Okay to Cry

On Mother’s Day, 2018, my beloved mom took her last breath and went to be with Jesus. We had just enjoyed the holiday together and now she was gone. We had no idea it would be the last Mother’s Day we would celebrate together in person, here on earth. Over the following days and weeks and months, I grieved her loss. The aching inside was a pain that cut deep into my heart and mind as I thought back to sweet memories of childhood and her nurturing love and care. I cried out to God, over and over, and felt His comfort every time.

As Pastor Ben mentioned this past Sunday, mourning the loss of someone elicits an emotional response. We feel what seems to be never-ending sadness and bottomless ache. We cry, we weep, and sometimes we scream aloud. Our emotions are powerful as we become more fully aware of how much the loss truly affects us.

My tears, like Jeremiah’s in the book of Lamentations, poured out from a broken heart. “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed. My eyes will flow unceasingly without relief until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees.” Lamentations 3:48-50

I’m sure many of us have experienced “heart destruction” by the loss of someone close. Maybe it was a parent or other relative, a colleague, a close friend? I’m sure we have all attended a funeral or celebration of life service where those uncomfortable feelings of mourning either fall on us personally, or we witness someone else trying to fight back their tears. Those are heavy moments…difficult times…when we face grief head-on. And it’s okay to cry.

But what about facing grief of a different kind? What about mourning the loss of:

  • Broken social connections with others we care about due to quarantine restrictions
  • Security in what we had believed America to be…the land of the free and the home of the brave
  • A relationship with a dear friend because of misunderstandings and/or hurtful words spoken
  • Closeness with the Lord due to unconfessed or ignored sin in our hearts

These are all different forms of grief, but they are legitimate losses just the same. No matter if we respond to them emotionally or mentally, each requires a time of crying out to God. And that is okay. We shouldn’t simply ignore our feelings and pretend the root of sadness hasn’t taken hold inside of us. We must bring our reasons for mourning to the Lord – He wants it all – so that He can begin the healing ministry of comfort.

Like a cavity left unchecked, our sin will continue to cause problems and pain in our lives. If we ignore it, we knowingly allow the problem, and associated pain, to become bigger. But, if we seek help from our Savior, allowing Him to get down deep into the decay and scrape out ALL of the mess so that it is clean and free of disease, we can begin to heal. We can begin to experience comfort.

I think of David in the Psalms where he gets real with God about his sin and the pain it exposes. He cries out, sharing his raw feelings to the One who knows him intimately:

“My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you lay me in the dust of death.” (Ps. 22:14b-15 ESV)

But once those emotions are exposed and he asks to be rescued, the Lord answers him, and David quickly gives praise:

“I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you…for He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; He has not hidden His face from Him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Ps. 22:22, 24)

Last night, my young daughter couldn’t find her favorite stuffed elephant she has affectionately called “Ellie” ever since she could talk. She was very sad, and her broken heart could not be comforted. “I miss her! What if we never find her?” she cried while I tucked her into bed. “Oh honey, we will find her,” I gently replied. “We will pray and ask Jesus to help. Don’t cry.” But as soon as those last two words left my mouth, I took them back and said, “No, Sarah, it’s okay to cry. You are sad, and I would be too. I understand how it feels to lose something so important to your heart, and it’s okay to cry.” In that moment, I believe the Holy Spirit nudged this mama’s heart causing me to help my child know that I was there with her through this, that I could relate to her pain, and that she was experiencing normal and healthy emotions. And it’s okay for you to cry too.

Let’s bring all of our laments to the One who knows us best. He longs for us to trade in our pain for His comfort.

~ Tara Dye is a longtime member of LIFE Fellowship. She and her husband Paul have three children

Broken and Cleansed

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

This past Sunday, Pastor Ben highlighted this beatitude as the most important one of the list. He said that until we learn to see God and ourselves correctly, we will never be able to become the other beatitudes. We must be broken, deconstructed and rebuilt.

Hearing these words, I remembered the day that I brought my broken and haughty spirit into a service to worship the LORD and the Spirit of God suddenly revealed me to myself and…gloriously…revealed Himself to me. I was shown to be nothing more than a beggar…a beggar for people’s love.

I was born into a severely broken family. I choose not to share the details because I desire to honor my parents. I also do not wish for details to overshadow or dissuade from the preeminence of Christ’s ongoing work in my life. It is sufficient to know that from birth through high school, my daily life revolved around persisting fear, crippling anxiety and hateful resentment. Perspectives were invested into my heart and a condemning pessimistic spirit was created.

I don’t know how my parents met or how long they dated. I know that their relationship was primarily instinctual and that their affections were not exclusive for one other. During her senior year of high school, my mom became pregnant with me. Her plans to pursue a career after high school transformed into an expectation to marry my father. My father suddenly found his life aspirations changed, as well. Both of my parents’ original individual hopes and dreams were replaced with the new and sudden reality of living with a colicky baby boy in a rented single-wide trailer.

Once described by my Scout Leader as an overly cynical and critical boy, I was quite involved in youth group, church choir, Vacation Bible School, clam bakes, fish fries and revivals. In my mother’s family’s Pentecostal churches, I was encouraged to seek “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

In my father’s family’s Baptist churches, I was encouraged to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and walk the aisle to confess my new faith. I recall countless calls to “give my life to Christ” and, though I tried to be what I was supposed to be and obediently “gave my life to Christ” multiple times, I never reaped the promises of the sermons, preachers or teachers. Nothing in or around me was new. I was still me and all the days still felt like the days before.

I graduated from South Brunswick High School and left home for Appalachian State University. Having been awarded a full academic scholarship, I was freed to escape the gravitational pull of my home. I occasionally attended church but, in the absence of a need to escape from home, I no longer felt compelled to go. I held no real desire for the LORD and based upon the lessons taught to me all over all those years ago, I believed that I understood Him and that He was “living in my heart”. He did not fill my thoughts. He did not factor into my decisions.

While attending church service one morning with my Great Aunt Faye and Uncle Ken in Cary NC, my bitter, haughty and hardened spirit endured another service of worship. I attended because I loved being with my aunt and uncle AND because they took to me Bojangles for breakfast and to Boston Market for lunch anytime that I visited on Sunday. While sitting in the pew at Durham Church of God and doubting the authenticity of everything around me, I ridiculed the false joy of people. Their smiles, joy, tears…so much weak emotionalism. And for what? Why? Then, without warning, my heart was miraculously turned towards the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t know why God chose to call me that day. I sat in His service as a contemptible fraud believing that I would be in heaven some day. I was not seeking Him but like the blind beggar in John 9, I can only declare that I once was blind and then…suddenly…I saw.

In a split second, my condemnation of others was reversed with a sudden self-desperation. No longer suffering through the choir’s song, I found myself instead hungering for what they were singing, “I want to be washed! I need a cleansing! My soul is hungry! I’m aching within!”

In that moment, I knew my lostness and I perceived the emptiness of my heart. I broke. Or as The Message translates it, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” I felt personal responsibility for my sin and longed for forgiveness. It was all so very new to me. Always gifted with conjuring feelings of superiority so that I could smother my feelings of inferiority, I was no longer blinded to my corruption and need for real inner change.

Never having responded emotionally to the Lord in any way, I instantly found myself standing from the pew with my hands lifted heavenward for the first time in my life…as if seeking rescue…as my babies used to raise their arms towards me… and with tears streaming down my face, I sang loudly with the church choir, “I wanna be washed by the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain.”

Since that day, the Spirit of God has been regenerating my heart, soul, and spirit. My desire to love Him and to genuinely love other people is ever increasing. The Spirit convicts and counsels me with His love and truth. God is changing me.

I still struggle with the experiences that occurred during my formative childhood. But God is faithfully using my brokenness to bring me to Him. In my brokenness, I have found Him to be Who He says that He is and He regenerates me.

~ Jason Lanier serves as the Worship & Arts Pastor at LIFE Fellowship and is a co-founder of A Cause For Tea.

Against the Grain

The Beatitudes provide the framework for our next sermon series, the title of which is “Against the Grain.” 

Poised for inspiration, I thought to myself, “Say no more, Ben…the title itself provides all the material I need for a devotion.” As a parent to four boys spanning the ages of 16 to 22, I have no shortage of cliches, teachable moments, and sage wisdom as to the benefits of going against the grain… of being set apart; of swimming against the current; of NOT following the crowd; of not being the guy who jumps off the bridge just because everyone else is doing it.

Living for Christ in this culture (teen or otherwise) requires going against the grain and this is not accomplished without discipline, determination, and a healthy dose of Mom-lectures. So as I was contemplating which lecture to pull from my vast archives, Pastor Ben said something that I don’t think he intended to be particularly profound.  It didn’t even merit a bullet point on the big screen.

He mentioned that many people equate the Beatitudes with the 10 Commandments, as though the former were the New Testament version of the latter. I hadn’t thought of it before but I see the connection. Both are concise lists tied to God’s favor… with one important distinction. One list involves “doing” and the other, “being”

Just a few verses after the listing of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells His listeners that He has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. In essence, He has come to add flesh and blood to the commandments… to give them heart.

So in Matthew 5, beginning with verse 21, Jesus makes multiple references to Old Testament laws using a series of “You have heard it said _________, but I tell you _________ “ statements. He turns actions into attitudes when He explains that it is not murder, adultery, lying, or revenge that is wrong but rather the condition of the heart that undergirds them. 

We should therefore endeavor not just to avoid murder, but to avoid the hate that leads to it. We should strive not merely to abstain from adultery, but to eliminate the lust that fuels it. This was revelatory to the Jews as their concept of right standing with God had everything to do with outward sin.

When we focus inward instead and address who we are at the core, we begin to look more like Jesus and our actions naturally begin aligning with His. Jesus didn’t come to tell us what to do. He came to show us who to be. So if Jesus is most concerned about who we are and the Beatitudes are a listing of the traits He values, we best pay attention.

Just as He flipped the Old Testament laws on their heads, Jesus issues the Beatitudes to flip the script on human nature. We don’t naturally prize being poor in spirit, meek, mournful or persecuted.

Even the “positive” attributes listed (hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker) are not at the top of our culture’s most sought after virtues. We seek instead to be powerful, prosperous, and popular. These are worldly traits and, not surprisingly, exactly what the Jews were looking for in a Messiah. Of course, Jesus flipped that notion on its head as well.

In the coming weeks, we will learn how each of the Beatitudes point to the kind of person Jesus is calling us to be. They aren’t anything like what the world prescribes, and that brings us right back to the theme of this series and the call on our lives as Christ followers…against the grain.

~ Melissa Gibbs has been member at LIFE Fellowship for over 10 years, is the mother to four boys and widow of the late JD Gibbs.

Humility Eclipsing Hostility & Gratitude Meeting Grace

Hindsight is 2020! We were so thrilled at the comedic aspect of making “2020 vision” remarks, so surely we can take delight in this phrase too, especially as this one offers a more practical gleaning of wisdom. Pastor Ben’s quote from Sunday, “What if 2020 was the revelation of what needs to change inside of us?” sets the stage well as we further delve into the gift of communion.

Entitlement and egotistical elevation can destroy communion with each other. If we think that God is good because He should have saved us, then we need to check our hearts for pride and seek repentance. No one is higher than another, and there is nothing that we can do to grant ourselves salvation. So then, why do we sometimes put on the attitude of “I’m better than…”?

We all do exhibit this attitude in various arenas of life. Perhaps we think we are better than others due to our political party affiliation, our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our level of health and physical ability, or any other petty, surface level triumph. There’s an old quote from a man, John Bradford, spoken as he watched a prisoner’s execution in the 1500’s, “There but for the grace of God go I!” This phrase is one I grew up hearing as a child and serves as a resounding reminder to all of us that we all sinned (Romans 3:23), deserve the same penalty of death (Romans 6:23), and yet Christ incredibly grants inimitable grace to each of us…enough grace to cover a multitude of sins! We have no right to perceive ourselves as more prestigious than another in light of this undeserving grace. Without God’s grace, there would be no communion amongst believers. Placing ourselves on a pedestal above others fractures this gift of communion that God designed.

Peace. Humanity craves peace perhaps just as much as hope. Remember that chick-flick comedy, Miss Congeniality, where all the girls in the beauty pageant state “world peace” as the answer to the host’s question of what society needed most? Even Hollywood exemplifies humanity’s need to strive for peace. Yet, we as Christians often fail to set an example of “maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” as we are called to do in Ephesians 4:2.

We resist community with those who may have different political beliefs and hesitate to be around those who may be of a different race. We do well at dodging differences. We forget that we are all created in the image of God, and instead like to point fingers at why others are wrong and why we are right. Every time we do this, we are adding another brick to the walls of hostility in our heart. We often misconstrue peace by assuming that when we are with those who are likeminded, we experience peace without tension or division.

However, this is false peace as we are, in reality, creating division, even though we think we are living in union, by separating ourselves from those with whom we differ. Therefore, introspection needs to occur and lead to a readjustment of our minds. Our earthly similarities are not agents of bonding, but instead it is Christ’s supernatural peace that connects us.

One of the elders at LIFE, Andy Barker, stated on Sunday morning, “Jesus brings a peace that cuts across all ethnic, political, and social lines. Jesus brings a peace in the midst of differences through a bond that transcends all differences.”

Focusing on each other’s differences produces discord, but focusing on our Savior produces peace between us as we identify and acknowledge the vital thread that ties us together: the blood shed by Jesus. Sowing discord is one of the six abominable sins detested by our Lord (Proverbs 6:16-19), so we ought to tread even more carefully to take care that we do not engage in, nor encourage, hostile walls of discord. Andy spoke these wise words, which he touted as potentially offensive, but I think there is nothing truer that could have been said to close out 2020, “If your stance on masks or presidents or race or anything else has been a greater determiner of who you associate with, than is the brotherhood we have because of the blood of Christ, that is a disgraceful disregard to what Jesus has done.” By putting up these walls of dissociation, we are displaying an atrocious attitude of ungratefulness for the grace we never deserved, but instead all received in abundance.

Draw to remembrance God’s grace and use it as the sledgehammer to demolish any pedestal of pride and obliterate any walls of hostility so that the gift of communion can be rebuilt, and peace can transpire. Seek the Lord’s guidance daily so that humility eclipses hostility and gratitude greets grace as we strive to dwell in communion with each other under the cohesion of Christ.

~ Abi Gordon serves as Production Coordinator at LIFE Fellowship

 

You Got To Be Kidding!

Pastor Ben’s message “God’s Gift of Grace” from the series “Indescribable Gifts” really hit home to me. Teaching from Luke 4:16-30, Pastor Ben shared the meaning of grace as receiving God’s absolute best when we deserve the absolute worse. The older (or more experienced) I get, the more that reality comes to life. With the possible exception of hope, grace may be the most needed and least deserved of Christ’s gifts to us. Without grace we have no hope.

The passage that caused considerable thought and time in prayer for me was verse 24 of Luke chapter 4. And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown”. As I heard this verse and knowing God speaks to us in many ways, I trusted there was purpose to my mind being reminded of one of my best childhood friends right here in the middle of the message. We did most everything together from the 3rd or 4th grade continuing throughout high school. We played baseball together, camped out together, when to the same church, had many of the same classes together and spent almost every day together in some way. As we were growing up side by side, all the evolutionary happenings that are involved in maturing into young men came to pass. A ton were really great but probably double that amount not so great. Let’s just leave it right there. I moved away during the middle my junior year of high school and my friend remained in our hometown. Years and years go by before I read on Facebook that he had become an extremely successful doctor doing amazing work at a huge teaching hospital. You’ve got to be kidding! I know Gerald like no one does. I know the less than positive traits established and well-earned as we grew up together. There would be No Way I would allow him to take my temperature much less treat me for a life challenging illness! Why? Because I know every crazy event he participated in growing up. I saw every mistake in judgement, every behind-the-scenes character flaw and every wrong decision he made. These and many other opinions based on my experience with him added together had to outweigh anything he would ever accomplish for any good.

No one doubted Jesus’ teaching ability, His skill in drawing a crowd or that He is a good man. But because they were judging Him on how they “knew” Him and who they “knew” Him to be (Joseph’s son), they could not accept the reality of who He really was and what He was to do. Little is known about Jesus’ early years but living a sinless life, Jesus’ gave no one any cause to believe He was not to be trusted and obeyed. They just knew His family, His environment and compared Him to others in similar situations. That was bad enough but ultimately one of the worst things the towns people did was to share their opinions with others.

Gerald was a really great guy, the best friend anyone could ever have and had many very special talents but I “know” he was a long way from gifted as a world-renowned doctor. I can’t think of anyone growing up with Gerald and me that would disagree. Wait, did I just say “and me”? Do you suppose some may say the same about me being a pastor? I know you will find this difficult to believe but I was not exactly a saint growing up. Everything Gerald did, I did with a little more conviction and commitment so what makes me any different? Why is Gerald not due grace to become a doctor and I deserved to be a pastor? Why am I sitting in church hearing a wonderful message about accepting God’s grace thinking about all this? Let me share a few lessons I’ve learned.

  1. Never allow anyone to form an opinion or make a decision about you based on someone else’s opinions or decisions about you. Also, make sure you are never guilty of this yourself. A wise person once said, don’t judge a fish by their ability to climb a tree or you’ll destroy the fish’s confidence and cause it to fail. God gives each of us special gifts and talents designed especially for us to complete the work He prepared in advance for us (Ephesians 2:10) as part of His perfect plan.
  2. When we deliberately of our own free will through repentance of sin in prayer accept Christ as Lord we become a completely new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). Through His grace we are forgiven from all past and future sins enabling us to accomplish whatever plan God has for us. Even a doctor or pastor.
  3. Our identity is found in Christ. According to grouptravel.org, only 20%-30% attend their high school or college class reunions. Most say they aren’t proud of their time in school for a wide variety of reasons while most that do attend confess they are trying to prove someone wrong. It does not matter what others believe about you or even what you sometime think of yourself (Romans 6:14). If this wasn’t true, Gerald would be something less than the outstanding physician he is today and I would probably be, well who knows.
  4. We have got to be open and ready when God opens doors and provides opportunities to serve Him. Jesus taught where He was sent regardless of the difficulty, the ridicule sure to come, the fatigue involved or any other excuse. God’s plan and will are absolute. He will provide all we need in His timing. I don’t remember Gerald and I ever discussing or planning a career in medicine or ministry. The Lord was protecting, preparing, teaching and allowing experiences to help us all along the way.

God has showered us with grace and blessings. Blessings are God’s gifts to us in all areas of our lives including mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and material. Blessings can usually be seen while grace is personal between us and our Lord. As Ben defined, grace is receiving God’s absolute best when we deserve the absolute worse. Both can be ours in abundance as believers and followers of Jesus Christ (John 10:10).

In the words of my Dad, ‘NufCed

~ Louis Smith serves as the LIFE Care Pastor at LIFE Fellowship

Held by Hope

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time to witness the celestial celebration that took place in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born? Now, I’m a bit fussy about fashion, but I’d even consider donning a shepherd’s garb and hanging out with a few sheep for that opportunit

To see angels fill the sky, to hear the voice of God through the cries of a baby.

To catch a glimpse of the brilliant Star of David, and to satisfy my curiosity as to what exactly a host of heavenly angels sounds like.

To soak in the amazingness of it all.

Oh, and to talk to Mary! 

Wouldn’t that be incredible to hear what she was thinking as she witnessed, and took part in, the greatest miracle ever known to man? This baby she gave birth to was God-in-the-flesh… a true bundle of perfect love. “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NIV).

What do you think she treasured in her heart as she took it all in?

I’m struck by this thought: As Mary held the Hope of the world, the Hope of the world held her.

The baby born in a stable that holy night long ago is the Hope of the world, the Grace that saves us and the Love that heals us.

Jesus is the Hope that changes our worthless into precious, our guilty to forgiven, our hungry into satisfied, our empty into full and our broken into beautiful.

Jesus is Emmanuel, our Lord of inescapable presence who is with us and for us.

The psalmist David was amazed by this when he wrote to the Lord, “If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:8-10).

Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, and it’s Him who “holds us fast.”

After His resurrection and before His ascension into heaven, Jesus said to His followers, “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Emmanuel, always with us.

Always loving us.

Always inviting us to find comfort, refuge, joy and hope in Him.

Ponder that! Just as it was with Mary two thousand years ago, Every believer is held by Hope today because we are held fast by Jesus, our Savior who will never leave us or forsake us. No matter the circumstances, not matter the diagnoses, no matter the financial struggle. Our faithful LORD is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) and our souls can find peace knowing that in everything we’re held by Hope.

Let’s Pray

Dear Lord, You are my Hope! I join the psalmist today in praying, “Sustain me according to Your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed. Uphold me, and I will be delivered” (Psalm 119:116-117a). I’m leaning into Your heavenly grip today.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

~ Gwen Smith is an author, speaker, co-founder of Girlfriends in God and host of the Graceologie podcast.