When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

Or this parable from Luke 18:

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

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

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

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

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

Sermon on the Mount #4: Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics. That’s where Pastor John began Sunday’s message. It’s a big word that most of us are probably not very familiar with. While the word may be unfamiliar to many of us, its impact has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It means simply, the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” What any of us know or understand about the Bible has come to us through the filters of many different interpretations. It was the same for Jesus’ first followers, except their “bible,” at that point, did not include what we call the “New Testament” today. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had scribes and Pharisees to interpret for them what the words meant and how they were to be applied.

Long before Jesus sat down to teach the sermon on the mount, there was another man on another mountain. It was Moses and the mountain was Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and was given what became the Ten Commandments, the Law. These Ten Commandments were given from God to his people in love as a comprehensive framework for how to love God and each other. As Brian Zahnd writes in his Lenten devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus,

“The first four of the the Ten Commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with God, or what we call worship. The final six commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with one another, or what we call justice.”

Instead of adhering to God’s exhortation to the ways of love, the people expanded it and broke it into subsets of laws and conditions. The commandments grew from ten God-given laws to 613 different regulations. Around the 613 regulations there were thousands of comments to explain them. How were the people to know what they were to do, how they were to follow the Law? As Pastor John shared with us Sunday, they needed interpreters, designated men, set apart to attend to the interpretation of the many amendments to God’s original commandments. Enter the scribes and Pharisees… These teachers were set apart to interpret ALL of the laws and regulations FOR the people. What the people learned as “God’s Law” came through the hermeneutics of the scribes and Pharisees. This elevated these leaders in the Jewish culture. The people needed them so that they could correctly understand the words of God.

But there was a problem. The leaders had missed the the original intent of the law. They had missed the intended focus. The focus was never supposed to be on the Law itself as a checklist to be completed. The focus was to be on the God of love who gave it to them as a way to protect them from the disease of self and the effects of living in opposition to God’s way of love. This brings us to this week’s text, Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach his growing number of followers. He begins to teach them how they are to be, as citizens of his kingdom; he tells them that, in living his way, they will be salt and light to the world. He follows that up with this week’s passage about the Law that they held so dear. In the midst of what may have sounded to the people like new commandments, perhaps replacing what they had learned as God’s Law, Jesus says otherwise. I imagine the people were confused–what Jesus was teaching sounded nothing like what they had been taught all their lives from their scribes and teachers of the law. This is precisely why Jesus says what he does. He knows they have learned the law in a way that missed the mark of its original intent. He knows that the focus had become the laws themselves rather than the God who gave the law to them. So he addresses it in these four verses, and we get to see the law through the hermeneutics of Jesus and how his interpretation differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

He begins by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…” According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the word abolish in this passage is katalyo, which means “to destroy, break down, dissolve.” Its root words mean “to loose, unbind, set free, break apart, set apart.” Jesus did not come to set them free or unbind them from the original Law. He came instead, he says, to fulfill them. Please bear with me as we dig into what the word fulfill means here. I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about the definitions of words, but this one is important to our understanding of this text. And it’s pretty fascinating, too!

The word translated fulfill comes from the Greek pleroo, meaning “to complete, fill to the full, cause to abound; to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim; to consummate, render perfect and complete in every particular, to carry through to the end; to bring to realization.” A deeper look reveals that the root of pleroo is plebes, which means “to fill up hollow vessels; to thoroughly permeate the soul.”

When I read these definitions, it sets off fireworks in my mind! When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! To “cause to abound” implies the action of fruit-bearing. To consummate is to bring together, to connect and make one of two. He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love; to complete the people’s partial understanding of the law and its intent so that in uniting one to the other, fruit would be born in abundance. And this fulfillment Jesus brought would fill up the places left hollow by the law and “thoroughly permeate their souls.” Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended. As Romans 10:4 states:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The Law as a checklist has its limits. Where the words of the Law end, Jesus steps in to show us what it looks like to live as a kingdom-dweller. In Beth Moore’s gorgeous new book, Chasing Vines, she writes,

“John’s Gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses” and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But lest the graced ones misinterpret these words, grace didn’t break the law of Moses, like stone tablets thrown into worthless fragments. Grace loosed the law of love from its limits.”

She continues a few pages later,

“Jesus isn’t impressed by love in word but not in deed (1 John 3:18). In Jesus’ reckoning, when it comes to love, confession without action is pretention.”

This leads us into what is, perhaps, the most difficult part of this week’s passage, the last verse. Here it is again, to refresh our memories:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I imagine the mouths in the crowd, if they weren’t wide by this point, fell open as they heard these words. What was the teacher telling them? The Pharisees and teachers of the  law were the most righteous among them, and this Jesus guy was telling them they had to be more righteous than them? Talk about unrealistic expectations! I wonder if any of them stood up to leave at this point, discouraged by the impossibility of meeting Jesus’ requirements.

Fortunately for the crowd that day, Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The words in verse 20 weren’t the last in the discourse, they were said to set up what would come next. He is about to expand and deepen their understanding of the individual laws they followed. As Beth wrote, “Grace loosed the law of love from its limits,” and the people were about to hear exactly what that means. But we’ll get into that next week. For now, let’s dive into the troublesome verse and see what there is for us to glean…

First, it’s important to note that when Jesus says “…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking about eternal destiny. As we have discussed at length previously, the kingdom Jesus repeatedly talks about is here and now. The Greek definitions of the words in this particular verse mean, “the kingdom realm; not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule (…) the encompassing, vaulted expanse of the sky and universe and all things visible in it.” He is telling them that if their righteousness is not greater than that of their “teachers” they’ll have no right to rule or teach with any authority in his kingdom. He is simultaneously disqualifying those who had been elevated as the only ones authorized to speak on the law and calling his hearers to live at a higher level than that of these leaders.

What is this higher level he calls them to?

“. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…”

As we have written about previously, the word righteousness is translated from the Greek dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.”  I wrote these words two weeks ago,

There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others.

So Jesus is exhorting his listeners to be more equitable and just than their teachers, to be rightly related to God and others in a different way than what had been modeled for them. What had been modeled for them is what Beth talked about in the quote I included above: pretention--a whole lot of lip-service without action driven by love. The focus had shifted from God and his way of love to the words that made up the commandments and the 613 addendums to the 10 original laws. These added words also kept the powerful in charge and the weak in check. Jesus came to flip all of that on its head.

One more word definition, and then I’ll wrap this thing up… The word translated “surpasses” is from the Greek perisseuo. It means “to superabound, beyond measure; to exceed a fixed number of measure; to exist and abound in abundance.” Its root word means “beyond; on the other side; farther.”

I find this beautiful. Jesus says to the crowd, essentially:

When you bring together the words of the law you have been taught with the ways of being I am teaching you and you connect the two with my love, your fruit will abound. This is what it means to let your light shine. It’s not about knowing the letter of all 613 laws. But it’s not about abolishing the commandments they came from, either. It is about viewing them in my light, and reflecting them, in love, to the world around you. Real righteousness is not what you have been taught. It’s more. It goes further. Because it is driven by love. 

Pastor John said, “Let Jesus author our faith.” Our faith is not authored by the words of hundreds of by-laws. Nor by the words of men that took liberties with and manipulated God’s original laws. No…

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Jesus, and invite him to write the story his way. He is, after all, the way, the truth, the life–the light for all humankind. He is the one who shows us what it means to live according to the laws of love, and how living like that fulfills every law God gave us to follow.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of helping us understand what Jesus means when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

She wrote: When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.

If you’ve read our blog for any length of time you know that we write over and over God. Is. Love. God’s nature, God’s essence is love. Love is who God has always been and who God always will be. Until the time of Jesus, it might have been confusing to know exactly what that meant; however, the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. 

John the Apostle wrote the same thing when he said: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

Jesus himself said: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

So God, in the form of Jesus came to fulfill the law–to bring the law to life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were doing the best they knew how with “dead” law, but Jesus wasn’t impressed with their interpretation. He said to them: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. (Mt 23:13) .  Jesus is emphatically saying–guys you are missing the whole point and you and all those you influence are shut out of God’s realm as a result!

On another occasion Jesus said to them: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn. 5:39)

Does he say the same to us?  If the law–the knowledge of good and evil, the do’s and don’ts, the who’s in and who’s out drives us, then Jesus is not the center of our faith. If he and his ways are not the cornerstone of our lives, we are missing the point. I want to say this very, very carefully. If you read our blog, you know that we have a high view of scripture. We study it, we read it, we let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it, but scripture is not God. It is inspired and it is unlike any other book–but it is not our life source. Jesus is our life source…we study scripture to get to know the living Word–Jesus.

If we don’t come to the living Jesus and don’t look at all of scripture through the lens of the God of love as revealed in Jesus, we have a tendency to get mean and very black and white in our way of thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that led to Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees when he told them that they shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. Are we doing that?

Laura reminded us that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is speaking of is not the after-life. It’s the Kingdom that is right here among us. She wrote: “the kingdom realm; (is) not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule….”  I’ve read before that it is the place where God reigns–which is any place where we are doing things his way. The kingdom of Heaven, the realm of Heaven, is where God’s will is being done on earth. (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) If that’s a new thought, remember that Jesus himself said in John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. It all starts right here. And ultimately God’s will is that we love like He loves. 

So Jesus’ purpose in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is to show us how to live in God’s kingdom right here, with the door wide open for anyone else to come in. This goes against our natural tendency, and we’re not alone.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah got mad at God for his “open door” policy. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be accepted by God. In the New Testament, there were those who tried to impose circumcision according to Jewish law on Gentiles who were coming into the kingdom. Paul told them Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Gal 6:15) .  Peter had a vision from God during his prayer time on a roof, where God lowered a sheet in front of him with all kinds of “unclean” animals on it and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter said: “Surely not, Lord…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which God replied (3 times) “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 14-15) . Peter could have refused–after all, his tradition and the law he had grown up with taught him that to touch unclean things was a sin–yet here was the living God saying–nope. It’s not about that.

Shortly after the vision, Peter had the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a group of Gentiles.  Peter’s takeaway:  I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…And it wasn’t just Peter that was blown away by God’s acceptance of outsiders: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Taken from Acts 10: 44-48)

So, what are the Law and the Prophets that Jesus came to fulfill? They are certainly not tablets of stone. The Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)  And through the Prophet Ezekiel he says: And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19)  And the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth says: You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3)

Let’s be “one-hearted” letters of Christ to the world. What would the heart of the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ say to them? Who would it include? How would it be presented? Would we, like Peter’s companions, be astonished at who God welcomes, or do we know that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets means everyone, exactly as they are, can enter in?

–Luanne

Reflections – blog | Trinity Presbyterian Church | of the Orthodox ...

Giving Shapes Our Love

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

Wrestling. Desperation. Wanting to be close to God, yet not knowing how. Have you wrestled with questions like these? Have you ever asked “God, what do you want from me? How can I come before you? How can I draw near to you? How can I live in a close relationship with you? What tasks can I perform to please you? I’m willing to do anything…even sacrifice my own child to pay for my sin. What, God, do you want?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

 …do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…(NASB)

do what is right, to love mercy,  and to walk humbly with your God…(NLT)

What do these requirements look like in practice? Jesus showed us in the way he lived and interacted with people. He also showed us through a story that would have been shocking to his listeners. To set up the context in which Jesus told his story, Luke 10 tells us that…

Just then a religious scholar stood before Jesus in order to test his doctrines. He posed this question: “Teacher, what requirement must I fulfill if I want to live forever in heaven?” (TPT)

It’s important to note a couple of things about this question. The scholar (or lawyer as he is called in some translations) is not asking about how to have a relationship with Jesus. He’s not asking to be transformed. He is testing Jesus. He’s trying to show his superiority over Jesus. There was a time, earlier in the book of Luke that Jesus responded to Satan by saying: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Lk. 4:12). Same word. So Jesus answers the scholar’s question with a question:

 “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” 

The scholar replies: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus affirms that he got it right. And tells him do this and you will live“.  (Remember the scholar’s original question- what must I do to inherit eternal life (future). Jesus says…love like this, right here, right now and you will live). 

So the scholar wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.

Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.

Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.

Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return. 

Then Jesus asks this question: Which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?” 

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

Most of us are very familiar with this story. It’s a great deal more straightforward than many of Jesus’ parables. He wants us to get it. However, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the story because we don’t fully grasp the relationship that Jews and Samaritans had with each other in those days. The Jews considered the Samaritans “less than”. They did not associate with them. They despised them. If the story were told to religious Americans today, I wonder who Jesus would highlight as the example? Maybe a Muslim, someone from the Middle East, maybe someone from the LGBTQ community, maybe an immigrant whose legal status has expired, maybe an immigrant who never had legal status…without a doubt, it would have been someone unexpected and someone who would cause us to bristle.

So Jesus, after telling his shocking story asks the question: tell me, which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

(What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

The scholar, in testing Jesus, wants to know how he can have a good inheritance in his afterlife. Jesus responds if you want to live, see people and act; care for people; share what you have; make sure their needs are met; show tender compassion to others. 

If we pause to ponder all that the Samaritan man gave, it’s staggering. He was on his way somewhere;  he gave up his agenda, his time, his possessions (olive oil, wine, and whatever he used for bandages). He used his physical strength to place the injured, man onto his own donkey. With the injured man on his donkey, he most likely walked. He took the man to an inn, carried him into the inn.  The. Next. Morning. He gave the innkeeper money (the NIV tells us it was two silver coins—a hefty amount), and asked him to take care of the man until he could return.

I have a question…did he spend the entire night caring for this man who he didn’t know, most likely a Jewish man? Did he get a separate room and sleep? My gut tells me that he cared for the man the entire night, but I can’t know that for sure. Either way, he did not abandon the man.

Jesus is clear that the “religious” had no time to actually minister to someone in deep need. Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.

Pastor John gave us some excellent illustrations to help us see more clearly some ways in which we don’t love our neighbor well (most having to do with a sense of entitlement–my place in line, my seat at the movie theater, my appointment time, as if any of those things truly belong to us) and some ways in which we love ourselves more than we love others. For the sake of time, I won’t go into all of them, but one stuck with me.

If you (or I) injure ourselves in some way, maybe cut a finger, sprain an ankle, etc., do we pause to determine if we need to take care of that injury? Do we question whether or not we’re worthy or if we deserve to be taken care of? Do we question whether or not we have time? Or do we immediately stop what we’re doing, hold the injured portion of ourselves, and begin to figure out how to care for our wound? Do we see and love others in this same way? It’s worth thinking about.

The teacher of the law, the scholar, wanted to know how to have a good eternal life. I thought about how Jesus qualifies eternal life.

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

And I thought of John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I thought of Jesus’ emphasis on teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like–it’s what he taught about more than any other thing.

And I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife–when Jesus teaches Do this my way, the way of my Kingdom–here, now–and you will live abundantly–right now. I came to show you how. Follow my example. Get to know me, get to know the one true God. Your life in me isn’t just about heaven in the future, it’s about bringing heaven to earth today. “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is his will? It’s the lawyer’s reply to Jesus first question:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

I write it often because I believe it so strongly: when we draw near to God, when we allow the Holy Spirit to have access to the deepest parts of our beings, the beautiful fruit of the Spirit becomes the natural outflow of our lives-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We no longer live with the mindset of us and them, or I’m taking care of myself and my people because no one else matters as much, or I don’t like those people. All of humanity becomes our loved ones. All. Of. Humanity.

As I write this today, I am very aware that it is Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was a good Samaritan and paid for it with his life. He confronted unjust systems, he highlighted injustice, and he did so using peaceful means. His letter from a Birmingham jail is a pointed statement to the religious community who refused to see. It’s well worth a read. He said many things that I love, but maybe my favorite quote of his is:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Love God. Love others…

…do justice..love kindness, and…walk humbly with your God…

–Luanne

Pastor John began his message with the reminder that God loves us. Each of us. Equally. I immediately thought of William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, and how “Papa”–the Father God part of the Trinity–expressed love for all people. Papa didn’t say the words, “I love you,” in the story. Rather, the God character said “I am especially fond of you.” This was Papa’s sentiment regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. I love this subtlety in the story, because it challenges the narrative many of us learned along the way that God has to love us because he’s God and he is love. Young’s interpretation of God’s love is personal, intimate, and lavished equally over all of God’s children.

I don’t think I would be wrong in supposing that most of us struggle to believe, much less understand, that this really is how God feels about all of us. Sometimes our disbelief is rooted in our own sense of unworthiness–“There’s no way God could love me as much as (fill in the blank),” and sometimes it’s our own arrogance–“There’s no way God could love that murderer, rapist, heretic, immigrant, porn star, absent parent, school shooter, politician, transgender youth, etc… as much as he loves good Christian people like me.”

Whatever our thoughts, questions, and hangups might be, the scriptures we’re looking at this week confirm the lavish, relational, available-to-all love of God. In the Micah passage, the prophet asks, “What should we bring to the Lord?” The list of considerations includes thousands of animal offerings, ten thousand rivers of oil (which they didn’t actually have to give–the writer is emphasizing the point by listing such an impossible, extravagant gift), and even their firstborn children. If God were the transactional Being many of us grew up believing he is, superfluous sacrifices would matter to him. There would be a hierarchy of preference based on what we could offer to him. He would be especially fond of those who could give the most.

Sometimes I think we would prefer a transactional God. I think the religious scholar who asked Jesus what he needed to do to maintain his standard of living forever wanted a list. If we’re honest, sometimes we do, too. Luanne wrote above,

“…I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife…”

Is it possible that Christianity has, in many circles, morphed into this one-time transaction because the way of Jesus actually feels much harder to accomplish? Could it be that checklists, commandments, and a quid pro quo approach to God makes us feel like we have some measure of control and say in our destinies? We’re terrible at getting it all right, of course, but if the bottom line is one transactional, salvation moment, then we feel safe. We’ve done the important part.

Micah 6:8 challenges this way of thinking, and it was penned long before Jesus arrived on the pages of history. What is the important part according to God? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. How do we formulate a checklist for those commands? We can’t. These values are cultivated within a living, growing relationship with our God. If I were asked to teach a how-to class on loving mercy, I think I’d run quickly in the other direction. There’s no step-by-step process for learning how to love mercy. This is only learned by walking in step with the one from whom all mercy flows.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that in Micah 6:8, we don’t find God saying, “Don’t do___________.” It doesn’t say, “What does the Lord require of you? Stay away from people who don’t think like you, don’t go to that part of town, don’t befriend those disgusting pagans…” or anything like that. No part of the verse tells us what not to do. It simply tells us to do. Act, love, walk… these are action words. But what motivates these actions?

Let’s look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. Luanne wrote,

“Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.” 

Tender compassion. This automatic response–from someone who, according to the church crowd of that day, was an outsider at best–had to flow from somewhere. Compassion is a gut-level response of co-suffering love. It is a response that first sees and then identifies with the plight of the one suffering, feels it as if it were our own, and moves us to respond. It doesn’t “just happen” unless we’ve been conditioned to see beyond ourselves and our own individual needs.

All three men highlighted in the story saw something. But only one of them felt something–tender compassion–and was moved to do something. What stopped the first two men from doing something wasn’t that they didn’t see the need. They saw him… and they moved away from him rather than toward. Why? Because they didn’t feel anything. The man’s condition didn’t penetrate the walls of their hearts. Their preoccupation with themselves didn’t blind their physical eyes from seeing the needs around them. But the eyes of their hearts were blindfolded. By what? Perhaps by the same thing that consumed the religious scholar whose questioning of Jesus led to this story being told? A desire to maintain their lives as they were, to go about their days white-knuckling what belonged to them, to sustain their current quality of life on into eternity? Yeah… these things will absolutely tie a blindfold around a heart.

As Luanne pointed out, tending to the injured man cost the Samaritan. When we walk in the way of Jesus, with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of the others around us, we surrender our ability to maintain our lives as they are. Moving toward others, choosing to really see each one, will break us wide open. Loving like Jesus includes feeling like Jesus. This requires us to embrace vulnerability, to soften, to be woundable. Loving like Jesus means giving in the ways that he modeled, the ways that set his kingdom apart from every other kingdom that has ever existed. The Samaritan modeled kingdom values. It is costly to live this way. But it is what loving our neighbor looks like.

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

Where do we find ourselves as we ponder what God requires of us? Are we attempting to maintain a certain standard of living? Are we consumed with what is ours, with our positions and what we’ve earned? Are we simply trying to secure a spot in heaven? Do we arrogantly look down on certain others; do we cross the street when we see them? When we see a need, do we feel anything? Or do we, with hardened hearts, look the other way?

These are hard questions. They probe the depths of our priorities and they challenge our “me first”, individualistic mindsets. But we need to ask them. And we need to answer them honestly. We cannot say that we are people who love if we are not also people who give. Love motivates the heart to give, to break open, to embrace all others. Loving like Jesus means that, as Luanne wrote, all of humanity becomes our loved ones. No exceptions. God is especially fond of each one. All of us. Becoming like Jesus means that we will become especially fond of them, too.

–Laura

thumb_we-have-a-choice-we-can-embrace-our-humanness-which-57082437 (2)

2020 Perspective–Looking Back

“The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  Dallas Willard

Ready or not, we will soon step into a new year–and a new decade. 2019 is coming to a close, and 2020 is about to begin. I don’t know how your year was, but this girl is raising a hallelujah at the thought of leaving the last twelve months behind!

Well, sort of.

I was. Until I realized that my battle-scarred, weary self didn’t see any of 2019’s hard coming twelve months ago. And that makes me a bit wary about throwing 2020 a welcome party…

Pastor John’s message on Sunday came out of Philippians 3:12-14. I am including two translations of those verses below–J.B. Phillips, the one John used, and The Passion Translation. Take a minute to read the words and chew on them a bit.

J.B. Phillips: “Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.”

TPT: “I admit that I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead. I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus.”

Pastor John shared with us that looking back can prepare us to move forward. He also warned us that how and why we look back matters. He advised us to look back in order to learn and to remember. We’ve written about the word remember before, how it means to stay connected to, that it’s antonym is not to forget, but rather to dismember. He advised us to avoid the kind of looking back in which we are concentrating on, dwelling on, or longing for where we’ve been. Those lingering glances, fixating on what was, can keep us from living. It can be a tricky balance, remembering and learning from our pasts, but not dwelling on or longing for what used to be. This can be especially difficult if we’ve faced a loss, or many losses–whether the physical loss of a person or relationship, or a circumstantial loss, like a relocation, a career change, or an emotional move.

John shared a quote from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner related to looking back in order to move forward. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but I did come across this one:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”
― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

If I’m honest, when I read in our passage, “I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal…”  from the J.B. Phillips translation and, “I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead,” from The Passion Translation, I don’t feel a lot of excitement. I feel a bit of trepidation. A bit leaning towards a lot at times. I am someone who tends to be oriented toward the past. Nostalgia and sentimentality have always been part of how I look at life. Seeing the world and my life in this way also keeps me keenly aware of the pain of the past. Sometimes, that makes me want to run forward with abandon–but not usually. More often, I succumb to fears that the future could hold worse pain than the past. My past might be hard, but at least I know what I’ll see when I look into those memories. The thought of moving forward with arms outstretched toward whatever might lie ahead? Fastening my heart to an unknown future? These things can feel dangerous to a fragile, weary heart. I’m not typically one who fears change or looks ahead with cynicism and pessimism. But I am telling you–2019 had it out for some of us. 

That said, when I look at these verses alongside Buechner’s quote, it settles my insides a bit. His words read like an invitation to discover both who we are and who we’re becoming by way of remembering who we were and how far we’ve come. He invites us to step into the room where we are most alive to where our journeys have brought us. In remembering, like Pastor John talked about, we can see where God was in the midst of everything we’ve walked through. Remembering shows us how far we’ve come, and highlights the One who’s carried us all along.

This kind of remembering, it makes our passage easier to get excited about. Because it’s impossible to look back at the ways God has shown up without our faith being stirred to believe that he will continue to be that same God for us and with us–regardless of what our tomorrows hold.

As I pondered the message, a few other verses and some song lyrics came to mind:

“Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

–Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5a NKJV 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

Behold the Father’s heart
The mystery He lavishes on us
As deep cries out to deep
Oh, how desperately He wants us…

Behold His holy Son
The Lion and the Lamb given to us
The Word became a man
That my soul should know its Savior…

Behold I have a friend
The Spirit breathing holy fire within
My ever present help
Speaking truth when I can’t find it…

(Behold, Hillsong Worship)

I couldn’t get away from the word “behold” as I prayed through John’s sermon and what to write about. I spent some time leaning into the concept of “beholding” and what it means a couple of months ago. So I went back to look at some of my personal writing to try to connect the dots. This is what I found:

 “When did you last take the time to behold?

To behold a thing is to go beyond the passive seeing, past the every day looking that happens by default.

To behold is to be held within a moment…

When we behold something, our entire person is engaged in the seeing. The word itself means to mentally perceive, take heed of, experience, care for, contemplate intently, regard, observe, consider, partake of, discern–it takes us far beyond what we perceive with our eyes.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve been held in a moment until that moment passes…

But to truly behold is to regard with intention and care all of the things–not only the beautiful. It takes courage to behold the other things, namely ourselves

Why do I only pause to acknowledge and behold the beautiful, as though the rest is undeserving of being named?

If it is in the moment of beholding that we find ourselves truly held, then why would we avert our gaze from the moments that leave us most in need of an embrace?

There is beauty to behold even in the dark, even in the broken, and if we’re willing to look straight at it, to engage what we see with all the parts of ourselves, we’ll find that the beauty we encounter there will change us. And as we courageously behold, we will find ourselves held.”

As I reread my own words, I realized that the key to engaging in the past, present, and future in a healthy way just might be taking the time to behold. To behold our past–the hard AND the beautiful–is to observe it, to contemplate what it had to offer and to teach us, to honor it and find ourselves held within it as we remember. We have to look at it with courage in order to be changed by it. The same goes for our present. Staying awake to the moments of our lives, pausing to take them in and to discern the deeper meaning is another way that we learn. And we have to also be willing to look up when we hear the “Behold!” that beckons us into our future.

Each of our journeys is a dance. There are rarely either/or options. More often, we have the opportunity to engage in a both/and way of being in the world. Beholding offers us a way to look back in a way that can propel us into our future.

We need to know, though, that there is a massive difference between beholding something for a moment and allowing something to take hold of us. Pastor John asked us to consider what has taken hold of us, what might be growing roots in us. If our answer is anything but Jesus, we’re in danger of not being able to move forward.

I wrote these words as I prepared to make the transition from summer into fall, and I’m asking the same questions again now as we approach a New Year:

“What am I refusing to fully let go of as the next season presses in on me? What weight from yesterday am I carrying? Is there something I’m holding onto that will inhibit new growth in the days ahead? How do I stay connected to the learning, to the beauty and the process of seasons past and move forward fully yielded to the process?”

May we all be willing to ask ourselves hard questions, and willing to answer them honestly. May we behold our yesterdays and our current circumstances with the intention of learning and remembering how we’ve made it this far. And may we step with courage, with arms boldly outstretched toward whatever comes next because we have a God who is Emmanuel–God with us. He is the one who goes behind and before us, the one who calls us into our future and asks us to trust that he will walk with us and carry us–no matter what that future holds.

As Dallas Willard articulated so well, “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.” We get to decide if we will behold and learn from or dwell on and long for what once was. We have to look back in order to learn–but we don’t have to carry what we find or let it take hold of us. We get to choose. May we choose well as we move into this new year. For those of us who had a brutally hard year and those of us finishing the best year of our lives, I pray these words over our next year, from the song I referenced earlier:

Light up this broken heart and light my way
‘Til my time on earth is done
Oh, Holy Spirit
Breathe in me like Kingdom come

Oh, Holy Spirit
Let Your work in me be done…

Let your work in us be done…

–Laura

There is always the possibility of newness when one is in a relationship with God. Each new second can bring a new beginning. Each new day. Each new week. Each new year.

The new year, of course, is the time when everyone is focused on change, on resolutions, on how things are going to be different from this point forward, so I sit here and type on New Year’s Eve day, the end of 2019, the beginning of  2020, with lots of mixed emotions. 2019 was a difficult year on almost every front in my world. Yes, there were moments of beauty: a precious new granddaughter, even a miracle that I saw up close as God healed one of my children who could have died or had limbs amputated, but there was also a lot of hard–really hard, and some of that goes right with me into 2020. So, like Laura, I sit on the cusp of this year with some trepidation.

I’m not the type to put too much emphasis on resolutions or New Year’s celebrations; however, as I typed out the word “resolution” above, I was struck by its two components: re and solution. Re means “again” or “again and again”. Solution comes from the Latin word “solvere” which means “to loosen (solve)” (etymonline.com). To make a New Year’s resolution means to try to loosen something, to try to solve something again. In light of our verses from Philippians, this takes on new meaning for me this morning.

As Pastor John shared his message, he brought up a strange account from the book of Genesis about “forgetting” the past. It’s the account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back while fleeing her city. I won’t even begin to try to explain that; however, Pastor John said that her looking back wasn’t like a glance in a rearview mirror; it was a longing for. She didn’t recognize that she was being saved as she left the past behind. She set her heart and her mind on her past and longed for it. Metaphorically speaking, being turned into a pillar of salt meant that she was stuck, there would be no new for her, her longing for the past left her immobile, unable to move forward.

As I pondered that thought, my mind went to something that I learned in counseling a few years ago. My counselor used an illustration in talking about our pasts–she said to think of our memories like our own personal DVD library. The stories that make up the library are our memories and will be part of our story forever.  We can remember them as part of the overall collection–one story of many, or we can choose to put one in the DVD player, press play, and watch it over and over. In other words, the Dallas Willard quote that Laura wrote above “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  is key to whether we stay stuck or move forward.

The Buechner quote is also key: “The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”  

We are all becoming something–all of us being transformed–but in what way?

Looking back is necessary, but “living” back is detrimental. Looking back allows us to find healing, to find re-solutions as we loosen ourselves from the old we are tied to, and looking back allows us to remember God’s faithfulness and see how He’s changed us over time. Remembering God’s faithfulness gives us hope for the future because we know that God will be with us.  Paul, in this passage in Philippians, is remembering what he had let go of and the call he was pursuing. That type of remembering was his catalyst for moving forward.

As is the case with lots of scripture passages, depending on which lens we look through, there can be different takeaways. Our passage (Phil 3:12-14) in the NIV translations reads:

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

Quick breakdown:

Not that I have obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal: back up a little bit in chapter 3 and Paul is talking about how he tried to earn righteousness before God in his former life as a devout, circumcised Jewish man and discovered that it didn’t work. Paul had learned that our right standing with God (and others) comes through faith in Jesus alone and through that faith, allowing God to work in us so we become like Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection. He was forgetting (letting go of) living a religiously law-based life yet knew that he had not become 100% like Jesus.

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me: What did Jesus “take hold” of Paul for? If we look at Acts 9:15 we learn that Paul (Saul)  was “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” and that Paul would suffer greatly as he carried out his mission. 

So when Paul says that he’s not there yet, that he hasn’t taken hold of it yet, he’s talking about becoming like Jesus. Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul would take hold of Jesus and become like Jesus, through faith, from the inside out. 

So when Paul says that he is forgetting what is behind, he’s talking about being a slave to the law, to a behavior-based attempt to be in relationship with God. He’s pressing forward to become more like Christ as he fulfills his mission to carry the name and ways of Jesus to Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,

In the original language, the word “heavenward” does not exist. Paul’s prize is not talking about going to heaven. Young’s Literal Translation words it like this: I pursue for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. High calling can be translated as “high invitation” or “high vocation”. The “high calling” of God in Christ Jesus is to become like Jesus–to die to self, to allow the Holy Spirit to live the resurrection life of Jesus through us (the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and lives in us (Romans 6:10)), and to pursue that high calling, full of faith,  with everything we are, no matter what our earthly circumstances look like. Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote Philippians, yet was still pursuing his holy invitation. 

What was the goal of the invitation Paul received from Jesus? To bear the name of Jesus, to carry the name of Jesus wherever he went–even prison. 

Is that any different from the invitation God has given to us? 

Romanian theologian and Pauline scholar Corneliu Constantineanu, writes: “In stark contrast [to the ways of Rome] the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel–God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this, not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation. Jesus, not Caesar, brings peace and justice! This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.”

This is what Paul had given his life to pursue–Paul’s self-giving life, the prize he was after, the race he was running–was about letting everyone know that Jesus brings wholeness (salvation), Jesus brings peace, Jesus changes individuals and Jesus changes the world. 

As we head into 2020, let’s look back to see what we are becoming in order to forget the things that have not made us more like Jesus, or to abandon the ways that we have not carried Jesus to those around us, or to let go of the ways we have not died to ourselves.

Let’s re-solution our lives by beholding God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and allowing God to transform us as we sit in stillness before Him, allowing Him to do deep work in us. Let’s pursue the high calling, the invitation of God, to join him in his mission to bring the ways of the kingdom of heaven to earth (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven). Let’s not get stuck in the past and beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right, but confess and move on into Christlikeness as we surrender our ways to his ways–even if it includes suffering.

None of us have attained it yet, but is becoming like Jesus the desire of our hearts? It’s a goal worth pursuing.

Laura ended her portion of the blog with these words:

Let your work in us be done…

May that be our prayer and our desire for 2020–no matter what comes.

–Luanne

Related image

This is Love Displayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

Related image

 

JOY (Like Never Before)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope. Peace. JOY…

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

We sang these words on Sunday:

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for psalm 16:11