Giving: Forgive Before You Give

“Giving” is the theme of our new series. It’s a risky endeavor…when a church begins to talk about giving, there can be some strong reactions from those hearing the message. Some take on an “I knew all they wanted was my money” mindset, some take on the mindset of “It’s my money and no one can tell me what to do with it”. For some, it reveals priorities, the things we’re willing to spend on or give to generally are things that matter to us, and some of us find safety and security in holding on to our money because, despite the fact that on it is written “In God We Trust” when it comes down to it, we ultimately trust money to take care of us.

If it’s so risky, why talk about it? And when we talk about giving, are we referring only to money–or is the subject of giving a reminder that we give our lives to God, every bit of them–our talents, our gifts, our time, our resources, our minds, our beings?  And what is the heart that God desires in our giving?

One thing is for sure, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:21-24 that he wants our hearts toward others to be in the right place before we give at the altar.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. He is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. When he gets to this portion he says:

 “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 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.”

There is much to glean from these few verses. One is that Jesus is shaking up a traditional understanding of what it means to be godly. He affirms that it was said long ago and passed through the generations that people should not murder other people. I think that we would all agree with that statement; however, in kingdom living, refraining from murder is not enough. There are plenty of other ways to devalue a life.

Jesus goes on to say anyone who is angry with a brother, or anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca”, or anyone who calls someone “fool” is in danger of judgment. Pastor John took us deeper into this, pointing out that even if we don’t physically murder someone, we can murder them in our minds and demean them in our treatment.  To call someone “Raca” or  “fool” or anything else derogatory demeans that person’s value. To harbor anger against another is to set an internal fire ablaze which spills out in unkind or demeaning words and sometimes in violent actions.

So Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others, and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.

It’s interesting to consider that the word translated “brothers” in this passage means someone “from out of the womb”; therefore, Jesus is asking us to consider how we think of and how we treat all humankind.

This is a challenge. Being human, we classify, divide, label, separate, and draw lines between us. Many of the ways we divide are generational, so Jesus says to us, you’ve heard it said… , but I say to you don’t demean anyone, don’t think negatively about anyone, don’t talk negatively about anyone, don’t call others derogatory names, don’t place human beings in categories.

Jesus reminds us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 & Luke 6:45). Are we asking God regularly to search us, and know our hearts: try us, and know our thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting? (Psalm 138:23-24 KJV) If not, it’s a good practice to put into place.

Jesus tells us in his sermon that to treat others with contempt is on par with murder. This is where it gets hard. We treat others in our family, our communities, our workplaces, our churches with contempt if they don’t see things like we do.  We live in a great nation, and many here believe God loves us more than he loves people in other nations; therefore, we can treat other nations with contempt. Do we look down on others who don’t share our same citizenship? Do we stereotype? Do we lump entire people groups into “less than” categories? Do we ever see Jesus teaching that people of one nation are his favorites or are superior to those of another? If Jesus favored anyone, it was the poor, the sick, the oppressed.

And here, inside our borders, how are we treating one another? Are we labeling people? We’ve got the liberal left, the radical right, the Fox followers, the CNN followers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the rich, the poor, the white-collar, the blue-collar,  the African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, and white, there are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.,  those who are for war, those who are against, and many, many other ideologies that have strong proponents on each side. To top it off, we are headed into an election year that’s going to be brutal as far as name-calling and divisive language go.  What are we, the followers of Jesus, to do?

Jesus says to us: “You have heard it said…but I say…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother 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.”

Wow. That’s a tall order. What does it even look like?

Paul, in Colossians 3:12-14 urges us toward this when he writes: As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues. (J.B. Phillips)

We are representatives of the new humanity–those who have God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13 NLT)

We are loved by God and are to share that love with every other image-bearer of God on the planet. It looks like merciful actions, kindness, humility (not thinking of oneself as superior in any way), tolerance, patience, and living with an attitude of forgiveness.

We are asked to forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven us. And here’s an important thought…God forgave us freely, but it cost him greatly. To forgive doesn’t mean to stuff emotion and pretend as though conflict doesn’t exist. To forgive means to wrestle it through, it means to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, it means to have hard conversations, bathed in love, with hope for reconciliation. In my own life, I’ve had to ask for God’s help, confess when I’m not ready to forgive, express the desire that I want to do this His way and offer my willingness to Him.  He then leads me through the process. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours, sometimes it’s months, sometimes years. It helps a great deal to pray blessing for those with whom I’m in conflict. Praying good things for them helps to get my heart and thoughts in a better place. And, yes, sometimes I’m praying blessing while at the same time acknowledging that my heart isn’t completely there yet, again, asking God to help me get there. 

Paul goes on to say, and Jesus would agree, that above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.

So, before we give to God, we are asked to give our “for” to others, and seek reconciliation. It’s not always possible to reconcile. There are times when the other party does not want to, or the situation is so toxic that to converse with that person would not be wise. In those instances, Paul tells us if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18). If physical reconciliation does not happen, strive for peace in your heart and thoughts toward others, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to reconcile.

So giving the way God wants us to begins with recognizing that God is for us, and he wants us to be for others.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting 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)

Pastor John combined and paraphrased the Matthew and Colossians scriptures to help us see it more clearly:

“Do not reduce the value of the life of another, but raise the value and worth of all others. If you have not done that and you are coming to give your gift to the Lord, your gift that declares you are for the Lord, go to the one that you are against; go to that one and establish your “for”. Reconcile with them, then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Give your “for” as freely as the Lord has given his “for you”. 

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.” It is vitally important that we pay attention as we read scripture. Context matters. Audience matters. The culture of the day matters. It matters that our passage is but a few verses connected to three entire chapters of teaching from Jesus. These aren’t standalone verses in a sermon focused solely on money, or even just about forgiveness. They are part of the whole that, as Luanne identified, is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and what it looks like to live as kingdom-minded people here on earth. The sermon in its entirety establishes the ways of the kingdom and emphasizes kingdom values, namely the value of people over religion. The context is so important, because this is one “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” among several others, set within a teaching given to show the people that religiosity will only take us so far—it’s love that takes us all the way.

Jesus is editing the script on religion. He’s not discarding what they’ve previously been taught, he’s reminding them—and us—about God’s original intention, and then expanding their understanding. The laws God gave through Moses were designed to teach the people how to live lives of love, focused on Him, following his lead. The laws describe how love acts, what it does and doesn’t do. They outline the basics of how to treat all others, how to live in such a way that love for God and love for others would direct their entire lives, everything they did and did not do. The laws had become something else, though, in the hands of humans who may have started out with good intentions, but who eventually overcomplicated God’s words, added rules and requirements designed to maintain control, and to box God in, to make him small enough to control by checking boxes. In the hands of those who stood to benefit from systems, what was intended to lead us into love for God and one another became something that did the opposite. It became a hierarchical system built on impossible expectations that divided the people rather than connect them.

Jesus comes onto the scene to press the reset button. But he doesn’t simply reset the system—he takes it several steps further. He connects everything to love of God and one another and tells his hearers more than once that everything hinges on this one command. The command to love. Sometimes this can be interpreted as watering down our faith, this emphasis on love. But there is nothing more demanding than following Jesus’ example of self-emptying love. He’s not lowering any standards by refocusing the people in this way. As Luanne wrote,

“Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.”

Jesus places a high value on giving. He instructs us many times in scripture to give generously, to give to the poor, and to give our lives to follow him. He modeled this value by giving everything, even his very life. Giving was not the greatest commandment, though. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. Giving without loving is meaningless. The giving must flow out of the loving. Giving every material belonging, and even our very lives matters not if not done from a place of love, as 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us:

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (MSG)

Bankrupt.

We are bankrupt without love. Our English word “bankrupt” comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means “a broken bench”. The root of the Italian is from the Latin rupta, which is “to break or be defeated.” Without love, we are completely broken, and we can offer nothing—not even a safe place to sit—to another. The good news is that recognizing our brokenness–seeing how empty, how bankrupt we are when we’re not connected to and operating from a place of love—can reconnect us to the One who creates beauty from brokenness, the one who scatters the fears that break us down with his perfect love that restores and rebuilds. Before we can be put back together his way, though, we have to acknowledge how we’ve been operating, where we’ve been rule-following and calling it love, where we’ve been “letting it go” by hiding our hurts deep inside and shutting the door rather than moving toward honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness.

Pastor John said, “Before you come to God, stop pretending.” Offering anything from a loveless place is just playing church and practicing religion. It’s pretending. It’s what the people Jesus was speaking to were used to seeing and practicing. Ritualized giving. Giving because the rules said what and how and how often giving was required. Giving because of the fear of the consequences of not giving. They didn’t understand God’s heart, his love, until he came to them in the form of Jesus. He came to set all things right, to restore what had been so broken by religion. And what had been most broken by the religious systems and structures of that day were their hearts. They weren’t connected to a God of love. They were going through the motions of following rules and avoiding negative consequences. Jesus came to reclaim their hearts, just as he comes to us to reclaim ours.

Our motivation to give and forgive has to be love. We can’t be truly for others—or for God—if we aren’t connected to and dependent upon his love alive in us. We only love because he loved us first. And it is his love that leads us. What does this love look like? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us:

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (verses 4-7, TPT)

”[Love] never stops believing the best for others…” Love God’s way values others, and never gives up. Which others? All of them, I’m pretty sure… I have some work to do here. Sometimes–often really–giving up can feel easier. Walking away from what feels like conflict, drama, and moving away from the pain can feel like self-protection, and often feels necessary. Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are toxic, abusive relationships that we really do need to physically move away from. In those cases, we still need to do the inner work with Jesus, asking him to search us and heal us and help us to forgive when we’ve been wounded. We are still called to forgive—regardless of the nature of the offense. And that is still moving toward, not walking away. We’re moving toward that person as we pray for the willingness to forgive them, as we pray that God would bless them and as we ask him to show them his love for them. Our spirits—the Christ-in-us part of us–can still move toward others even when we physically have to move away. Because, as we saw throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always pursues. Always moves toward. Always. Because love is what drives him. And if he lives within us, then his love is what drives us, too—if we don’t stand let fear stand in the way. 1 John 4 exhorts us:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (verses 7-12, NLT) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (verses 18-21, NIV)

If we are living from a place of love—not some appearance of love that we are trying to manufacture on our own but the love that comes from “…God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT)—then we will be led to both forgive and to give. Fear will prevent us from giving and forgiving. Love will lead us to do both, generously and extravagantly. This is what Jesus came to teach us all. He came to show us what the love of God looks like with skin on. He came to show us—in dramatic fashion—just how far real love will go, and how it really is at the core of every other commandment.

It will demand our all to live this way, to live as kingdom-minded disciples who choose to see and value and honor the image of God in every single one who comes from a womb. But we never have to do it alone. Learning how to forgive and how to give from a place of love isn’t easy. But because God loved and forgave and gave to us first, we can lean into all that he is for all that we’re not and he will enable us to do what we could never do on our own. We need only to come to him with our willing yes, with a heart open to receive his great love, and surrender to the changes his love will make within us. The rest will come as a result of being completely overcome and captivated by this extravagant love that wins our hearts. Are we willing to say yes to his love? Are we willing to let that love search us and change us, and lead us to forgive and to give without fear?

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

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

Image result for our battle is not against flesh and blood

This Is Love: Suffering & Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEAR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love. 

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

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

–Laura

Religious leaders,

Pilate,

The crowd,

Barabbas,

The soldiers,

Jesus.

Earthly power,

Anger,

Fear,

Violence,

Shouting,

Silence,

Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This morning in my devotional reading I read:

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Fan the Flame: Fear of Losing Control

“What is it that unsettles you?”

Pastor Beau asked us this question on Sunday. I was struck by how simple the question is, yet how complex and far-reaching its implications are. From misplacing our keys to worrying about the futures of our children, the things that leave us feeling unsettled are many, and their pursuit of our minds is relentless.

Ultimately, the things that unsettle us find their roots in fear–specifically, the fear of losing control. We have spent this month exposing the things that hinder our ability to live into the Spirit we have been given: the Spirit of power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). We have explored the fear of rejection, the fear of failure, and the fear of love and intimacy.

Pastor Beau shared on Sunday that the fear of losing control, is–at a deeper level–the fear of losing our minds. Our grasping at control happens within our minds, and it is insidious. The consequences of this particular fear play out in ways we may not immediately recognize. We might lose a little sleep here and there as the “what ifs?” and worst-case scenarios play out in our heads. We may experience headaches or a racing heartbeat on and off. Maybe we’re getting sick more often than we used to. These are just normal parts of life, right? Possibly. Sleeplessness, sickness, headaches–they all happen to all of us at times. But these seemingly normal parts of life, when they happen with regularity, can be symptoms of a deeper issue: very real anxiety that results from living under the fear of losing control.

Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that “Fear at its best keeps you from God’s best.” We have seen what this can look like as we’ve studied the other three fears. Fear of rejection can keep us from risking for the sake of relationships, and from connecting with God and others. Fear of failure can keep us from trying, from living into the gifts and purpose we were created for. Fear of intimacy keeps us from embracing our belovedness in Christ and ultimately can leave us feeling isolated and alone. And the fear of losing control, of losing our minds, keeps us from the freedom we are meant to embrace. It stands between us and the peace of Jesus alive within us, and it makes the exhale of faith and trust an impossibility as our hearts beat erratically to the rhythm of its voice.

Fear is a liar that dresses up like a friend. This friend tells us that it will keep us safe, that it’s wise to be aware of all that could go wrong. It whispers promises of peace and health and happiness but delivers a life of smallness, sameness, and selfishness. See, fear hinders growth in every aspect of life. It makes us wary of change. And to resist change is to resist growth. Giving into our fear of losing control keeps us stuck right where we are, unable to receive what Jesus came to bring us:

I am the Gateway. To enter through me is to experience life, freedom, and satisfaction. A thief has only one thing in mind—he wants to steal, slaughter, and destroy. But I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expectlife in its fullness until you overflow!                                       

(John 10:9-10, The Passion Translation)

Freedom, satisfaction, a life so full it overflows… these are the results of living in the Spirit we were given. The Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind leads us into the abundant life that is Jesus himself alive in us.

Giving into the fear of losing control is saying yes to a life of worry, stress, and anxiety. Pastor Beau told us on Sunday that anxiety never changes anything for the good–all it changes is you. Proverbs 12:25 says, Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” Anxiety makes our hearts heavy. How heavy are you today? Is your heart weighed down under the pressure of worry and anxiety? Is it leading you down a road of pain—physically, emotionally, psychologically? Anxiety can do that–it has the power to wreak havoc in our bodies. There are numerous studies that have shown that the very real physical side effects of anxiety leave no system in our bodies untouched. All of our being is affected when fear and anxiety are given free reign over our lives.

Please hear me on this–I am not saying that if you suffer from clinical anxiety or depression, it’s your fault for giving into fear. Some of us are prone to these conditions because of the wiring in our brains, not because we are trying to maintain control. As Pastor Beau mentioned on Sunday, what we are talking about this week is not medically diagnosed conditions that require medication to help our brains and bodies behave like they should. We would never want to be flippant or offer meaningless platitudes in the face of suffering. There is no magic button to push, no “right” prayer to pray that will unlock miraculous healing. For some, anxiety is a thorn that won’t be removed this side of the heavens. Instead, it must be managed through a variety of methods that we are blessed to have available to us in our time. That said, sometimes God does choose to miraculously heal people and that, of course, remains our prayer for all who suffer physically in any way. 

What we are talking about here, what Pastor Beau shared with us, has to do with the day-to-day decisions we make to live from a spirit of fear and timidity rather than the Spirit we’ve been given in Christ. We are talking about the decision to keep our fists clenched, full of all that we are trying to manage on our own, rather than carrying those worries to the One who says,

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

This is the first step to take when we want to overcome the fear of losing control. We come to the One who invites us to cast all of our cares on Him–because He cares for us. We come to the only One who is able to take care of all things–from each sparrow that flies and every wildflower that blooms to each one of us in all of our unique complexity. We accept that we are as powerless to change our height as we are to add a single hour to our lives, and we rest in the truth that we don’t have to be concerned with these things. Acknowledging our powerlessness is the first step to embracing the power of the Spirit alive in us. On our own, we can’t produce a single drop of real power, love, or control over our erratic minds. Once we know that, we can stop trying so hard to do it. We can choose faith and trust as we open our hands to receive connection, acceptance, love, and freedom–the things that come with living an abundant life rather than a life run by fear. Can you imagine a life like that? A life not dominated by the fears of rejection and failure? A life not afraid to love and be loved, not afraid of losing control and letting go? Do you want a life that looks like that?

Come to Him. Awaken to His ever-present Presence. Say yes to the Spirit that is already living inside of you. Relinquish your best efforts and attempts to do life on your own into the nail-scarred hands of the only One capable of carrying all that weighs your heart down. Let your faith and trust be ignited as you fan into the flame the gift of the Spirit. We are no longer slaves to fear–we are sons and daughters of the Living God. Romans 8:15 reminds us, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The perfect love of our Father drives out all of our fear. Every fear that attempts to blow out the flame of the Spirit we were given is extinguished by His love. It’s time to start living like we believe that’s true.

–Laura

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Fan the Flame #3: Fear of Love

A few years ago, my 89 year old father showed me a “run-away” note that I wrote when I was 8 years old. We laughed. I wrote: I am running away. Nobody loves me. Luanne.  P.S. I might be hiding in the house.  

I remember that moment. While I don’t remember what led to feeling unloved, I do remember hiding in the house, waiting for someone to search for me. I wanted to know that I mattered. My dad did search for me. I could hear him talking to my mom in the kitchen. I could hear his footsteps as he went to different rooms in the house. When he finally entered the laundry room where I was hiding, I could hardly wait for him to discover my spot. Unfortunately, I was good at hiding, and he didn’t locate me, so I had to reveal myself.

I can still be good at hiding. I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire. It’s a desire for all of us, but we’re afraid to show up. We’re afraid to reveal our true selves. And we’re afraid to love and be loved.

Two weeks ago in our Fan into Flame series,  we talked about the fear of rejection, last week we talked about the fear of failure, and this week we’re talking about the fear of love.

In our American culture, our fear of love, of intimacy is epidemic. Pastor John shared with us statistics from some recent studies that he came across:

*22% of Americans feel lonely and feel a lack companionship.

*1 in 4 Americans never feel like people understand them.

*American men ages 45-55 feel disconnected from their families and feel more alone than during any other time period historically.

*American women ages 45-55 feel significant disconnect in their marriages.

*Generation Z (those 22 and younger) feel significant loneliness and may be the loneliest generation ever.

Look at that list. It doesn’t leave any of us out. I’m afraid that disconnect is our normal. The sad fact is that not only does this disconnect have emotional consequences, it has very physical consequences as well. Loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues, anxiety, and depression. Even the US National Library of Medicine discusses the danger of loneliness:  “Isolation is a serious health risk…. It contributes to everything from depression to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

And it all boils down to a fear of love.

I was deeply blessed with the opportunity to live in Brazil for ten years. A group of folks from our church just returned from a trip there. Many of them commented about the culture, the heart of the people, the emphasis on relationships. It’s one of the things that I miss the most. My 29 year old daughter, who left Brazil when she was 16, served as a translator for this team. I was able to watch one of their church services through Facebook live and she translated from English to Portuguese and back again. She did a fabulous job, but every once in a while she wouldn’t know a word. The Brazilians around her offered assistance and she moved on. When she came home, we were talking about the trip and I told her what a good job she had done translating. As we were having that conversation, she said that she had no fear of messing up, that she felt safe in that environment.

No country is perfect, but one thing that Brazilians, for the most part, get right is that people are always more important than things. Relationships are valued. People are valued. Connection is valued. And people feel safe to be who they are, even to mess up in that environment. My heart aches for that here. Our individualism, our competitive nature, our constant comparisons, our labels, our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” or “don’t let anyone see you cry”, mentalities all hinder connection and community, and it is slowly killing us.

During this series we’ve been looking at 2nd Timothy 1:6-7… For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.  For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

The Spirit God gave us gives us…love. The gift of God, which is in us, includes love. Agape love. The kind of love that is unconditional, undeserved, not earned, just given. The kind of love we’ve received from God. The kind of love that is listed first in the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of love that changes lives. The kind of love that Jesus references when He tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22). The kind of love with which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. (Mt 5: 44). The kind of love that Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians chapter 13–the love that is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered…

So how do we fan into flame this gift of love?

Pastor John pointed out two things that we do in order to isolate; I think it’s important to recognize these tendencies in order to push through them and get on to fanning love into flame.

  1. We distance ourselves from others. We hide behind masks. We refuse to get close.
  2. We get defensive. We blame others for our disconnect. All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were hiding from God, God went to them in order to restore the relationship. When God asked Adam what he had done, Adam blamed Eve, then Eve blamed the serpent. Neither one was willing to take responsibility for their own choices, which leads to further disconnect.

I wish I could say that I have no idea what that feels like, but I would be totally lying. Pride gets in my way. What I think I deserve gets in my way. My desire to self-protect gets in my way. And it never leads anywhere good. It leads to further disconnect and isolation. Ugh! Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.

Pastor John pointed out that our defensiveness keeps us stuck. Our “they did it”, “it’s their fault”, “I’m fine by myself” attitude keeps us from moving forward. And, it is totally opposite of the Spirit that God has given to us. God is relational and He created us for relationships.

So what do we do? How do we push past the fear and connect with others?

We choose to take a prayerful relational risk for an intimate relational return.

We choose to take the first step to love others well. We acknowledge that we can’t do this well and ask the Lord to help us. We acknowledge what God has done for us. Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.

He came to us first and said “This is who I am”;

therefore, my mindset is:

Jesus loves me, I’m going to love you.

Jesus forgives me, I’m going to forgive you.

Jesus accepts me, I’m going to accept you.

We’ve been given the Spirit that allows us to testify about who God is by how we love others. We’ve been given the invitation to let others see the real us, to show up, because we each bear the image of God.  God fully knows us, He fully loves us, we are totally secure in His love, and He wants us to offer His love to others.

Being connected with Jesus gives us the ability to connect with others. We can come out of hiding, take off our masks, take the time to listen, to engage, to know, trusting that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome our fear of intimacy and love others well. I think we’ll discover that it leads to a much more fulfilling life.

Begin with prayer, and then pay attention. If you are distancing yourself, explore why. If you are defensive, explore why. And then, as He empowers you, push through the fear and fan this gift of love into flame.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote: “Loving others well begins with connecting with Christ-we have to be connected with Him first and totally secure in His unconditional love for us. Then, knowing that we are fully loved, we can take off our masks, come out of hiding and love with His love.”

We cannot love others until we get this. It’s impossible to move out in authentic love for others until we can embrace our own belovedness in Christ. But how do we really know that we are fully loved by Him?

There’s a song by Steffany Gretzinger that played through my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and the words keep cycling through my consciousness. The song is called “Out of Hiding”. These are the words:

Come out of hiding, you’re safe here with Me. There’s no need to cover what I already see.

You’ve got your reasons, but I hold your peace. You’ve been on lock-down and I hold the key…

‘Cause I loved you before you knew it was love, and I saw it all, still I chose the cross.
And you were the one that I was thinking of when I rose from the grave…

Now rid of the shackles, My victory’s yours. I tore the veil for you to come close.
There’s no reason to stand at a distance anymore–you’re not far from home.

And now I’ll be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea, and I will illuminate everything.

No need to be frightened by intimacy–No, just throw off your fear and come running to Me.

And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…

How can we know that we are fully seen and fully loved by Christ? He sees all of us, our whole selves, the parts we put on display and those we attempt to hide… He knew us before we came to be. And he chose to give His life to show us the depths of His love. He overcame fear, death, and the grave so we could be free from all of our fear, too. There is no more veil, no more separation. We can be confident that we are always in His Presence. Always. There’s no distance–even when we try to create it ourselves… Intimacy is the natural result of a relationship with Jesus–walls or not, He sees us. You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… you are familiar with all my ways… I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in! (Psalm 139:1, 3b NIV, 5-6 MSG)

We can’t get away from His love. James Bryan Smith said this recently about God’s love:

“God loves us first and loves us always and in every moment – with a passionate love because God is for us, God longs to be with us, and God wants what is best for us. And in every moment of every day, He finds us delightful.” (James Bryan Smith, Things Above Podcast, Episode 9: “God’s Love”)

I love that… God is always loving us first. Jesus proved the depths of that love when he bore the cross and, through His death and resurrection, tore the veil so that we could have access to the Presence of God. There’s nowhere we can go where He hasn’t already been there waiting for us. There is nothing we can hide from His sight–and yet, no matter what He sees, He keeps coming. Keeps loving. We are fully known and fully loved. We can hang onto that as the Truth that it is.

Okay… Jesus knows me fully and loves me completely. I can go there. I can believe that, and I can let it wash over me. I can enter into the intimacy of communion with my Lord and feel His embrace and His delight transform my heart…

But… to be fully known and fully loved by people? And to extend that kind of love to those around me? That’s a whole different story. Right? Just me? I don’t think so…

Luanne highlighted the statistics that Pastor John presented to us on Sunday. I don’t have to wonder if I’m alone in my fear of intimacy with people. The numbers tell the story. We’re all afraid. We’re all hiding.

I came across this quote this morning:

“…love is the most characteristic and comprehensive act of the human being. We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” (Eugene Peterson, “Introduction to the Books of Moses,” in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language)

We are most ourselves when we love… yet, it appears we’re all afraid to give it and to receive it.

Why is it so difficult to give love to others? What is it that makes us afraid to step out and offer the real Love that we’ve been given by our God? Luanne wrote about the distance we keep and the defensive posture our hearts hide behind, but why are we afraid? Why don’t we reach out? Why do we hold back our words for another time–only to find that time ran out and we never said what we meant to say? I think that our fear of loving, of putting ourselves in a position to risk intimacy with another, is integrally connected with the other fears that have been highlighted in this series: fear of rejection and fear of failure. I think that when we stop short of reaching out in love, it’s the “what ifs” that stop us.

What if we take the risk and love big, open ourselves up and pour out—open ourselves up to also receive what we’re given in return—and we’re met with rejection?

Loving big is never a mistake—what may feel like rejection of our attempts to love might instead be the clang of the reinforced walls that are keeping the one we’re trying to love imprisoned. Maybe they will only be able to feel our love after what feels like a hundred failed attempts on our part, because it takes that many attempts to crack the wall…

But what about when we’re on the receiving end, when it’s our walls that need to be cracked and broken down? Ann Voskamp writes in The Broken Way:

“Letting yourself be loved is an act of terrifying vulnerability and surrender. Letting yourself be loved is its own kind of givenness. Letting yourself be loved gives you over to someone’s mercy and leaves you trusting that they will keep loving you, that they will love you the way you want to be loved, that they won’t break your given heart… And to let yourself be loved means breaking down your walls of self-sufficiency and letting yourself need and opening your hands to receive. Letting yourself receive love means trusting you will be loved in your vulnerable need; it means believing you are worthy of being loved. Why can that be so heartbreakingly hard?”

It is so heartbreakingly hard. This is where my throat tightens up and I want to stop writing and walk away… Luanne wrote:

“I can hide in plain sight, and no one around me will know that I’m hiding, but I am. My “real” self is tucked away behind an invisible wall refusing to be seen; yet, if I’m honest, being seen and known and loved is still a very real desire…”

Her words resonate deep within me. I can hide in plain sight, too. But, like her, I also deeply desire to be seen and known and loved…

I’ve felt the pangs of loneliness, of need, in a sharper way the further I’ve gotten from the day I said goodbye to my mom. I didn’t have a perfect mom, but I did have a very loving one. She was great at sensing when I needed to be hugged and held a little longer, when I needed to sit with her and cry. I didn’t have to ask her for those moments. Most of the time, she just knew. I don’t think I realized until last week how deep this particular hole in my heart has become…

I received a phone call that shook the floors I stood on. It ripped open not-so-old wounds and traumatic memories, because it took me straight back to my mom’s last days. Fear gripped my throat, my heart, my balance… The call itself wouldn’t have been so difficult if it weren’t for having lost her four years ago, but it hit me hard. All I wanted was to curl up next to Mom and cry, but I couldn’t do that. She’s not here anymore. And as I sat alone and sobbed–both over the call and the reminder of my loss–I realized that I’m terrified to need. I’m much more comfortable being there for those I love when they’re in crisis. But when it’s me, I feel needy. I feel like I’m a burden. I feel like I’m too much. I have people in my life who I know love me deeply… but I don’t know how to ask them to love me in these broken places. I longed for a friend to sit with me a week ago, not to fill the void my mom left behind–that’s not something anyone can do–but simply so I wouldn’t be crying alone. I had no idea how to ask for that. I could hardly speak the words I’d just heard out loud, let alone articulate the ache of my heart. I’m a grown woman, not a little girl. How do I ask someone to come into the ache and let me lay my head on her shoulder and just cry? I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do it. Why?

Because… what if it’s too much to ask? What if I muster up the courage and pick up the phone, and the answer is, “No. I can’t be there for you.” Or worse, “I won’t be there for you. It’s too much. You’re too much.” 

It’s the fear of being rejected. Andit’s not knowing how to ask. My mom intuitively knew when I needed to just simply be me. Not tough or brave or anything other than exactly who I was in that moment. She had no problem with personal space, with “bubbles” (even when I did…). And, usually, she knew that I needed the comfort of her presence, her arms, her shoulder to cry on, well before I knew I needed those things. I didn’t have to ask for it. But like Luanne mentioned above, we live isolated lives here. Individualism is a badge of honor, personal space is expected, toughness is part of the deal. We’re not taught well about vulnerability, if we’re taught anything about it at all. So we move through life unable to identify our own needs, and that can make it very challenging to notice and respond to the needs of others…

Luanne identified, “Being vulnerable is hard! Being disconnected is harder.” Being disconnected IS harder. Staying disconnected, isolated, it’s not worth the risk to our bodies, our hearts, our minds. Love, however, is always worth the risk. Because, like the late Eugene Peterson wrote, “We are most ourselves when we love; we are most the People of God when we love.” We were made by love, to love, and for love. We were not created for fear. So we have to push through the walls of fear. We have to run toward vulnerability rather than away from it. And we never have to do it alone. We get to choose which spirit leads us. We were given the Spirit of love, and the power to live it out. If we let our hearts rest in the truth that we are fully loved by Christ, we can take the risk to love and let ourselves be loved in return. We can come out of hiding, and we can keep loving, even when the walls are formidable. Because you never know which pebble of love will be the one that finally cracks the wall. And even if the wall never does break, our attempts at love are never failures. They just become part of the story…

“And, oh, as you run, what hindered love will only become part of the story…” 

Who is writing your story? Love? Or fear? What will you leave behind? My mom left a legacy of love that drove out her fear. I want to learn to live a life like that, too. Let’s risk it friends. Prayerfully, yes. But boldly, too. Let’s help one another fan the flame of love, starting today.

–Laura

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Fan the Flame–Fear of Failure

Everyone fears failure. 

This is where Pastor John started on Sunday as he brought us the second message in our new series. Last week Pastor Beau shared with us how the fear of rejection can throw water on the flame of the Spirit within us–the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind–and this week we learned about how fearing failure can have the same effect.

We all fear failing in one way or another, because we have all failed. We’ve all felt the sting of disappointment that failure brings. Pastor John reminded us that when we fail–as we all will–it’s important to remember that it is an event, it is not who we are. There’s a big difference between feeling the disappointment of failing–and expressing those feelings–and letting the disapproval of our failings define who we are. He encouraged us to learn from our failures, to begin to see failure as a friend

Those words are easy to say, easy to type, and exponentially more difficult to put into practice… How do we make failure our friend? We’ve all heard the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” John told us a story that brings this oft-quoted line to life. He told us the story behind the name of the popular formula, “WD-40”. The “WD” stands for water displacement. The “40” is part of the name because it was on the 40th attempt that its creator, Norm Larsen, finally got the formula right. He had tried and failed 39 other times. But he kept going, modifying his formula and his process, until it worked. He had clearly determined to learn from his failings, to see failure as an opportunity. Pastor John invited us to begin doing the same things.

The story is endearing and absolutely serves to prove a valuable point… but what about when our failures have nothing to do with a product we’re trying to create? How many times are we willing to get back up and try again when…

…we pick up that bottle after we swore we were done?

…we open that window and click on that website one more time?

…we scream at our toddler for the twentieth time in as many minutes?

…the grade on the exam falls below the curve yet again?

…We find ourselves looking out from behind bars?

…the flirtation crosses the line?

…we lose yet another job?

…we can’t stop eating what we know is killing us?

…the lies keep coming out too easily?

…that promise was just too hard to keep?

…we’ve bent the rules for our own benefit repeatedly?

…we give it everything we have, but it’s still not enough?

What then? How many monumental failures does it take to break our spirits? How many times can we claw our way back to the surface before we just can’t do it anymore?

The answer to those questions depends on what spirit we’re leaning into. If we have grabbed hold of the spirit of fear and timidity, if we’ve given ourselves over to the lies of that spirit, it will feel like we can’t get back up again…

Many of us have been there. Maybe many of us are there right now. But all is not lost...

If you’re living in the white-knuckled grip of the fear of failure, there is hope. Keep breathing. Remember what Pastor Beau shared with us last week–It may appear that your fire has gone out. There may be a thick layer of ashes covering your coals. But all it takes is a little stirring, a little rearranging, a breath of holy wind--to fan those dying embers into flames again.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV)

Our human spirits may break beneath the weight of failure and the fear of failing again, the same way we might refer to breaking a horse’s spirit. But the Spirit we were given as a gift from God, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead that is now alive within us, cannot be broken! This Spirit reminds us to lean into the truth that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a, ESV) This Spirit tells us that all things are possible. This Spirit is stronger than fear, stronger than failure, stronger than death itself. This Spirit is the Spirit of God, the breath that formed all of creation. And the phony spirit of fear–even the threatening, potent fear of failure–is no match for the Spirit that is alive within us.

So how many times can we get back up and get moving? How many times can we try again when failure and fear mark our days? How long can we keep trying when it seems to be a futile effort?

As long as we can breathe in, and breathe out. We live because God’s very breath lives within us. If we can breathe, we can try again. Because that breath within us is a flame that never fully goes out. Even when we douse it… and choke the air out of it… and bury it under a million failures and the weight of all the shame… Because we belong to God and He gives more grace. (James 4:6). Always. When we can’t lift our arms to stir our own coals, He comes to us to remind us to just keep breathing. He keeps the fire alive when we feel the cords of the grave entangle us. He allures us into the wilderness of our failings to romance our hearts back into His embrace. He pursues us and gently leads us until we remember that we are not alone. We were given the gift of His Spirit–a Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. And this Spirit awakes our hearts to wonder–even as we wander, as we wrestle, as we sink into pits of despair–and to remember the voice of love. The perfect love that drives out all of our fear–even the poignant, loud, assaulting fear of failure that threatens to define not only our days, but our very lives.

Your Spirit can’t be broken… no matter the weight of the failures you carry. Just. Keep. Breathing.

–Laura

Failure. We all fear it. We all want to appear competent, confident, accomplished. Sometimes we pretend that we are all of those things as we desperately try to cover up how afraid and insecure we truly are. We put on the persona that we are perfect, have it all together, while inside we are crumbling under the weight of the fear that we might fail, or the shame of memories of past failures.

Jesus came to set us free in all ways, and His freedom includes freedom from the fear of failure. Galatians 5:1 reminds us of this: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  

We are encouraged to stand firm in our freedom. But how do we do it? It can be so challenging.

Pastor John reminded us, as Laura wrote above, that:

We all fear failure.

He also reminded us that:

We all go down.

We must strive to see our failure as an event, not as our identity.

We can acknowledge our failure, feel the disappointment of it, learn from it and get back up and keep going.

Pastor John told us that we can see failure as our friend. In truth, who wants to do that? But he’s right.  Personally, I’d rather not fail. I’m going to assume that I’m not alone in that. If I allow myself, I can sit here and let my mind wander to past failures and feel the shame and/or embarrassment that I felt as if the failure just happened moments ago. Or, I can sit here and think about all of the opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t do it perfectly, or of the times that I just gave up because whatever I was doing was hard, so I just stopped, quit, failed. Ugh! It’s hard to think of those moments in a positive way. But when I let go of shame, and allow the Holy Spirit to minister to me, I can learn much from those moments–and that is always a good thing.

James 3:2 tells us that we all stumble in many ways.

Romans 3:23 tells us that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.

And God, in His wonderful mercy, inspired the writers of scripture to include the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that we would know that we are not alone. The list of the faithful includes liars, adulterers, murderers, whiners, idol worshipers, cowards, a nation that turned its back on God over and over, the self-righteous, the proud, the betrayers, the greedy, the selfish, the faithless, and on and on.

When we read those accounts, I don’t know about you, but I am able to see their failures as events. I don’t define Abraham or King David, or Peter or any of the others by their failures. I am able to see God’s love, his faithfulness, his mercy in their stories–even if the consequences for their choices were hard. I can see God’s transforming work in the lives of those who continued walking with Him. Can I see His faithfulness and mercy in my story? Can you see it in yours?

God enters into our failures so that the world can see who HE is. We have no idea how God is going to use our failures to point others to Him, but He will if we let Him. It’s not our pretend perfection that draws people to Jesus. It’s our humanity, our stories, our failures that highlight His goodness, His kindness, His grace, His love.

Acknowledging this not only helps us to get back up, but it helps us to be there with grace for others who are struggling with failure or the fear of failure.  We are all in this together. And Jesus, He came for us all, He died for us all. He rose again for us all. He sent the gift of His Holy Spirit for us all–the Spirit of power, of love, of self-discipline, so that we can push through our fear, and fan our gifts into flame.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we can be healed.  In being real with one another, in offering grace to one another, in praying for each other, there is healing.  In that healing there is freedom. In that freedom we are unleashed in the power of the Holy Spirit, not to carry out our call perfectly, but to carry it out effectively.

His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

It is God who is working in us giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. (Ph 2:13 NLT)

Embrace His grace, Embrace His power, Fan into flame the gift that you’ve been given. God is not disappointed in us for being human. He knows that we have and will mess up. He knows that we will be afraid, and want to hide behind our masks, I think that’s why the most repeated command in all of scripture is “Do not be afraid.” All of our failures are covered by His grace through the blood of Jesus. The power to live without fear is available to us through the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead–the same Spirit who lives in us. (Rom 8:11)  So do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32) His kingdom where all are welcome. Where all are loved. Where all are forgiven. Where all are empowered. Where no one will ever be rejected, and all of our failures can be transformed into points of light and transformation and growth. Including yours.  

 “If you should fall again, get back up, get back up. Reach out and take my hand, get back up, get back up, get back up again. Get back up again. There’s only grace, there’s only love, there’s only mercy and believe me it’s enough. Your sins are gone, without a trace, there’s nothing left now, there’s only grace. There’s only grace.”  Matthew West

–Luanne

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Fan the Flame

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control  (2nd Timothy 1:6-7).

Pastor Beau took us to this portion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy on Sunday. It’s important to know that Paul and Timothy shared a special relationship–Paul loved Timothy like a son, and Paul saw things in Timothy that Timothy struggled to see in himself. Been there! I’m grateful for those whom God has placed in my life who have seen things in me that I struggle to see in myself and have encouraged me to step out in faith. I pray that you have those people around you as well.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy was the last one that he wrote before he was executed. He knew that his time was running out, so he is once again encouraging his young friend to grasp who he is in Jesus. He encourages Timothy to boldly take hold of the call on his life.  Paul had left young Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus–a big deal for a young man. There were a lot of people in Ephesus, a lot of different life philosophies; there were people trying to distort the simplicity of the message of Jesus–and for all Christians who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire in that day–there was a lot of danger as evidenced by Paul’s arrest, and the martyrdom of many, including-eventually- Paul.

Timothy’s fear made sense. Paul, in his love for Timothy (and his love for Christ), gently reminded him that the Spirit who lived in him was not a spirit of fear but one of power and love and self-control (or a sound mind).

Over the next few Sundays, we will be exploring different fears. Pastor Beau’s topic this week was the fear of rejection.

Rejection means to refuse, dismiss, desert, abandon someone. The Urban Dictionary says this about rejection: “It makes you feel depressed, lonely and like a worthless reject who will never amount to anything or find someone worthy to love or love you in return for who you are because you are not good enough.” 

Even reading that definition causes emotion to swell up inside me. Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced rejection at some point in our lives, and because of the worthless way it makes us feel, we then live with the fear of it happening again which affects our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine.

Pastor Beau worded it like this: “The fear of rejection is the product of lies we believe based on previous life experience.”

Those lies can include thoughts such as:

My value lies in what I do.

I’ll never be good enough.

My presence doesn’t matter.

I can’t depend on anyone.

If I don’t go along, they won’t like me,

and so many other things.

I really hate that rejection is part of life–it absolutely makes sense that we’re afraid of it. It feels horrible. It’s easy to identify past rejection. It’s more difficult to recognize how the fear of rejection, based on that past rejection, affects our lives on a daily basis. In order to do that, we must have some self-awareness.

Pastor Beau pointed out that the fear of rejection can cause us to reject others.  It keeps us from connecting. It keeps us locked up in our own prison. It keeps us from deep relationships. It keeps us from loving with all that we are. It keeps us from blessing others with our gifts. It holds us back from receiving the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, and it keeps us from connecting deeply with ourselves and our God given purpose. When we find ourselves pulling back from others and building invisible walls, we must learn to do some personal inventory to try to figure out what past experience our current reaction is connected to. What fear is driving our behavior? Is it the fear of rejection?

Fear is powerless–until we give it power. 

So, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10),  Paul, who experienced constant rejection in his ministry, and was imprisoned again because the message that he carried was once again rejected in violent ways, reminds Timothy–God did not give you a spirit of fear. Paul reminds Timothy that The Spirit that God gave to Timothy is

The Spirit of power,                                                                                                                               

               The Spirit of love,  

                              The Spirit of self-control. 

I believe that Paul’s word order was very, very intentional. I believe that Paul was remembering the words of Jesus, who told his disciples: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul was reminding Timothy that The Power within him was the One who would empower him to carry the message of Jesus and His Kingdom to those around him.

Paul also penned the words: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I posses to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:1-3.)  Paul was reminding Timothy that the Holy Spirit would empower him to carry out his call with courageous agape love.

In addition, Paul wrote of self-discipline and a sound mind when he wrote the words: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2 NLT) And, take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

So, Paul is saying to Timothy–remember who you are in Jesus. Don’t fall into the enemy’s trap of feeling inferior or ill-equipped to be who God has made you to be. Instead, fan into flame the gift of God which is in you.

Clarence Jordan translated that verse like this: “I’m reminding you to shake the ashes off the God-given fire that’s in you.”

I. Love. That!

There is a God-given fire within us. Have you stoked it, or quenched it? Paul implores us in 1st Thessalonians 5:19 not to quench the Spirit.

Pastor Beau brought to mind a campfire and what’s involved in keeping the fire going. If the fire is not tended, it will grow cold; however, if it is stirred, if new fuel is added, if ashes are gently blown on, the fire will continue to burn.  And sometimes, it looks as though it is out–gray ash covers the coals, and no visible smoke rises, but if you throw water on what appears to be dead,  a sizzle is heard and steam rises from the buried coals that are still burning–it can be fanned into flame again.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy centuries before electricity was a reality. The weight of Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God was huge. Fire provided warmth, light, fuel for preparing food–fire sustained their lives. A household in ancient times would not have allowed their fire to go out. And if it did…neighbors shared live coals with one another, so that the fire could be rekindled. Lack of fire could be deadly. I’m sure that Timothy understood the life-giving importance of what Paul was implying. Do we?

We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit–the power of the Spirit that we’ve been given to carry the message of Jesus. We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them, who will never abandon them, who will never treat them as worthless, who has proved by the death and resurrection of His Son that they have more value and worth than they can imagine, and who invites them to His table which is open to all.

You have within you the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Fan it into flame. Renew your mind. Reject the enemy’s fear mongering, and use your gifts to embrace the world with the warmth of the Spirit’s fire. Use the power within you to light the world with the love of God.

–Luanne

“We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit… We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them… and who invites them to His table which is open to all…”

His table. Pastor Beau talked about the table, too. He said, “Ultimately, we overcome rejection by coming to the table.” What table are they talking about? The table of communion. The Eucharist. The tradition that, sadly, has become an emotionless part of a church service for so many–but offers to us a solution for our brokenness, even the brokenness of rejection.

The solution to all our brokenness is found in more brokenness…

During the meal, Jesus took and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples:

Take, eat.
This is my body.

Taking the cup and thanking God, he gave it to them:

Drink this, all of you.
This is my blood,
God’s new covenant poured out for many people
for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, Message)

Jesus, knowing the men with Him in that upper room, knowing their hearts and how they would reject and betray Him in the next hours and days, offered Himself to them. His brokenness, to absorb all of theirs–and all of ours. His brokenness, so they–and we–could be made whole. He invited them into His new covenant in all of their brokenness, just as they were. They didn’t understand the gravity of His words–not yet. But they soon would.

Similarly, many of us don’t understand the implications of the invitation to come to the table. I didn’t understand. There is still some mystery around the way Jesus communes with us at His table, and I like it that way… But my understanding has certainly grown. I read in Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way that Jesus’ words in that upper room are the same words spoken in a Jewish marriage proposal. That the last supper was actually a marriage covenant. Ann writes, quoting the pastor who told her about it,

“In other words, Jesus says to you with this cup, ‘I love you. I want you. I covenant Myself to you. I commit to you. This cup is the new covenant in My blood which I offer to you. Do you love me? Will you covenant yourself to Me?‘” She goes on to write, “Every abandonment ever experienced could be abandoned in this sacramental act… How can it be? When we’re naked and ashamed and alone in our brokenness, Christ envelops us with His intimate grace. When we’re rejected and abandoned and feel beyond wanting, Jesus cups our face: “Come close, my Beloved.”

This is the invitation. This is how we can begin to overcome rejection. By saying yes to His invitation. Pastor Beau emphasized that each of us has a standing invitation. Those words I wrote above? Jesus speaks them to all of us, over and over again. He asks us to come and be united with Him, to take Him in, so that He becomes part of our very being.

“All our brokenness is only healed by union–

With-ness breaks brokenness.” (Voskamp)

With-ness breaks brokenness… I love that so much. But that statement, while true of our being “with” Christ, means more than that. Because we don’t come to the table alone. We can, and should, commune with Jesus daily in our personal lives. But the picture is incomplete without one another. There is a with-ness that represents the Kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus brought with Him when He came to us with skin on. It is the with-ness that Beau was talking about when he said that rekindling our fire happens individually AND in community. It’s not an either/or. And this is the part that a lot of us are afraid of…

Pastor Beau said, and Luanne highlighted above, that “the fear of rejection keeps us from connecting.” Ann, again from The Broken Way, writes:

We all long for the belonging of communion and yet there is this fear of the closeness of the fellowship. Love is our deepest longing–and what we most deeply fear. Love breaks us vulnerably open–and then can break us with rejection.

The fear of rejection can keep us from coming to the table. Even if we hear Jesus’ personal invitation to us, and believe that He wants us there, we’re not always sure we’re welcome to come. Because “they” may not want us there… As Pastor Beau said, we may feel that way because of a past church experience, or because someone put certain parameters or requirements around being “allowed” to come. We may have been wounded and felt rejection at the table, from those who wanted to control it.

But the thing about it is… the table belongs to Jesus. It’s His. He gets to do the inviting. And he makes it clear–over and over again, in the words He said, in the people He associated with, in the way He conducted Himself–that His invitation is open to all of us. Male, female, Republican, Democrat, divorcee, adulterer, addict, young, old, rich, poor, homosexual, healthy, ill, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, evangelical, transgender, immigrant, homeless, celebrity, veteran, felon, Black Lives Matter proponent, and MAGA proponent–all. are. welcome. at. the. table. ALL. Every ethnicity. Every nationality. The table levels the playing field. Because none of us is “worthy” of the body and blood of Christ. Not one of us. And if anyone is excluded from the table, then we all are.

John 7:37(MSG): On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!”

If anyone is thirsty… come to the table. Come commune with Jesus. It is meant to be a place of welcome. A place of renewal. A place to bring our brokenness and share in the ministry of the breaking–together. No matter how many times we’ve rejected Jesus, He will never reject us. He keeps inviting us into His healing embrace. And He gives us the opportunity to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-18), rather than wielders of rejection. He invites us into His own brokenness, to experience the breaking of our own brokenness by the power of with-ness. And then He invites us to offer our brokenness and with-ness to others as part of the beautiful, upside-down Kingdom He brought to us. And in the middle of all the shared brokenness, as we sit together around His table, the power of fear–even the fear of rejection–is broken. Fires are stirred and kindled, lies replaced with truth, and the breaking births new life.

But we have to be willing to come. To respond to the invitation. To believe that there is a place where we are wanted and welcomed, a place where acceptance–not rejection–is bestowed on all. Jesus is waiting there. Will we come? Will we take the first step and trust that He’ll be there? If we have been the rejected one, if we are afraid, will we come? And if we have rejected others, will we hear the invitation as a call to lay down our pride and selfishness and let Jesus change our minds about some things? Will we come alongside those we see as “others”? Will we walk to the table hand-in-hand with those we disagree with? Will we take a seat next to someone we once vilified–or maybe still vilify?There’s no room at the table for arrogance or religiosity. It’s not a place to argue opinions or policies. We can’t judge each other at the table, because none of us belong there on our own merit. None of us. It is by the grace of God that we come. And we’re invited to come together, to see the image of God in each face around the table. We don’t have to agree on everything to come. We don’t have to believe exactly the same way. The invitation isn’t ours to give or withhold. It belongs to the One whose body and blood was given for all. It belongs to Him alone. He says, “Come”. Let your fear of rejection be broken by the embrace of the One waiting at the table with a place set for you…in the midst of the places set for all.

–Laura

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Last Words: Pontius Pilate

So far in this series, we have looked at some “last words” from the stories of Peter and Judas. This week, Pontius Pilate was our focus. Pastor Beau took us into the story of Jesus being brought before Pilate, the Roman governor, to be questioned and, ultimately, sentenced. We find this account in Matthew 27:11-26.

Beau has asked us a question in each sermon in this series. The first was, “Who is Jesus to you?” Last week he asked us to consider, “Which Jesus are you pursuing?” This week’s question is “What are you going to do with Jesus?”

This week’s question comes from Matthew 27:22, where Pilate asks the crowd,

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”

What Beau pointed us to in this story is Pilate’s indifference, and the danger of becoming indifferent in our own lives. Pilate had his reasons. He was caught between the people he was governing and the authorities he answered to. We know from historical accounts of his life that he was not well thought of. He had made some mistakes professionally regarding how he ruled and was now governing in what the Romans considered a  turbulent area-it was not a desirable assignment. He was being watched by both Rome and the Jews (especially the Jewish leaders) that he governed. He knew he was under a microscope and he was consumed with self-preservation.

Has our own need for self-preservation clouded our decision-making ability at times, too?

Because Pilate was stuck in a place of self-preservation, he couldn’t hear the voices of wisdom around him–even his own. His wife implored him to judge rightly. Verse 19 in Matthew’s account reads like this:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him”.  

Pilate didn’t only miss the wisdom of his wife; he also ignored his own voice. We read in verse 18 that “…he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him”. And in verse 23, in response to shouts of “Crucify him!” from the crowd, he tries one last time to get a clear answer when he asks them, “Why? What crime has he committed?”.

Pilate seemed to know that Jesus was innocent from the very beginning of their exchange. And he never moves away from that belief as far as we can see in this account. So why, then, did he still hand Him over to be killed?

As it was last week when we looked at Judas’ story, the events of Jesus’ life and death were prophesied. We know that the prophecies had to be fulfilled. And God, in His sovereignty, knew who would choose to do the betraying, and who would ultimately hand Jesus over to be crucified. But we can’t forget that these men, these characters in the story had free will, just as we do. And there is value in taking a closer look at what motivated them–because, as we saw with Peter and Judas, sometimes the very same things that motivated them can be found within us. 

We talked earlier about Pilate’s indifference to Jesus. Jesus was nobody to Pilate. He didn’t know who He was. So it was easier for him to remain uninvolved, to bend to the will of the crowd. Because his indifference had a partner: fear. Fear is what drove him to be so concerned with self-preservation. And it is the perfect partner for indifference. Verse 24 reads,

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 

This combination of fear and indifference does to all of us exactly what it did to Pilate–it keeps us stuck. And it tells a lie that we readily believe. The lie is that remaining uninvolved absolves us of our guilt. Pilate bought this lie. He counted on it. But choosing not to get involved is always choosing complicity. Pilate, playing on the Jews’ own tradition from Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) tried to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood. But…

We cannot wash our hands of the consequences of our indifference.

And all the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25)

The people’s response here, I read it in an eerie tone… It is self-fulfilling prophesy and it is two-fold. Their hands would literally be covered in his blood. The responsibility was on them, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers who would carry out the details of the crucifixion and also on Pilate, whether he liked it or not. It is also on each one of us, as it was the sin of all that His death paid for. What the crowd didn’t realize they were saying though, is what many of them would come to count on in the future, when the very ones responsible for His death would find life in His Resurrection…  “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” I believe that many of those who were in the crowd on crucifixion day later put their faith in Him as their Risen Savior. And the blood that indicted each one would become the blood that would cover them and set them free. Just as it does for each one of us that believe in Him as our Lord.

No matter how many times we wash our hands, we can’t get the guilt of shedding Jesus’ blood off of us. We can’t clean ourselves off. The stains are permanent… Unless we are washed by the very blood we shed. Only the blood of Jesus can absolve us of our guilt, our complicity in the literal shedding of His blood for our sins. But we have to choose to say yes to this Love that died for us. We have to choose. Indifference is a choice. We cannot stay indifferent without consequence. It doesn’t work that way. We have to answer the question Beau posed to us,

“What are you going to do with Jesus?”

We have choices to make. And Holy week, the time that we remember the road to Calvary, is the perfect time to consider our answers not only to this question, but to the others that Beau challenged us to dig into:

Will we betray Him? Or believe in Him?

Will we follow Him? Or fall away from Him?     

Will we leave Him? Or let Him be the Lord of our lives?

I hope that as we move throughout this Holy Week, we can all consider our own answers to these questions. That we will each ask the Holy Spirit to point out any areas in our lives where we’ve been indifferent or trapped by fear. I pray that our decisions won’t be driven by our self-preservation instincts, as Pilate’s were, but rather by our love for the One who loved us first. The One who surrendered Himself and allowed His blood to be shed by those who would be made clean by that same blood. What will you do with this Jesus?

–Laura

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