Freedom

18 07 2017

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John 8 tells the story of a woman caught in adultery and dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees. They wanted to see if He would uphold the Mosaic law and condemn her to death. As they gathered stones to throw at her, Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust. The tension built until finally he stood and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

As the story goes, they dropped their stones and went out, one by one, beginning with the oldest. Because, you may be able to fool people, but when God turns the spotlight on your heart, you realize — no matter how diligently you’ve followed the rules — you can’t clean up the hidden places. Your actions may impress, but your heart will betray you every time.

I have no idea how long it took for that crowd to disperse, but Jesus waited. Then, when they were all gone, He looked the woman in the eye and said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

And she said, “No one, Lord.”

The God of the universe lifted her head and removed her shame by giving her the opportunity to confess with her own lips that she was no worse a sinner than the most religious people alive.

And then He gave her an even greater gift. He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

It’s interesting to note that He didn’t say, “Go back to your lover. I get that he’s your soul mate — that your marriages were a mistake, but now you feel alive for the first time. Ignore the haters. Do what makes you happy.”

No. He said, “Go, and from now on sin no more.”

Jesus never suggested that her behavior was acceptable. He called it sin. And the only reason He was able to say, “Neither do I condemn you,” was because He Himself would bear the punishment for her guilt. (If there’s no such thing as sin, the cross is pointless.)

When Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” He wasn’t pronouncing a restriction to hold her in bondage. He was opening her cage door and inviting her to freedom.

There’s no reason to think that she went home to an easy choice — that the feelings, emotional attachments, and pressures were miraculously gone. “Sin no more” implies a deliberate change, not for the sake of following rules, but for the sake of her own flourishing — trusting that God knows more about abundant life than she does.

Because here’s the deal. God is good. Always, only good.

He’s always good in what He gives, and He’s always good in what He forbids.

And here’s the other deal. Temptation is always the same.

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It begins with the whisper, “Did God actually say?” and ends with trusting our own perceptions — “that the tree is good for food, and that it is a delight to the eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make one wise.”

It’s the same old lies that have derailed us from the beginning — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life making promises they can’t keep. God couldn’t possibly have meant what He seems to be saying. We know what we want, how bad we want it, and we know better than God how to find our own fulfillment in life. Lust becomes need becomes identity. And who are you to question my identity?

Lately I hear a lot of people saying Jesus gave only one command: “Love God; love people.” And I always want to ask them, “What does it look like to love God? How do you truly love people?”

Because the sense I often get from their context is that loving people essentially means saying, “Ignore the haters. Do what makes you happy,” and it definitely does not mean saying, “Go, and sin no more.”

But Jesus didn’t simply say, “Love God; love people.” What He actually said was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The Law and the Prophets show us what it looks like to love God and people. Jesus never negated the commandments. In fact, He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

He also said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This sounds a lot like, “Go, and from now on sin no more.”

And His final command? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus never released us from obedience, because our flourishing is found in obedience, just as His was. We aren’t fulfilled by satisfying our personal desires, but by increasing in our likeness to the image of God.

John tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Loving God looks like obedience to His Word. Loving people looks like caring enough to tell them the truth (not a manipulated, massaged version of it), even when that means a call to drastic repentance, taking up a difficult cross, and denying self.

God is good in what He forbids. He forbids sin, only because He is good.

The Tempter will whisper, “Did God actually say . . .?” And the masses will tell you, “Go do what makes you happy!”

But Jesus is standing right in front of you with a better offer.

The cage door is open. The choice is yours.

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Thirty-eight

5 05 2017

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Happy Anniversary to us.

Thirty-eight years ago today, I walked down a long, red-carpeted aisle, holding the strong arm of a loving father who had held me so very well for the twenty-one years leading up to this day.

I walked that aisle in the surrender of a bride — choosing to join my life to this man — to prefer him above myself, to love him with every part of my being, for better or worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part.

The strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy filled the sanctuary as the congregation rose to their feet and all eyes turned to watch, but my eyes were fixed on him. The man who waited for me at the end of that aisle.

I felt only peace and deep joy in that moment. I had no idea what lay ahead for us. No idea how hard it would get or how much refining it takes for two stubborn lumps of immovable rock to be melted into one pool of golden grace.

But that’s the thing about God. He doesn’t need my knowing. He is always working out plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness. His ways are always higher, and His purposes holier.

Thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years of God’s faithfulness. Of laughter and tears. Of sorrow and delight. Of offense and forgiveness and always the choosing — the same holy choosing of surrender.

And today? My eyes are fixed on the man. And I feel only peace and deep joy.

Happy Anniversary, my love. Here’s to thirty-eight more.

When I reached the end of that aisle, George sang the above song to me right before Dad slipped my arm into his. We’ve since sung it in many weddings together and made this recording years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Photo credit: Stephanie Damoff, 1989

 





Listen to the Wind

22 04 2017

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He was born April 22, 1955, the third son of a full-blooded Macedonian father and a blonde, blue-eyed Ohio farm girl with Welsh ancestry. His parents married right out of high school and had six kids before they were thirty.

Their first son was an adventurer, the second a star athlete, but this third boy? He was born with a poet’s soul, and as he grew, the ordinary brokenness of the world lay heavy on his beauty-craving heart. So he ran after comfort as many do, rebelling against conformity, and attempting to assuage the ache with drugs and other empty pursuits. He longed to belong — to be truly seen and truly loved — but the darkness only grew darker and uglier, and it was slowly crushing him.

He was bruised and tormented, but he wasn’t alone. One whose name is Love patiently prepared that wounded soil until one summer day, at the age of eighteen, he sat alone in a barn loft with the ancient splendor of the Appalachian mountains filling his view.

It was time. All his efforts to anesthetize his pain were powerless against the Creator’s magnificent canvas. The mountains burst forth into singing, the trees of the field clapped their hands, and a question rose from the deeps and escaped his lips.

“Who are You?”

The wind whispered soft. The setting sun kissed the tips of the trees and slid into purpling shadows. He heard no answer, but it was coming.

The boy returned home to Florida with the question still burning. Then one evening, he opened a Bible and read the book of John. When he came to chapter 14, verse 6, he had his answer.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

There’s a wonder to God’s ways with His own. He knows the heart’s language and how to make Himself heard. To an eighteen-year-old poet, he awakened the ache with beauty and wrapped truth around it with the Word. How did this young man know John 14:6 was the answer to the question he’d asked in the loft?

He simply knew.

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The wind blew, and the boy understood. And he wrote a song — an eighteen-year-old poet’s song of salvation. Here it is.

Testimony Song

I listened to the wind and I began to see
Through people and my heart and my mind, I saw me
And I saw something beautiful
Oh, I know ‘cause the wind brushed my eyes

We each have something good to give
But it’s often hid by the way that we live
Let Truth and understanding be our guide
Let Truth and understanding be our guide

I want to shine just like the Morning Star
I want to say something beautiful to you

I listen to the wind and I begin to see
Through people and my heart and my mind, I see me
And I see something beautiful
Oh, I know ‘cause the wind brushes my eyes
And I know the Lord Jesus fills my life

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Today that boy turns 62. He’s a devoted husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather; a poet, musician, and steward of Creation; a servant, provider, and friend; and a man of the Word who still follows hard after Truth and understanding. No, he’s not perfect. Through the years he has stumbled more than once and even fallen hard, but the One who is able to make him stand has never for a moment forsaken him. His testimony of Jesus’ faithfulness remains, and as one who has journeyed by his side for 38 years, I can tell you that — in more ways than I can begin to count — he shines. Just like the Morning Star.

In honor of his birthday, you’re invited to listen to his Testimony Song — recorded decades ago on a little cassette tape player — and to catch some glimpses of the “something beautiful” those of us who love him have been privileged to see.

You’re also invited to follow his example. Listen to the wind. Let it brush your eyes. Perhaps you will begin to see something beautiful, too.

 





Transition

27 01 2017

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Today I realized something for the first time.

Roughly nine months after abortion-on-demand became the law in America, in the autumn of 1973, I was born for the second time.

During those months when many women were embracing their new-found reproductive freedom, God was forming me in the womb of faith, preparing me to become His child.

I could say a lot more about what happened that day, when my sixteen-year-old self first felt the irresistible urgency — unseen forces from without and within pressing me toward my emergence from the dark womb of spiritual sleep into the dazzling radiance of faith.

But the one thought that demands my profound awe in this moment is simply this: God is a redeemer.

Always, in every place and at every time, God is making all things new.

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A few years later, when I was in my early twenties, I was reading Malachi 4 and was inspired to write a song. This morning, when George read the same passage, he reminded me of it and said we should revive it. Maybe so. But meanwhile, I can share the words with you here.

The Day is Coming

The day is coming, burning like a furnace,
And all the wicked will be chaff.
The day is coming when the righteous will rejoice
And leap from the stall like a calf.
The day is coming when the Sun of Righteousness
Will rise with healing in His wings.
And all the holy ones will be before Him
And crown Him King of kings,

Alleluia.

Come, Lord Jesus; come, Lord Jesus,
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
Come and bring us the day of our deliverance
When we will be revealed as sons.
For creation is anxiously longing,
And we ourselves grown within.
But the day is coming, the end of our suffering
Because we’ll be found in Him.

Alleluia
Alleluia
Alleluia
Jesus, Come.

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Romans 8 says God subjected the creation to futility on purpose — that all this groaning we see, hear, and feel is the pains of childbirth, meant to assure us that deliverance will indeed come.

I had the holy and awesome privilege of watching my daughter and my daughter-in-law give birth — one at home, and one at a birthing center — both without the use of any drugs.

I watched and prayed as they entered fully into their labor, breathing into the pain, working with the contractions.

As the hours dragged on, I watched them battle through the dark and awful fear that deliverance would never come — that strength would fail, and life would be swallowed up in death.

And I watched as they entered the phase called transition — that sacred and solemn space, where the world disappears and the whole body, soul, and spirit is consumed with bringing forth life.

Watching was like catching a glimpse into eternal mysteries — the hope that the creation itself  will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. The hope of redemption that contracts the soul of every believer with prayers that are groanings too deep for words.

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When I consider the brokenness of the world today — the desperation of refugees torn from their homes yet feared and rejected by many in the world, the immensity of modern day slavery and human trafficking, the selfish demands of the privileged, and the ignored oppression of the poor, the orphan, and the widow — I feel exhausted and tempted to despair. Perhaps deliverance will never come. Perhaps strength will fail, and life will be swallowed up in death.

But then I remember Who subjected creation to this prolonged ordeal, and hope rises. Perhaps we’re on the edge of transition — that holy and solemn space where the soul gives itself to a higher purpose.

Perhaps the church will shake off her anesthesia, enter fully into her labor, breathe into the pain, and work with the contractions, and perhaps new life will come forth from all this agony.

This is my hope.

And my prayer?

It hasn’t changed.

It’s still the same aching, exquisite cry that belongs to the Spirit and the Bride.

“Jesus, Come.”

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Christmas Presence

20 12 2016

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Hey, friends! Guess what? Christmas is only FIVE DAYS AWAY!

 

Maybe you’re one of those museum-worthy souls whose ducks are not only all in a row, they’re wearing Santa hats and singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” in perfect four-part harmony. I’m (sort of) happy for you.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us who live in the midst of all kinds of messy?

Today I’m over at The Consilium with GOOD NEWS: The messiness of life is the point of Christmas! Here’s a little glimpse.

“Jesus’ entire public ministry consisted of living into our messy. He tasted poverty instead of privilege, weariness instead of wealth. He gave instead of receiving. He served instead of being served. He healed the sick, raised the dead, gave freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and dancing to the lame. And He laid down His life instead of refusing the cup of God’s wrath because that’s exactly what He came to do.”

I hope you’ll take a few moments to join me over there.

Whether your perfectly ordered ducks have now finished singing carols and are performing The Nutcracker Ballet, or you haven’t even started your shopping, you can still celebrate Immanuel — the God who is with us. Merriest Christmas, friends. And may He light the coming year with His peace.

Love, Jeanne





When we don’t recognize the answers to our prayers

11 11 2016

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To state the obvious, there’s a lot of pain, confusion, fear, and disappointment in the aftermath of the election. We’re all processing what happened and trying to predict what it might mean for the future. Tensions are high and words are often harsh and accusatory. And I’m not even referring to the general populace. I’m talking about those who identify as believers in Christ.

So, I thought it might be good to preach a little gospel to myself and anyone else who wants to listen in. Feel free to grab a cup of tea and get cozy.

Our culture may be saying a lot of things about us, and we may be saying a lot of things about each other, but God has also said some very specific things about His people. Here are a few of them:

We are created in His image, covered by the shadow of His wing, held in the palm of His hand, fearfully and wonderfully made, created for His pleasure and glory, chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, taught by the Holy Spirit, known, protected, shielded, shepherded, disciplined as beloved children, grafted into the vine, loved, cherished, set apart, adopted, His workmanship created for good works that He has foreordained for us to walk in.

Exhale.

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One good thing I already see happening post-election is that Christians in America are distancing themselves from political affiliations and reexamining their identity. As believers, we’re called to be in this world, but not of it. We may be citizens of a nation, but we’re called to live here as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom. No earthly ruler is responsible for accomplishing what God has commanded His church to do.

God is calling His people to deep, meaningful, and powerful community. Can you imagine what would happen if we really believed all the truths God has spoken over us — if we walked into our inheritance and united our hearts, our creativity, and our energies in loving this broken world?

We need to own our identity as God’s sons and daughters and co-heirs with Christ, because the kingdom we live in determines the lenses through which we see all things, including the promises of God.

Consider Psalm 84:11-12. “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”

When you read the words, “the Lord bestows favor and honor,” what comes to mind? Or what about the phrase, “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly”? If we view this promise through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, we remember that “favor” from God may look like loving discipline of His child, and “honor” may look like bearing reproach for His Name, and the “good thing” He won’t withhold may be the suffering or persecution He knows we need to be conformed to the image of His Son.

The more we look through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, the less God’s Word becomes about our personal or social agenda and the more it becomes about His glory and His kingdom.

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The only way to accurately see God’s promises and commands is through the right lenses, and when we do see clearly, life becomes a glorious adventure with Him. When we don’t get our way, we can still give thanks, because we believe in His sovereign plans and purposes and power. We trust that, whatever He chooses for us, it is an indication of our Father’s favor and His faithfulness to give good and perfect gifts to His children.

God is always only good in what He gives, and always only good in what He forbids. Therefore, the only true freedom is found in absolute submission to Him.

So, how do we live in submission to this King? What are the principles and laws of this upside-down kingdom?

They’re the exact opposites of the principles of the world or the so-called law of the jungle.

Jungle law says it’s every man for himself.
Kingdom law says consider others as more important than yourself, and the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all.

Jungle law says might makes right.
Kingdom law says the weak confound the mighty.

Jungle law says kill or be killed.
Kingdom law says turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well.

Jungle law claims that only the fittest will survive.
But kingdom law says become as a little child, the meek inherit the earth, and the pure in heart see God.

And here’s the secret to freedom and the unexplainable joy of God’s children. We know that the best gifts He gives are actually the ones that bow us the lowest, because God resists the proud and draws near to the humble.

God’s ways are higher than ours. He knows what we actually need (as opposed to what we think we want), and He is willing to crush us if that’s the way to resurrection. We see this imagery again and again in scriptural word pictures.

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Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. He prunes us according to His wisdom. To us it may look like He has cut away what was most beautiful in our lives, but He always prunes with purpose, that we might abide more deeply in Him and that we might bear much fruit.

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He is the potter and we are the clay. We feel the pressure and we want to squirm out of his grasp, but He is shaping us, molding us for His purposes. We can trust God’s love to be behind every painful stroke of His hand.

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He is the refiner and we are His gold. Left to ourselves, we would remain dingy lumps of metal with dirt clinging to our surface. His fire cleanses, purifies, strengthens. He knows exactly how hot the fire needs to be to burn away all our dross until He can see His face reflected in our lives.

We want these things in theory. We may even ask Him to prune our dead branches, to shape us into useful vessels, to burn away our dross. But when it happens in real life — when the sheers cut deep and the pressure feels unbearable and the fire burns hot, we can easily lose sight of God’s purpose and forget that the suffering is not only for our good and His glory, it’s the answer to our prayers.

Have you noticed that we never fathom the fullness of God’s ways? There’s always more than we can see. We look for physical healing and God heals our hearts. We ask for blessing and He sends pain that splits us wide open, because He knows that’s the only way our souls will ever learn to breathe.

Right now the people of God in America have an opportunity to be salt and light for such a time as this. May we welcome His working in us and trust His ways. And may we recognize the answers to our own prayers, even when they come disguised in the most surprising and unexpected packages.





The Anatomy of an Ann Voskamp Book Signing (because this is what you need on election day)

8 11 2016

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Best-selling and much beloved author, Ann Voskamp, just completed a ten-day, seven-city book tour, during which she appeared at ten different bookstores to sign copies of her new book, The Broken Way. When she wasn’t being fully engaged with the hundreds who showed up for the signings, in her spare time (aka, the few remaining hours between catching flights or snagging a quick meal or squeezing in a brief sleep), she also sat for numerous interviews with every imaginable form of media, from major network TV to whatever is at the opposite end of the media spectrum.

This pace and publicity would exhaust even the most attention-starved extrovert. But Ann isn’t hungry for attention. And she’s an introvert. So, why does she do it?

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It’s hard to know what to say about Ann. Not because I can’t think of a hundred beautiful things I’d love to say, but because I know she would prefer people not focus on her at all. She knows we are created to be worshipers, not to be worshiped. To be givers, not takers. I’ve said this before, but she’s like the character Lucia in Max Lucado’s, You Are Special. While all the other Wemmicks are preoccupied with earning and assigning dots (criticism) and stars (praises), the stickers won’t stick to Lucia. Because her worth is fully realized in her Maker.

You won’t find dots or stars on Ann.

We caught up with Ann at signing number nine out of ten — her third and final event in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I knew she was exhausted. That she’d not only been pouring out for days, she’d also taken to heart the stories she’d been hearing all along the way — people who felt safe to share their brokenness because she’d trusted them with hers. People who wanted to say thank you for the life-changing ways God had met them in her words.

So, even in her bone-weariness, this is the anatomy of an Ann Voskamp book signing.

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I don’t have to tell Ann my story of brokenness. She already knows it. Before either of us say a single word, she pulls me into this hug. There’s nothing shy about Ann’s hug. It’s like a wordless expression of all the compassion in her wide-open heart.

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Then she recognizes Jacob. Look at her face. George and I look like the ones who’ve been wrung out for days. This is the face of un-self-conscious, genuine love.

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Then she begins to sign. I have eight copies, six with post-it notes explaining to whom they will be given and a few words about each person. I watch as, book after book, she writes to complete strangers personalized messages that are encouraging, specific, and at times stunning in their application. We may be standing on no-frills commercial carpet at Books-a-Million, but this is holy ground.

And, of course, I had her sign a book for us, too.

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Finally, because I was on the launch team for The Broken Way, Zondervan’s Tom Dean took our picture together. And then I moved on.

But Ann remained. Hugging, signing books, smiling for photos, being fully present. And listening.

Story after story, she listened. Story after story, she let her heart break. And this is her secret.

Ann doesn’t have a career plan. She has a Redeemer. And she wants everyone else to have Him, too. So, after counting her thousands of gifts, the next step became clear.

Become the gift. Live broken and given, like the bread at the Last Supper. Because Jesus gave thanks, and then He gave — not only the physical bread, but His own body. And from His brokenness, we all receive life.

Tonight, Ann will return home at last — back to the farm and the strong arms of her Farmer, to her seven children and the happy chaos of ordinary family life. Tonight, the USA will elect a new president. And I can’t help but think, with all that’s going on in the world, it’s no coincidence that this invitation to the church comes right now.

To whom much is given, much is required. And we have been given so much in Christ. We have peace in a world full of tribulation. We have light where darkness presses hard. We have hope where fear shouts the loudest.

So let’s be the gift. For such a time as this.

 

 








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