“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
Psalms 27:14 ESV
“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
Psalms 27:14 ESV
I talk about and write about love a lot. Loving people, all people, the way God has directed is how we as followers of Jesus make an impact in the world. It’s how we show the world who God really is and bring light into the darkness.
In the book of Mark, the religious leaders of the day are trying to trip Jesus up. They didn’t understand Him or His message because He pushed the boundaries and shook up their world. They come to Him asking which commandment is the greatest. His answer back doesn’t win Him any friends because He doesn’t choose any of the commandments already given! Instead, He summarizes them all in new language:
* Love God unconditionally with ever fiber of your being AND love everyone around you unconditionally too.
If you make the choice to follow Jesus, you don’t get the choice to not love unconditionally. This love, agape, means things like selfless, sacrificial, unconditional and unreserved. This love seeks to esteem the other person and serve them so that they are able to see God well through you. God will change hearts not us, but He will use us to soften hearts through love.
God wants to reach all people (2 Peter 3:9). God wants all people to experience His love for them so He sends us out. Some He sends to foreign countries and some He sends to small communities in hometowns. There is no call greater than another because there is no person greater than another. No matter where God has placed you or what people group He has placed in your heart to love, He will empower you to do what He has called you to do: love unconditionally, unreservedly and selflessly. You will have opposition from those around who don’t understand and that’s ok, opposition doesn’t mean to stop going and doing what God has called you to do.
Love the people in your part of the world well. God split the Trinity apart, came to Earth as a man, died horrifically and rose again all because He loves us. He loves all of us unconditionally and uses us to love each other. Unconditional love is a universal call of all followers of Jesus.
There were no baskets full of candy, no fluffy dresses and no big celebration lunches on that first Easter morning. As a matter of fact, it was a day full of confusion. Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and assumed someone stole the body of her beloved, Jesus. The disciples who came to see what she was talking about saw the empty tomb and then simply went home, one believing and one not.
Everything about Jesus was low-key even though the things He did and said were beyond comprehension and true understanding. He showed up as an infant, born just like everybody else. He lived a simple life for thirty years, working as a carpenter. He was a traveling Minister for three years and often asked people to not tell anyone else about the miracles they experienced. He died without resisting, only forgiving. He rose from the dead quietly, folding up the fabric wrapped around His body. Astonishing, and low-key.
I’ll be honest here, I’m having a hard time this year with the fanfare we pull together at church for Easter. Big lights. Big bands. Big songs. Lots of exclamation points. Jesus didn’t live like that, die like that or raise again like that so I’m struggling to understand why we are drowning out the message of today in a show to pack the house at church. The message that Jesus rose from the grave, breaking all of our bondage to death, is enough.
“I have seen the Lord”, that’s how Mary Magdalene began the discussion with her friends after being the first recorded person to see Jesus. Those are powerful words that deserve acknowledgement and repeating. They are story-telling words. They are life-changing words. They are world-changing words.
I have seen the Lord…and that has changed my life forever because now I have hope, love, joy and peace. That’s the Easter message for me. How has seeing the Lord changed you?
These things I command you, so that you will love each other. John 15:17
In the book of John, chapter 15, verses 1 thru 16, Jesus spends a great deal of time explaining His desire for us to stay connected to Him. He uses a brilliant and easy to understand analogy through branches and a vine. Branches only grow and bear fruit when they are connected to a thriving vine. We are branches, God is the vine and love is the fruit. If we aren’t well connected to God, we cannot love like God.
So what does it mean to love like God? Once again in this passage we see God use a term for love which in the original text means an unconditional, self-sacrificing love for another that seeks to raise the other person up. This isn’t a casual “I love ya” type of love, this is an “I’m with you in the muck” type of love. It’s hard and pain-filled, beautiful and life-giving. It’s the love of Christ who gave up His life.
Jesus’ heart is that we show the love of heaven while we are here in Earth and we do that by being empowered through God. We won’t do this perfectly so don’t make that a goal. Love is sloppy and messy and, it’s real so that’s all ok. Abide in God, and He will guide you and help you.
Abide to love.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34 ESV
Forgiveness. Forgiveness is tough for us because many times it means that we have to bestow grace without receiving any justice for pain that has been inflicted on us. Forgiveness says that we are most concerned with connection, not vindication and that’s hard.
In some of His last words before His death, Jesus gives us a great example of forgiveness and shows us yet again how to live connected. He’s just been beaten to a bloody pulp, forced to carry a heavy wooden beam, nailed to a cross and mocked the entire time. All of that pain was poured out on Him because of His identity. He hadn’t hurt anybody, on the contrary He healed people. He hadn’t lied or stolen, He had told the Truth and provided. Jesus was being His most authentic self and that terrified people so they killed Him. If anyone deserves to have righteous indignation and a strong need for vindication it’s Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t scream from the cross curses at the Roman executors. He doesn’t pleasd His case on why they should take Him down. Instead, He speaks words of love, asking His Father to forgive them all. I can’t image having that much love in the midst of that much pain and the truth is, that’s our example.
The world can be a harsh place. The darkness can be so thick it’s hard to shine your light. Some situations can feel like there is simply no way you can forgive people and yet, if you follow Jesus your example is just that, forgiveness. No matter how wrong they are, no matter how much pain you’re in, seek forgiveness. Seek to forgive them and seek to do them no harm. It’s hard, sometimes it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and with God it is possible.
Here are a few other verses giving us guidance from Jesus on forgiveness:
* Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4
* Matthew 6:14-15, 18:21-22
* Mark 11:25
Here’s the good news for today: God’s faithfulness to you is not impacted by your faithfulness to Him. Did you catch that? Let me say it another way: God will never stop being faithful to you no matter what you do.
Take a deep breath in and release the peace that comes with knowing that God is always for you. At no time in your life has God or will God be petty, it’s not His nature. He cannot deny who He is and who He is is a God who loves His people (you and me) so much that He will remain faithful regardless of how badly we may treat Him. Wow. That’s serious love.
Whatever you’re facing today, whatever feelings of confusion or anger at what’s unfolding in your life, know without a doubt that God is remaining faithful to you. He’s over the moon for you and He is present with you.
Sometimes life gets hard and it can almost feel like God is fighting against us. We don’t see things happening the way we want and we get frustrated. Frustration quickly turns to losing hope and before we know it, we lose sight of what we know about God: He is for us.
Today, in the midst of challenge or ease, let’s remember that God is in our side. Let’s take heart and find peace in Psalm 20:1-5.
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May He send you help and give you support! May He regard you with favor! May He grant you your heart’s desire! May He fulfill your plans! May He answer all your plans!
May the Lord…
“Neither do I condemn you…” John 8:11
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
“You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.” John 8:15
Condemnation. This word basically mean disapproval at the strongest level. When we condemn someone, there isn’t a lot of hope left for them; they are too far gone. Condemnation is the outcome of judgment. We look at someone’s actions or we hear their words and we judge them as doomed, condemned. There is no hope for them, they are too far gone. But condemnation is a choice we make.
No one has to condemn another person. We have another option: compassion. I love the story of the interaction between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8. She’s been caught in the very act of adultery. There is no argument out there she can use to prove her innocence. And the truth is, she isn’t innocent, she’s guilty of the charge against her and she knows it. This act of adultery is going to cost her everything, literally. She is not taken to court and given a fair trial, she is tossed like garbage in front of an accusing group of people and sentenced to death by stoning. No hope. No grace. No love. Condemnation. And then Jesus steps in and the whole world flips on its head.
Jesus, knowing the hearts of every single person He is looking at in this moment, brings grace. The religious leaders demand He agree with them, uphold the Law and condemn her. There would be absolutely no earthly reason for Jesus to do anything but pick up the first stone and throw it at her. Instead, He brings heaven to Earth and chooses people over everything else. He, knowing that every person standing there is a sinner, invites the one who is perfect to throw the first stone. I picture Him looking directly into the eyes of each person as He invites them into this moment. Not with a look of condemnation but, with a look of love and compassion. Finally the weight of their own sins become too much and they all walk away, knowing they are no better than this woman. Finally, Jesus walks over to the woman and pours grace out on her life by offering her another chance to live. He releases her in love and declares, “neither do I condemn you..”.
We have no right, no authority and no command to condemn anybody, ever. Jesus at no point in any of the Gospels bestows any power on us as His followers to judge anybody. He actually tells us the exact opposite. Jesus tells us to do things like love each other unconditionally (Matthew 22), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5) and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5). All of those activities are about compassion and not about judgment. They are about bringing heaven to Earth in a moment when it feels like hell is winning. They are about showing another person that they hold tremendous value and are deeply wanted.
We don’t have to agree on every point, but we do have to love and not condemn. It is possible to have a calm and rational conversation where we are sharing ideas and learning from each other and, where we walk away in respect and disagreement. The saying, “agree to disagree” is really powerful. I don’t have to convince you that I’m right and, even better, I don’t have to be obsessed with being seen as right. I can be like the people standing around the woman caught in adultery and walk away knowing that really, I’m no better I’m just sinning in a different way.
Compassion over condemnation. When given the choice, choose compassion and in that choice, find yourself following Jesus and bringing Heaven to Earth.
I love all people but, I’m drawn to the ones who walked away, and radically devoted to finding them. Walked away because the pain was too much to bear so they numb it with drugs and alcohol. Walked away because someone lied to them and said God couldn’t love them if they were gay. Walked away because the depression they are feeling is real and needs to be treated, not just ignored and labeled “teen hormones”. Walked away because their first love left them and no one wants to see their pain because they’re “too young to know true love”. Walked away because they are suffering under the cruel and painful hand of abuse every day and they don’t think they deserve better. Walked away because being in the group was just too painful.
People walk away in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. You can walk away from people, communities or locations. You can emotionally disconnect or physical pack it up. Walking away, leaving the group, happens for all kinds of reasons and unfortunately, many times the people left don’t notice or don’t seem to notice. They may wonder what happened to someone and then, often, they go back to their lives. That’s not said in any type of judgmental tone, it is just simply what happens. I believe fully that God raises up some as shepherds who are always looking, always watching for the ones who walk away and those shepherds, they go after the wanderer to make sure they are safe and when possible, brought back into a community. Not necessarily the community they just left, but a community where they can thrive. I believe I’m one of those shepherds.
Over the past several months, I’ve been volunteering as a crisis counselor (CC). I spend between 6 and 10 hours a week as a CC and as a guess, I imagine about 70% of the people I chat with are actively considering suicide. Some have an actual plan in place with some fairly graphic details that almost seem like I’m reading a movie script. Others are playing around with the idea like putting your hand over a flame to see how long you can stand it. In all cases, seriously contemplating suicide or not, this time as a CC has confirmed for me that I am a shepherd who is almost desperately running after the one who is walking away. I know I can’t actually save anyone, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, I have been able to help these wandering ones feel seen, heard and connected enough to step back from the ledge for just a moment and feel some connectedness and love. Ultimately, I have no idea if they choose to live or if they choose to die and, that’s not my role. I am called to find them and hold space for them so that in their moment of crisis, they know that they are not actually alone.
Suicide prevention and connectedness are my new vision. I’ve been a vocal advocate of unconditional love and community for a long time and now things are just coming more into focus for me. It’s hard work. It brings me to tears and my knees often. It brings me to heaven in prayer always. I love it and, it’s a space for me in terms of ministry and work that I never really saw coming. What a gift!!
Just to make sure we all understand the lives at stake, here are some suicide statistics.
From the CDC (www.cdc.gov), AFSP (www.afsp.org and Suicidology (www.suicidology.org)
* In 2016, close to 45,000 Americans 10 years old or older died by suicide. In 2017, that number rose to over 47,000.
* Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America.
* On average there are 129 completed suicides daily in America.
* In 2017, white men ages 45-54 were the highest demographic in America completing suicide.
* Based on 2017 data, every 27 seconds someone in America attempts suicide and every 11 minutes, someone completes suicide.
These numbers break my heart because these are my people. I hear stories of kids feeling unheard, unseen and unwanted by their parents. I hear stories from addicts who just need to feel like they have one redeeming quality and reason to not get high or drunk today. I hear stories from women who are just believing with all their might that they won’t get hit today because leaving feels even more painful. And here’s the deal, because coupled with my CC work I also meet with people 1:1 and provide pastoral counseling as a chaplain, I’m here to tell you that you know these people struggling to find a reason to breathe in air for the next minute. And if you think you don’t you are in deep denial and I would strongly encourage you to open yourself up to the world around you. You may also be one of the people desperately clawing at the ground to find a footing if any kind to keep you safe.
So why am I writing this blog? To raise awareness and to bring love. If you have a friend or family member in crisis or if you yourself are in crisis, you need resources. If you don’t know anyone in crisis right now, just stick this information in your back pocket so you have it when you need it. I encourage all of us to be asking our friends and family if they are feeling safe and able to cope with life as it feels appropriate to ask. Guess what, studies show us that simply asking someone if they are contemplating suicide in no way plants a seed. You are not causing someone to think of suicide by asking, so ask! How many people have you heard say “I had no idea…” after someone attempts or completes suicide? LOTS! So be informed about your people.
Here are two excellent resources for people in crisis:
Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741. You can also follow them on Facebook and use messenger. This service is free and 24/7/365.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255. This service is free and 24/7/365.
We aren’t all called to shepherd the one that wanders off. We are all called to unconditionally love each other. In moments when you know your words will do more harm than good, stay silent. If you are facing something that you don’t know how to handle, get resources and education. There is enough love and support for us all. God is pretty big and ridiculously able to do more than we can imagine.
Judgment. It’s an easy trap and we all fall in to it at some point, or many points, in our lives. We look at what someone else is doing and based on our experiences, we judge them as not doing the right thing. We compare our experiences with their actions and we make declarations like, “I would never do…” or “I’ve faced that and I didn’t…”. There is a massive flaw in this kind of comparison, besides the simple fact the comparison is flawed, and that is we believe we are comparing apples to apples when in reality, we are comparing apples to oranges. Alike in that we are human. Not alike in that we have completely different sets of experiences and DNA.
Women who faced abortion and chose not to have one, look at women who faced abortion and chose to have one, and they say things like, “I’ve been there and I chose life, why didn’t you?” The truth is that the only similarity is you faced the same decision point, but each person went into that decision point with a different set of variables at play and so no, you didn’t have a shared experience, at best you had a similar decision point. And then, as if that singular judgment isn’t bad enough, words like, “I’m not judging you…” or “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings…” come out and they add insult to injury because at the core of the judgment is the desire to have someone be right and someone be wrong and that, in and of itself, brings about pain.
(I use the example of abortion not to focus on that issue in particular but because right now it’s a hot topic across the United States and it’s where I see so much judgment and venom.)
The simple Truth (yes, I know I capitalized “T” because for me, this is a universal truth), you have no idea what came into play when a person made a particular decision even when you have had to make the same decision. All of your DNA, all of your childhood, all of your trauma, all of your joy, all of the millions of moments you have experienced layered on top of your chemical makeup came together and produced your decision and that decision is absolutely specific to you. While we may make the same decision, we are making it for different reasons and we may not even understand those differences. We have to get to the place where we stop thinking we understand exactly what someone else is going through because in the end, we really don’t and when we try to get that close to identifying with someone, we run the risk of judging them. I always go back to a favorite phrase, “same same, but different”.
Compassion is how we live in a space of “same same, but different” and allow for others to choose differently from us without judging their actions. Jesus, clearly one who operated out of and through compassion His entire life, made a bold statement about Himself and us and it’s one we need to use as a compass. In John 8:15 He says, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.” Mic drop! Jesus, heaven made flesh and come to earth, Son of the living God, one-third of the Trinity, certainly had the right to judge considering who He was and yet, He opts for compassion and a non-judgemental approach. If Jesus didn’t feel like judging people was His role, then how can we?
Now, the immediate pushback is, “I wasn’t judging, I said that clearly. I was just expressing my opion.” Guess what folks, no one really needs one more piece of unsolicited opinion or advice. We’re full! Overflowing even with opinions and advice. And yes, of course you have the right to express your opinion (look, I’m doing it here myself!) but the words being chosen are hard, cutting and unkind. If you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t get to use language that harms people. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are commanded to use a language of unconditional love. A language that says to the person facing a tough decision “let me hold space for you to share your feelings and I promise, I won’t tell you my story unless you ask me.” Holding space is where we have the largest amount if impact.
Holding space for someone is scary, can we just be honest about that? If I hold space for you, allow you to open up and spill out your mess, then I’m going to have to get messy with you and that’s terrifying. I’m going to have to hear things I maybe don’t like and hold my reactions. I’m going to have to make the moment all about you and not about me. I’m going to have to listen to understand and not listen to reply. Holding space is one of the hardest, most loving gifts you can give someone and the cost is great. And, the cost to not hold space for someone is greater.
Live a life of compassion, holding space and not judging, where people feel valued and honored. You will find yourself growing and changing and God will use you in ways you never imagined.