truth

Note: I’ve felt led to share an open letter to my community of Jesus’ loving, sarcastic speakin’, community driven and radically living ladies who laugh with me and love me despite my inherent ability to sometimes be an asshole. Friends, three years ago this month I followed a crazy whim that the Holy Spirit had put on my heart to experiment with a small group Bible Study using the Tangible Kingdom Primer. Since that moment, we have had so, so many crazy adventures together, intense prayer and read some books we know we don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole again, as well as some we keep recommending to others. But best of all we have waded through the muck and fell headlong into God’s heart for his Kingdom to be realized through loving others and genuinely caring about those around us every day. The unique thing about our DNA is that our focus has consistently been grounded on the perfect cornerstone of Jesus Christ. He is our launching pad into incarnational living that is creating each one of us into storytellers who perpetuate the stories of The Storyteller. We have seen friends sit among us and then move on by their own choice. We have seen family members pass away. We know each other, and not just know in the general sense, but known in the way God has created us to be open and honest with each other within community. We have countless crazy Kingdom stories. We have become excellent listeners. We have struggled through so many aspects of life together, responding each time by encircling our friend while carrying, motivating and loving them through the shit this world throws around. We have celebrated victories in life, jobs, friendship, marriages…because if a group who calls themselves Fondue Crew doesn’t know how to celebrate, who does? I know we all realize this…but I think it is important to remember where our roots are, and how we have been grown together with Jesus at the core in order to see where God is leading us. So many times as groups grow, they get to a point where they think they have learned all they will be able to learn from each other and feel they need to move on. Other times individuals believe that they don’t really belong any more. Sometimes the group gets too big and someone gets a brilliant *sarcasm* idea to multiply and grow new groups, only causing division because it was an idea of man not Spirit. Other times the ‘B’ word slides in and convinces us we are too busy for that weekly check-in and storytelling. When our group had just formed, I bought a book, ‘Community is Messy,’ but I never read it. Mostly, because I knew our foundation was built of the power of the one who reigns over the entire universe and if it got messy, we would draw on that power to figure it out. I’d never felt as intense discernment as when I felt the pull to start this group stubbornly centered on Kingdom life and living incarnational lives, telling Kingdom stories with a commitment to only do studies or activities pulling us deeper into that sent life. God was doing a lot in my life and redefining what I thought mission was into what God meant it to be, and he was calling me to share that ‘doing’ mission was not his heart and that Kingdom vision was right at the center. The one tie that truly binds us is our deep, passionate, loyal love for the One whose grace saves…the Master Storyteller. The stories we tell point to his Kingdom and without those stories to glorify God we are not living the lives God has called us to in this world. I am in a dual state of extreme gratitude for how we encourage each other, but also a feeling of disconnect, which goes against why God formed our community. We are strongest together when we are weaving our lives into His Story. What I do know is the world we fight for puts us in direct conflict with the forces that fight against that world being realized. It makes us susceptible to so many things. We cannot ever let ourselves believe the lie that we are separated from the community God has brought us into. We must believe the truth of God’s heart, the truth of his Holy Spirit leading and the truth that there is a purpose for our community. When we start listening to the lies that we don’t have time, it’s been too long and it will feel weird to be back or you feel uncomfortable with someone in the group…we allow ourselves to believe the lie that we are better on our own and we don’t belong in community.

“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.” [Ephesians 6:12, NIV]

For months I’ve been allowing myself to believe the lie that my voice doesn’t have the right to speak alongside your voices. Allowing myself to hear I’ve been gone for too long. Without time spent with you, without knowing what is happening in your daily lives…I’ve allowed myself to believe that I am too far away, I am not needed and I am separate. Within those thoughts, I’ve been holding on to some things I felt God wanted us to hear. But it is time to share God’s truth… Friends, we have failed to fortify ourselves against spiritual attack and we are getting picked apart. We are digressing into our own minds and not being honest about where we are at right now. Myself included. We are loved by the giver of life, so intimately, that we are chosen. We must embrace this truth as a community, but also individually. You are chosen.

“As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” [1 Peter 2:4-9]

We need to trust each other explicitly and know that while we first trust Jesus, we without a doubt we have each others’ back. That means honesty and not hiding away when things get tough. We need to actively communicate our struggles with each other and know we are supported. We need to hold each other accountable to telling Kingdom stories and living Kingdom lives through blessing others, listening well, being present, committing to prayer and seeking growth in God’s word. We need to realize how uniquely we each are made, embrace those differences and celebrate how specific our gifts are as we use them to fit together into God’s perfect puzzle. We need every single one of us.

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” [Ephesians 4:11-16]

We are uniquely called to love deeply all those around us, yes, we will be assholes, but our intentions remain pure. It means conversations with people at work, school and on long drives that we wouldn’t normally jump into. It means spending money a different way. It means being outside our comfort zone. It also draws on a willingness to surrender ourselves to allow God to use us. It means transformation. It means we will sometimes get hurt, but it also allows us to love and encourage each other through that pain. We need to commit to reconciling our relationships with each other through love, and live gracefully. We need to shelf excuses that keep us secluded from community. We need to stop the busy, acknowledge boundaries and know that God seeks to use us everywhere we go…while discerning God doesn’t mean for this community to be sacrificed on the altar of busy. Everything we have been through, read and learned has led us to this specific time and place to be what God needs from us…BUT we are asked to listen and filter out the busy to hear. We have served side-by-side in various aspects: Harvesters, Russia, Haiti and Spofford. We keep seeking the voice of God on where that ‘one thing’ is in this world for us to dive in together, but we are truly a beautiful image of God because our eclecticness is unique. How many times have you looked around our group and thought, ‘How did we all end up here?’ What God has brought together has meaning, and it is special. We are all different and each called in a different way, and I am convinced God will make us strongest when we use our differences. I am convinced that it isn’t that we have one thing for us all to be about, but God has made each of us about different things within a common passion. We each have an innate passion to champion those in this world that are forgotten. It looks different with each of us, but each of us is doing this within our own calling. I could look at each of you right now and call out that area where you are living to champion those the world forgets. We are called to community, and that community is called out as individuals…to then come back to community to heal, share and love deeply in a safe place. This world is hard. God knows it is drowning in sin, but he also knows there is an end with his victory and he has given believers a place to retreat back to and feel safe until he has healed this world.

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord and in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” [Ephesians 2:14-22]

The truth is, friends, I need you in my life. I need you to keep reminding me that God has built us together to be a dwelling for the Holy Spirit. I need you to point to the Kingdom when I miss it. I need your stories. I need our community, because I know I cannot do this life alone…and honestly, I really don’t want to, even if you are two plane rides away. Community is messy, but we are called to life lived together. I am beyond blessed to have you all in my life cheering me on and championing who God has called me to be.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same king of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.” [1 Peter 5:6-11]

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believe

My heart was broken the other day. Not just a simple broken either, it was more a shattering, deep pain that was busting forth in front of my eyes that I couldn’t stop and in the end it tore me to shreads.

I was sitting at a village and there was a young one asleep in my lap and several kids hanging out around me. We were joking around when the conversation suddenly took a turn for the worse, and while I am super impressed with my Creole abilities to participate in this conversation, my inability also left me at a loss of complete words to help.

“Stephanie, did you know both of his parents are dead?” we shall call this kid, Little Shit, LS for short.

“That’s a lie!” we shall call this kid the Tortured Little, TL for short.

“It’s true! Both are dead!” LS stated plainly.

“That’s a lie!” TL said, grabbing my hands in his, “My mama is dead, but my dad is in prison.”

“His dad stole something with a gun,” LS said.

“That’s a lie!” TL shouted.

“It’s true! He used a gun,” LS said.

“A lie!” TL shouted as silent tears started running down his face.

“I believe you,” I said gently straight into TL’s eyes as he silently nodded, still combating the onslaught of lies coming at him.

“Go away! Stop hurting him,” I told LS, who by this time was smirking at the reaction he was getting from TL.

I pulled TL to my side and repeated again, “I believe you. I don’t believe him. You know the truth. He doesn’t know,” as tears continued to fall down his cheeks.

“Do you understand my bad Creole?” I asked him.

With a direct look in my eyes, he silently nodded yes.

“I believe you. God knows the truth. God loves you a lot,” I told him.

Little Shit is on my radar now. Up until now, I’ve noticed some things he has done, but couldn’t understand enough of the words to really know what was happening. It angers me that he feels he needs to make other kids feel that way in order to feel powerful or to deny his own story. And truly this could happen with ANY kids, emotions and situations are difficult when you are a kid. In these moments it is hard for me to remember grace. LS didn’t ask to live with a multitude of other kids in a village run by a Pastor. The sin of this world has gotten so rampant that it led him there in whatever way sin has kept his family in poverty and manifested there.

If there is anything that makes my heart break more, it’s knowing the defense mechanisms of the orphan culture can be mean, harsh and ruthless. It’s awful, but the sin of this world is ridiculously appalling and it is painful to see when it becomes visible this way. So many get caught up in how cute and adorable most of the kids are – and they are – but if we don’t acknowledge that the life of those that have no one to champion them sucks, then we do them a disservice. Acknowledgment comes in small forms, not big gestures. We are talking about young lives that God created and has a path for in this world…who need to be encouraged and repeatedly told they have value.

It is three small words I was able to use with Tortured Little…”I believe you,” and I am incredibly thankful in that moment I knew that verb. Our stories are our own, and no matter where the truth really lies…they are still our stories. No one else has the right to them, and they certainly don’t get to use them against us, though many try. When in those moments, we can feel so very alone and as if no one else would have the guts to stand with us. We feel like everyone is against us, and that no one actually values the truth of the story or would attempt to see both sides.

As I reflect back on this conversation, since it has stayed with me for several days, I hope that the next time someone tries to use my story against me…someone is there to say, “I believe you.”

vivian

‘JESUS!’

What would happen if you screamed the name of our sovereign God at the top of your lungs in your street? Would it be met with equally loud yells to keep it to yourself? Perhaps everyone would just ignore the weird Jesus freak on the street? I know some of us have neighbors who would echo the sentiment of screaming our Savior’s name at the top of our lungs with pure joy. In Haiti, most likely, someone would yell it back, start singing a worship song, pray or yell ‘Amen!’ In Russia, you would get weird looks, but not because someone disagrees, more due to the fact your relationship with Jesus is private and not for everyone to see. However, for many places in the world it would be outright dangerous to yell the name of Jesus in a public place.

Her name was Vivian, and for whatever reason, God brought her to mind this morning in church. We were worshipping and her named popped into my head, soon followed by images of my time sitting in a concrete dorm room in China with her. I had no idea why she was brought to mind, but any confusion about random thoughts was put to rest once the sermon started with 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 where I had written next to it, “Chinese Christian we cannot see…Vivian. 7-29-01”

What are the odds, right? I don’t believe in odds. I believe in a God who serves as a connector among all his people, and for whatever the God reason, I am deep in prayer for her and those like her around the world today.

I met Vivian July 29, 2001 while in China for the summer on a cultural exchange at Ningxia University. I had mistakenly used a toothbrush in the sink water and was down and out for a solid couple of days. [Haiti trip goers will identify this as why I am now hyper crazy about using ‘clean’ water for everything.] I’d gone to cultural classes in the morning and just couldn’t do it quite yet, and had gone back to my dorm room.

Then a knock came on the door.

I’d assumed it was another American checking on me, but instead this beautiful, sweet Chinese face peaked through the door. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked.

‘I am looking for the American Christians,’ she replied softly, almost in a whisper.

My world slowed to a stop in that moment of awe as a Chinese believer stood in front of me. It could have been a trap to get me in trouble for evangelizing or legitimately be a believer looking for another believer. When we’d arrived in China we’d been told any conversation about Jesus that was not invited by a question could get us into trouble with the government. It was drilled into our heads. Live and act out your faith, but don’t use words until you are asked for them. Honestly, I was relieved this was how we were expected to live among the Chinese students. I was a young believer and terrified of saying something wrong or turning someone away from Jesus because I didn’t have the relationship with them to speak into their life.

Factoring all that in a mere split second, I took the leap, and off Vivian and I went into a conversation about Jesus. She had heard there were American believers on campus and wanted to meet them. She wanted to pray with them. She sought encouragement. She wanted to take hope from the freedom we had to believe in Jesus where we came from. She wanted to feel connected in a tangible way to the American church that was not constricted to house churches or by a government that wanted to control beliefs. She wanted to meet those that live in constant security that whatever you chose to believe you would not be punished for by anyone.

God put me in the time and place to be that connection. We prayed together. Broken English, Mandarin and English blended together all in praise and petition of the one who knows. She left with plans to meet at the night market later and I would bring some friends.

I was exuberant…and I was naïve.

I was an American with no clue what repercussions could come on this sweet, young Chinese believer trying to find her place in God’s Kingdom. I had no idea the risks she took simply opening my door to ask for the ‘American believers.’ I had never known a place that believing in the sovereignty of God would put me in danger.

Our university representative heard about what had happened and approached our American staff. It wasn’t safe, for her or us. It could not happen, and we were not allowed to go to the night market that night.

I never saw Vivian again, but as today can attest…it doesn’t take a lot of time for someone to make a mark on your life. Vivian’s bravery, and thirst for the connection to believers who lived in a place where they were free to shout ‘Jesus!’ from the rooftops was contagious and inspiring.

‘All praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the source of every mercy and the God who comforts us. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. You can be sure that the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. So when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your benefit and salvation! For when God comforts us, it is so that we, in turn, can be an encouragement to you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in suffering, you will also share God’s comfort.’ [2 Corinthians 1:3-7]

As you journey through wherever God has placed you today, remember that the Gospel is a gift to you and intended for those around you. It is truth. It is life. It is the hope of restoration of all things new. It carries freedom no matter who you are or where you chose to believe in him. It is not to be kept to yourself, and horded for simply one moment…it is meant for many moments. The beauty of the Gospel and a Savior who loves you enough to sacrifice himself is intended for you to demonstrate daily. As believers, separating ourselves from that truth separates us from the heart of God. Sink into that truth today, and allow yourself to acknowledge the majority of believers in the world are demonstrating that truth in places that will get them thrown into jail or sacrificed. That the majority of believers in the world are sacrificing everything when they chose to claim Jesus as their own.

When we live within an easy, friendly Gospel we are not projecting the truth of that Gospel. When we present God as tame, where is the God who fights against the injustices in the world? Where is the God who died on a cross for the sins of ALL of us? Where is the God that fervently, relentlessly pursues us with unstoppable love? Where is the God that tossed the tables in the temple with every aspect of righteous anger he had?

As a good friend reminded me recently, God is not a tame lion. Here’s to finding the risk in our belief of the God who calls us to love deeper as I am burdened to pray for those that choose to believe in places it will cost them everything.

spirit

God. Jesus. Holy Spirit.

The Trinity.

I love God. Jesus is my friend. But honestly, Spirit is the one I feel closest to most of the time.

How could you not? Jesus repeatedly said, hey ya’ll I’m leaving…but I’m leaving something behind for you. And it will be something that is so fluid, yet transparent and so powerful.

Comforter. Counselor. Sender. Translator. Truth. Guide.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. [John 16:13]

I will never forget the first time I read Acts. The spirit flowed so freely for them…how could that piece be missing now? In Acts 13, not only do they hear the spirit say to send out Barnabas and Paul…the end of the chapter finds them shaking the dust from their feet while they left in protest, ‘And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.’

The Spirit still flows just as freely, we just choose to ignore it most of the time. We take those memories of the ‘time that I felt the closest’ to God and convince ourselves that is the way it has to happen to feel that close again. But when that moment happens once a year, or once every 2 years…why on earth would we bind the Spirit from moving in us that way? Stop putting limits on God. God is limitless yet in our humanness we decide how he interacts with us. How completely backwards is that?!?!

How are your instincts…do you truly think they are all yours? Have you ever wondered that there was something else at play? Start an experiment and go with your instinct and see if God has an adventure for you. Pray that the Holy Spirit would guide you. Allow conversations to flow with the breath of a prayer in your head ‘God be in this…give me words…give me wisdom, let them feel you.’

Sure, there are times I’ve felt no presence…but it is wrong to blame God for that feeling. He doesn’t ever leave us, he is always there and always at work. Sometimes our choices and steps move us away from him. So then I correct and find myself where I am supposed to be and we are back on track.

Utah, 2011. Erin and I climbed the mountain in the background  September 2011.

Utah, 2011. Erin and I climbed the mountain in the background September 2011.

Most of those corrections find me at a lake…or mountains…or ironically in the middle of a mission trip that I should have corrected myself before leaving. Sometimes it seems the higher up I get…the closer I feel. This photo is from a hike a few years ago in Utah that kicked my butt. We had hiked the mountain in the background, yet still thought it was a great idea to go some more lower down. But those few days with my friends ‘reset’ me, and I was back where I needed to be.

I cannot truly live without Holy Spirit. I rely on it way too much. I cannot be my calling to God’s mission without Holy Spirit. Living in God’s mission field, the Holy Spirit is the only language I know to truly navigate God’s Kingdom. It is my comforter. It is my counselor. It is my translator. It is my truth. It is my guide. And it is my sender…always, always my sender.

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.

002_2

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.