Confession 429: Some Thoughts on Love

I have to admit, I have been a bit lazy with posting this month. I’ve had lots of writing projects come across my desk, and have been busy developing courses, writing assessment items, and reviewing media.

So today, I’m cheating a bit. I’m reposting a blog post from several years ago about love. Tis the season for it, right? The truth is, as Jesus followers, love should be a way of life for us. And yet, we often let our own feelings, judgmental natures, and pettiness get in the way of practicing love. Today, as I make something old new again, consider love. What is it? What does it look like? And how do you practice it in a way that reveals Christ to others?

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

 

heart headerThis past weekend, we went to St. Genevive, Missouri for the wedding of my husband’s cousin to a lovely young woman.  The ceremony was held under the domed ceiling of a beautiful, ornate cathedral–the oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi I believe.  It was simple, yet elegant and the bride and groom both glowed with the warmth of love they held for one another.  One of the scripture passages used in the service was the same one my husband and I chose to have read on our wedding day almost six years ago.  It has become one of my favorites:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  Colossians 3:12-14
 
“Love Binds in Perfect Unity” is what I had engraved on my husband’s wedding band.  Love has always been one of my favorite words.  The “ouh” vowel is soft and round around the palette while the consonant L slips lightly off the tongue.  The harsher V is tempered by the “eh” on the end which provides a gentle expulsion of air.  Like the brush of fingertips on bare skin, it is tender.  And yet, it possesses the ability to grip you as tight as a mother’s hand on her child in a crowded place.  Love can be at once one of the most frivolous and one of the most powerful words in the English language, and while our society has mastered the art of frivolity, the love to which Paul writes is power incarnate. 
 
So, what is it about love that has so much power? First, as Paul states, love acts as a binding agent.  It pulls together virtues such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness.  It is the thing that makes all of these other virtues possible.  Can we show compassion and have not love for those to whom we show compassion?  Can we forgive if we have not known the great love that makes all forgiveness possible?
 
Yet, there is more… 
Perfect love drives out fear. 1 John 4:18
John writes that there is no fear in love because fear has to do with punishment, and love is not punishing.  Rather, love is freeing.  When we love, we are letting go of ourselves to focus on another.  We do not worry about our own wants, issues, hang-ups, mistakes.  Instead, we focus on the best we have to give to someone else.  We learn how to meet the needs of others, to care for others, to lift others up, to heal others.  For that is the ultimate goal of love.
 
Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for another. John 15:
And this is the penultimate power of love. We give–all that we have, all that we are–for the benefit of another.  Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:
Power at its best is LOVE implementing the demands of justice.  Justice at its best is LOVE correcting everything that stands against LOVE.
 Can you imagine a world where the power of love was lived out every day?  I believe it is this, precisely, that God is calling us to as Christians–to bring forth his kingdom in love.  Jesus himself boiled the entire Gospel message down to these two things: 1) love God, 2) love others.  What a beautiful command!
 
Blessings and Peace,
Sara
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Confession 428: Living as a New Creation in the New Year

Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.  God has done it all! He sent Christ to make peace between himself and us, and he has given us the work of making peace between himself and others. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 (CEV)

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It’s New Year– that magical time of hope and possibility when we celebrate blank spaces on calendars, the return of fruits and veggies to our diets, and increased gym memberships. January is that glorious month when we resolve to be better versions of ourselves. February is when we finally succumb to wine and chocolate.

I’m not mocking New Year’s resolutions. I think they can be a very powerful tool for self-improvement. However, it’s important to understand why we’re resolving to eat healthier, exercise more, spend less, be kinder, forgive, etc…The fundamental question we should be considering in the New Year isn’t how we are going to change; rather, we should be considering whether or not we really want to change. 

Change is hard work. It requires a shift in mindset, and because our brains are hardwired in patterns of behavior, shifting our mindset takes a lot of time and practice. Paul understood this. When Paul encountered Jesus on the Damascus road, his entire life changed. But, it didn’t happen overnight. When Paul was re-gifted his ability to see, it was just the beginning of a long and arduous process of change. Paul left behind his power, his wealth, his family, and even his name to follow Christ. While Paul became a new creation in Christ, his life became immensely more complicated and difficult than it had been before.

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Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the process of change. He told them that in Christ, they were made new. However, there’s a caveat. Look at the passage again:

Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.  God has done it all! He sent Christ to make peace between himself and us, and he has given us the work of making peace between himself and others.

In order to become a new creation, you first have to let go of the past. And, once you’ve managed to set aside the dreams, hurts, ambitions, fears, disappointments, and even joys of the past, you still have work to do. Paul writes that God sent Christ to make peace between himself and us. Therefore, as God’s new creation, we are called to continue that work Jesus began–going into the world and making peace between God and others. The Message puts it this way:

God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

As Christians, we’re Christ’s representatives in the world. Being a new creation in God means going about the work of reconciliation–reconciliation with ourselves, reconciliation with others, reconciliation with God. But again, in order to be God’s new creation, we have to want to change. We have to want the reconciliation, and then we have to work to help bring it about.

contemplate-2I’ve thought a lot about change in this New Year….about what it might look like to live as a new creation in God in 2018. I’ve decided to adopt John Wesley’s second rule of living as my motto for 2018: Do good. Wesley’s call to “Do good” goes beyond basic human decency to “doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men…” (John Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies”, umc.org.) For me, this includes practicing goodness and mercy in actions, thoughts, and words–not always an easy task for an opinionated know-it-all! 🙂

So, whatever you resolve to do this New Year, I encourage you to first ask yourself if you really want to change. Then, pray about how and why you and God might work together as you become a new creation.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

Confession 427: Remembering to Exhale

He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.” Ezekiel 37:9

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I’ve seen a lot of posts in the blogosphere this Advent season about the importance of breathing. With the rush of holiday fever that sweeps our culture this time of year, it’s easy to get busy and stressed and forget to just breathe.

I love taking deep breaths. Did you know that three deep breaths are all it takes to shut off the stress mechanisms in your brain? Three deep breaths can clear your head and help you focus, calm down, and begin again. It feels good to breathe deeply–to fill your lungs full to bursting with oxygen. But for me, the real payoff of breathing deeply is the exhale. When you exhale, oxygen is propelled from the lungs through the veins until your entire body feels blissfully empty and light.

There’s release in the exhale. Where breathing in is about consumption, exhaling is about letting go. It’s a time to rid ourselves of the impurities in the world around us. When we exhale, we release the worry, anxiety, fear, anger, bitterness, sadness, and stress that can bind us. Exhaling allows us to empty out the negative so that we can breathe in afresh all of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

Advent is a season we should spend practicing the art of exhaling. Think of it as making room at the inn for the Christ child. Advent is a time when we can exhale our brokenness. Advent is a time when we can exhale our need for control. Advent is a time when we can exhale our desire for more stuff. Advent is a time when we can exhale the trappings of the world, so that we can then inhale the glorious gifts of God.

As you go about this hectic holiday season, I encourage you to practice the art of exhalation. Take some time to focus on your breathing. Push out all of those negative feelings and thoughts. Expel the stress and expectations of the season. Instead, focus on making room for the coming of the King.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

Confession 426: What I Really Want for Christmas

You teach me the way of life.
    In your presence is total celebration.
Beautiful things are always in your right hand. Psalm 16:11 (CEB)

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Now that Thanksgiving is over, my boys have begun their Christmas lists. We have a four gift policy in our household for Christmas: 1) something to wear, 2) something you need, 3) something you want, 4) something to read. It’s our effort to simplify Christmas and focus less on self, and more on God. That said, our boys always have quite the list for their one “want” gift. The conversation around the Christmas list always goes something like this:

Boy=Trampoline: Mom= Our yard slopes down into a lake.

Boy=A Gameboy: Mom= Seriously, how many screens do you need?

Boy=A drone: Mom= Please…it’s an expensive kite.

Boy=(Huff and Puff) How about some cooking stuff? Mom=Hmmm…you can write that down.

I know what you’re thinking…I’m a total Grinch. But, in a house already overflowing with stuff, the last thing I want to get my children is more stuff. For the past several years, my husband and I have practiced simplifying Christmas. We try to put traditions in place that emphasize the gift of Jesus, not the gift of stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I like presents, but sometimes I want more that what comes in a box.

images-18What I really want for Christmas is an encounter with the divine. I want that moment, when the holy and human intersect for one brief moment and all you can do is stand in awe and wonder. I want to be with the shepherds, looking up as the angels sing. I want to be like Mary, full of the ponderous weight of God’s love. I want to experience the fresh hope that God’s salvation brings. I want to know, without a doubt, that “God is in us, God is for us, God is with us…Emmanuel”*. And that is not going to come from a department store.

Instead, I need to spend some time cultivating holiness. I need to sit in the quiet before God’s throne, seeking his presence, his wisdom, his light. I need to contemplate the Scriptures–mediate on them in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I need to go out into the world and see where God is moving and working, and then pick up some seeds and start planting his love.

And then, I need to celebrate his love. That’s what Christmas is really about, after all. We celebrate God’s love, God’s salvation and God’s presence among us. Because, as the psalmist writes, in God’s presence is total celebration. God makes beautiful things, and it’s our job as his followers to show others these beautiful things. So, at Christmas, we offer the gifts of hope, joy, love, and peace. Our celebration of Christmas should extend God’s beautiful gifts to the world, in the hope that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

As you put together your Christmas list this season, consider ways you might bring the gifts of hope, joy, love, and peace into the world.

I don’t know about you…but what I really want for Christmas is Emmanuel.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

* Wayne Kirkpatrick, “God is With Us”, recorded by Casting Crowns 2008, track 6 on Peace on Earth, Reunion Records. compact disc.

Confession 425: Gratitude as a Way of Living

As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory. 2 Corinthians 4: 15 (CEB)

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This Sunday, I did my perennial thanksgiving message during Children’s Time at church. You know…that Sunday when you pass the microphone around to all of the children and ask them to list one thing they’re thankful for…hoping against all hope that it’s not something humiliating for parents like “cheerleaders” or “when my mommy doesn’t cook”. The children are usually very thoughtful in their responses. We get a lot of “family, friends, food, God” responses, and those are all good things. However, sometimes I think that setting aside one Sunday (or Thursday) a year to express gratitude for things that mostly make us happy is really not a stretch of spiritual fortitude. Sometimes, the tiny time we carve out to give thanks before binge eating and shopping feels a bit trite.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving. I love spending time with family, eating copious amounts of my mother-in-law’s mouth-watering stuffing, playing cards and board games,  browsing Black Friday ads, and strolling around Target in the wee hours of the morning with my husband just because we can. My heart swells with gratitude during Thanksgiving, and it’s nice to have the opportunity to express love and thankfulness to the people around us.

But, as I read Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, I’m reminded that gratitude is not just a state of mind; it’s also a way of life. According to Paul, gratitude is a byproduct of grace that is used to bring glory to God. Think of it this way: God pours his grace into us, which causes us to pour gratitude out. As God’s grace fills us from within, we are able to pour gratitude out to the world. This pouring out of gratitude helps others see and experience the great love of God.

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There’s a difference between thanksgiving and gratitude. Thanksgiving, as the word appears,  is the act of saying thank you. We literally give thanks for a  gift received. Gratitude, however, is the “quality” of being thankful. Do you notice the slight derivation between the words thanksgiving and gratitude? Thanksgiving is something we express, but gratitude is a state of being. In other words, it’s part of who we are. People who live with gratitude are in a constant state of thankfulness, and it is this state which Paul is calling the people of Corinth to enter into. It is this state which we, as Jesus followers, are still called into today.

When we live lives of gratitude, our actions become an extension of God’s grace. Living a life of gratitude means thinking of others before ourselves. It means that we seek to listen rather than be heard. It means we practice generosity–with our time, our talents, our resources, and our presence. It means we seek to see the good in others, and work to bring God’s goodness into the world. It means we forgive and let go. It means we carry the light for others. It means we seek peace.

Don’t mistake gratitude for positivity. We’re human, and we live in a human world. Stuff happens–sometimes terrible, devastating, life-altering stuff. There are times when we are consumed with grief, anxiety, anger, or hopelessness. God’s not asking us to thank him for those moments, that would be cruel. In those moments, living a life of gratitude means simply tossing the blankets off in the morning and taking one step out of bed. In our darkness, gratitude means simply trusting God enough to move into one more day.

This Thanksgiving, let’s do a gratitude check. Are we living lives of gratitude? Are our words and actions pointing others toward God?

As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory. 2 Corinthians 4: 15 (CEB)

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

 

 

 

Confession 424: Why Christians Need to Stop Thinking Like Everyone Else

Jesus began telling his disciples what would happen to him. He said, “The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. He will be rejected and killed, but three days later he will rise to life.” Then Jesus explained clearly what he meant.

Peter took Jesus aside and told him to stop talking like that. But when Jesus turned and saw the disciples, he corrected Peter. He said to him, “Satan, get away from me! You are thinking like everyone else and not like God.” Mark 8:31-33 (CEV)

Walking direction on asphalt

“Can I get a Lego Advent calendar?” my nine year old asked as I was getting my coffee ready in the kitchen. It wasn’t even Halloween yet, but he was already working on a Christmas list. I have to be honest, I kind of lost it.

“Absolutely, not!” I exploded. “Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. That calendar has nothing to do with Jesus, it’s just a countdown to Santa Claus!” And thus commenced the first “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” lecture of the 2017 holiday season. My boys know it by heart. They often finish it for me, albeit in bored tones with eyes rolled to the ceiling. The truth is, even though we know that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of God, it’s easy to get caught up in the commercial trappings of the season. At Christmas, we often think like everyone else and not like God.

This tendency for humans to think like humans and not like God is something that has plagued us from the beginning of time. We tend to think that more is better. We value commercial success, popularity, strength, power, and self-righteousness. And yet, Jesus tells his disciples time and time again that kind of thinking is totally irrelevant to the work of God.

Case in point: the book of Mark records two miraculous feedings of thousands of people. In both instances, the disciples are completely flummoxed when Jesus suggests they feed the multitudes. And yet, both times, the disciples witness the miraculous ability of Jesus to feed the hungry. Immediately following the second feeding, the disciples get into a discussion of bread. Namely, they’re worried about the lack of it. When Jesus tells the disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees, the disciples mistakenly think Jesus is chastising them for forgetting bread. Look at Jesus’ response:

“Why are you talking about not having any bread? Don’t you understand? Are your minds still closed? Are your eyes blind and your ears deaf?” Mark 8:17-18 (CEV)

Obviously, the disciples are not thinking about the things Jesus is thinking about. This is further clarified later on, as Jesus openly discusses his path of suffering and death. Peter, who just before identified Jesus as the Messiah, now scolds Jesus for speaking in such a defeatist manner. Peter is seeking an earthly king. He sees Jesus as a major political power player, not a suffering servant. And how does Jesus respond to Peter?

He said to him, “Satan, get away from me! You are thinking like everyone else and not like God.”

You are thinking like everyone else and not like God…

How many times in our churches do we think like everyone else and not like God? How many times do we focus on those things that are only important in the human sphere–the polity, politics, and traditions of the church? We argue among ourselves about the proper way to “do” worship, rather than actually worshipping God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. We put parameters on our giving instead of generously opening our hands to all those in need. Sometimes, we even go so far as to decide who’s in and who’s out when it comes to God’s great love of all his children.

Feet standing on fallen autumn leaves

You are thinking like everyone else and not like God…

Thinking like God requires us to completely change our mindset. We can’t think like the rest of the world. Rather, we have to think like Jesus. I know what you’re thinking–human’s can’t think like Jesus. And that’s right, but also wrong. You see, Jesus left us an example to follow. He was very clear in both word and deed about his expectations for his followers. The religious leaders tried to engage Jesus in church politics, but time and again he made it clear that the kingdom of God is not about politics or policy. Rather, the kingdom of God is about faith, love, and redemption. Jesus broke cultural barriers and completely ignored time honored religious and social traditions when he ate with sinners, healed the sick, and touched the unclean. Jesus’ words and actions defied convention, tradition, politics, and social mores. So why do we, as his followers, continue to harp on those things?

You are thinking like everyone else and not like God…

If we truly want to be Jesus followers, then we have to stop missing the point of his message. Jesus offers love. Jesus offers salvation. Jesus offers redemption. Therefore, we have to stop thinking that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We have to stop building walls around his love, spewing condemnation and judgement. We have to stop focusing on the aesthetic instead of the spiritual. We have to stop thinking like everyone else and start thinking like God.

This week, I’d like to challenge each of us to examine our thoughts. Are we thinking like everyone else? Are we passing judgement? Are we placing barriers around God’s love? Are we focused on the traditions of the church instead of the message of Jesus? Let’s take some time this week to identify one area where we can start thinking less like everyone else and more like God. Then, let’s put those God-like thoughts into action so we can work to build his great and glorious kingdom.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara