Sermon on the Mount #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…he taught them saying…

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

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

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

Bliss means perfect happiness, great joy…hmmm.

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

Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas Willard defines the discipleship Bonhoeffer referenced this way,

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

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

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

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

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

James Bryan Smith asserts that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew 5:4, NIV)

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

Yes.

Why?

“…for they will be comforted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

 

 

Teach Me to Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we already know the model friends…

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

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

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach me to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Teach Me: Trust

Sometimes a familiar word will hit me in a new way which happened as I was beginning to formulate my thoughts for this post. The word understand popped out at me, leading me on a search for its etymology. I discovered that it’s actually a little tricky to define. If its root is Old English it could mean “stand in the midst of” or “among”, or possibly “examine, investigate, scrutinize” or even “stand under”. If its root is Germanic it most likely means “stand before”. If its root is Greek, it could mean “I know how, I know, I stand upon” (www.etymonline.com).

If I look it up in Strong’s Concordance of biblical words, the original Hebrew word biynah was translated as understanding, wisdom, knowledge, and meaning.

Why all this searching? Because in this series, Pastor John is encouraging us to ask God to teach us. This week the request is “Teach me to trust”.  As an introduction to my portion of the blog, I was going to write out the very familiar scripture Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. I wanted to dig into “understanding” and see if there was something deeper to discover. Adding in other possible definitions allows the verse to read: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…  

Many of us are familiar with this verse…yet, how many of us actually live by this verse? The words are easy to say; however, I find actually doing it to be hard.

The good news is difficulty and learning often go hand in hand, and although I like to avoid difficulty, refusing to consider something new, to be challenged in how I see the world, in how I think, in how I live, leads to living from the skewed perspective of my own narrow understanding, through my own cloudy lens.

When thinking of how we learn things, or how our life lenses are formed, we need to consider how we take in information. For some of us, our learning began with absolutes that shaped our attitudes and beliefs, and we have lived life through that lens. For others, our learning began with our life experiences and our absolutes were formed through the lens of personal experience.

I would say that the majority of us learn from life experience rather than what we’ve been taught, and therefore what we experience becomes the highest influence in our lives and shapes our view of the world.  What happens next, if we’re not willing to consider another’s lens, is that my experience and my absolutes butt up against your experience and your absolutes, leading to conflict and disunity.

For many centuries, people had to rely on God and God’s provision for every aspect of their survival. Then, for a season of time, there was a push toward absolutes becoming society’s teacher. The industrial revolution played a big role in that mindset. Singer-songwriter Jason Upton points this out in his song The Farmer and the Field. 

He sings these lyrics:

       There was a time not long ago when the sun did shine and the sowers sowed,                                                        and the rain did rain and the crops did grow.                                                       It was a time before machinery, a time before certainty, a time before we bought the lie,           it was a time before the farmer died, when we had trusting hearts and human soul,                                            it was a time not very long ago…when we trusted you.                              Lord, we want to trust you again.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding–your own certainty…

What does it look like to live like that?

It looks like Noah who had never built a boat, never saw a large body of water, was not an expert in animal science, yet he spent a number of years building an ark because God asked him to. (Genesis 5)

It looks like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and coming up to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them making it all look like a death trap. The Israelites cried out:  “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” In other words—we are leaning on our own understanding and this doesn’t look good, so we’re blaming you, Moses!!

Moses responded: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord instructed Moses to raise his staff, stretch his arm out over the sea, and the Lord delivered the Israelites. (Exodus 14)

What about Joshua and the battle plan to take Jericho? They marched around the city one time a day for six days. Seven priests blew their trumpets, the ark of the Lord was behind them, the armed men were in front of them and the rear guard was behind the ark. Six days. And then on the seventh day, when they were going to actually enter into physical battle, they marched around the wall seven times, the longest distance yet, which would make them more tired, and then when the priests played the trumpets Joshua commanded the people to shout and the walls fell. (Joshua 6)

What about Nehemiah and the plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? He was an exile in Babylon. He learned that Jerusalem, the home of his ancestors was in ruins. He had access to the king as the king’s cup-bearer. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked what was wrong. Nehemiah records: I was very much afraid,  but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

The king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Nehemiah tells us: Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” After which Nehemiah asked for three things: time off, letters from the king for safety, and the provisions needed to build the gates. Then Nehemiah wrote: And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (Neh. 2)

What about Mary, the mother of Jesus who could have been stoned to death for embracing God’s call, and who endured the public crucifixion of her son without knowing that resurrection was coming? Or what about the disciples who left everything they had, everything they knew to follow Jesus? What about Paul who was beaten, imprisoned, and constantly persecuted because God had called him to carry His Kingdom message to the Gentiles? What about Elisabeth Elliott who returned to the tribe that killed her husband to show them what God’s grace and forgiveness look like in practice? What about Corrie Ten Boom and her family who were discovered hiding Jews in their home and were sentenced to a concentration camp? She survived and her stories of love, of forgiveness, and of healing have affected many of us.

All of these people were called by God to follow him. They chose to believe. They chose to trust God and not lean on their own understanding. He calls each of us to do the same.

Are there absolutes? Yes. In the words of Beth Moore from her Bible study Believing God:

  1. God is who He says He is.
  2. God can do what He says He can do.
  3. I am who God says I am.
  4. I can do all things through Christ.
  5. I’m believing God.

As we choose to do life God’s way–to follow him into things that make no logical sense, we experience His mysterious and miraculous ways. Does following God this way come with challenges? Yes. None of the above-mentioned people had a smooth journey. Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble but to take heart, (he) has overcome the world. (John 16:33)

So, as is always the case, we get to choose which kingdom we want to live in: the kingdom of this world in which we lean on our own understanding– which typically leads to cooperating with harmful man-made systems and structures–or to live in the counter-cultural kingdom of heaven, even knowing that we will face opposition, just as Christ did.

The writer of Proverbs knew which one was better and encouraged us to:

Trust in the Lord completely,
and do not rely on your own opinions.
With all your heart rely on him to guide you,
and he will lead you in every decision you make.
 Become intimate with him in whatever you do,
                                       and he will lead you wherever you go.                                              (Proverbs 3:5-6 TPT)

Lord, teach me to trust.

–Luanne

Many of the stories Luanne highlighted above are the ones Pastor John referenced in his message on Sunday. He asked us to wrestle with some of the questions that naturally arise when we consider these stories. I would like to take some time to elaborate on some of those questions and give us all some space to connect them with what Luanne taught us about what “understanding” means in relation to trust. She expanded Proverbs 3:5 to include a more comprehensive explanation of what we are being exhorted to do in that verse. She wrote,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own wisdom, knowledge, meaning, do not stand upon or under your own thoughts…“

Keep that in mind as we explore the questions Pastor John put before us on Sunday.

Before we dive into the questions, I want to highlight something John said that my experience as a human being on planet earth absolutely testifies to as truth. He said that our most challenging times often go hand-in-hand with our deepest learning. I wish this were not often always true. I wish expansive learning could happen during seasons of ease and comfortability. But as I reflect on my life, there’s no denying that the seasons of growth I’ve experienced have been inextricably connected to the hardest, most uncertain, least comfortable things I’ve walked through. It seems to be how we grow, how we learn best. But if we look to ourselves, to our own experiences, and through the lenses we’ve developed rather than through the eyes of the one we follow, we will struggle to learn anything new at all. Let’s consider these questions together as we seek to be people who are growing in our ability to trust our God, especially when our understanding fails us…

Can we trust—can we stand still—when destruction is chasing us down? It’s important as we consider this question to check where we are when we are standing still. When we are walking where God is leading and all forms of enemies are chasing after us, God sometimes asks us to be still while he fights for us. This is not to be confused with the attitude we saw in the Israelites, who basically said to Moses, “Leave us alone! We want to stay here. We don’t want to move!” (I’m paraphrasing.) This kind of “being still” is not the same as walking where God leads—even when “where” is a total mystery—and staying still in the midst of what looks like imminent destruction. I’m reminded of Psalm 23:5, where the psalmist writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (NIV) That is the kind of being still, the kind of trust, God asks of us. The kind that pulls up a chair to the table he sets for us even when it looks like we are surrounded and our own understanding tells us we should be afraid and run away.

What about when God asks us to do something that sounds absurd, illogical, and not at all strategic? When he asks us to do something in a way that it’s never been done before, what do we do? Do we trust him enough to walk out into uncharted territory, following his voice alone? Can we do that when what God says doesn’t line up with what other voices around us are saying, especially if those voices are coming from people we have journeyed with for a long time? What if those friends, leaders, family members cannot bring themselves to walk with us into the unknown that God is beckoning us toward, and we have to step out on our own, without the support of those we have trusted in the past? Can we follow the still, small voice then? When loss and grief press into the fabric of our hearts? How do we loosen our grip on our own understanding and cling to our all-knowing Guide in these painfully challenging moments when we feel vulnerable and alone?

Will we choose to trust when what God is asking seems impossible, when we are very much afraid to ask or believe for the big thing– can we trust him then? Impossible is a word that only exists when we lean on our own understanding. Nothing is impossible for God. If something seems impossible and we cannot seem to break through that wall into trust, that is a clear indication that we are standing upon or under our own thoughts. Fear is a normal response to being asked to do something we have never done before. But fear and trust are not mutually exclusive here… And we don’t have to move from fear to courage before we step out in trust. Trust moves us to take the step even while we are feeling afraid—that’s courage.

And… it’s always worth it. Yes, I said always. Not immediately, but eventually, the lessons we learn when we take a step toward God are always worth the struggles we face along the way. Being willing to trust in the midst of the hard, the confusing, the grief-stricken moments of our lives not only evidences our trust in God—these times broaden and deepen our trust as well.

Willingness is a non-negotiable on the road to trust. And true willingness doesn’t give us the option of choosing in each circumstance whether we will be willing or unwilling to agree to what God asks of us. Real willingness says yes long before God asks the question, and maintains that yes, regardless of how treacherous and tedious the road becomes. This kind of willingness—the only kind that counts as authentic—is born from hearts that trust that our God is who he says he is, as Luanne referenced earlier. If we believe that, then we believe that he IS love. He IS mercy. He IS only, always good. Knowing who he is, we can give him our yes before he asks us to move and take that first step once he does speak.

The road may be harder than we ever imagined. The losses along the way will shock us and leave us feeling gutted. And when that happens, if we try to stand upon or under our own thoughts, we won’t know how we can possibly go on. But, if we trust our God every step of the way, we will learn. We will learn about who he is, who we are in him, and how to live in the flow of his kingdom rather than the fading kingdoms of this world.

Pastor John left us with Psalm 25 at the end of his message on Sunday, and it seems like the perfect way to wrap this up here as well. May this become our prayer as we look to our God to teach us how to trust, how to love, how to walk with him his way…

Forever I will lift up my soul into your presence, Lord.
Be there for me, God, for I keep trusting in you.
Don’t allow my foes to gloat over me or
the shame of defeat to overtake me.
For how could anyone be disgraced
when he has entwined his heart with you?
But they will all be defeated and ashamed
when they harm the innocent.
Lord, direct me throughout my journey
so I can experience your plans for my life.
Reveal the life-paths that are pleasing to you.
 

Escort me along the way; take me by the hand and teach me.
For you are the God of my increasing salvation;
I have wrapped my heart into yours!

(Psalm 25:1-5, TPT)

–Laura