So simple

Matthew 22:36-40

Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

We try hard to complicate things with rules, expectations, and even especially religion. But Jesus literally says that it’s that simple. It’s not about who you vote for or what you wear or who you are married to or what color you are or how much money you have or even what church you go to. What’s important is that your whole heart belongs to God and that it shows by the way we love people.

It’s what breaks chains. It’s what frees us. It’s what changes us. It’s what forgives and heals and restores. It’s what binds us all together no matter how hard we try to keep to ourselves and just worry about our own little worlds.

It’s Love. It’s so simple.

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Life, death, and in between

Today is the day. I am finishing a pedicure and Todd is making his famous pancakes for breakfast. We’ve had this trip planned for more than 6 months, and now here we are…getting ready to leave for India. It still doesn’t even seem real somehow, even though our bags are packed and we’re getting picked up in a couple of hours, I’m still asking myself…are we really doing this?

About a month ago, our pastor sent us a list of scriptures. With his experience visiting India many times and the objectives of the trip, he suggested they may be good ones to meditate on before we leave. I looked them over and recognized many of them as familiar text, so I decided to go online and print them off in a couple of different translations in the hopes that I could get a fresh perspective on the message the words carried.

I had read the verses that follow a million times from Matthew 8 and was always surprised by the harshness of them. Different people who were wannabe followers of Jesus were coming up to him and proclaiming their loyalty. Immediately he questioned their commitment.

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

20Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

21Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Jesus, what’s up with that second dude? I can see you rebuking the teacher of the law because he was used to staying in fancy joints and you knew he couldn’t handle the way you roll. But that second guy just wanted to lay his parent to rest. Wasn’t that a little much? But then I read the same words in the Message translation, and it stood out to me like a bright light among all the other verses that had been recommended.

When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

20Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

21Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.”

22Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.”

Wow. That last section kicked me in the stomach for some reason, although I wouldn’t know for a long time what it might really mean to me. First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life. That’s Jesus talking…and you don’t really ignore Him.

So I started thinking what that could mean for me in my everyday life. What does life and death look like when you’re not necessarily dealing in matters of life-and-death? I started thinking in terms of death-by-a-thousand-cuts over a lifetime. Like how you can look at a middle-aged person who is broken and messed up and hates the world and has zero joy, and you just know that a million little things have happened to them over the long period of their life to make them that way. I started looking at my students, just 7 and 8 years old, who already have scars from some of their thousand cuts. I started thinking…that’s how I bring life instead of death…I try not to be one of those cuts. So I really began paying attention to how I was speaking to them and to others…thinking…is what I’m saying right now bringing life or bringing a little bit of death? You know just what I mean…the way you say something can bring death. Like when you give a backhanded compliment. Death. Or when you say something in a certain way only because you know it will force someone to have to give you a pathetic compliment. Death. When someone is talking to you but you’re not really listening..and for one split second they notice your eyes glazing over. You just made them feel unimportant. Death. Or when you walk by someone and you could look them in the eye, smile, and say hello. But you choose not to. Death.

So not knowing at all what else those verses would mean, I simply went along trying to be about the business of life, not death. Pursuing Jesus and the things He represents are pure life. Anything else is death. Not bad, right?

Then a few weeks ago my son overdosed on a combination of drugs. He was in the hospital for nearly 2 weeks. No one knew if he would recover or if he would be normal again after he did. Arguments ensued over the outcome of his care. Lies were told. Commitments were broken. False accusations flew. Death, death, death. Every little thing started to go awry in our world, from the big and important to the smallest detail. Confusion, dissension, anger, brokenness. Death, death, death.

Then, death really came along. On December 22nd I got a call that my mom was being taken to the hospital after collapsing at home. I was on my way there to be with her and figure out what was happening when I got the second call that her heart had stopped and she was gone. GONE. Death.

Your business is life, not death.

It was my momma’s 76th birthday, and she died suddenly. A few days before Christmas, a few days before we were to leave for India. How would we get all the arrangements made before I had to leave the country? Would I actually miss my own mom’s funeral? Or should I try to rearrange my trip to stay here?? None of the options seemed good. Death. Right in the midst of planning her funeral, we found out that Todd’s mom was also now in the hospital and may need surgery. No, Lord, not more death…please.

It took me a day or so to get it, but eventually I could really see what Jesus meant by saying that my business was life, not death. Even in the middle of everything going on around me, including a thousand other things I haven’t even mentioned, I was still somehow concentrating on trying to bring life to the thing. And it definitely wasn’t because of my well-grounded abilities… God was keeping my focus for me. How else does someone’s family go through so much in such a short period of time and still come out halfway sane? Life. Prayers were answered (and continue to be) in ways I never would have imagined before. Life. Every little detail of my mom’s funeral was taken care of with relative ease, all in time for us to hold the service yesterday… Before we were to leave for India today. We put her to rest in a funny and perfect way that matches her personality. Thank you, God. I prayed for healing of my ear, which the doctor told me held so much fluid that it would likely burst if I flew. It has improved dramatically and I am no longer congested, but breathing normally. Life. My son has recovered and not only is out of the hospital, but he asked to come home and stay with us…. Words we’ve hoped to hear for a long, long time. Life. He has given his life to Jesus, and I’m already seeing the new creation God is making him in to. Life!! There is peace in our home and all around us even with some things still up in the air. There is peace all around us. Life, life, life.

I can’t wait to look into the beautiful brown faces of the little girls at the children’s home in India, and smile and show them life. I cant wait to hug the 300+ lovely people who live at the leper colony, praying they can understand that they, too are made in the image of God. I can’t wait to pray for healing and rest and peace for our friends and soon-to-be-friends on the other side of this world we share. And with all I hope we’ll accomplish there, I have a feeling that I will receive much, much more life than I could ever possibly dream of giving out.

“First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.” -Jesus.

Are You SURE You Want My Advice?

If there’s one piece of scripture I know well, it would be Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:15-17:

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”

My husband always says that I have a sign on my forehead that is invisible to me, but that is apparently a bright neon sign to everyone else, and it says “Free Counselor.” We joke about this because throughout my whole life, even when I was fairly young, people would just for some reason pour out their problems to me. They would tell me things about themselves that were very personal even if I had only known them for a short time. Many times they would ask my advice about a situation which almost always seemed to have something to do with a relationship problem they were having. This still happens on a regular basis today.

Early on in my life, I used to get annoyed by this, thinking why is this person telling me all this stuff? How am I supposed to know what to do? Since I’ve become a follower of Christ, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that this is part of my distinct make-up…I’ve learned that my primary spiritual gift seems to be exhortation, better known as the gift of encouragement. Now this is nothing for me to boast about, and in fact I used to be very uncomfortable with any talk of my spiritual gifts simply because it sounded a little snotty to me… like I’m bragging about something I’ve acquired. But I’m much more comfortable with my own identity in Christ these days, and I’ve come to really believe how God defines us through His apostle Paul:

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” -Ephesians 2:10

I believe what God says about who I am. I know that He created me, and He made me to do good works, which He’s already prepared for me to do. It’s like I have my own personal “to-do” list written by the Creator of the universe, and no one else can check those things off except for me. But in order for me to accomplish this, I must live my life in a way that aligns with the things God says about me and the ways He’s shown me to live. Part of that means accepting, embracing and using my spiritual gifts in the way He wants me to. So, I do what I can to learn His ways of how to encourage others, not because it’s fun (although sometimes it can be!) but because this is part of my DNA.

So, back to Matthew 18. What does this have to do with any of this encouragement stuff? Well, it’s very simple. Humans are made in and for relationships. When a relationship is broken, whether it’s because of something we have done, something another person has done, or just because of strange circumstances, our heart hurts. Our deepest desire is to have that relationship restored. And there’s great news…God has told us many things in His word on how to make that happen. The passage in Matthew 18:15-17 tells us how to deal with a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned. Many times this may be against us directly, other times it may be that we’ve noticed a sin pattern growing in their lives that is going unchecked. Either way, there is a 3-step process involved in confronting them, and no… it doesn’t involve airing their dirty laundry on Facebook. Many times friends or acquaintances will come to me asking advice with this exact kind of situation. Someone has done something to them that is offensive. Someone has lied to them and they’ve found out. Their spouse is doing something inappropriate. My advice to them will always be exactly the same. I wouldn’t be encouraging them properly by doing anything but going back to God’s word.

Look back at the first part of that passage in Matthew 18 with me: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.” Did you see that? Go privately to that person. Is that what we usually do? I don’t know about you, but when someone offends me, the first thing I want to do is call up another person who will sympathize with my sense of injustice and complain about it. For hours. But that is SO WRONG. No one should hear about the problem until you have addressed it with the person committing the offense. No one. Not your mom, your best friend, your sister, even your spouse. Go PRIVATELY to that person and talk to them. Is that so you can berate them about their sin and yell at them for how terrible they’ve been treating them? No. Look at the rest of that first step: “If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.” See it? The goal is to win that person back. To restore that relationship back to where it was. Another translation says “…you have your brother back again.” Isn’t that awesome? The goal is to point out the offense so that the person may be reconciled, not only to you, but to God. Because if we recognize our sin and confess it, the bible tells us that “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) That’s great news! So by obeying this first step in the process, we could actually win over our brother or sister, and not only allow our relationship to be restored, but also to clear a pathway for them to confess the sin and be reconciled to God, which is of course the most important thing. If that doesn’t work, and the person refuses to recognize the sin or doesn’t take you seriously, then the next step is to confide in another trusted brother or sister (one or two others–not the entire universe!) and have them go with you to the person again. Perhaps once the offender sees that other people know of the situation and agree that there is a problem, this will help them see the light and lead to reconciliation. If the person still will not listen to reason, then it may be time to “take them before the church.” Now there are different beliefs about this, but I think this would mean talking to a pastor or elder of the church to explain the situation and likely even setting up a meeting between you, the offender, and a church leader to discuss the situation all together. Since my husband is an elder in our church, there have been occasions when I have been involved in these conversations at that level. Yes, they are uncomfortable. Yes, they can get frustrating for all parties involved. But I always go back to the fact that if I believe one part of God’s word, such as what He says about me being His workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that He’s prepared for me to do, then I have to also believe His word when He tells me how to deal with situations in my life, even if the process is uncomfortable. I can’t just pick and choose the warm-fuzzy-feeling stuff that Jesus tells us and not also accept His more difficult teachings.

So, if you’re one of those folks who can mysteriously see that invisible sign on my forehead that says “Free Counselor,” or you just happen to bring it up in conversation, my response to you will be the same when you ask my advice on how to deal with someone who’s sinned or hurt you. I will go back to what Jesus said to do in Matthew 18. I will tell you to do something that you might feel is uncomfortable. I won’t care if you feel uncomfortable because you have to do the things Jesus tells us to do if you are one of His followers…no ifs, ands, or buts. I will likely tell you to read through that passage several times. I might even suggest you read through it in several translations until you’re sure you have a full understanding of what it means. I will tell you to follow the steps in order. I will tell you if you’ve skipped a step. I will tell you to go back to the beginning if you’ve skipped a step. I’ll ask you not to speak to me (or anyone else) again about it until you’ve at least done step #1. You might take me off your Christmas list because I didn’t give you the answer or easy fix you wanted. And I will not enjoy that because I truly do love presents. But even so, I can’t direct you with poor advice. With non-biblical advice. With advice that will lead you into destroying a relationship rather than restoring it. I will tell you that if you refuse to follow these steps to deal with the situation, you are in yourself committing a sin (refusing to do what God says) and making things worse. But I will also pray for you and for the relationship you’re trying to restore.

If you ever come to me to ask my advice about how to deal with someone who has sinned or hurt you, and I don’t lead you to Matthew 18… you do have my permission to call me out on it. Please. You’re not doing me any favors if you don’t.