who we are–if we have the courage to behold him, to look up at the one who always comes for us.

There are some suggesting that God shut down the stadiums, the concert venues, the economy, even our churches because we made idols of celebrities, money, and leaders, because we worshiped them instead of him. There are voices yelling loudly of God’s jealousy and refusal to come second in our lives, saying that what the world is experiencing is a result of our wickedness and idolatry. There is more being said, words that point a finger at certain people groups and wag it hard in judgement of specific sins. I won’t repeat some of what I’ve heard and read because I don’t want to further spread the hate and arrogance that sometimes masquerades as righteousness. There are many voices clamoring to be heard–theories abound and flourish in the fertile soil of fear.

I can’t subscribe to the picture of God these assertions paint.

I can, however, run into the open, welcoming arms of the God who is weeping with a hurting world, speaking peace to anxious hearts, standing by the bedside of those dying alone, and guiding the minds and hands of those providing care. I can trust the God who, as Pastor John said Sunday, can bring beauty, goodness, and wholeness from even the worst of circumstances. This God—the God I know is kind and good and full of compassion. He pursues us with a reckless love and brings us tenderly back into his arms while we still reek of the perfume of other lovers.

He comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed. When nobody else can see us, he sees. When no one wants us, he would do anything to win our hearts back. When we are afraid and enslaved to gods of our own making, he doesn’t send plagues to set us straight, he tells us we need only be still and fear not—he is with us. All of us. He can’t bear the thought of losing even one, because his radical, rescuing, extravagant love is a personal love, strong enough to deliver us from anything. Anything. Even ourselves…

–Laura

Laura emphasizes an excellent point– one that I want to begin with. God is not cruel. God is not mad, and [God] comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed.

God. Is. Love (1st John 4:8)   

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 upLove never stops loving. (1st Corinthians 13:4-8 TPT)

God. Is. Love.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15) Jesus is love. 

AND… as Laura reminded us above…Jesus is truth (John 14:6) and, through knowing Jesus, we can know the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8:32) Jesus will set us free.

The above truths are what everything else I write today will be founded upon: Jesus is God, God is love, God’s love looks like 1st Corinthians 13, and Jesus (THE Truth) sets us free. 

Let’s go back to Exodus 6 and the situation of slavery that God’s people had suffered under for 400 years. Was it God’s fault that the Israelites were slaves, or was it because the human heart, when left to its own ways leans toward oppression, acquisition, control, and violence? I believe it’s the latter.

So, Exodus 6 begins with God introducing himself to Moses, who’s been in exile for a number of years because he killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite putting his own life in danger so he ran away. (Using violence to solve violence doesn’t lead to good outcomes). Yet, God, who is love, comes to this exiled murderer and introduces himself, then invites Moses to be the leader of Israel’s deliverance. Moses’ first commission as deliverer is to relay a message to the Israelites, the message of Exodus 6:6-7 that Laura wrote out above. In that message God says:

I am the Lord…

I will bring you out…

I will deliver you from slavery…

I will redeem you…

I will take you to be mine…

I will be your God…

You will know I am the Lord your God…

You will know I brought you out from under your burdens…

Moses delivered the message, and the Israelites “did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.” (Ex. 6:9)

If we’re familiar with the story, we know that things got even harder for the Israelites, but eventually they were set free and Moses led them; however, there were still obstacles, still hardships, still uncertainty, still foes and battles, still fear–so much so that at one point the people wanted to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. (Numbers 14:4) . Slavery felt safer, slavery felt more certain, at least as slaves they knew what to expect, and I think they had forgotten what bondage felt like.

We can scoff at that mindset until we realize we have it too. In the Exodus rescue, an entire people group, a nation, was being set free. Nations are made up of individuals, and as Moses, Joshua and Caleb demonstrate, there were those in the people group who trusted God and wanted to follow God’s ways, and others who weren’t. As we move through the Old Testament, we see over and over that when the nation (or the kings) got enamored with wealth, power, acquisition–or when there was no king and “the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 & 21:25), God raised up a prophet to draw the people’s hearts back to their loving, rescuing God. Over and over the people (as a whole) ignored the prophets, imprisoned the prophets, killed the prophets, and continued their self-sufficient, self-destructive pursuits, which led them into bondage, and over and over, God embraced them with his love and rescued them.

Finally, the ultimate rescue came when God almighty clothed himself in flesh, and lived on earth as one of us. Jesus showed us what God looks like. Jesus showed us what God acts like. Jesus shows us how God sees. Jesus shows us how God loves, and Jesus laid down his life, conquered death and through his resurrection established his people, his kingdom, his nation. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus, says of the crucifixion: “The cross refounds the world. When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, perfectly displaying the love of God by forgiving the sin of the world, we find the place where human society is reorganized. Instead of a world organized around an axis of power enforced by violence, we discover a world organized around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness.”

Jesus and his ways reorganize society around an axis of love. Those of us who identify with Christ are no longer citizens of the world, we are citizens of the kingdom of God and yet, we are (I am)  drawn to the systems and structures of the world. They feel more certain. We know what to expect. And most of the time, we (I) don’t even realize the bondage we’ve placed ourselves in, the axis on which we’re spinning–until we’re faced with huge uncertainty.

So here we are, in unprecedented times. There is a global pandemic taking place. All over the world people are quarantining, people are without paychecks, some have lost their jobs, some have lost their health, some have lost their lives. Others are risking their lives on the front lines without the protective equipment that they need, or the medical equipment they need to keep people alive. In some nations, lives are being valued over the economy. In others, the economy is being valued over lives. There are those who believe the virus is a political ploy. There are those who believe the virus can be blamed on a certain ethnic group, and conclude that people of that ethnicity should be mistreated. There are those trying to control what they can, and there are those taking their own lives because things feel so out of control. There are those desperately trying to maintain life as normal, there are those numbing out in order to keep fear at bay, and there are those living in so much fear that they can’t eat or sleep. There are those, like my middle child’s dear friend, who have loved ones (his mother) in the hospital alone fighting for her life, and the isolation and grief they are both experiencing at not being able to be together. So what do we, the people of the kingdom of God, who live right here on the “foreign soil” of planet earth do?

First, we need to seek our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit what earthly things we’re clinging to, what is holding us captive? In the USA, we have printed on our currency “In God We Trust”. Do we? Or do we trust the currency on which that’s written?  I’m not going to lie–I struggle here. I’ve been breathing consumeristic, capitalistic air my whole life. Success in this nation is defined by possessions, or at the very least, being able to pay our own bills so that we don’t have to be dependent upon anyone else, which leads to another thing we may cling to…

Self-sufficiency. We admire the “self-made man”, the rags to riches stories. Independence and “I did it my way” are things we value. Interdependence causes us to feel weak; we don’t like that, and yet the system in God’s kingdom is extremely interdependent as we each offer our gifts to one another, pray for one another, share in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work together to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

We excel at “doing” rather than “being”. We’re not good at stillness. We go, go, go and rarely take time to sit and be. When we sit, we watch TV, scroll through our social media accounts, read books, text. We run from being alone with ourselves, and from being alone with God.  Even our “godly” focus on others can be a way to deflect from ourselves. You all, I’m not pointing fingers…I do this. And this week, I was stopped in my tracks.

A friend sent me a 15-minute meditation to listen to. As I listened to the encouragement to face my fears, let them go, and sit in the safety of Love, I could feel discomfort rising in me. I wanted to push it away, to move onto something else but chose to sit with it. I asked God to show me my deepest fears. He did. Pain. Loss. Suffering.  Mine, yours, the world’s. Many of you know that I lost my mother to cancer when I was eleven. That type of loss at that age wreaks havoc on one’s ability to feel safe–it’s like a gut punch that causes one’s mind to bend toward worst-case scenario thinking. It also makes one more apt to try to run from grief–which never works. The more we (I) run, the tighter the chains of bondage become. They can take the form of self-destruction or self-absorption;  of anger or denial; of clinging too hard to others, or not clinging to others at all; of blame or resignation; of living by our emotions, or numbing our emotions, and a myriad of other coping strategies.

So what do we do?  We acknowledge those things and turn from those ways. We seek the face of God (2nd Chronicles 7:14). When we seek God’s face, we look right into the face of Jesus who stood outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, knowing full well that he was about to bring Lazarus back to life, and he wept, actually sobbed with real tears, and entered into the grief of those mourning. Jesus did not deny their pain, just like Jesus did not deny his own wrestling and anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. He felt pain deeply. He never called anyone faithless for grieving.

He also continued to minister in the midst of pain.

In the account of Lazarus, Jesus brought him back to life–can you imagine the rejoicing that ensued? In his own life, Jesus experienced death, conquered death and came back to life, providing us the opportunity to live in the power of his resurrection both here on earth and for eternity–that’s reason to rejoice– but not reason to ignore.

My counselor taught me a few years ago,  that life happens in the tension of the “and”.  This season is full of “ands”.  I’m enjoying a slower life pace, and I am deeply aware of the seriousness of the situation we are in. I am a deeply committed follower of Jesus and I have fear and doubts. I have full faith to believe that God can heal and I am fully aware that God works on God’s timetable, and sometimes healing doesn’t mean what I want it to mean. I have no doubt that God could wipe out the virus in a millisecond and I am aware that we are facing a global pandemic that God hasn’t wiped out yet. I know that there is truth in the statement that we are safe in God’s love, and I don’t always feel like God’s love is safe, at least not the way I define safety.

Therefore, it’s wise to acknowledge the ands, feel what we need to feel, move through our wrestling by wrestling, then land on the things that we know are true. God is love. God is good. God meets us where we are without condemnation. God doesn’t mind our questions. God is okay with our wrestling. God joins us in our suffering. God joins us in our laughter. And in the midst of it all, as we seek His face, God gives us the opportunity to join Him in his loving work of rescuing, redeeming, suffering with, laughing with, praying for and embracing the world as we allow God to embrace us. In this way, a nation–a world, can be saved.

–Luanne

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Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

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The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

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Over All: Over Evil

…”deliver us from evil…”  (Mt 6:13)

“I do not ask that Thou mayest take them out of the world, but that Thou mayest keep them out of the evil.”  John 17:15 (Young’s Literal Translation)

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)

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

Pastor John defined evil as anything that takes our eyes off of Jesus.  He wasn’t talking about being some kind of weirdo that doesn’t live life in reality, but rather he was communicating that if anything keeps us from thinking, speaking, and acting in the ways of Jesus, the ways of the Kingdom of heaven, it’s evil.  Evil includes putting our hope, our energy, our support into systems and structures that have policies that run contrary to the ways of the Kingdom.  It includes thinking poorly of others; it includes acting poorly toward others. And yes, it also includes the realm of the personification of evil: the devil, the father of lies, the accuser, the one who poses as an angel of light; Satan.

Mark 5:1-20 relays an incredibly interesting encounter between Jesus and a demon-possessed man. Right before this encounter, Mark chapter 4 tells us that Jesus had been teaching from a boat and then said to his disciples- let’s go across to the other side–they took off; other boats joined them.  Jesus fell asleep and while he was sleeping a storm arose on the water. The disciples woke him up and accused him of not caring if they drowned. Jesus calmed the storm and then asked them why they were afraid and had so little faith. At that point, they became afraid because he had authority over the weather. As they were trying to figure out who Jesus truly was and what had just happened, Jesus took them to Mark 5…

…he took his Jewish disciples and others to a Gentile region, where they were met by a terrifying demon-possessed man–a naked man who lived among the tombs, who screamed out night and day, who cut himself, who had broken man-made constraints over and over, and who was impossible to subdue.

I did a little research on the region of Gerasenes and learned that it is a hilly place with many tombs built into the rocks.  The slopes descend swiftly, almost into the sea, so Jesus and his followers weren’t on a beach, they weren’t in a western culture cemetery, they had probably climbed a steep hill and were then confronted by this scary man.  Put yourself in the scene. Just a few hours before you thought you were going to die on the sea, and now this! Are you retreating–heading back down the hill to the boats? Are you stunned into inaction and silence? Are you talking to your peers about the terrifying man and coming up with a strategy to take him out? Are you talking about Jesus and wondering why he takes you to the kinds of places that he takes you?  Is your fear causing you to blame Jesus for getting you into this predicament?

And Jesus–what is he doing? He is seeing a man worthy of dignity and respect, worthy of love who is suffering tremendously. The biblical account doesn’t tell us how the man came to be possessed by demons, and I love that. How the man got into his suffering state is irrelevant. Jesus isn’t there to give him a lecture, to scold him, or to tell him he should have known better. Jesus is there to set him free.

Mark tells us that when the man saw Jesus he ran to him. Was the human being running toward help, or were the demons, knowing that they were in the presence of almighty God and recognizing his authority running to bow before him?

At some point, while the man was running toward Jesus, he said: “Come out of this man, you impure spirit.” (5:8) The way this is written doesn’t imply that Jesus was shouting. Jesus simply said…”come out”…

The man was shouting at the top of his lungs “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” (5:7) . He lived in total chaos. Can you imagine?

Jesus, who sees this man as a beloved image-bearer of God, speaks gently to him and asks his name. The man replies “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  (A Roman legion of soldiers consisted of 600 to many thousand men–so there were a lot of demons in this man) . He begged Jesus again and again not to send him out of the area. (5:10) . Then in verse 12 “the demons” beg Jesus to send them into the pigs that were nearby. I believe the man, not the demons, was begging Jesus not to send him away from his home–as out of control as his life was, he was still home. The demons, on the other hand, knew that Jesus wasn’t going to let them stay around.

Jesus granted permission for the demons to enter the pigs that were nearby–a herd of nearly 2,000. (v. 13). That’s a LOT of pigs. The pigs rushed down the steep hill into the sea and drowned. In the economy of Jesus, the man and his freedom from oppression had a whole lot more value than 2000 pigs. We can learn from that. We can also learn from Jesus that he did not attack the man in any way, shape, or form. He only went after what it was that was oppressing the man, and he did so calmly.

The people who were tending the pigs went into town to report what had happened.  When the townspeople ran out to see for themselves, they saw the formerly possessed man in his right mind, dressed, sitting with Jesus, they were afraid.  Jesus had done a mighty and miraculous thing–way beyond the scope of typical human understanding and it created fear. The townspeople in their fear asked Jesus to leave their region. Jesus did.

The man begged to go with Jesus–the man who just a little while ago had been begging Jesus not to send him away was now begging to go with Jesus.  Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (v. 19-20)

Don’t you wish you could know what Jesus and the man talked about while news of his healing was spreading through the town? How long did they sit there before others came? Were there hugs, tears of relief, laughter, joy? Did they talk about the coming of the Kingdom of heaven on earth?  Did Jesus give the man a new name?

Jesus teaches us much about addressing evil in the way he handles the demon-possessed man.

Number one is that he has absolute authority over the realm of evil. Jesus spoke and a legion of demons did exactly what he told them to. He lives in us, and his power in us carries that same authority.

Two: In Jesus’ addressing of this particular evil, he did not demonize the man. Rather he had compassion for him–he saw his suffering and desperation and moved toward him with love.  Jesus remained calm and didn’t escalate the situation by yelling or bragging about who was strongest. He simply acted in his authority and everything changed. Do we recognize suffering and desperation when we see it–or does behavior we don’t understand or don’t approve of cause us to judge and point fingers?

This account is a tremendous reminder that our battle is not against flesh and blood.  I wish I could recognize that as easily as Jesus does.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a heart for the oppressed, for the outcast, for those fleeing violence, for those treated as “other” or “less than” because of their faith tradition, their ethnicity, their country of origin or the color of their skin. I remember, even on the playground in grade school, standing up for my classmates who were being treated poorly.  My heart breaks over that type of injustice.

My difficulty in the “not against flesh and blood” battle comes in my perceptions of those doing the oppressing, who create policies that harm others, who worship money over people, who worship nation over people, who believe violence solves issues, who use the name of God to promote the mistreatment of others. That’s where I struggle. But if Pastor John’s definition of evil is “anything that takes my eyes off of Jesus”, then I need to be very aware of where my heart is, where my eyes are. Am I demonizing people? The answer is more often than I want to admit, yes.

Recognizing this doesn’t mean silence on my part, but it does mean my heart needs to want to see oppressors and their followers set free from whatever is holding them in bondage. There are principalities and powers at work in the world’s systems: power, supremacy, pride, wealth, nationalism, racism, and a host of others. The battle is against those things, not the human beings that have fallen prey to the principalities and powers. It’s so hard for me to remember that.

On my better days, I ask the Lord to remove blinders from minds, to reveal himself and his ways to those in power, to help me address issues calmly and to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me in what to say and how to say it. On my other days–ugh–it’s not pretty.  I recently learned from a friend to pray for leaders by asking that the Lord help them to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8). I am praying that for myself too–

Martin Luther King Junior reminds us that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that, and hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can to that”.  Jesus has shown us how to love. He has shown us that his love is powerful and has authority over evil.  He has shown us that he will not force us into his peace, but we can walk in his peace and be instruments of his peace, driving out darkness in his authority and with his love as we choose the ways of his Kingdom over the ways of the kingdom of this world. Are you in?

–Luanne

“To learn to look with compassion on everything that is; to see past the terrifying demons outside to the bawling hearts within; to make the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be; to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy; to surrender the priority of your own safety for love—this is to land at God’s breast.” (An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor)

I recently read the quote above, and it rocked me. It is tucked away in a chapter about pronouncing blessings over all that is–in the current state that it is in. Be it people, situations, the land itself, choosing to speak blessing and not cursing is not to ignore or negate the pain and suffering, but to simply choose not to judge it. Luanne wrote, “Do we recognize suffering and desperation when we see it–or does behavior we don’t understand or don’t approve of cause us to judge and point fingers?” She also wrote, “How the man got into his suffering state is irrelevant… Jesus is there to set him free.”

Jesus didn’t judge this man’s pain. He didn’t stand there with his arms crossed, determining whether or not he was worthy to be healed. He saw past the terrifying outside to the bawling heart within, and he looked upon him the same way he looked at everyone we see him encounter in the gospels–with compassion. With that co-suffering love that was no stranger to pain. In the same book I quoted above, the author writes about pain being that which “secures our communion” with one another. We all know pain. And if we can remember that, then it really doesn’t matter what sets us apart from each other. We can come to the table of compassion around our shared suffering, because pain is a great equalizer–if we allow it to be. Jesus understood pain. He moved toward suffering image-bearers over and over and over again. Whether it was the pain of spiritual oppression, like the man in the tombs experienced, or the more disguised pain of spiritual pride, like that of the usually oblivious Pharisees; the pain of sickness, paralysis, and death, or the pain of isolation and loneliness; the pain of the wrongly accused, or the pain of systemic injustice–Jesus moved toward those in pain, and he did so with compassion.

Jesus also wasn’t afraid.

Scripture tells us that Jesus experienced the fullness of our humanity, so we have to assume that he experienced fear at some point along the way. But that fear didn’t consume him. Presumably, because he knew who he was and he knew the authority that resided within him. The power that would eventually raise him from the dead was the power he walked in every single day. And Scripture tells us that the same power that raised him from the dead lives in us.

We don’t often live as if that’s true. We don’t move with the confidence that Jesus’s power lives within us. We let fear come in and make its home in our depths. It creates stories in our heads that turn into “truths” in our lives. We forget that we have any power over it at all, and it begins to have its way with us. Remember that Pastor John defined evil as “anything that takes our eyes off of Jesus.” Fear most certainly does that…

Fear is insidious. 

It often begins small… A doubt here, a whisper there… We don’t really notice when we walk to the other side of the street to avoid the “other” that we believe to be less than well-intentioned. It begins to pull a veil of skepticism and criticism over our eyes–eyes that perhaps used to look on others with compassion–and then it dehumanizes those that it has conditioned us to fear. At first, fear feels powerless. In time, as our fears are echoed by other voices, as we see that whole groups are afraid of the same things we are–the same people we are–fear begins to change. It begins to look powerful, it gets loud, and then it starts lashing out. After a while, it’s hard to see the original fear at all, because we have become the monster that terrifies to cover our own bawling hearts within. Now we’re the ones who need the compassionate gaze of Jesus to fall on us, calm our wild, and silence our fears.

Luanne shared so honestly about how she struggles with her perceptions of those who are doing the oppressing and the dehumanizing. I feel that struggle within myself, too… I think we also have to bravely and honestly own the places where we have become the oppressors… Where fear, along with individualizing our own pain, has led us away from compassion, away from the ways of Jesus and his kingdom. We are often unaware of what we’ve become, and we need Jesus to come set us free, just as the man who became known as Legion needed to be set free, needed to be released from the false identity that had laid claim to him.

I said before that Jesus wasn’t afraid because he knew who he was. That’s the key. The answer to our fear is the knowledge of our true identity… We are children of God, image-bearers, carriers of the divine–and as his children, we are wholly and completely loved. Fear has no claim on us. Fear may have visited Jesus, but he knew his true identity, so it couldn’t make a home in his heart. It had no power to change the way he saw all others, no power to distort his vision, no power to overshadow his love and his compassion.

Likewise, if we really understand who we are and the power that lives within us, we too can look upon all that is with the lenses of his compassion. If we can abide within the perfect love that calls us Beloved and allow that love to overcome our fears, we will see beyond the monsters outside to the bawling hearts within. If we know who we are, and the power of he who lives within us and loves as us, we can overcome the darkness of fear and evil with the kingdom light of compassion, in the authority of the one who’s always showing us how to engage his way. His way is never the easiest way, but if we’re willing, we’ll see the power of the kingdom change lives–starting with our own.

–Laura

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This I Know: Father’s Day

On Sunday, we had the privilege of hearing from a panel of dads. Pastor John Marshall, along with two of our elders, Trevor Schenk and Jim Fuhrer, shared with us about their experiences with each of their fathers as well as their experiences parenting their own children.

These three men all had really good dads. Dads who weren’t perfect, but still modeled God’s love to them. Dads who lived out their faith. All three identified that their dads didn’t really talk about their faith with their kids–they shared their faith in their actions. Whether it was the way they respected others and spoke encouragement, their consistency and strength of character, or their hospitality to anyone who needed a place to stay, all three lived out their faith in front of their kids. And these sons that we heard from–they noticed.

Jim said, “What you know is articulated through what you do.” He went on to say that kids are quick to spot the inconsistencies. They see hypocrisy. He encouraged us to notice the way that God demonstrates pursuing his kids–and to pursue our kids in that same way–in words as well as in action. He talked about the importance of dads telling their daughters, “You’re beautiful” and telling their sons, “I”m proud of you.” I think the exact words may differ for each child–every person is wired uniquely and may need to hear something different. Regardless of the wording, what Jim was encouraging dads to do was to speak to the places of longing in their children’s hearts. To speak truth into those holes we all have that, if not countered with truth, become a breeding ground for insecurity, shame, fear, and all forms of hidden pain. For me, the best thing my dad could say to me–whether in words or through action–is, “You matter. You’re significant to my life, and I have space for you.” What is it that your heart would most love to hear from your father?

John vulnerably shared that, while his dad lived out what he believed, he can’t recall hearing the words “I love you” from him very many times in his life. He wasn’t sure his dad loved him. He identified one time that he did hear these words. They were the last words his dad spoke to him before he died nearly two years ago. The impact of those three words on John’s heart was felt throughout the room as he shared about that moment through tears. John needed to hear his dad say, “I love you.” 

Up to this point, we’ve looked at the importance of both words and actions when it comes to being a dad. We’ve heard about three really wonderful fathers from three men who are also wonderful dads (and granddads) to their own children and grandchildren. None of these men are/were perfect, none have/had all the answers. But they all love God, and they’ve all done–and are doing–their best to reflect the heart of God to their children.

As I type these words, I am so aware that what our panel presented is, unfortunately, not the norm. It is not common to hear about so many dads who parent well and lead their children this way. There are many of us who can’t quite identify with this experience, many of us whose dads created chaos rather than stability, and left us doubting God rather than trusting him. Rather than modeling the love of God to their children, many dads instill in them the fear of God by painting a picture of anger, judgement, and criticism, or maybe one of apathy and abandonment.

If your experience with your father–or as a father–was (or is) more like what you just read than what our panel shared about, please keep reading…

While our panel of dads shared many wise and honest points, there was one line that hit me harder than everything else they said. It was a response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge as a dad?” The answer we heard from Trevor, the youngest of the three dads, is one that I know I’ll be wrestling through for a while. Trevor has two young sons, currently one and four years old. He answered the question with these words:

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

His words hit me hard. They led me to a trail head for a path I was (and am still, honestly…) resistant to travel. The path is rocky and steep. It’s dark and shadowy and a bit mysterious. It’s full of memories that could cause me to slip and fall and bleed. It’s a path I don’t want to take–and I don’t have to. I could walk right past the entrance and move on. I could find another trail–one full of butterflies and wildflowers, one well-marked and well-lit.

I don’t want to take the rocky path. Because it might cultivate compassion that I don’t want to have for a person that has wounded me deeply, and continues to do so…

The Holy Spirit delivered Trevor’s words into the core of me. It felt a bit like a sucker punch, the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you a little panicky as you gasp for air. I resisted immediately, because, well, self-pity feels better than self-emptying love. And anger can feel like power and control in situations that otherwise leave you feeling small and insignificant. 

I wanted to stay in the anger. I told God that.

But even as I wrestled, I knew that this would be the next page in my story. God was inviting me deeper, into a place of compassion, grace, and forgiveness through Trevor’s words. Would I take his hand and let him lead me onto this rocky trail in front of me, the one called “Ian”?

Ian is my dad. Our relationship is complicated, and to catch you all up to where we are today would require far too many words. What you need to know, for now, is that I came into church on Sunday hurting and guarded and wanting to go back home. Because once again, my dad had broken my heart and left me feeling disappointed and invisible. I’m learning that anger is my go-to emotion when I feel unseen, because, as I said before, anger can feel like power and control. So that’s where I was as I listened to our panel.

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”

Trevor’s words led me to a trail head called “Ian”, not “Dad”. A trail called “Dad” would lead me through the winding, treacherous journey back through our story as father and daughter. God was inviting me, instead, to traverse the trail of Ian’s story. That realization alone was enough to cause stress fractures in the walls around my heart. I know his story, and it’s tragic. One chapter from the story of his early years would be enough to soften the hardest heart… but, somehow, I’d forgotten that. I  had locked all of that in a box and hid it behind the file cabinet of my own pain.

I couldn’t go there yesterday. I thanked Trevor for sharing and let him know that I was pretty sure I’d end up writing about how God had used his words. And then I left with my family to celebrate my husband and his dad.

I couldn’t run away from it today, though…

What if I applied Trevor’s answer to my Dad? What if I took the first step onto the perilous path of his life story with eyes to see and ears to hear what it was like for him? What if I opened that locked box and let the stories I’ve put away come into view?

My dad endured a childhood no little boy should ever have to face. The stories aren’t mine to share, so I will speak in generalities, but I assure you that the details would rip your heart in two. He faced abuse and abandonment. When he courageously stood up to protect his mother at the tender age of eight, the cost was his father, whom he never saw again. He endured poverty and a fractured, blended family. He endured spiritual warfare terrifying enough to break box office records in the horror category. The man who eventually ended up sticking around in his life was a good man, but he was a hard man who only softened in his later years. Despite the odds against him, my dad excelled in school and in sports. He found a love for God through the faith of his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have survived all that life threw at her–but somehow she did.

He wanted to be a pastor…

But then he found himself entangled in a “church” that preached patriarchy and a vengeful, angry God. It was a place that stripped young, hopeful Jesus-followers of their identities and manipulated them in a grotesque show of power and control that took the forms of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse. This place broke him. And his brokenness broke his family.

His brokenness broke me…

And then it broke other families, too.

It’s still breaking my heart, and now the hearts of my own kids.

And I want to be angry…

But as I recall all he’s been through, all that’s made him who he is; as I think about what was modeled to him from every father figure he’s ever known, I have to acknowledge it:

My dad’s biggest challenge as a father is himself, too. 

His shame, his broken little-boy heart, his fragmented history… How do you learn to be a father when that is the story of you?

As I exhale, my narrative shifts… Considering all he’s been through, he hasn’t done too badly. My saying that doesn’t mean he’s “off the hook” for all the pain he’s caused me and those I love. It does mean, however, that I can cultivate compassion for this man, named Ian. This man who, if I didn’t know him as my father, I would be devastated for. A man whose story is heartbreaking and woven into the person he is–the good and the bad. A man who, against all odds, has held onto hope and to God, and who brings a lot of good into the world. Acknowledging his story allows me to focus on his strengths and to see the good in him. And there truly is good in him–and in all of us. I get to choose what I focus on–we all do.

Maybe the biggest challenge we all face as human beings is ourselves. Maybe Trevor’s answer applies to all of us… Maybe it’s our own shortcomings, each of our file cabinets filled with our pain and disappointment, that get in the way of our loving each other well.

And maybe that’s why we all need the reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us. We wrote these words in our Mother’s Day post:

“…Wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God… Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet…  There is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but as we commit these things to God,“he will bring life to it.” We are “a people of hope”, and God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” 

None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. (And stories we may have forgotten about…) His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.”

These words are worth repeating, because we have to be reminded that our weakness is not something to be afraid of… and the weakness of someone else–even if that someone else is our dad or our mom–isn’t something we have to be angry about. We can choose compassion when everything within us would rather run the other way. Because the story doesn’t hinge on our parents, on our children, or on us. The story hinges on the father who is also mother. The father who is perfect and shows up brightest in our imperfections.

My dad isn’t perfect. There are wounds in my heart that aren’t healed, and may never be. But my Father is perfect. He is perfect in his love for me as his daughter, and he is perfect in his love for my dad, who is just as much his child. He alone can come into the broken and cultivate compassion rather than anger, if we let him. These words from a song we sang on Sunday keep running through my head:

My weakness is hidden within Your glory
Jesus, my strength is in You
The odds are against me, but You are for me
Jesus, my strength is in You

(Power, Elevation Worship)

The odds are against all of us. But we all have One who is for us. And his perfect parental love is enough to carry us from where we are to where we could be, if we trust him enough to take his hand and let him lead us.

–Laura

As I read what Laura wrote above, my heart hurts for my friend, my heart hurts for Ian, and my heart hurts for all those who’ve struggled in their relationships with their dads. That is not my story. My dad is not perfect, but he’s fantastic. He was very free with loving words and loving actions.

I have no idea how many of my childhood hours were spent traipsing through the woods, catching tadpoles and crawdads in creeks, floating in a canoe down a river, walking together on trails, sitting in his lap while he read me books, even sliding down his cast when he broke his leg. He taught me, with words and actions, about God’s love, about prayer being listening to God as well as speaking to God-and we practiced that together. We memorized the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm together. When my mother died, he gave us permission to be angry and grieved honestly in front of and with us. When my life exploded in 2011, he was my confidant, my safe person, and gave wise and beautiful support and counsel without degrading anyone else. He will be ninety on his next birthday, and though his physical body is causing him a good bit of trouble, his brilliant mind, his gentle ways, and his love are still pillars in my life. I recognize that my story is a rare one. I am grateful.

Pastor John reminded us as he shared,  that we weren’t comparing fathers and mothers and which parent is most important or has greater influence because both reflect the image of God and both are incredibly influential; however, he did point out that there is a weightiness that goes with the role of being a dad. Many times, the view we have of God comes from the view we have of our earthly dads. In my case, that’s a great thing. In the case of others, it’s not so great, which is why what Laura does above is so powerful. She began to remember her dad’s own story, his own holes, his brokenness, his story, and it led her to compassion for her dad. Again, not excusing or dismissing her pain, but adding another element to the story.

When I was in counseling a few years ago, the counselor’s office had ampersands (&) in various locations. One of the concepts that they reminded us of over and over is that life happens in the tension of the “and”. I’ve found that to be very helpful, and have an ampersand in my own house to help me remember. What does it mean to live in the tension of the “and”? Two seemingly opposing truths can be true without one canceling out the other. It’s both/and rather than either/or. I am a generous person and I am a selfish person.  Both are true. I live in the tension between the two truths.

What Laura was doing in remembering Ian’s story, was adding the tension that comes with the ampersand. The ampersand helps us to cultivate compassion, even as we grapple with very real wounds.

Life might seem easier if everything was black and white. It’s not. We live in the gray. We live in the tension. One of my son’s friends, who has the authority in his job to hire and fire people, allows situations to go on for a while as he learns the story behind the story. He shared that he prefers to offer grace in the gray before determining whether to let someone go or not. I’ve adopted his phrase. Grace in the gray–not an easy place to be, not without wrestling, but maybe the best place to be in the many situations over which we have no control, which includes the parents we have, and the choices our children make.

So, as the child of a parent, as the parent of a child, as the “stand-in” parent for children and young adults to whom we didn’t give birth, as a success and as a failure, can we offer grace to ourselves and to others in the gray? That doesn’t mean that we stuff our pain. We have to acknowledge it. We have to deal with it. But it does mean that we see a fuller picture with a wide-scope lens acknowledging that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2a). There is always more to the story. Can we offer grace in the gray? If so, I think we may just be surprised to find healing in that place.

–Luanne

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The Battle: Armor of God (Part 1)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 

Stand firm then

                   with the belt of truth  buckled around your waist,

                            with the breastplate of righteousness in place,

                                      and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from       the  gospel of peace… (Eph. 6:10-15)

Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be gives us food for thought regarding the principalities and powers of this world. He says:

“Principalities and powers are not disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but institutions, structures, and systems; they are not just physical…the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional…. The Powers are simultaneously an outer visible structure and an inner spiritual reality. (They are) the actual spiritual reality at the center of political, economic, and cultural institutions.”

Wink goes on to say:

“When a particular power becomes idolatrous-that is when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the higher good-then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask the idolatry…but this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed…that was to be the task of the church, so that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 3:10).

I had never heard this interpretation of The Powers until I read Wink’s book, but since reading it, I pay attention to the reality of the spiritual realm in systems, structures, institutions, etc. It helps me to grasp that the battle is not against flesh and blood (even though sometimes I forget). There are Powers at play in war, politics, social media, news agencies, media, advertising, shopping centers, grocery stores, homes, destructive ideologies like racism, classism, nationalism, in things like religious systems, the stock market, banking systems,  businesses, schools, homes, and sadly, churches as well. It’s important to be aware of these things. As Laura and I pointed out in a recent blog post, Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), so we must be so, so, so very wise and discerning in order to fight the battle against the real enemy and not be fighting on his side against one another. I believe that’s why the belt of truth is the first piece of armor Paul tells us to put on.

When speaking of “truth” it is incredibly important that we acknowledge that Jesus is truth. (Jn 14:6). That we can know THE Truth, and He can set us free.  (Jn 8:32). It’s not what we think about Jesus, or how we interpret scripture about Jesus that is truth. Truth is Jesus himself. To know the truth, we must know Jesus.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we must read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) over and over and over. We must pay attention to what Jesus said, who He said it to, what His subject matter was, who He hung out with, who frustrated Him, what cultural norms He pushed back against, what He emphasized, what He cautioned against, how He loved…He is truth. We must be humble enough to allow The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to guide us into all truth-(John 16:13)-even if it’s different from what we were taught. Jesus is Truth. Truth looks like Him.

Paul tells us to Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled in place. “Stand firm” is the same Greek word used for “Resist” (“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7)  which implies all of us standing together against the one enemy… .

The Roman soldier’s belt was thick leather that protected the entire abdominal and groin area. It kept a soldier from literally being gutted. Not only that, it held the breastplate in its place, and held the other weapons. The belt held it all together. The Truth holds us all together.

I want to emphasize one more time that the Truth is Jesus and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17).  Truth is not our denominational bent, not our theological understanding, not anything that could lead us to any type of division. The real Jesus brings us all together and holds us all together, so that His Kingdom can come on earth as we, the capital “C” church, stand firm against the one enemy together.  The truth of Jesus is for all people everywhere. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17). We have to understand that Jesus is truth and live from that place.

The breastplate of righteousness also points us to Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that “He (Jesus) became sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  

The Roman soldier’s breastplate protected his heart. It only covered his front. The philosophy of Rome was that their soldiers did not need their backs protected because they would always be on the offense. They would not turn and run. They would not retreat.

Righteousness is huge for those of us who follow Christ. It means that because of Jesus, we have become totally acceptable to God. We are fully approved by God. We are in complete and total right relationship with God. We don’t have to strive for it. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be “good enough” in our own efforts. Our righteousness is a gift of grace.

The covering of His righteousness keeps us secure in God and protects our hearts from becoming hard. The covering of His righteousness gives us permission to lay judgment and striving aside and focus on the things that are important to His heart–namely, people.

God tells us in Proverbs 4:23 to Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. Keep it protected from anything that would make it hard, or bitter, or unkind.  Jesus himself gave us a sign to look for to determine the state of our own hearts when he said A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45)  I know in my own life that the thoughts that come into my head that I want to say are the quickest indicator for me that my heart is not in a good place. Getting back into a better place requires sitting in the presence of God, owning what I need to own, and being reminded again of His grace, His mercy, His acceptance and approval of me, even in my mess.  As we stand our ground against the enemy’s accusations, facing him with our breastplate of righteousness tucked firmly into the belt of truth, his fiery darts cannot penetrate our hearts. We can be secure in who we are in Him, and get on with the business of advancing God’s Kingdom.

The shoes are such an interesting piece of armor.  The shoes are fitted for our feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  The Roman soldier’s shoes were thick-soled leather with hob nails in the bottom of them. They served to protect the soldiers’ feet, provide traction and momentum so that they wouldn’t lose ground, and as a weapon for stomping the enemy. I don’t know what their readiness came from–marching orders or whatever, but our readiness comes from the gospel of peace–the good news of peace.

Like the others, this piece of armor points to Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6), We have peace with God through Jesus (Romans 5:1) and Jesus himself tells us that he has given us His peace in John 14:27. His peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no peace without Christ.

Pastor John said that our personal story with Jesus is how we take the good news of peace to the world. Your story with Jesus, my story with Jesus can not be dismissed. The Apostle Paul, quoting Isaiah wrote  “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:15) and the prophet Isaiah included the phrase “the good news of peace and salvation” (52:7).  This beautiful theme of peace is God’s heart. The Hebrew word for God’s type of peace is Shalom, translated into the Greek word ‘eirene’ in the New Testament. The English word “peace” can’t really capture all that Shalom is;  Shalom is the flourishing of all things–all things in harmony with one another, it is the restoration of the world to it’s pre-fallen state. It is about making all things new.

In Revelation 21:5 the One on the throne says “Behold, I am making all things new.”  The Apostle Paul tells us that if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17) And the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is about making all things new.

My favorite definition of Shalom is destroy the authority of the one making chaos. 

Your story of how Jesus has transformed your life and brought you the peace that passes all understanding (Ph. 4:7); your story of how His righteousness has made you righteous before God- fully approved and acceptable; your story of the Truth of who He is and His heart of love for you personally and for whoever it is you are talking to are mighty in  destroying the chaos caused by the devil, authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. They are no match for God and His mighty power that is at work within you, within us. Put on the full armor of God so that…

-Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Truth is not our denominational bent, not our theological understanding, not anything that could lead us to any type of division. The real Jesus brings us all together and holds us all together, so that His Kingdom can come on earth as we, the capital “C” church, stand firm against the one enemy together.  The truth of Jesus is for all people everywhere.”

Another author and pastor I love, Jonathan Martin, recently said, “Jesus is the prism through which all other Scripture is to be read and interpreted”. (Son of a Preacher Man podcast, Season 1-Episode 21)

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. 

It really is all about Him. Every bit of Scripture we read. Our understanding of any and all of it. It all has to go through the filter of Jesus. Or the framework of our theology will have some warped boards in its structure. This applies to everything we understand about the Kingdom that Jesus ushered in. The Kingdom will reflect the character, values, mission, and heart of its King. And so, as we take a closer look at the armor of God this week and next, we must look at it all through the lens of Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). This is exactly what Luanne did above, as she brought us back to Jesus over and over again in her descriptions of the armor. And I hope you’ll forgive my repetition as I continue in the same vein. It’s so, so vital that we get this. If we take any part of Scripture and view it through any lens other than the lens of Jesus Himself, we risk building a framework that cannot stand.

 

Jesus IS our armor. 

Period.

Full stop.

I have written and deleted multiple paragraphs to get to those four words. Jesus is our armor. Paul used language that his readers would understand, the description of a Roman soldier’s uniform, to highlight–as he so often did–the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. He used symbols of war and redefined them in the light of the Prince of Peace. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:4) Every piece of our spiritual armor is only complete in the person of Jesus. Jesus is truth. He is righteousness, and all justice end equity-which are at the root of original Greek word we translate as “righteousness” in these verses-are found and made complete in Him. And He is our Shalom, our peace that destroys the authority of the one making the chaos. I’ll stop there, because we’ll cover the other pieces of armor next week. But you can see where this is all going. Our armor is Jesus. All that He is. All that He brings. His ways, his words. That’s what we are to put on–Jesus. Amy Layne Litzelman says it this way, “Putting on God’s armor is…coming to know the One who is our armor. When we put on God’s armor, we desire one thing: the fullness of Christ active in us”. (This Beloved Road Vol. II-Into the Source)

With this understanding, let’s go back to verses 10 & 11a in our passage:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God…” 

I love looking into the root words that our modern bibles were translated from. I especially love what I found when I did that today, with these verses. “Be strong” reads like a command, something we do, being active rather than passive. Journeying into the root words provides us with a more complete picture. What we read as “be strong” comes from root words that mean, “be made strong; be strengthened, enabled, empowered, confirmed”. And the tiny word that follows, “in”, is packed with meaning, too. The word translated “in” is a primary preposition denoting “fixed position, in the interior of some whole, within the limits of some space”. His “mighty power” more completely means, “great power and dominion, extent of His ability”. When we are told to “put on” the full armor of God in the verse that follows, the Greek word translated “put on” is the same one used in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience”. “Put on” and “clothe” are from the same word, “endyo”, which carries the sense of sinking into a garment. If we pair this with our understanding that Jesus is our armor, then what this verse is saying to us is, “Sink into, be absorbed into the garment of Jesus. Wear Him.” So if I were to put all of this together and paraphrase it, it would sound something like this:

“Be strengthened and empowered, confirmed and enabled; your position fixed inside the limits of the space of the Lord and in His dominion and the extent of His ability. Sink into, be absorbed into, the garment of Jesus. Wear Him.”

Why? “So that you [remember this is the collective “you”, all of us together] can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Eph. 6:11b)

It is only when we wear Jesus-when we wrap His ways around us, when we are completely absorbed in who He is-that we can stand against the ways of our enemy. We can’t fight the way our enemy fights. The ways of Satan can’t drive out Satan (Matthew 12:26). Darkness can’t drive out darkness. We have to stand in the fullness of who Jesus is. We are powerless to stand on our own. We are only strong in Him. Never in ourselves. And that is what I love about how Paul presents the armor to us. He uses the imagery of the Roman soldier–the picture of strength, power, military prowess–and uses it to remind us of the upside-down Kingdom of Christ. The Roman kingdom depended on no one but themselves. They were victors, conquerors, battle-savvy war-mongers who decimated those who would dare oppose them. Their strategies were progressive, their designs innovative and their gear was state-of-the-art. They were second to none… or so they thought. The people they oversaw, ruled over and terrorized thought so, too. But there was-and there is-a Kingdom far greater, far more powerful, with longevity the Romans could have only dreamed of. The upside-down Kingdom of Christ. The Kingdom that came in on the back of a lamb led to the slaughter. The Kingdom that speaks blessing over the meek, the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the peacemakers. Paul takes the symbols of violence, of war and division, and rewrites the script for Jesus-followers. He replaces the earthly materials-the leather, metals, animal hooves-with divine weapons. Weapons that cannot be defeated because they come from another place. They’re not made of materials that can be destroyed. Truth, righteousness, justice, peace–and the others we’ll cover next week–are indestructible. Because they are the characteristics of Jesus Himself. They are the pure, undefiled goodness that has already defeated the evil of our enemy. And we get full access to these attributes in the person of Jesus. He is our armor. And we are never without Him. But in order to “wear” Him effectively, we have to be willing to do it His way. In our humanness, we like the picture of the Roman soldier better than that of our humble Savior. The idea of being strong, powerful, self-sufficient, respected and revered for our abilities and expertise is a lot more appealing to our flesh than the opposite. Which is why it is so important that we understand that Jesus is the armor we get to put on. And we get to follow Him. It is not us who rise up and fight our enemy; it is the Holy Spirit within us that rises up to fight in heavenly realms while we remain hidden inside the perfectly pure and just garment of Jesus Himself. He is the armor that both protects us and fights off our enemy. And He invites us to partner with Him in the battle. But we don’t lead it. And we do none of it in our own strength. We put Jesus on–all of Him. The ways of His kingdom become our clothing as we move into the world carrying the good news of His victory.

–Laura

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The Battle

FACT: We have a God who loves us and is for us.

FACT: We have an enemy who hates us and is against us.

FACT: Spiritual warfare is real.

FACT: We don’t face it alone.

On Sunday, we began the first of a six part series on spiritual warfare; Pastor John gave us an overview and reminded us of some important truths. In the weeks to come we will dive in more deeply.

Whether we want to be or not, we are in a war. It is not a war that we can always see with our eyes. We can see evidence of it with our natural senses, but the ultimate battle is taking place in the spiritual realm.

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10: 3-5)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:10-12)

According to the above verses, there is a battle going on. There are spiritual forces of evil who battle against us. We are not helpless in this battle. We have weapons that have divine power, we have the full armor of God (that we’ll look at in a couple of weeks), and we can find our strength for the battle by being strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Elisha had a season in which he was continually ticking off the king of Aram. The king of Aram wanted to ambush and attack the Israelites, God kept revealing to Elisha where Aram’s forces were, Elisha told the king of Israel who acted on what he learned thus thwarting the king of Aram’s plans; therefore,  the king of Aram decided to go after Elisha, the source of his frustation.

He sent his troops to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha was staying. Elisha’s servant awakened in the morning, and went outside. He saw the horses and chariots of the enemy surrounding the city and he panicked (quite understandably in my opinion!). He says to Elisha: “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do!”.  And Elisha, a man full of faith and courage responds “Don’t be afraid…those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 

I don’t know what the servant was thinking in that moment–maybe something like “yeah, right”–he couldn’t see what Elisha was seeing in the spiritual realm. Elisha didn’t judge him for that. instead Elisha had compassion on his terrified servant and prayed for God to open his eyes so that he too could see. …The Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. Wow! What a moment!!  Elisha then prayed that the Lord would strike the Aramean army with blindness–the Lord did and Elisha and his servant did not die that day. (2nd Kings 6:10-18)

FACT: We are never alone in our battles. NEVER. We may feel alone, but we are not alone. Our feelings cannot be trusted. In order to recognize and face spiritual battles, we must be based in the truth that God is with us, and God is more powerful than our enemy. Elisha was full of faith. It’s important to note that not only did he pray for his servant to be able to see what was happening in the spiritual realm, he also prayed that the Lord would blind the enemy army. Elisha knew that he wasn’t alone and he knew that PRAYER was his key weapon.

In the book of Daniel, chapter 10 beginning in verse 7, we see another man of faith fighting in the spiritual realm. Daniel received a vision that was very troubling to him.  He set out to gain further understanding, so he put himself in a posture to hear from God. For three weeks he mourned, he fasted, and he prayed. On the 24th day Daniel was visited by a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold…his body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like falling torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. Wow!

Daniel had other men with him, but he was the only one who saw the vision. The others who were with him felt the presence and were so terrified that they fled and hid. Daniel was left by himself. He says of this moment that he had no strength left, his face turned deathly pale and he was helpless. The man in the vision began to speak to Daniel. He told Daniel that he was highly esteemed. (I love that!) He told Daniel to stand up, and even in his trembling state, Daniel did. And then the man in the vision said, Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before GodYOUR WORDS WERE HEARD, and I have come in response to them.

That is a packed verse. We can take great comfort from that verse. Daniel had humbly set his mind to gain understanding. Not worldly understanding, but godly understanding. I love the phrase “set his mind”. Daniel was troubled, but he wasn’t freaking out. He didn’t fret and worry–instead he fasted, he prayed, and he sought the Lord.  And the the man in the vision assured Daniel that the very first day he prayed about it, his prayer was heard. Daniel could not see the response to his prayer, but God had heard and was  responding His way and in His time.

In both the situation with Elisha and with Daniel we see men of deep faith who are aware of the spiritual realm and are aware that their powerful weapon of warfare is prayer.

In the Apostle John’s 1st letter, chapter 4, he encourages his friends (and us) to test every spirit to see if they are from God, and he reminds them in verse four that they are from God and have overcome because the One who is in you is greater that the one who is in the world.

My crash course in major spiritual warfare came in Brazil. My youngest son was five years old and got infected with E. coli. He was very, very sick and was hospitalized for seven days. We did not know if he was going to live or die. In the middle of the week, he saw eyes on the wall of his hospital room. I poo-pooed it away. I hadn’t seen the eyes.

The following night he had a demon possessed nurse who literally tried to take his life. I could not poo-poo that away. I was freaked out and truly did not know what to do.  We tried to call some people but the hospital phone did not work. I finally stepped into action when Seth asked me who the shadow was that was standing behind daddy, the shadow with the long hair. I sat next to Seth on his bed and asked him to say “I belong to Jesus.” Beyond that I had no idea what to do, so I cried out to God and begged him to lead us through this. He did by taking me to scripture passages to pray.

The first one was Hannah taking her son Samuel to the temple to give him to the Lord (1st Samuel 1). God asked me who Seth (my son) belonged to–Him or me. We had a bit of a wrestling match at that point, because I knew that there was a very real possibility that Seth could die and I didn’t know what God was going to do. (Not that I could have stopped any of that anyway.). I also knew that I didn’t want Seth in that palpable darkness, so I surrendered him to God.

Once that was settled, God took me to the line in the Lord’s Prayer “deliver us from evil”, and I began to pray that. I said it over and over until He took me to the next passage which was in John 17:11 protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me…” And I began to pray that God would protect Seth by the power of the name of Jesus. I prayed that over and over, until the next scripture came.

The next scripture was a surprise. God reminded me of Pharaoh in Egypt who did not acknowledge God, but God moved in Pharaoh’s heart to set the Israelites free. I knew immediately that I was to pray that He would move in the nurse’s heart to be able to care for Seth.

After that prayer,  I had the sense that we were done and I sat down and waited. The next time the nurse came into the room, she did not acknowledge us, she stood upright, walked to Seth, switched his IV, left the room, and we did not see her again.

We were pretty awe struck and freaked out. We didn’t tell anyone what had happened for quite a while because it seemed so far fetched, and we were still trying to wrap our minds around it.

There is much more to that story, things that didn’t make sense to us, decisions that Seth’s Jesus-following doctor made that seemed odd–but we trusted her. And after the entire ordeal was over, she told us that she had prayed through Seth’s treatment and her decisions the entire time. Some of the things God led her to do didn’t make sense to her either, but she made them, and Seth was delivered.

God–in His might and power–responded to our prayers and saved my son. That is not an experience I would ever wish to repeat, but I learned a ton about spiritual warfare. Prayer, faith, and the word of God are powerful weapons in the unseen realm. The unseen realm is real. The enemy is real, he is mean,  and he wants to take us out, AND gloriously, God is more powerful and has already won the battle. We fight from victory, not for victory.

We will dive into all of this more deeply in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, be assured that, if you are in Christ Jesus, you already have everything you need to fight in the spiritual realm, and you are not alone, ever.  If you do not yet know the real Jesus, he is one prayer away. Send us an e-mail if you have questions about that. We would love to help you Enter In.

–Luanne

 “We fight from victory, not for victory.”

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t get John 16:33 out of my mind. Jesus, speaking to his disciples, his friends, says these words:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

This verse has always stood out to me. Because Jesus spoke these words before the crucifixion, before the resurrection. We say that death and sin were defeated on the cross-and I absolutely believe that.  But when Jesus proclaimed that He had overcome the world–he hadn’t yet done that. Not physically… But I believe (disclaimer: this is purely supposition, not theological fact...) that He had already overcome in the ways that mattered most. He had already defeated the power of darkness spiritually and mentally. Of course, as God Himself, He knew the outcome. Omniscience lends itself to that kind of knowledge… But that’s not what I’m referring to here. Jesus intentionally made Himself relatable; He wanted us to know that He understands. Hebrews 4:15 out of The Message says it this way: We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. Scripture shows us that Jesus wrestled emotionally and physically in the hours leading up to His death. But the matter was settled in His Spirit. And in His mind. He asked if there was any other way, if the cup of suffering could be taken away from Him (Matthew 26:39), but He ends that prayer with “Yet not as I will, but as you will…” He was, to borrow a phrase from a few weeks ago, fully committed to His surrender. So much so that He spoke with confidence, “I have overcome the world.”

And so it is with us… 

In Jesus, we already have the victory–we don’t have to fight for it. He overcame from the very beginning. All the way back in Genesis 3, we read about the One who would come to crush the head of the serpent. And if we were to really get into the omniscience conversation, we would identify that God created humanity with the cross in view. Darkness and death never stood a chance. And our enemy has always known that. So why, then, does he continue to wage war against the Light? Why fight a futile battle? One, he is purely evil-the full manifestation of pride, arrogance, jealousy, fear, etc… He is named in the Bible as “the father of lies“. I believe this is why he continues to wage war against humanity and the image of God–because there are so many of us who believe him.

This is why it is imperative that we understand a few things… One, our God is good. Purely good. His light is perfect and where that light is, no darkness can hide. Two, we are now children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5:5, Ephesians 5:8), called to live in that light. And three, our enemy masquerades as an angel of light (2  Corinthians 11:14).

I remember so clearly the night I began to understand these things… February 10, 2011, I was sitting in bed reading my Bible. Devouring it, really. I was in Hebrews and I was starting to see some new insights, beginning to go deeper. My husband was sleeping next to me, my babies were asleep in their beds. I was at the beginning of a season during which God would remove much of what had kept me bound and blind to the truth of who He is. It was very late. I had been reading for quite a while. The house was dark except for the lamp on my nightstand, and it was quiet. Out of nowhere, as I read, fear wrapped icy fingers around my chest. My breathing quickened, my heart raced… I saw shadows move-or I thought I did. I started to hear unsettling noises. This wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for me. I spent many nights afraid, paralyzed by the fear of what was lurking in the darkness. I can’t remember a time in my childhood that the dark didn’t feel threatening. I spent the first eight years of my life in a cult that masqueraded as a Jesus-loving church, so the presence of fear, the sense of the darkness, was always around. I believed as a little girl that God would use fear as a tool to bring about His purposes. As discipline, as a way to control, as a means to an end. I didn’t know I believed that–but I would soon find out that it was a core belief, evidenced by my own words…

During this season, I was receiving some counseling. For the first time, someone was challenging the deeply-rooted narratives that my understanding was built upon. And that was opening the door for me to really do some soul-searching, some questioning on my own. I was also going back, remembering things from my past that were difficult. So when fear put its hands on me, my initial instinct was to talk to God. That’s good right? Yes… right move, but… the words I said went something like this…

“God… if there’s something I need to see, to remember; if you need to take me somewhere scary to show me what I need to see, okay… If I have to go into the dark to find freedom, I’ll go there…” 

I remember my voice shaking as I whisper-prayed with my Bible open on my lap. I remember thinking that this was a perfectly logical assumption. I remember steeling myself for whatever might come next…

I turned from Hebrews to Psalm 69:3b: “My eyes fail, looking for my God…” I felt the words deeply. I was seeking God in His word and yet sensing evil. I felt like my eyes–as well as my ears and heart–were deceiving me. I can’t explain what happened next, or how it happened, but I know there was warfare happening. And I know it changed my life. In the next moment, my Bible somehow opened to Ephesians 5:13-14: But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” And immediately after I read that, I looked down to see that I was now in 1 John 1. My eyes were led to verse 5 and this is what I read:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

Suddenly, truth broke through the lies. And I wish I could have seen the victory celebration going on in the heavenly realms as the real Light broke through the darkness in my soul that night. I realized that I had believed lies about God. I didn’t know that He wouldn’t use darkness and fear as tools to grow and teach and discipline me… because I didn’t know that He was good. Incapable of darkness-because unadulterated light scatters the tiniest pin-prick of darkness. They can’t coexist. I hadn’t known that before. But the truth of His goodness and light settled into my heart in that moment. And the fear, the presence of darkness were gone. The real light had scattered the artificial light–the darkness that had been (successfully) masquerading as light up to that point.

When we see the Light of life and let Him in to overtake our hearts, our souls, our minds, we become His light-bearers to the world around us (Matthew 5:15 MSG). And, as Elisha was the source of the king’s frustration, we are the source of our enemy’s frustration. We threaten his efforts to keep the rest of the world in darkness–because the light we carry has the power to scatter it. And he hates it. He knows he can’t have us once we are sealed in Christ, but he wants everyone else to be eternally blinded by his lies. So he does what he always does… he lies. He preys on our feelings and our fears to draw us into a place where we believe the lies-and that place is always one of isolation. When we take the bait and let the lies pull us into the shadows of isolation, he does a little happy dance. Because, even though he can’t lay claim to us or put out the Light within us, he can draw us into hiddenness where we are, essentially, rendered useless. Where our light may still live in us, but can’t be seen by anyone else. So he can continue his masquerade of deception without us getting in his way.

It makes me want to throat-punch him… 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The battles will rage in the heavenly realms. It’s a guarantee. But, we can say, as Jesus did, “I have overcome!” How? Back to 1 John 1…

 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (verses 6 & 7)

Pure light dispels manufactured light every. time. If you plug in a lamp outside in full sun, you don’t see the light of the lamp. The strength of the sun exposes the artificial nature of the light bulb. If we walk in the light of Jesus, we stand in authority over the darkness. And did you catch the highlighted part of the verse? Walking in the light keeps us in fellowship with each other–away from the shadows of isolation where the truth can feel hard to find.

As we move into this series, I encourage you to remember what Luanne wrote above…

“…If you are in Christ Jesus, you already have everything you need to fight in the spiritual realm, and you are not alone, ever.” 

We have everything we need in Jesus. And we are never alone. We fight from victory. Have you experienced the darkness-scattering light of God? Or have you bought into the masquerade of your enemy? We would love to hear from you and we encourage your comments and questions. Blessings, friends.

–Laura

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