Lent: A Personal Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week…

Laura

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Lent: An Extravagant Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I unwilling to celebrate?

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

Who am I unwilling to worship alongside?

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

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

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

—Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Lent: A Rescuing Love

On the calendar of the capital “C” church, the season of Lent has begun. In our particular faith tradition, many individuals practice Lent, but Lent is not something we do corporately. This year, even though we are not having corporate Lent services, or special prayer and fasting (we do that in January), Pastor John wants to lead us through a series that sets our hearts on our rescuing, loving God and prepares us for the greatest event in the Christian faith–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We began this series by reading the 3rd chapter of Hosea.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley.  Then I said to her, “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.”  For the Israelites will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days. (Hosea 3:1-5)

God is not asking an easy thing of Hosea. God is asking Hosea to go again… Let that sink in. Go again to your wife, the wife you still love, the wife who is unfaithful to you, the wife who is sleeping with other men, the wife who has broken your heart, the wife who has done this before…go again. Go. Demonstrate agape love, unconditional love, love in action. Love her the way I (God) love my people, even though they chase other gods, offer sacrifices to other gods, and credit those gods for their provision. Hosea, go and be me to your wife, so that Israel will see, through your loving example, how I love them.

So, Hosea goes. He buys his wife back. He doesn’t drag her down the street by her hair. He doesn’t create a public spectacle. He doesn’t play the tough guy by yelling at her and putting her in her place. He takes items worth a great deal in that culture and exchanges those costly items to purchase his wife back. He redeems her. Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God. Costly love that redeems is the way of God.

So Hosea takes her home and says to her: “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.

When you read those words, what tone of voice do you hear Hosea using? Is it a “Listen up, girl, this is the way it’s going to be…” tone of voice, or is it gentle? Although we can’t know for sure, I think Hosea’s last phrase gives us a clue. Hosea, who has been faithful the whole time says to her, stay with me, be faithful to me, and I’ll be faithful to you. This isn’t a threat. This isn’t an “if you cheat on me, I’ll cheat on you and show you what it’s like”. No, this is “I love you. I’ve been here being faithful to you the entire time. I will remain faithful to you, and we will take this journey together.” Hosea’s faithful, costly love will be what restores his wife. It will happen over time, as she chooses him and he walks with her.

The chapter then goes broad, and the Lord tells Hosea what’s going to happen in Israel. He says their political system is going to fail them. Their religious system is going to fail them. Their false gods are going to fail them. Then, when every other thing they have chased fails them, they will return and seek the Lord. What will they find? Punishment? No. We are told they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days.

The word translated trembling can mean “in awe”. After all of their wandering, after chasing what the world offers, after worshiping everything but God, they will return to the Lord and discover his goodness. They will discover his costly love that buys them back. They will discover his companionship. They will be left awestruck.

God’s rescuing love is demonstrated in action. It’s a love that loves. It’s a love that redeems. It’s a love that empathizes, that joins us where we are and restores us as we walk with God.

Every man-made system in which we place our hope will fail us, but God will never fail us. He will not reject us. He will pursue us. He will love us. He will restore us. He will be with us.

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us; he paid a costly price to buy us back; he places his very own Spirit in us and tells us over and over that he will never leave us or forsake us…

…and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

Go again and love…

–Luanne

Go again and love

As Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion, the words “Go again…” are hard. For anyone who has felt the sting of betrayal–be it marital infidelity as it was for Hosea, or the betrayal of a close friend, or the rejection of a family member–those two words, and the two that follow, can feel like an insult added to the injury of our pain. As I write this, there are memories that surface–some old, some very fresh–that remind me of the sting of betrayal and rejection I have felt from those I love. I am sure you have stories, too. I think that’s why this short passage of scripture is still relatable and significant today. It’s appalling, what God asked of Hosea…

I wonder if he wrestled… I wonder if he asked God any questions. Did he go for a long walk, or maybe a run? Did he throw a bit of a tantrum? Did he yell in the privacy of his own home, or break something in his pain and frustration? Did he cry a little? Or maybe even all-out ugly cry, snot and all? Did he wonder how many times his heart would have to be broken before it couldn’t be put back together again? 

Hosea doesn’t tell us how he felt or the ways he might have wrestled with God’s instructions. But everything I listed above? I’ve reacted in all of those ways and more in response to various betrayals and rejections in my own life. To be left and disregarded, betrayed by one who has vowed to be there, to love you–the pain is hard enough to work through one time. But again? It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Hosea to have said something like, 

“Seriously, God?!? I know you’re, well, God. So you know the whole story! She’s done this before. Everyone knows. She’s embarrassed me, betrayed me, left me alone–not once. Over and over. You know exactly how many other lovers have captured her attention, how many others she has given herself to, the ways she has smeared her name–and mine! You know what she deserves. So do I… I don’t want to exact the law upon her–I still love her. But you’re saying it’s not enough to let her live, to mercifully spare her life and the just consequences of her behavior–you want me to go after her? Again? And pursue her, love her, bring her home as mine? When she has given herself to everyone but me? Are you really asking me to do that? Again?”

These would have been fair questions, especially in the time that Hosea lived. Luanne wrote above, regarding his wife, 

Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God.

Pastor John shared that for Hosea to choose his wife again rather than reject her risked his own reputation. Really, he was risking more than that. He was risking everything. To choose her again meant embracing the unknown, the what ifs, the chance of her leaving him again in the future. Those around him just would not get it–until they did. 

I want to tell you a story that I know, a story that resembles Hosea’s…

There was a woman, she was a faithful, loving wife and a wonderful mother. She loved Jesus with her whole heart, battered and wounded as it was. Life had not been easy or kind, but she was hopeful, joy-filled, warm, and as present as she knew how to be. Eleven years into her marriage, she got sick. Very sick. Her future was uncertain. 

Not long after her health began to deteriorate, she found out that her husband had been unfaithful to her, more than once, with more than one other woman. And he was leaving her for one of them. He had fallen in love and just did not want her anymore. She had become to him a “good friend,” and nothing more. He left her alone, sick, without resources, and with their children to care for, promising he would do his part. He didn’t.

Over the next months, the man had some doubts… He missed her kindness, her friendship, he missed their kids, their family. He wanted to come home. The woman set aside her ache and said yes, he could come home. Those around her didn’t understand why she welcomed him back…

He came home.

Stayed a few days.

And left… again. There were whispers of, “I told you so…” as people learned he’d gone. 

A little bit of time passed, and again he wanted to return. Again, she welcomed him home, but only if he was there to stay. He assured her he was. Again, there were murmurings from their community.

And again, he left. 

He came back one more time. Her heart was battered, torn apart. She had no reason to believe him this time, and told him so. She took some time…

They took the kids out together and spent time as a family over the next days. He seemed genuine.

One night, at the county fair, their kids watched him kiss her under the stars next to the Ferris wheel. Their eyes sparkled, her breath caught in her chest, their kids looked at them, giggling and hopeful. All seemed right in their world this time. 

He came home.

Days later, he told his kids he missed the other woman and her kids, told his wife he was sorry, but he couldn’t make this work. 

She begged him not to go. Said she’d do anything, be anything, change everything about herself–if only he’d stay. 

And he left again. For good this time. Her love, the redemption she offered, her welcoming arms—none of it was enough to make him stay. The whispering community largely deserted her and her kids. 

She struggled. She sobbed and screamed in her bathroom with the fan on and the water running. She thought the kids couldn’t hear her, but they did. They didn’t know if she cried because she missed him… or because she was sick and in pain… or because they didn’t have money for groceries. They didn’t know for sure, because she didn’t speak poorly of their father in their presence. She assured them of his love for them, and tried hard not to complain about her own pain. 

Fast forward to more than a decade later. She fought through her illness and experienced the love of Jesus carry her through her darkest days. She was in a different state, with her daughter and young grandchildren, at a summer festival. They rounded a corner and came face to face with her. The one who knew the whole story because she was the other woman. The one he left her for years ago. The one he eventually left for another someone new…

Shock and fear flashed across the other woman’s face. Tears spilled as she hung her head. How were they both here, today? They hadn’t lived in the same state in more than ten years. Before the other woman could say anything, the scorned wife went to her and wrapped her arms around her, held her tightly as both women cried.

“I’m so sorry! So sorry…” the other woman choked out between sobs.

And then I heard my mom say, “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. And I love you.”

I cried at the beauty of the moment, but I wasn’t shocked. I knew how she felt, how she’d wrestled and come to a place of love and forgiveness. But I turned and glanced at a friend who happened to be nearby and had witnessed the whole exchange. Tears rolled down her face; her expression held the awe of one who’s witnessed a miracle. 

And that’s exactly what it was. A miracle of love that didn’t make sense according to the world’s systems. My mom’s love, despite her efforts, didn’t keep my dad home. Her love didn’t rescue their marriage. And it didn’t rescue him from a life filled with regrets. But, we can be sure, her love rescued one, and impacted many… When she embraced the other woman, it wasn’t in her own strength. It was the love of Jesus in her and with her that led her to reach out to the one who was responsible for much of her pain. And that love, pouring through my sweet mom, spoke to this woman that she was loved, redeemed, forgiven, rescued from the guilt and shame her own choices had caused in her life. It was a gift unexpected and most certainly undeserved. It was a gift that changed more than one life that day.

My friend told me she had never seen anything like that. She was overcome by the beauty of the love of Jesus expressed that way. I have heard her tell the story and how it impacted her heart many times, in small groups and to other friends. That’s the power of loving God’s way. 

Real love doesn’t reserve a little room for revenge, for retribution, for resentment, expectations, conditions… It doesn’t react, separate, distance, avoid, isolate or divide. Real love can’t exist if there’s even a little sliver of hate. Because real love acts and responds. It is demonstrated by moving toward, pursuing, including, inviting, holding space. It redeems,  it empathizes, it rescues. And it does this without any guarantees of how the recipient of that love will respond.

Hosea had no way of knowing if Gomer would stay after he brought her home again. History would say otherwise. But he pursued her anyway. She did stay and they were reconciled. My mom had no way of knowing if my dad would stay. History told her otherwise, too. She embraced him anyway. And he left, and they were not reconciled as husband and wife.

God knows that we are an unfaithful bride. That we repeatedly leave him. He does know it will happen again, and how many times we’ll run to something or someone other than him. He knows. And yet… he keeps coming. He doesn’t wait until we ask if we can come home. No, he–like we see in Hosea–moves toward us first. He pursues and he never stops pursuing. When we turn away, he moves around us until we’re face to face again. When we run, he runs with us, never leaving us alone. When we fall down in exhaustion, he picks us up and carries us home, restoring us every step of the way. 

Luanne wrote,

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us. . . and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

My mom experienced the rescuing love of God. She wasn’t reconciled to her husband, but Jesus became her husband and loved her with a love that left her awestruck. She responded by extending that love–even to one the world would call her enemy. 

I don’t know your story, but I know mine. I could tell you many stories of betrayal and rejection, the many times that others have been unfaithful to me… I could tell you more about the times I have been the unfaithful one in my relationship with Jesus. That list is long, friends.

But he loves me as though the list doesn’t exist.

He pursues me even when I try to get away. He holds me in my pain and experiences my hurt as his own. He rescues me when I run straight into the fire over and over again. He always has. He always will. That’s what love does. He is who love is.

Who is he asking us to “Go again and love” this week? May we be filled with his love, awestruck by the enormity of it, and–in his strength–may we move toward others instead of pulling away.

–Laura

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Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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Limits

God has limits.

What?

Our God is limitless, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful… but we have a unique capacity to limit our limitless God.

How does that statement hit you?

I think before we get into this too much further, it would be helpful to define what a “limit” is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a limit as: a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.

Keep that definition in mind as we continue…

So far in Mark we have seen Jesus talk about the kingdom being here, now; teach about the kingdom–what it is and how it grows; and show those around him his authority as he enacts the values of the kingdom in the lives of those around him. The passage we looked at on Sunday shows us that we have the ability to put limits on what God can do based on our willingness or unwillingness to participate in the values of kingdom living. Living in the flow of the kingdom includes a posture of belief, trust, and ultimately hope in the one we believe in.

This is not the posture Jesus encountered in this week’s passage. Mark chapter 6 begins by telling us that Jesus left there (where he had just raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead), and went to his hometown.

Pastor John talked about coming home, and about what “home” means. He said that there is an expectation that home is where we get to be ourselves–a safe place, a place of grace. It’s a place where we can be honest about our successes (and failures) openly, a place where our wins can be celebrated in a different way. It’s a place where we can expect to be known and seen, and there’s a measure of vulnerability allowed without condemnation.

I’m going to pause here… Because I know that description of “home” might be painful to read for some. It was painful for me to hear, and painful to write out. Home isn’t always a safe, welcoming place, and sometimes it can feel like the last place we can be our real selves. Sometimes, home is where we feel the least seen and the most overlooked. I have felt this deep pain, as I’m sure many of you have. And you know what? Jesus did, too.

When Jesus went home following a series of mind-blowing miracles, he went with a new reputation, and with quite the following. Perhaps he thought that his community would accept him now, in a way they hadn’t before.

He wasn’t given a warm welcome.

He walked into a place that had been permeated by a posture of unbelief–it only takes one or two negative, unbelieving hearts to change the atmosphere of a place–and he was met with doubts, presumptions, and criticism. Let’s look at the story:

Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT, emphasis mine)

Jesus went home and began to teach. And the text tells us that the people were “amazed”. The same word was used to describe the reaction of people when they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons in his right mind again, as well as to describe their reaction to Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. People were “amazed” or, in some of our translations, “astonished”. I decided to look up these occurrences of the word “amazed”, to see if they were all the same word in the original language. Here is what I found…

In the story of the man called “Legion” (Mark 5:20), amazed is translated from the Greek “thaumazo”. It means “to wonder at, to marvel” and its root means “to look closely at, to behold.”

In the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the original word is “existemi”. This word means “to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment“, and can also mean “to be out of one’s mind.”

In this week’s story (Mark 6:2), “amazed” is translated from the word “ekplesso”. It means “to strike out, drive out, expel by a blow; to strike with panic, shock”. In the first two stories, “amaze” means similar things. Not so with this story. The people’s amazement at Jesus here is the kind that is passive. They were struck by the things Jesus taught, in a way that caused shock and panic among them, in a way that felt like a blow. A blow to what? We’re not told. But it could have been to their own egos, to their understanding, to their idea of Jesus… Whatever “blow” they were struck by, we’re told that they scoffed and were deeply offended. The word translated “offense” comes from the Greek word “skandalizo”. It looks a lot our English “scandalized”, doesn’t it? (Our English word is, in fact, derived from this original Greek term.) It means “to cause a person to distrust or desert; to put a stumbling block in the way, to cause one to unjustly judge another.”

Their unbelief caused them to scandalize Jesus in their own minds. They were leaning on their own understanding, and what they thought they knew placed limits on what Jesus could have done in their midst… This is why the exhortation of Proverbs 3:5-6 is so important to listen to. I love the way the Message paraphrase puts it:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.

Jesus’s community assumed that they knew everything about him. They knew whose kid he was, they had meals with his siblings. They knew his trade and they knew his place in society.

But they didn’t leave room in their hearts to get to know him. The real Jesus. They had a story in their heads and it took up all the space where kingdom values could have been heard and understood. They chose to doubt, rather than believe. And so, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles among them because of their unbelief.

This in no way means that he didn’t have the power to do the same miracles there that he had done elsewhere. In fact, the text tells us that he did perform some healing miracles while he was there. He could do them, and he did do them. It’s right there in the passage. But it wouldn’t have mattered how grand the miracles were or how many he performed–their hearts were set up against him. Their posture of unbelief discounted every truth about him in their minds, and the culture in that town was hostile to the kingdom.

Jesus brought the kingdom into that town, the same way he carried it everywhere he went. But it wasn’t received. And without a place for kingdom seeds to grow, any work he did among them would have been futile. He could not force the kingdom to grow and expand in a place where it was not welcomed. There was no posture of belief, no willingness to join Jesus in his kingdom work, no trust–there was only contempt and doubt and unbelief. And so, because we have a good God who chooses to move through us–imperfect and, sometimes unwilling, vessels–Jesus faced limits in his hometown.

This story stands in stark contrast to the story of the woman that Jesus named “Daughter” and commended for her faith just days before, and to the story of Jairus coming to Jesus in faith on behalf of his dying daughter. In these stories, we saw great faith, and we saw Jesus respond to it with miracles of healing.

Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not. And I don’t believe that’s what Pastor John was saying either. We know that sometimes faith is strong, and thousands believe together for a miracle that doesn’t come. We see examples of this when we hear about miscarriages, cancer, chronic illness and pain, depression, despair so deep it leads to suicide–despite fervent prayers and belief that God could change those stories–but for some reason he doesn’t. I would never say that any of these losses, any of this pain is a result of a lack of faith. I’ve watched faithful followers of Jesus battle bravely and hang onto every last shred of hope for their miracle–some of them are still with us, healed; some are no longer here.

I know there’s not a formula to faith and miracles. But choosing to live in the ways of the kingdom–holding onto hope, choosing to trust, believing that God always CAN–even if he doesn’t always show up the way we’re hoping he will, keeps our hearts and minds open to the movement of God in and around us. If we live this way, we live in a way that allows us to see and experience all that he is able to do–if we’re willing to bring his kingdom to bear alongside him…

There is one more occurrence of “amazed” I want to touch on… Mark 6:6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Which “amazed” do you think he was?

It’s “thaumazo”, the same one used in the story of the man who was possessed. It’s the one that means “to wonder at, to marvel; to look closely, behold.” It would have made sense for Jesus’s amazement to be like that of his community–like he’d been struck by a blow. But it touches my heart in a deep place that this wasn’t Jesus’s response. He looked closely, beheld these people who were his family, his community–these ones who scoffed at and rejected him–and he chose not to take the same posture. He didn’t scandalize them in his mind. He beheld them with his kingdom eyes. I think maybe in that moment he saw beyond, into the days that were yet to come, days when many from his community–including his brother James–would not only change their posture to one of belief, but would become leaders of the early church.

Kingdom vision never wears lenses of hopelessness or disbelief. In the kingdom, there is no lost cause, no situation that can’t be changed. And here, even on a day when his heart must have ached from the pain of rejection, we see our Jesus choose an unexpected way, a kingdom way, of seeing those around him. What if we chose a posture that always believes, always hopes, always perseveres, always trusts, always loves? How would that kind of posture change the way we see the world–and the way the world sees us?

–Laura

A dozen or so years ago, Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore offered her first on-line study. I lived in Brazil at the time and was excited to be able to participate in the study from my home there. The title of the study was “Believing God”. It rocked my world. I have gone on to do/lead that study five more times. The thing making that study so profound for me was a seemingly small shift in a common phrase, which made all the difference in the world. Rather than “I believe in God”,  the phrase became I believe God. The study was built on these tenets:

God is who he says he is.

God can do what he says he can do.

I am who God says I am.

I can do all things through Christ.

I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do, but it does provide an open channel for God’s activity to flow–or as Laura wrote–for God to bring the kingdom here.

Last night a storm passed through our city. The power went out at my house for 2 1/2 hours. The power source was still available, many houses in town still had power, but something had happened in my part of town that caused the flow of that power to be interrupted. Unbelief is like that. It doesn’t diminish the power of God in any way. However, it can block the flow of that power.

I can’t pretend to understand this mystery, but God in his great love has allowed us to be partners with him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. As in any relationship, if one of the partners chooses to disengage, the effectiveness of the partnership suffers.

Our belief that God is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do is vitally important in kingdom work. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, as God was getting ready to lead his people into the land he was giving them,  Moses and Aaron sent twelve men on a scouting mission to bring back a report. They came back with amazing produce and a confirmation that yes, this was a good land; however, ten of the twelve said but we can’t. There are too many obstacles, too many people who are stronger than we are, it’s impossible. The result of their unbelief–their negative report:

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!  Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  Numbers 14:1

Joshua and Caleb, who believed God could do what he said he could do, said:

If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.  Only do not rebel against the Lord.  (Numbers 14:8)

God was giving them a gift. Instead, one bad report led an entire community into despair and worst-case scenario thinking. The consequence of their unbelief was that they did not get to see the land God was giving to them. They wandered for forty years until all of them but Joshua and Caleb had died, and the two who believed–who also suffered the consequences of the unbelief of their comrades–were able to move into the promised land.

When speaking of those who Moses led out of Egypt, Hebrews 3:19 tells us, they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

I think it’s important to point out that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was still with them. He led them, he fed them, he provided water, he miraculously made their clothes and shoes last the entire time (Deuteronomy 29:5), he taught them, he did miracles on their behalf; he continued to love them, to speak to them through Moses,  to care for them. He was still the God who is love.

It’s also important to note what Laura wrote above: Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not.  

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. God is God. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts are higher than ours; unfortunately, suffering, sickness, violence, and death are part of life on this planet–and none of us escapes those things. Neither did Jesus.

However, our unbelief can keep us from fully experiencing all that God has for us, and can keep us from living in such a way that God’s supernatural activity in and around us is impeded.

Going back to the verses that Laura quoted above: Proverbs 3:5 in the NLT version reads like this:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

The word “trust” can be a noun or a verb. In its noun form it means: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.  In its verb form, it means: “to rely on–to believe, to place confidence in,  to commit or place in one’s care or keeping… (merriam-webster.com)

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him. They made assumptions. They created a culture of unbelief that permeated the whole town. They depended on their own understanding, their own knowledge, and from that place stood in a defensive posture and shut off the valve that could have changed their lives. They were not willing to place themselves in the care or keeping of Jesus. They were not willing to experience something new.

I’ll say it again–I don’t pretend to understand this mystery, but I believe it’s true. Our belief–the active verb kind of belief that allows God to move and work and meet us where we are, opens up the activity of heaven right here, right now. Our openness to God allows him to work through us without limits.

In the hard seasons, do I trust the character of God? When I don’t get my miracle do I trust the character of God? When everything feels dark and confusing do I trust the character of God? Do I believe God?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a blazing hot fire said to King Nebuchadnezzar:  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

They had no doubt that God is who he says he is, and they trusted him no matter the outcome. They refused to bow to any false god–the god of disappointment, the god of my own way, the god of discontent, the god of “I’ve served you faithfully and you let this happen to me?” or any other thing that we may find ourselves serving when we lean on our own understanding.

Of Beth Moore’s principles, the one where I’ve limited God the most is “I am who God says I am”. He has invited me into things that I feel incapable of–that I am incapable of apart from him. Sometimes I close the door and don’t move into those spaces because I’m afraid–I’m relying on my own understanding. Sometimes I take a deep breath and go for it–and Every. Single. Time. come away amazed at who God is.

There have been many times when God has asked me to stay in places that are hard– physical places, relational places, emotional places. I don’t like those places, yet when I believe God, I can have the faith to believe that he will redeem the pain and work it all toward his good purpose both in and through me.

There have been times that I’ve lost people I love to disease, to car accidents, or to friendships that changed over time. If I believe God, I can have the faith that even in these hard things, he is working. I can choose to trust, to commit myself to his care and keeping–even in seasons of grief, believing that he is God and he is love even as I beat my fists against his chest.

There have been times that I have seen God perform miracles, heal, save, transform, redeem, restore, come through when all hope seemed lost, and at those times it’s easy to see him, to believe him, to glorify him.  I believe that’s one of the reasons he asks us to keep our minds focused on lovely and excellent things, and to remember what he’s done for us. It helps us keep believing, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing.

When I’m in hard seasons, I oftentimes reflect on the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. What was going through their minds? When it looked like all hope was lost, God the Son was carrying out a victorious mission. He died, passed through death, now holds the keys of death and hades, and rose again from the dead utterly defeating death.  Colossians 2:15 words it like this: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  What looked like total darkness and chaos, became our freedom–the verses right before 2:15 state: He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And then he made a public spectacle of the powers and authorities, disarming them forever!

What looked like the end was the new beginning…

Therefore:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart–don’t lean on your own knowledge or understanding. Believe God…

God is who he says he is. He can do what he says he can do. We are who he says we are. We can do all things through him. Let’s not limit what He can do by our unbelief; instead, let’s choose to believe our limitless God and watch him be amazing in our midst.

–Luanne

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This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

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

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

Pastor John began by simply stating:

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

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

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

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

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

Once there was a man who had two sons…

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

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

So he divided up his property between the two of them

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

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

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

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

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

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

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

What about our other main character, the older son?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

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