Mighty Love

The first time I saw Yosemite Valley it snowed. I had accompanied my boyfriend (now husband) and his family on a cross-country skiing weekend a short drive from Yosemite. Having never been, they decided I must see it.

The snow itself was beautiful but, as it fell from the sky, it obscured the view. I had a sense that I should be gasping with awe, yet all I saw was white: white clouds, white snow, with patches of grey rock and black trees stabbing their presence known.

So much snow fell so quickly that, by the time we reached the valley floor, we had to purchase chains to drive back out. We may have paused for a quick cup of coffee at the general store, but it was a slow drive for a quick trip.

The next time I saw Yosemite was two years after we married on an anniversary camping trip. This time, I understood all the fuss. I aimed my camera every which direction–at impossibly large rock faces, dogwoods, brooks, clouds in glorious blue skies–understanding that no camera could adequately capture the beauty of standing in this one spot.

You’ve felt it, I’m sure. You recognize that sensation of glory. The feeling of being in the presence of something so awe-some, so wonder-full, of being so small a speck on the face of this planet and yet somehow also feeling larger than life because you had the chance to witness this moment.

In those moments, I am overwhelmed by the presence and power of God. By His might, and His mighty love through which He created everything and everyone. I don’t understand God and have plenty of questions for Him, but recalling those astounding moments when I can do little more than utter WOW! grounds me in gratitude for His presence.

Journey to Freedom
Exodus 5-10

Connect
When has God made you say, “WOW”?

Study
Read Exodus 5:1-9 and 5:22-6:9.
Why did God want the Israelites to go into the wilderness?
How did Pharaoh respond to God’s request through Moses and Aaron?
What does God reveal about Himself?
If you’re discussing these questions with others, break into three groups. Invite each group to read one of the following passages and discuss the questions that follow as they prepare to share with the other groups: Exodus 7:14-8:19; Exodus 8:20-9:12; and Exodus 9:13-10:29.
What are the plagues? What do you notice about each? What do you learn about God?

Live
When have you experienced God’s power? How did you respond?
How do you describe God to someone who doesn’t yet know Him?
Have you ever felt so discouraged by circumstances that you couldn’t see what God might be doing? How did that situation resolve?
What do you do when you just can’t understand God?
How can remembering who God is and what He has done help you in times of doubt and struggle?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Worship God for His fearful might and great love.

Family Share Questions
Use these questions to reflect on Exodus 5:22-6:8 individually and with your family.
When have you seen God’s power?
How do you say thanks to God?
Thank God for being your God!

Overflow

The Friday before the Monday C19 left for college out-of-state, neighbors we hadn’t met posted on social media that they were giving away a full-size bed, a few years old with limited wear-and-tear, with an almost-new mattress. Free.

That morning, C19 had awoken in the twin-over-full bunk beds he’d had since childhood. We asked if he’d like a new bed, even though he wouldn’t sleep it in often. He replied with an emphatic, “YES!”

We didn’t need more to do that weekend, but nevertheless we made arrangements to see the bed, and the owner, congenial and overly generous, helped us load the pieces into our minivan. He easily could have sold the bed/mattress, but he just wanted it gone. Two trips and less than a half-hour later, our kid had a new bed he loved.

Q13 liked it, too. Since his bed was the metal frame we’d found, free, when the crib-daybed-full bed frame that had served both our children finally cracked, he decided he’d be moving in to the new bed as soon as his brother left home.

Guy recognized that Little Brother, easy-going and uncomplaining as he was, had grown tired of hand-me-downs. He needed a new bed of his own. He also needed a show of provision from his parents. So he checked online and found another almost-new bed/mattress combo for sale at a ridiculously low price. He bought it, and wouldn’t you know?, it matched the existing decor of Q13’s room as if we’d planned it all along.

We donated all the matching bedding from the twin-over-full bunks to charity. We listed the bunk beds for sale, and the low purchase price was still enough to pay for the purchased bed plus new bedding for the free bed.

And somehow, we still had a good quality full-sized mattress left over. We gave it to a young friend in her first apartment + (low-paying) professional job.

We thought we didn’t have time for more in an already overly-full weekend. But generosity flows downhill. Someone generously giving something away led to more, and more, and more. In the end, our kids had new-to-them beds they love, we came out about even on the cash flow, and we still had things to give away.

God is good!

By the way, I was going to title this post “Pay It Forward,” but I’ve already used that title on another post about someone’s generosity. C19 still enjoys that gift when he’s home and driving about town!

Abundant Life
Week 2: Grace-Fueled Gratitude
Luke 7:36-50

Connect
Share about a generous gift you have received.

Study
Read aloud Luke 7:36-50.
Describe Simon. Describe the woman. How does each interact with Jesus?
How does Simon view the woman? How does Jesus view her?
How would you retell this story in a contemporary context? Who would play the Pharisee and the woman?
Based on this story, why do you think the religious establishment and “sinners” had such different reactions to Jesus?

Live
Write a Yelp! review for the banker who forgave your $36,000 debt (equivalent to 500 denarii today). How would your review reflect your gratitude?
How are you like the Pharisee? Like the woman?
What moves you about the woman’s response to Jesus? Does anything about her response unsettle you, and if so, why?
How can we demonstrate our gratitude to Jesus?
What prayers has God answered for you?
How do we prevent a pharisaical, judgmental mindset? In other words, how can we keep God’s grace in constant view?
What would it take for the Church to be as welcoming to sinners as Jesus was?
Discuss: “Appreciating beauty and giving thanks for life’s treasures is not living in denial of life’s suffering and challenges. It’s what helps us cope with life’s suffering and challenges” (Rene Schlaepfer).
Create a Generosity Project—something you can do, ideally with others, to demonstrate and share your gratitude to God with others.
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God to help you stay grateful and reflect His generous spirit to others.

Keep Focused

Does the word psychosomatic still have a negative connotation?

It used to be that if someone accused you of having a psychosomatic illness, they meant it was “all in your head.” In other words, change your thinking and your illness will disappear.

But we know so much more now about the mind-body connection. The mind does affect the body and it can cause very real, very distressing physical ailments.

When Q13 first developed cyclic vomiting, everyone asked, “It must be stress, don’t you think?” That question stressed me out! I felt like they were blaming me, like I could somehow change my parenting and his cycles would stop. I already work so hard to keep stress out of my home. Don’t you think that if I could have done anything differently to keep my child well, I would have done it?

As it turns out, the poor kiddo has anxiety hand-in-hand with inattentive ADHD. He does not look like an anxious kid, but who knows what loopdeloops his brain spins. And his body pays the price, which increases his anxiety. More than one cycle at play, because of course our bodies affect our minds as well.

My sister is in the hospital. Again. She’s been in and out of the hospital for years with a chronic illness. Like most illnesses I’m sure it can be aggravated by stress, but the physical pain in her body sure causes stress.

She texted me an update and, understandably, vented her frustrations. She also yelled at God a little bit.

That’s okay, He can take it. But I took the opportunity to encourage her that God isn’t doing this to her, that He’s right there with her holding her hand and hurting with her.

Life happens, whether it’s illness, conflict, a bad day at work, or ordinary inconveniences like a flat tire or keys locked in the car. It can shake our confidence and, some days, even make us question God.

We all need some encouragement, all the time, but especially when discouragement flusters our faith. We need other people to help us keep our focus squarely on Jesus. When all else fails, He is our solid ground.

Walk in Love
Week 12: Final Words
1 John 5:13-21

Connect
What helps you feel confident?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 5:13-21.
What does this passage say we “know” (vv13, 15, 18-20)? Why are those things important?
What does this passage say God does for us (vv14-16, 18, 20)? Why are those things important?
Name some examples of prayers you could boldly pray “according to his will” (v14).
What specific prayer does John encourage (v16)?
Why do God’s children not continue to sin (vv18-20)? How does that square with your experience of life?
Why do you think John ended his letter with a caution against idolatry (v21)? How does that fit with what he’s already said?
Imagine you are among John’s congregation, hearing these words after a contentious church split. Explain how this passage would make you feel.

Live
When have you felt uncertain in your faith, and what did you do about it?
What helps you focus on Jesus when you feel discouraged?
How does your eternal life influence your daily life? Explain.
Share an example of a bold prayer you prayed and God answered.
How have you seen people in the church handle (well or not so well) other people’s sin?
What idols compete for your attention? How do you guard yourself again their temptations?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Thank God for the gift of eternal life through His Son, Jesus.

 

What’s the News?

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to curtail my practice of ending each day with the first fifteen minutes of the 10 pm newscast. For most of my adult life, I watched the news before bed. But gradually I realized that I wasn’t sleeping soundly, that images or issues from the news wound themselves into my dreams or, worse, left me tossing sleeplessly through the night. Adulting can be difficult enough without insomnia.

Towards the end of 2016 I decided that, for my sanity, I needed to forgo TV newscasts altogether. The presidential race brought out the worst in everyone, me included. Above and beyond the ‘commonplace’ stories on worldwide political shifts and violence, America’s angry politicians and their supporters had turned up the volume. In response, I turned it off.

Although we had stopped taking the paper years earlier, the time had come to once again read the news. To that end, I am grateful for The Skimm, which (ahem) skims the national and international headlines and presents summaries in a nonpartisan, headline style with links to more information.

I need to stay informed, but there is just so much bad news!

Without trying hard, I could rattle off bad news on too many world-changing issues. Yet when I ask myself, “What’s the good news?” I’m not sure I know how to answer.

What is the good news? And, now that we’re thinking about it, don’t we all love those too-infrequent feel-good news stories? The ones where the good Samaritan does some wonderful sacrificial act that changes the life of a wheelchair-bound child, or a homeless person, or simply their neighbor who has fallen on hard times. Maybe someone should produce a regular good-news cast (Is there such a thing? If so, point me in the right direction, because I need it!).

Some days—many days?—I forget that gospel = good news. I forget that Jesus told us all about this: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I forget that God’s still in charge: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).

I suspect I’m not alone. Not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the world’s troubles. Not alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be still. Not alone in forgetting that God loves the world, this world, the very one He created, populated by all the people He fearfully and wonderfully made.

Not alone at all, because God loves me. And God loves you. And God asks us to love one another.

That love one another thing can be hard, especially with all the bad news. You and me, we may not even like each other. We may be on opposite sides of battle lines, barbed wire, drawn guns, hatred.

Jesus found Himself there, too. And, despite all the bad news that we are, He loved us so much anyway that He did the most wonderfully sacrificial good-news thing ever: He gave His life in our place, for our sins, so that we can live forever in relationship with God. Jesus’ story–which becomes our story–makes for the ultimate good-news cast.

Walk in Love
Week 10: Walk in Love
1 John 4:7-21

Connect
What good news have you received recently?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 4:7-21.
Why should God’s people love one another?
What does God’s love for us look like?
How does God’s love for us change us?
According to this passage, what does the Spirit do for us (vv13-16)?
Compare vv12 and 17. What is the difference between God’s love being made complete in us and among us?
How do God’s people loving one another make God visible (vv12, 17, 20-21)?
What is the connection between love and Christian confidence or “no fear” (vv17-19)?

Live
Does John mean to say that everyone who acts lovingly has a saving relationship with God? That anyone who does not act lovingly does not? Explain.
How do you know God loves you? How do you experience God’s love for you? What’s the difference between knowledge and experience of God’s love?
In your experience, does love or fear inspire more obedience? Better character? Explain.
When have you acted lovingly despite not feeling loving? What was that like?
“Remarkably, loving someone who is unlovely brings into focus the power of God’s choice to love us in our unloveliness” (Gary M. Burge). Have you ever experienced this? If so, describe it.
How would you sum up John’s version of the gospel’s good news from this passage?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God will help you know and experience His love so that you have generous love to share with others.

Believe. Love.

Many years ago, in my first church job, I had the privilege of working in the front office. Which meant I was the ‘face’ of the office, handling all the various requests of both members and those who walked in off the street. Brenda, the mentally-absent and sweet homeless woman whom we often let sleep in the women’s lounge, was one of the most colorful ‘characters’ in the mix. Oh, but we all have our character traits that lend to the stories of our churches–and our lives.

Another woman, a leader in her area of volunteer responsibility, was particularly ornery. I don’t know why, perhaps she couldn’t articulate it herself. She came to my office regularly to bark complaints at me. It was always my fault, even when it wasn’t, and she had no time for explanations. I cringed when I saw her coming.

After months of regular, painful, interactions, I put her at Jesus’ feet in prayer. I asked God to help me love her. Of course it would be great if God decided to change her, but meanwhile I would ask God to change me.

I took action. I smiled every time I saw her. I listened with all the patience I could muster. I did everything I could to soothe her frustration and help her in whatever ways she needed. I even committed to greeting her with a huge smile and a hug every Sunday morning during worship. After all, she sat on the aisle only a few pews back from my regular aisle seat.

At first she seemed skeptical. She yelled at me all the time; why would I hug her? I persisted with a big puppy dog-faithful grin. It wasn’t fake–I hate fake! Rather it was a courageous act of obedience to our loving God. Even when we don’t feel loving, we can choose to act lovingly. And sometimes, thank God!, our actions will work into us the feelings.

Over time she melted like an ice cube. She stopped grumping at me. She smiled back. Eventually, she even smiled first. She opened up to share her joys (with the occasional frustration thrown in). When the time came for her to move away to be closer to her grown children in her older age, we shared a genuine, tearful goodbye.

God did change her, but He changed me first. I decided to believe in Jesus, and to live in the truth that Jesus loved her as much as He loved me. Sheesh, Jesus loves me even when I’m the biggest grump in the world! Of course He can strengthen me to share His love with others. Even when it’s hard. Even when they’re hard. Especially then.

1 John 3:23–“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us”–sounds a lot like the Great Commandment–

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Believe in Jesus. Love one another.
Love God. Love others as you love yourself.

When we believe, we have the courage to act. When we love, God changes us.

Walk in Love
Week 8: Belong to the Truth
1 John 3:19-24

Connect
To which organizations or clubs do you belong, and what are some of the rules of membership?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 3:19-24.
What might cause someone’s heart to condemn them (v20)?
How can Jesus’ followers set their hearts at rest (vv19-24)? In other words, from this passage, what evidence would indicate that someone “belongs to the truth”?
Notice the balance between what we know and what we feel. Why are both important?
How would you explain vv21-22 to someone who says they prayed but God didn’t answer as they hoped?
How does this passage explain our role and God’s role in our relationship with Him?

Live
Have you ever doubted your relationship with God? What helped you through that time? Alternately, what reassurance have you offered to someone who doubted?
What comfort does it give you that God knows everything?
How might conflict between people who claim to follow God affect one’s faith? Explain the emphasis on the command to love one another.
What does it look like in your daily life to fulfill the commands to believe in Jesus and love one another?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God will help you believe in Jesus and love others.

 

 

Hold the Truth Tight

Conflict. Bleh.

With so much conflict in the world, one could hope the church would be a conflict-free zone.

Far from it. The Bible speaks clearly about the Church’s enemy who stirs up discord and strife. And if you’ve been around the Church for even some time, you’ve likely seen it.

I’ve been involved in Church my whole life and in leadership since I reached an age where leadership opportunities became available.

I’ve seen…
Small groups, pretending to be friends, treat their own members brutally.
People poised to react rather than respond, attack rather than listen.
Individuals assume a leadership role for the specific purpose of taking others down.
Abuse of power, its personal and corporate devastation.
The hard work required to attempt to heal backfire on the very ones working to bring peace.
Bad leadership, bad followership, political infighting, and church splits.

All that and I still love the Church. I’m still involved, still in leadership. But why does it seem the Church is hell-bent on living out that old question: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

We can blame it on the enemy, the Church’s enemy or our perceived human enemy. We can blame it on circumstances, constraints, resources, human nature.

Truly, I think it comes down to one thing: conflict erupts when those in the Church take their eyes off Jesus Christ.

When we agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, fully God and fully human;
that He came to show us the way back to our Heavenly Father, to take the punishment for our sins;
because He loves us that much;
that He sent us His Spirit to guide us day in and out;
and that He calls us to love Him and others as ourselves…

…well, that ought to result in reliance on Him to help us love one another even (especially) when it’s hard. It ought to bring about unity and the willingness to put aside our agendas to listen well. It ought to shape our prayers and our behavior as we look at one another with God’s loving eyes.

We can disagree on a lot of other issues if we agree on that.

When conflict erupts, it would sure help if we got back to basics.

Walk in Love
Week 5: Hold to the Truth
1 John 2:18-27

Connect
Reflect a recent conflict you’ve encountered and how you handled it.

Study
Read aloud 1 John 2:18-27.
How does John explain what has happened in his church (vv18-19)?
What is “the truth” and what is a lie (vv20-25)?
How does John use his followers’ “anointing” to equip and encourage them (vv20, 27)?
What is the relationship between knowing the truth and remaining in the Son?

Live
Have you ever experienced a church split or other significant split of Christian community? What did you learn from the experience?
Why does it matter what we believe about Jesus?
What does your anointing mean to you?
How do you ‘remain’ in the Son?
Reflect on this quote: “Christian life is not merely a cognitive embrace of Christ; it is an engagement, an encounter with Christ in the Spirit.”—Gary M. Burge.
How could someone try to lead you astray today?
What significance does ‘the end’ have for you? How might you live with ‘the end’ in mind?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God to fill you with knowledge of and experience with His beloved Son.

Note: I highly recommend the book The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. For more information, check out Peacemaker Ministries.

What’s Your Name? 1 John 2:2-17

Naming our big dog wasn’t difficult. We met her on a Wednesday and when we picked her up on Friday, our big kid declared: “Her name is Izzy.” We all agreed.

Naming our puppy? Not the same story. Oh for sure, C19 named him in seconds, but the rest of us took weeks to agree. We made a long list. We tried each out. We discussed and debated. Big Kid persisted, and the rest of us caved. Jasper it is.

But he’s also earned a handful of nicknames. Rascal, because he’s a curious, playful puppy. Dapper Japper, because he wore a plaid bow tie throughout the Christmas season and looked oh so dapper. Stinky, and Baby Dog, for obvious reasons.

My parents, Mom especially, gave me a bunch of nicknames. My baby brother couldn’t say my name, so Sisi (pronounced “SeeSee”), which sounds like my given name, is still in play. Others, I’m not even sure how to spell–Sivereno or Sisiliana–my parents making long my short name. My 80’s era camp name was Lambchops, because my white-blonde permed hair looked like lamb’s wool; my high school band nickname was Huggy Bear, because friends said I dropped my backpack every few steps to hug a friend.

Cute at the time, I’m grateful to have outgrown some of those nicknames. I’m hopeful Baby Dog will outgrow some of his as well (Stinky, especially).

Nicknames grow out of experience and relationship. When I call my kids by their full names (first, middle, last)–names I love, given with intention to children I love–I might do so out of exasperation. But when I call them Buddy or Lovebug, it’s true to our relationships. Lovebug may sound babyish, but even with teen boys I can hope they won’t outgrow those terms of endearment.

Some cultures wait to formally name a child until the child reveals his/her character. It seems we nickname based on character.

Our actions reveal our character. So perhaps our nicknames also influence our actions.

I still respond to SiSi because those who call me SiSi have known me from forever. They knew and loved me in good and bad and through it all. When I call my kid Buddy, he hears me calling him to make good choices to be his best self. He is my Buddy, and he knows I’m his biggest fan, asking him to live into his best.

The names we call each other make a difference. The name itself can call us forward.

So when John refers to Dear Children, or Fathers, or Young Men, it matters. Dear Children=all of us loved by God, whose sins have been forgiven, who can truly call God Father. The love relationship is mutual, complete, fulfilled. Fathers=those who have a lifetime of faith. Not just men (gratefully, not just men!, but using language of old, when masculine terms applied equally to women), but all those of a certain age and stage in life. Those who have weathered storms and held steady in faith. And Young Men=those young in life and faith (again, not exclusively male), whose youth fills them with vigor and verve to take risks for God.

The nicknames mean something. They directly connect with the message for those groups/individuals. But going forward, the message to all is the same: stay strong. Live into who you are, the best of who you are, and so remain strong in faith. Because the world will do its best to beat you, but you–in God’s strength, living into the terms of endearment God has for you–can be stronger than the strongest temptation.

Walk in Love
Week 4: The World’s Allure
1 John 2:12-17

Connect
Share a nickname you’ve earned and how you got it.

Study
Read aloud 1 John 2:12-17.
To whom does John write, and what does he say to each (vv12-14)?
What reasons do God’s people have to not love the world (vv15-17)?
What does love for the world look like according to John? What might it look like today?

Live
What does it mean to you personally to know God as Father? To know Him “from the beginning”? To be strong to overcome evil? Which description best fits you and which would you like to grow into?
How can God’s Word strengthen you to resist temptation?
How does your identity as a believer influence your behavior?
What gifts do younger and older believers have to offer each other?
What, if any, hostile threats do you perceive in the world? How do you manage them?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God to fill you with love for Him that crowds out the world’s distractions.