wise

We’ve concocted a beautiful little children’s story out of Jesus’ birth.

You have a barn, a mom and dad, and then there are some sheep, donkey, probably some goats and in my mind there has to be a rooster there somewhere. Of course, don’t forget the angel, they are very beautiful in the Christmas pageant every year. There are some raggedy shepherds too, naturally they smell awful.

The fact that Jesus’ birth can be brought into the lives of children in a visual way that makes them excited every year is wonderful. But as we grow older, I think we have a tendency to get too comfortable with that version of Jesus’ birth.

Some of the events surrounding his appearance in our world were life and death. Herod killed every single boy that was two years and younger in all of Bethlehem and its vicinity. It was a massacre. How the parents must have felt as the soldier forced their way through the town, killing as they went house to house.

It’s intriguing how God chose shepherds for the angel to appear in front of on that hillside. They were the lowest of low, the dirtiest of the dirty. People avoided them because they smelled of sheep. And they were terrified when an angel appeared to them, who wouldn’t be, honestly? Yet, they have the highest honor of an angel appearing with news of the Messiah.

Finally, my favorite part of the nativity scene as an adult…the wise men.

Somehow over the last several years, God has morphed that imagine of kings on camels majestically coming into the presence of the baby Jesus into this beautiful image of men so full of hope for God to restore the world and so full of faith to travel thousands of miles to see the Messiah in person. Men who were most likely proclaimed as crazy by those who knew why they were following a star to an unknown destination. They chose extreme risks in their adventure over continued study of the scriptures. They chose to hope with reckless abandon.

If these wise men were high and mighty where they came from, at the feet of baby Jesus they find themselves in complete humility and in awe of the honor of physically being present with the Messiah.

I see them as dusty and road weary. Exhausted, but supernaturally energized at the prospect of seeing the Messiah they had only read about in the scrolls of the prophets. They had traveled a long way to reach that point in the journey. How many different animals had they ridden? How many miles had they walked? How many new experiences had they had? How many challenges did the face? Or attempted robberies on the road?

The wise men put a lot of faith in hope in following their maps and the stars for thousands of miles. I could never imagine every challenge they faced on this crazy adventure as they crossed in and out of new cultures.

The star the wise men followed was hope that they carried with them for a new world, and a hope that carried them through a long journey.

That hope is just as real today as it was thousands of years ago. The wise men must have had so many questions and a million reasons to turn back, but they put their trust in how God spoke through the prophets. They remained focused on the one God who would send a man to redeem creation, and bring all back to the heart and grace of the one who sent him.

May you embrace the supernatural hope, extreme adventure and tunnel vision to Jesus today as you embrace inspiration from three wise (albeit crazy) men.

near

I am a huge lover of movies. I will watch anything except horror flicks, and I definitely do not enjoy all chick flicks. Some are just ridiculous. My favorites are action and comedy genres. The more action the better and more laughs are the best.

Every now and then in the movies there is a ‘Hollywood typical homeless man’ on the street corner yelling out scripture with a doomsday megaphone and holding a sign that says, ‘The Kingdom of God is near.’ I think we all collectively roll our eyes when we see this, because we know there is a disconnect between the message and the way in which it is delivered. Also, not discrediting the prophets from history, but prophets need to have an awareness and place within the culture to be able to accurately deliver the message to the culture they are calling out. Unfortunately, a random dude on a street corner doesn’t exactly qualify. It’s not the first or last time the stories of Jesus will get muddled in Hollywood.

“After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” [Mark 1:14-15]

Jesus’ messages about the kingdom of God do get a bit intense, but we have to remember that those messages also coincide with GOOD NEWS: belief, transformation, love, grace, working towards that kingdom being restored and renewed.

We get so caught up in what is right and wrong, and how to obey socially unspoken rules in how to act as a believer within this culture that we forget what Jesus said.

“But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’” [Luke 18:16-17]

There is an innocence in little children, and there is a way that they accept truth when it comes from people they trust. And that doesn’t even take into account the easy faith they have when it comes to Jesus. Why is it so easy for children to believe? What happens as we get older to take that quality out of our lives?

What I do know is that proclaiming the message of good news is not something to be preached from a street corner and be taken seriously. Proclaiming that message is earned through genuine, honest relationships that are built over time and it brings in an element of the message coming from someone you trust. People ask questions when your life looks different, and that makes it the easiest proclamation you will ever make when someone asks why you do the things you do.

“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17:20-21]

What does Holy Spirit transformation look like within you? Is it reflected in your actions? When people make observations about you, what do they say? Do they see God?

What I love about the kingdom of God is that it isn’t a physical place…yet, and we get to place our hope in the restoration of this world, as well as work toward it with how we live our lives. And that is a message that is easy to proclaim when we are faced with corruption in government, murders, racism, death, sickness, war and everything that breaks God’s heart in this world. Eventually, all of those things will be erased and God’s love wins. Maybe someone should yell that from a street corner…God’s love wins, friends!

jesus

‘Who do you say I am?’

Jesus asked his disciples this in Matthew 16:15, and since it came on my radar last weekend I cannot get it to stop playing on a loop in my head. Jesus asked the disciples in Matthew 16:13, ‘Who do people say the son of man is?’ and they go on to list what everyone else is saying about Jesus. Then Jesus turns it back on them and makes it a bit more personal.

‘But what about you?’ Jesus asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’

Peter immediately answers, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

There is so much in that simple statement. Fulfillment of prophecy, the Trinity…hope…life…

When the disciples were left on their own to propel the stories of Jesus out from that place, there was a moment when they were faced with the decision of being who God has created them to be and fully accept who Jesus is, or turn the opposite direction and forfeit life in God’s Kingdom and the eternal life promised.

When we choose to pursue life in God’s Kingdom, we find ourselves in unique positions to answer Jesus’ question to the disciples.

‘Who do you say I am?’

This question has been annoyingly consistent at running on a loop in my head, I even challenged my community to mull it over…you know, just so I’m not annoyed alone. I hate doing things alone, which is why I love community so much.

Jesus is community. He gathered a group of friends, walked through life with them and drew people in with genuine kindness and never treated someone differently based on the wrongs they had done in their life. He calls us to the same…to gather and walk through life with a group of friends in such an authentic way that others are drawn to what they see in the community God has given us. We gather to be honest, loyal, supportive, faithful and actually, to completely call each other out on our shit when we need it. And for the moments when that happens in a setting of genuine community and relationship under the model Jesus laid out in Matthew 18:15-20, then we are able to work through that together as believers should when their community is built on the perfect Cornerstone, Jesus himself. Life with Jesus is 100% inclusive and 0% exclusive, I realize that is redundant, but more people need to live their life with the 0% exclusive mandate. We do not judge sin. We do not judge the level of belief a person professes. If we are not a visible image of who Jesus is, then how is anyone being drawn to the intimacy of his Kingdom? When we present ourselves as judgmental, exclusive, rule-driven, hateful and disloyal to each other…that is NOT the image of Christ.

Jesus is love. Unstoppable love to be more accurate. Unrelenting. Pursuing. Intimate love. Personal to who you are. His love will never leave, and you could never do anything to make his love separate from you. His love will never force guilt on you in order to be worthy of it. It is never dependent on how much good you do. It flows out of him like a colander. You could never plug all of the holes quick enough to make it stop flowing. Even in your anger and you don’t want Jesus or his love anymore, he doesn’t stop it from pouring over you. His love is perfect, and actually drives out fear. His love covers me constantly, and is at times so tangible that I am overwhelmed at my true unworthiness at receiving it. But I am so grateful for those moments and intimate reminders that I belong to him. He chose me.

Jesus is healer. I think it is hard to recognize Jesus’ healing without having experienced it firsthand. That incredible miracle of healing on body, mind, and soul…healing on every aspect of who we are as humans is so supernatural it is completely incomprehensible. It’s not just the incredible miracles that we read in the Bible, but how individualized it is to us as his daughter or son. Chipping away at protective walls we spent a lot of time fortifying, yet so tender, because he wants to use us through the walls we’ve built.

Jesus is peace. He is the peace. Your peace. My peace. Complete peace. It takes on so many different meanings in scripture. In 2 Chronicles 14 is means to be at rest and free from conflict. In Ephesians 2:14, more like tranquility, harmony and reconciling relationships. The most important part is that Jesus says he left his peace with YOU in John 14:27. Jesus knew he wasn’t bringing physical peace to this world, but he did know his peace would be left with those in this world.

Jesus is Savior. God born in flesh to sacrifice himself for the nasty shit we sink ourselves into on a daily basis. No need to point fingers…unless you are more than ready to have some pointed in your own direction. Jesus was the ONLY perfect human, and the faster we accept and honor that with our lives, the less pressure you put on yourself to be perfect. You are not responsible for 50 conversions this week…you aren’t even responsible for one. And if you happen to be present for a life transformation moment, you most certainly do not get the glory, it all goes to him. The small group that you are part of doesn’t need the perfect image you want to put up as a façade. They want the real you. The one who is just as much of an asshole as the people you are gathering with. Your façade of perfection just makes them feel like more of an asshole, and they don’t need that pressure if they are already admitting faults. You will screw up, and it is ok. Jesus wasn’t selective when he took on the sin of the world. He took it all. Every last bit, but you have to stop trying to keep some of your sin to yourself. When you hold back, that’s on you, not him. He wants your transformation and growth to reflect his sacrifice.

Jesus is present in Spirit. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples in John 20:22, and they were blessed with the physical presence of that moment. However, ALL believers have access to the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5:5 is says that God’s love has been poured on us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Jesus said he would send a comforter, a guide, helper, counselor, advocate, truth…and Holy Spirit is all of those things. It is not something to be afraid of, and definitely not something to ignore, because it is a piece of how Jesus is still active and present with us now. This piece of Jesus is like home for me. It’s the gift of grace that guides my decision making, sends me out and gives me words for those that Jesus needs to speak into. It is my connection to Jesus that is most substantial at times.

Jesus is sender. Some of his last words to his disciples were that the Holy Spirit would come on them and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Jude and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Ironically, those church pews that tend to be pretty sticky and very comfortable for most believers were never a part of the sending plan. He was adamant that his people would be scattered and that they were sent out. It wasn’t a byproduct of a plan, it was THE plan. If you have never read the sent language of the Bible, dust off that Bible and get to it…start in John.

Jesus is empowerment. He left his disciples to propel his message forward, and calls every single person who believes in him to do the same to make the kingdom of God attractive to others so people would be drawn to God’s heart and grace. He didn’t tell the disciples, “Guys, hold down the fort and I’ll do it all when I get back.” Instead it was the freedom of, “Friends, you have a lot of work to do. Go out. Tell my stories. Be my love. Always point back to who I am.”

Jesus is a rebel. His presence as a baby incited Herod to kill all of the boys age 2 and under in and around Bethlehem. He pissed off the Pharisees. He said he would cause divisions in families when only part of a family chose to follow him. He tossed the tables in the temple when he saw the blasphemy that was occurring there. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and all of the people that fell into the forgotten and despised part of society. Honestly, how popular would be in our world as that rebel? But it is who he is, friends.

Jesus is a storyteller. He was a master at it, actually, but also, a master at confusing people with parables. But the bottom line is he told stories that pointed to God’s kingdom and made people struggle with what that meant. He didn’t give all the answers, but he pointed in the right direction.

Jesus is victory…and hope. As believers we do not fight, pray or exist in this world for God’s victory. He’s already won. We fight WITH his victory, and that victory has us put our hope in a world that is fully renewed, restored and reconciled to God. At least, that’s the victory I am fighting with in this shitty, sinful world that rips people apart instead of draws them together. The enemy’s goal is to separate us, because we are worthless apart from Jesus and separated from each other. Our true strength is in being unified under the peace of Christ and fighting as one body.

Realistically, who Jesus is could go on for eternity…and really does. But, for where I am and who God has created me to be, this is who Jesus is for me.

It is our responsibility as a body of believers able to answer who Jesus is to a world that is desperately seeking his truth and unconditional love. How is he real? How is he present? How have I been transformed by him? Why did I choose him? How does my life look different? Where does my joy in a hurting world come from? Where does my story merge with his story?

If you cannot readily answer those simple questions, then you are not telling Kingdom stories when the opportunities arise to draw people to God’s heart and you are not pointing to the one who is Truth with your life. Gauntlet thrown.

 

change their story

IMG_2187For the last ten years I have given a lot of my life and love to children in Russia that are cast off into orphanages. What started as a willingness to follow God’s pull to orphan ministry has become what is, and will be, a lifetime of fighting for orphans in our world…wherever God may lead me. 

Coming from someone who used to not like kids at all…this is an ironic calling. However, the truth is my passion for seeing educated orphans grow into healthy and mature citizens of their own countries, then have healthy families of their own that break the vicious orphan cycle…makes my soul sing.

I believe that the things our world finds worthless…our God sees worth. I believe that the people our world judges…our God wraps his arms around and whispers, ‘You are loved.’

But alone…I am just one believer fighting against many social and political structures.

I am blessed to be a part of a community that wants to invest in some great kids in Russia through Children’s Hopechest. Together, as one community, we fight to see the kids embrace the hope of a future and see love as genuine and unconditionally given by not only us, but by the God that has loved them since the beginning of time.

Most Russians believe orphans do not have a story, but we believe these kids have been a part of God’s story since before they were born.

IMG_2444I am known in the orphanage as the one who always laughs and smiles. To me it is the easiest gift to give,  crossing language and cultural boundaries, to make someone feel included and loved. The greater gift, however, is being accepting as a part of their family. Someone they trust. Someone they ask advice from when they want to reach out. Do you know what an honor that is? To be asked for advice from kids that have been betrayed by family, with countless promises broken, and resulting in not trusting anyone?

These are the moments God works through. Where he shows himself and everything points backs to his heart for our world. This is one of the moments in my life that I have waited for…to be counted as a part of their family no matter how far away I am or what language I speak.

I will fight for these kids with everything I have in me. They deserve better. They deserve to know love. They deserve to know laughter and joy. They deserve the presence of people who will come alongside them, and walk with them through the tough things life throws at them. They deserve people surrounding them that will hear them say, ‘My dream is to be a good mother.’ Respond with, ‘I believe you will be. Let’s talk about what you need to learn and how you need to grow to make that dream come true.’ Then be invested long enough to see that dream realized.

This Christmas season I am creating an opportunity for others to fight for these kids, too. To make a different choice in how you approach the Christmas season of giving.

I am choosing to make it known that I do not want gifts, and asking my friends and family to make a donation to Children’s Hopechest and their campaign ‘Change Their Story.’ My team will be raising funds for tutors at Velikoretskoye Orphanage in Russia. Russian orphans are given a free education…as long as their grades are good enough and they continue passing exams. We have several students on the verge of graduating and heading to tech school next year, which means more tutors will play a large roll in helping the kids continue their education.

Here you will find a link to the team I have created for ‘Change Their Story.’ This is a way to set aside normal American standards of Christmas, and embrace a new way of celebrating the birth of our Savior. An invitation to help some great kids and perhaps choose to spend time with those you would normally give a gift to instead.

IMG_2245I write this post as a call to action. A call to belief in a God big enough to embrace the broken in this world. A call to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This is a call to be a part of God’s story and change the story of some incredible kids.

This year will you choose to worship the materialism of a holiday that was created for worshipping our Savior? Or might you choose a new way? A new opportunity to fight for the injustice in this world? It may be that you are not passionate about orphan care…perhaps you are about clean water, the hungry, the homeless or victims of sex trafficking. No matter what your passion, choose to change a story of someone that will draw others closer to God’s Kingdom and reflect God’s heart.

I am praying that others will join me and choose to fight for something this Christmas, while I choose to fight for some amazing kids who deserve to know people are fighting for them. This year, listen for the sound of heaven touching earth as your heart aligns with God’s heart for the orphan. It’s the best sound on earth.

layers

Above me is a ceiling made out of a quilted patchwork of multi-colored tarps held together by a myriad of wires, ropes and thanks to some wacky Americans…zip ties.

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*This photo is for ‘sale’ on my photo blog at sojourner4jesusphotography.com. Selling photos is one of the avenues I use to raise money for mission trip travel.

It holds so much beauty in its own right, but then add to it a Holy purpose and all of a sudden it is transformed into one of the most amazing worship areas I’ve ever been honored to worship God under.

The electricity of the Holy Spirit was tangible, and needed no translation among a group of believers speaking multiple languages.

Layers of worship.

What does that mean to you? What do layers of worship look like? If you could peel back every layer it would have the same core of the God we serve, but each of those layers look different based on where you are worshipping.

I’ve worshipped in gilded Russian Orthodox churches to the makeshift sacred space of classrooms in China to mud floors and rusted tin walls in Guatemala.

But layers of worship gained immense meaning for me in Haiti in May.

Our teams’ task the first two days on site at Olivier Methodist Church in Haiti was to transfer the rocky rubble of the earthquake torn church building to the back of the compound where it became Holy ground for the church pews on Sunday morning.

Setting aside my general awe of the beautiful way most other countries use everything while we toss aside things that are perfectly good…God opened my eyes to the layers.

On Haitian ground covered with the earthquake rubble of the past building sat the pews in groupings and rows expectantly waiting for a community to come together under the shade provided by colorful tarps, woven together behind a church building slowly being put back together.

The community could have fallen apart. Haitian community is based around church gathering places. When the church buildings collapsed, the community had nowhere to gather that was protected from rain and sun. Our first night after working there was a major rainstorm…the next morning we found half of the tarps sagging under ponds of water from the rain.

The community could have relocated. Many had lost their homes and others their ability to earn money.

The community could have said ‘There is no God. If there was, why would this have happened?’ But the beauty of the Haitian people is their ability to turn their hope toward eternal life and life beyond this world.

The community could have said it’s not worth it. We have natural disasters all of the time why would be rebuild.

But the community is strong and stubborn in all the areas it should be.

Instead the community holds onto the ‘espwa’ of Jesus. (‘espwa’ is ‘hope’ in Creole.) They cling to the strength community brings as one whole instead of each alone. Their songs of worship are yelled to their Savior as their hands sway in the Holy Spirit saturated air. And they stand together as one community seeking the one true God in layers of worship.

evil

Evil.

Easy to despise. Easy to be put yourself on the opposing side. Easy to speak out against. Easy to hate the villain.

Also…easy to find yourself slipping into…

How many times have I said something hateful?

How many times have I done something mean?

So often I find myself amidst the struggle of more God verses more…not God.

It is easy to try and explain away…we are human and that struggle is real. It is sin, ask for forgiveness.

And the alternative gives credence to there being powers that work against us. That darkness exists in very real forms. And worse of all…that there is real evil in our world.

We want to believe everything is sunshine, rainbows and white puffy clouds.

And just to be clear, I’m not referring to the pessimists and optimists. I am talking about the guy who tempted Jesus in the desert. The one who possessed people and the disciples had to drive out. The one who convinced a disciple to betray Jesus. I hate even saying the name, but most have sensed the reality in some way.

Discernment…knowing the difference between good and evil. It is one of those gifts that is hard to explain, because if you have that gift it registers different for each person. But you sense there is something dark and ominous. Or maybe in your brightest most Holy Spirit moment…you know there is something that is working against you. To break you, and break your hold on God’s truth.

Because evil is not truth. Evil is lies.

Because evil is not good. Evil is bad.

Because evil does not want happiness for you.

It wants to destroy you simply because you love Jesus.

Paul even writes in several of his letters instructing and encouraging the believers to arm themselves. To be ready and not to give in to temptation that would tear them away from the light of God.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. [Ephesians 6:11-13]

TS2I have never felt so profoundly that I was walking with God, and there was an extreme power working against me than when I was in China for a summer. In a place than can have so much hospitality, beauty and beautiful people, we were most definitely making waves with good vs. evil. And when you think about it, God has been doing something incredible in China for many years. Missionaries have risked their lives to bring the message of truth to the Chinese who want to believe. When you look at it that way, of course the scale tips for good and evil wants to fight it.

So, how do you fight? How do you stand? Well, first you have to get seriously pissed off. Get mad that something is working so hard against the God we serve and loves us unconditionally, even when we slip and give evil a helping hand.

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Then…get on your knees. I know for a fact that prayer warriors get the job done. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen change through prayer.

Then…get in God’s word. I know the power of God’s word when you are grounded in it. I just wish I was all-around good at staying in scripture without some pissed-off motivation to send me back to it.

Then…get accountability. I know for a fact that I am stronger with others fighting beside me, and holding me accountable to the Christian life I have chosen to live. God’s word says that the devil prowls around like a lion waiting to devour us. Jesus said he was sending them out like sheep amongst the wolves. When we are separated from each other, we are weak. It is a really bad choice to be alone.

Then…have faith and hope, because God wins in the end. We just have to help him fight along the way.

Here’s to you winning a battle today.