A Letter to One Whose Name Is Bitter

Dear Mara,

May I ask about your name? Mara. Bitter. You weren’t born with it, I know. You don’t have to choose to live with it. And you certainly don’t want to die with it.

What rogue seed ground its way into the soil of your life? Do you remember?
Words that punched and tore the fragile membrane of your heart?
Betrayal that exploded from the inside out?
Loss that left your roots and nerves exposed and burning with every touch?

Mara, perhaps it was a million stoney seeds that cracked into you, or maybe it was one. giant. thing. Whatever the circumstance, let me lean toward you and say with my whole heart, I am so sorry. I’d like to join you in your memory of that point of impact. You can cry if you want to, or if all your tears have long dried up, we can just sit for a spell and I will loan you all my sorrow and compassion.

(sitting together a while)

Mara, I know that like your namesake from centuries ago, you have shrugged into this name, this ill fitting, hot, itchy cloak of a name and you’ve worn it for so long that it feels like yours. Your name, your identity: Bitter. You probably didn’t even realize that when the surface of your life fractured, a tiny seed fell into the crack and made it’s home there in the hurt, burrowed in the tangle of shrapnel left behind by the words, the wounds, the why.

And like seeds do, in time Bitterness sprouted, not a tender green root of life, but a sharp thorny root that dug in and began to grow. And grow. And grow until the thorny, twisted thing of it made itself at home in you, convincing you that loving that vile root was the best way to love yourself, defend yourself, heal yourself.

And so, you chose to feed the Bitter
washed its leaves with the water of your attention
curled up in its false warmth
nurtured it like it was a friend

while it went about its task of strangling you to death.

Oh Mara, turn to Jesus! See Him on His cross, bound by your Bitter vine, held to the splintered wood, the poison of it seeping into His own body, strangling HIM, killing HIM. See His chest heave as He paid the price for your Bitter Root, hear His cry as he pulled it into death with Him —
It. Is. Finished.

Mara. It is finished.
He has so much more for you than this.

You are not your own, and you certainly are not owned by this invader, this imposter, this Bitterness. Mara, You were bought with a price by the One who named you from before time began. Your name, your true name, is inscribed on the palm of the hand of the Maker of heaven and earth. He did not rescue you from the domain of darkness to hand you back to it, Mara. He did not open His hand and let you run off its edge to hang and swing and cling to the vine of Bitter. Let’s say it together:
Enough, Vile Root.
Enough, Preserver of Self.
Enough, Thief.
The Lord hears. He forgives. He redeems.
May Mara be no more. Her day is finished.

Before time began, your name was on his lips, a name that holds a mysterious myriad of meaning. Enclosed and sealed inside your name are words like:
Child.
Little one.
Redeemed.
Forgiven.
Cherished.
Beloved.

Hear Him call your name on the breeze, feel the zip of air rush by as His sword cuts the root from its place. Let the air rush in even as He pulls and pulls the vine from you.

Let Him rid you of this home invader. Throw off the cloak of oppression that the vine has woven across your heart. Bow as He takes his rightful place on the throne of your being. Breathe the clean air, stretch your arms high. Adore him. Worship him. Open your mouth and let Him remove Mara from you and fill you with a song of rejoicing.
Look ahead, friend. The day is coming when you will hear Him say your name with His very own lips. You will run your fingers over the palm of His hand where the proof still puckers his skin even today that declares now and forever: you are HIS and He is yours.

I can’t wait to see you in person, to sit at the table at the Great Feast and hear the music from the mouth of the Lord as He sings out our true names face to face.

Looking forward to forever,
Shannon

Isolation and Spiritual Warfare

Have you ever watched those National Geographic shows where a lion, cheetah or wolf, etc. are chasing a herd of quarry? What are they focused on? Is the herd, as a whole, in their view? Na. Nope. Nada. They are looking for that one animal that for whatever reason gets separated from the herd and becomes isolated and alone. They are pretty much done for when that happens. We’ve seen it in the animal world and it’s not pretty. Not always, but almost always a disaster awaits the one who gets separated from the flock or herd.

Scripture tells us clearly that we have a predator, an enemy, who seeks to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). In an even more vivid description, Peter exhorts us to, Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8). In addition, Solomon, the wisest guy who ever lived, tells us in Proverbs 18:1 that He who separates himself seeks his own desire and he quarrels against all sound wisdom. So, what do we learn about isolation? What is the takeaway from these passages?

To intentionally separate from the herd is not a wise move. To move away from the body, the family is not wise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand some live alone because they don’t have a choice. I’m not referring to those kind of situations. I’m referring to more of a way of life. A choice to do life on my own without letting others in. A choice to live in isolation away from other believers is unbiblical and unwise. That can be dangerous. To continue the illustration from above, when someone gets into a situation where they are isolated and separated from fellowship and the encouragement of other believers, the potential for us to get into problems is even greater. When a young calf strays from the protection of the herd, it’s only a matter of time before the eyes of the predator are on that animal. It’s no different in the spiritual arena with us as believers. Acts 2:42-47 is such a beautiful description of Christian fellowship where life thrives. There is a unity and harmony because each individual focuses on the well being of others and not themselves only.

The bottom line, whether we realize it or not, is that we do indeed need each other! We need fellowship. We need to sing together. We need to worship together. We need to eat together and have communion together. We need to be in one another’s presence. We need to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). We need to do that up close.

Now at this point you are saying, but, JE we are in this crazy COVID-19 time! Are you out of your mind? I understand that many must be intentionally self-isolated due to health concerns. Absolutely. I get it. But, there are ways to attempt to stay connected. There is a lady in our church with a life-threatening health concern and she absolutely can’t get out because of that. But even during this unpredictable and challenging time she has fought to stay connected. She has fought for fellowship. How? She’s on the phone almost every day, reaching out to other women ministering to them asking how she can pray for and encourage them. She keeps zooming with various small groups, even though “zoom fatigue” sets in and she gets tired of that format. She and her husband pray together. She reaches out to her children and grandchildren, sometimes through email, the phone, Facetime or text. She has stayed active even though her health is in jeopardy. She has pursued others like a bull dog, yes to minister to others, but also to receive the blessing of ministry from others. In the same way that John Piper says that we often have to fight for joy, sometimes and in some seasons, we have to fight for fellowship – nearness to others in unique and perhaps foreign ways to us. But, it’s worth it. There’s joy to be found. There’s encouragement to be found!

So, regardless of your circumstances or personality type, go for it. Pick up the phone. Reach out to another believer and check on them. Pray together over the phone. Facetime. Email. Text. Do something! But don’t allow yourself to sink into despair because of isolation. Don’t separate yourself and stay there, even if it’s not your choice. There is a battle raging on around us and we do have an enemy who wants to take us down and one of the primary ways he does his dirty work is to separate us from healthy, vibrant, challenging, life giving fellowship and community. I can’t live without it and neither can you.

So, yes, be wise and discerning in these days, but don’t let yourself be duped into thinking that living in isolation is okay. Don’t allow your mind, heart and thinking to be shaped by social media and what hits us in the face on the TV. Soak your heart and mind in the Word. Be sensitive to the wooing and leading of the Holy Spirit. And look to the Body, the Church, His Bride, His people, you and me, yes to one another to serve and minister to. There are ways and means available no matter what your situation! If you’d like to talk about it further, give me a call. I’d love to fellowship with you!

Meal Trains

I have mixed feelings about Meal Trains.  In recent weeks, I have had the privilege of setting up two, separate meal trains for women in my life who were facing seriously challenging situations.  To set up the Meal Train was {for me} quite simple- create the link and send it out so people can sign up to bring a meal to the person in need.  Providing a meal for someone is a practical and tangible expression of love and care.  Having the opportunity and ability to step into the hard and even a difficult journey of another person by bringing them a meal communicates, “I see you and I’m with you in this.”

However, last week, my friend texted me to ask if our Community Group could bring my family meals.  Now, let me tell you that no one has died in our family.  No one is terminally ill.  No one has undergone surgery.  So, my initial thought was to say, “Oh, we’re good, but thanks for thinking of us.”  But to be honest, these last few weeks have been hard for my family- emotionally and mentally.  Not that we are special or need recognition, but to have people in our life that recognize that sometimes, life is just hard and sometimes, we just need to know we are seen and cared for- it took me by surprise.   

For me, it has been so much easier to be on the giving end than the receiving end.  To respond to my friend and say, “Well.  Yeah.  Meals would actually be really helpful for me and the kids next week.” It was hard. To be on the receiving end of a Meal Train has humbled me.  It has reminded me of my neediness. 

The fact is- we live in a really hard world.  And if you are anything like me, we put on fronts that make us look like we have it all figured out- that we don’t need any help.   

And my friend’s text about a Meal Train for my family has been the Lord not letting me go on the importance and NEED for community and bearing each other’s burdens. 

I recently read the story of Jonathan going to attack the Philistines in 1 Samuel.  And for weeks now, I keep thinking about this story.  It’s on repeat in my head.  And it’s not Jonathan’s boldness or courage in pursuing the Philistines without his father, Saul, or Saul’s army that sticks with me.  It’s not the overwhelming situation of passing through the terrain with giant cliffs rising on either side- a great disadvantage in battle- that stands out.  It’s not even the fact that he was outnumbered going into battle, that I can’t forget… even though these are all details of the story that add great weight.  

The part that always stands out to me is who was with Jonathan.

Jonathan says to his young, armor bearer, “Come, LET’S go over to the Philistine outpost…”  He says, “LET’S go.”  Together. Not alone. But together, Jonathan and his armor bearer march into Philistine dominated territory.  They march into a hard and difficult situation.

What they were headed into was unsettling at least.  The situation bleak, impossible.   The odds were stacked against them.  It was likely overwhelming.  There were unknown outcomes.  They were facing GREAT uncertainty.

Anyone else been there lately?  Unsettling.  Impossible.  Odds stacked against you. Unknown outcomes. Overwhelmed. Uncertainty.

But.

The armor bearer went with Jonathan. Despite the daunting situation- the armor bearer went.  Side by side. Together.

He said, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

What a gift?!  Jonathan was not alone.  His armor bearer was right there with him- every step of the way- fighting right alongside him until the victory came. 

And this is what the Lord won’t let me go on… we each NEED armor bearers, BUT we are each called to BE armor bearers. 

Having friends- armor bearers- in my life that help hold me up, keep my eyes fixated on Jesus, remind me that I’m not alone and enter the hard with me are life giving.  Having my friend show up on my front porch this week with a warm meal for my family brought me to tears.  They didn’t wait until I asked- they just entered in. 

Being an armor bearer is about carrying the burdens alongside those we are doing life with- it’s about having courage to enter the hard and protecting those the Lord has placed in our lives.  The enemy prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he will devour.  (1 Peter 5:8) It is easy to devour those that are on their own, those that our isolated. 

As armor bearers, we shoulder the load. We go with. We engage. We show up.  We don’t wait to be invited.

So, my encouragement to you is this- who in your life needs an armor bearer?  Who needs a listening ear?  Who needs a text message to say, “I’m thinking and praying for you.”?  Who needs an encouraging word from Scripture to point them back to the Gospel?  Who needs a phone call, a meal, a walk at the park to talk?  Identify those people that God has placed in your life and commit to walking alongside them- in the hard, messy, difficult parts of life.  Go with them until the victory comes.

You may BE one that needs an armor bearer.  And my encouragement to you is- don’t sit in the hard alone.  Be like Jonathan and invite others into your journey.  Invite others to go with you into the overwhelming, the unsettling, the uncertain of life with you.  Text that friend and ask for prayer- invite someone into your battle. 

There is no doubt that my heart is tender and fragile in light of all that my family is facing in the day in and day out of a broken and sinful world.  BUT. Jesus reminded me this week, through my Community Group, that my family is not alone.  He sees us and is with us through the practical expression of a Meal Train.  And knowing that we aren’t alone and others are willing to step into our hard journey with us- to be the hands and feet of Jesus- gives me courage and faith to keep going and trusting in my God just like Jonathan.

It’s OUR Fight

On May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a deli employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. Shortly thereafter, George Floyd was pronounced dead.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Silence about the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to end George Floyd’s life is not an option. Silence about ignoring the appeals of a man pleading for his life as he gasped out the words “I can’t breathe” is inexcusable.

But what words appropriately communicate the gravity and universal threat of the grotesque abuse of power? What words cut through the man-generated, sin-corrupted political and cultural fog that minimizes God’s concern for justice, mars the dignity of all people made in God’s image, and fuels our tribal instincts?

George Floyd’s death is an unspeakable tragedy. It is a ruthless miscarriage of God-given authority. He died at the hands of a man who betrayed his oath to protect and serve the most vulnerable. Floyd’s death is the exclamation point on decades of unjust treatment of people of color in America.

It’s now been ten days since George Floyd died. Ten days of sorrow, anger, repentance, rage, protest, violence, and conversation. It’s been ten days for some of us. But for others, these ten days have been a painful reminder of a history on repeat, tragically manifesting the sins of the past in the present. Will it ever end?

As the white pastor of a predominantly white church with predominantly white friends who outnumber my relationships with people of color by an embarrassing margin, no matter how hard I’ve tried to place my focus on my African American friends and understand what they must be feeling right now, I keep coming back to a thought that applies primarily to my white friends and acquaintances.

Do we even know why African Americans are angry? Seriously. Do we really know? I thought I did. I’m not sure I do. But I can assure you that we’ll never know as long as we assume we know. We’ll never know unless we listen more than we talk. We’ll never know until we become advocates instead of bystanders.

These words are risky. I know they may be received or interpreted as political. Too often when ideas – even true and good ideas –  are politicized, they become controversial and divisive. Everything today is political, which is to say that everything is polarizing. Meaningful, honest, sincere, other-focused dialogue is hard to achieve these days. 

I’m not being “political”. I can say that because racism isn’t a political issue. Racism is a heart issue, and that makes it a gospel issue. And only God can change the heart.

Talking about racism is inherently controversial because it is personal and painful. But Jesus did not come into the world to ultimately deliver us from difficulty and controversy. He came to work redemption in each of us by sustaining and empowering us to overcome that which separates us from God and one another.

In one month, I’ll be 46 years old. George Floyd was less than a year older than me. Did he even know he was making a purchase with what might have been counterfeit money? Has that ever happened to me without knowing it? I wonder, if that was me buying cigarettes (or Gatorade or donuts or any other number of things one might purchase at a convenience store), with my white skin and socio-economic favor, if that same deli employee would have called 911 on me? Or would he simply have given me the benefit of a doubt?  How many counterfeit bills are in circulation? Did you buy that Starbuck mocha latte with real currency?

I didn’t know George Floyd. But a brother I didn’t know died that day. I’m moved by Barnabas Piper’s words as he reminds us of how interconnected we all are to that fateful day.

                It is your brother who was killed when his neck was kneeled on

                And your brother who killed him

                And your sisters and mothers who mourn him

                And your sons who rage with brick in hand

                And your sons adorned in riot gear and wielding weapons

                Christ loves sinners.

                Christ loves justice.

                Christ loves the oppressed.

                Christ loves black.

                Christ loves white.

                So we do not get to choose a side

                We do not get to choose whether to love

                Or care or be involved

                If we are in Christ

                Then we must be as Christ.

My brother died, and my brother killed him. And my family is grieving. Grief and loss have made me intentionally circumspect with my words. I know I’ll be weighed and measured by them.

So many words are being spoken by so many. Side-choosing words. We’re all tempted to do that. But don’t forget. If we belong to Jesus, we don’t get to choose a side.

We don’t speak to choose sides. We speak to mourn. We speak to advocate for the oppressed and afflicted. We speak to communicate, “You are not alone.” We speak to “be as Christ”.

Our words matter. Scripture is clear about this. Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us there is a time to speak. God’s people must speak up and plead the widow’s (or any other disenfranchised or marginalized person) cause (Isaiah 1:7). Psalm 82:3-4 tells us to “give justice to the weak…maintain the right of the afflicted…rescue the needy…[and] deliver [the oppressed] from the hand of the wicked.”

Nine days after George Floyd’s death I spoke on the phone with an African American brother about what he was feeling and how I could support him. His first words straining through the cracks in his voice: “I’m tired.” There have been too many stories like George Floyd’s. And if things don’t change, there will be more. God, have mercy. Please make it stop.

This tragedy, and much of the unrest occurring in response to Floyd’s murder, is a sin issue. And the gospel is, without a doubt, the ultimate resolution to this sin issue (and every other sin issue in the world).

But the gospel is, as Piper said, “a summons, a call, a command”. As the church, we are called to lay down our lives for others, to love our enemies, and to pursue a life in Christ Jesus where there is no Jew or Gentile, no black or white, no male or female, but a life displaying we are all one through faith in Jesus. God isn’t just in the business of saving souls. Jesus has come to redeem structures. He comes to make all things new.

For too long the evangelical white church has been content to say (explicitly or implicitly) to our black brothers and sisters, “This is your fight.” One reason there has not been more progress toward racial equality in America since the Civil Rights movement is because white evangelical churches were content to stay on the sidelines. We told black Christians, “This is your fight.” But it’s not their fight. It’s our fight. We are the Body of Christ, and each of us members of it. If one part suffers, we all suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12).

My friend went on to say, “I’m tired of sucking it up. I want someone else to stand up.” And by someone else, he meant people like me. And you. He said, “I need my white brothers to say, ‘I got this.’”

I confessed to him that I don’t know what that looks like. I’m not entirely sure how to stand with him. But I don’t want him to fight alone. Not anymore. And I’m so thankful to be a part of a church where I’m confident that many of you feel the same way.

It’s our turn to share the weight of this. Our fight is not a political or cultural fight. We aren’t choosing those kinds of sides. We’re choosing the side of valuing life in all its colors because God has made all men in His image. Father, please show us how and where we can be the hands and feet of Christ to the hurting people of color – especially African Americans  – all around us.

Pastor Aaron

A prayer for these days:

Our Father, you are seated now as you were those thousands of years ago when you peeled back the curtain to give your servant Isaiah a glimpse of you.  Your Son is seated at your right hand, reigning, ruling, holding all things together by the word of his power.  Your Spirit has made His home is in the most unlikely place, the temple of human hearts. It is in your presence that there is fullness of joy.  We pause and marvel, our hearts bowed low as we approach you in prayer.  

How can it be that you welcome us to come to you in this way, that we do not have to slink into your presence, but run to you in boldness?  It can ONLY be because your Son Jesus Christ came to save sinners — US — and through him we can be called the children of God, heirs to a kingdom that we cannot yet fully grasp.  So we come to you as children, needy and humble in heart and know that you hear and respond to us.  

As we shuffle around in these strange days, we feel the frustration and weight of not knowing what to do.  Practical clarity feels out of reach and as soon as we may be about to grasp it, it slips out of our hand.  We hear the voices of many shouting words and more words, plans and ideas and fears and predictions until our heads and hearts spin like a top.  Help us, our Father, to fix our eyes on things above where Jesus is seated at your right hand.  Help us remember that you are not spinning like a top, that you are not fretting and seeking counsel from mere men.  Help us remember that while no one can fully grasp your mind and your inscrutable ways, still you desire for us to know you.  You do not hide yourself from us.  You are the one who gives counsel, who says, “This is the way, walk in it.”    We desire to know your will as it is perfect and for our good and your glory.  We ask that through the power of your spirit and the grace given to us through Jesus our Savior, you would align our hearts with yours.  

Father, the giver of every good and perfect gift, we thank you for the another day.  For many these days are filled with turmoil and trepidation.  Help us to taste and see your goodness, the promised manna, as you provide and sustain us.   It is so difficult for us to truly believe that in you, we truly have everything that we need.  Give us eyes to see your faithfulness and open hands to receive bread — even when to us it may look like a stone.  Settle fretful hearts.  Enlarge our faith.  Increase our trust in you.  We cannot do it on our own.  You are faithful, help us to remind ourselves of this.  

As the wind shifts in the current days and the temperature of our culture continues to rise, cause our hearts to be soft and not hard.  Forgive us for being quick to anger, quick to sling words of accusation and judgment, for grumbling,  for lacking compassion for others.  We can’t make it through one day without our flesh vying for its own way.  Forgive us for giving in to temptation, for failing to turn our hearts from wicked ways and sinning in our thoughts as well as our deeds.  

Stir up the wind of grace that forgives us into our hearts so that we might exhale it towards others.  Loosen our grip on our own rights and opinions and demands.  Teach us humility as we look to and remember our humble Christ.  He did not revile in return those who insulted him, he did not threaten when he suffered.   Indeed, he bled for those who hated him, and apart from grace we would not love him either.  Increase our understanding of the forgiveness that you have poured out on us so we may forgive in the same way.  Help us to know, like Jesus did, that our case is safe in your hands Father, that justice is yours and not ours.  We trust you with our wounds.  

And finally, we know that we have a true enemy, one that hates your glory and desires to steal and kill and destroy.  Guard us from his schemes.  Give us sharp minds and keen eyes and wise hearts that are alert and sober minded.  We gather your armor onto us and ask for your protection to forces seen and unseen.  May we remember that victory is already yours.  Help us not to be afraid, but to stand firm with the armor of God covering us.  

Father in heaven, the winds of change are upon us and we want to stand on the waters with our eyes fixed on you.  Save us, hear our prayers, strengthen your weary children.  Bind us together by your steadfast love and through the peace that Jesus brought to us.  

And all your people said, 

Amen.  

What does real love look like in the Body of Christ?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35

Jesus makes it very clear that we are to love one another. But what does that look like exactly? How do we love one another in tangible ways? Thankfully, the Lord didn’t leave us guessing on those questions. In this blog, I’d like to let Scripture guide our thoughts on what loving each other during this time might look like. There are numerous passages like Romans 12:9-10, I Cor. 13, 16:14; Galatians 5:13-14, etc. that we could look at. But for this blog we’ll just look at one.

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 2:1-5

Notice that Paul uses the words, encouragement, comfort, love, affection, sympathy, joy, humility . . . all of these words make me think of family, or at least what we would want in a family. Right? All of this, of course, is based on God’s love for us in Christ. In verses 3-4 Paul puts a spotlight on what love and humility doesn’t look like. The opposite of love is selfishness, thinking of our own preferences, ambitions, desires, as well as conceitedness. Paul strongly exhorts us to not only “think of our own interests” but “also the interests of others”. He tells us how to think, not just act toward each other. We prove that we have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16) when we are Christlike to others. We reveal that we truly love one another when our behavior is genuinely other focused. When we put others first in our thinking and actions Christ’s love is coming out of us! It is being expressed.

So, during this crazy time that we are in let’s consider a few questions:

  • How might this affect what I write and before I press “send” in a social media post?
  • How might this affect my thoughts to those who do or don’t wear a mask?
  • How might this impact how I pray for leaders across the spectrum? In fact, am I praying for my leaders?

How might this impact my interactions with those I differ in opinion on? Brothers and sisters, let all we do, say and think be marked by love.  Remember, the world will only know that we are Christ’s disciples IF we have love for one another! Let’s guard our hearts and mouths in these days in such a way that we truly speak the truth in love.