Love is a junk drawer. But it shouldn’t be.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:16-19

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 

1 John 1:5-7

There is one universal truth in all of us: we have an insatiable desire to be loved and to love others in return. I know what you’re thinking: “an insatiable desire to love people?!” Yes, believe it or not you do. But what exactly is love? 

This past year there have been numerous time I have preached about love to my congregation. As I meet with others it comes up continually as they navigate their own journey of faith and life. Even in my own life, I have experienced a rebirth of joy and amazement as I have wrestled with the depth of God’s love and the inherent implications it brings.

But let’s come back to the core question, “What is love?” Many of us will answer this in different ways. In fact, I have learned that “love” is really just a junk drawer we dump all sorts of ideas into. Do you have one of those in your home? We have at least four. Love has become this. Everyone has their own ideas of what love is and they throw it in. Culture spoon feeds us many ideas of what it is and they throw it in. Our parents and how we are raised have their own inherited understandings of love and they throw them in. Love has become at times so watered down it can be used for anything!

We will say, “I love God, and I love fish tacos. I love Jesus and I also love the Ohio State Buckeyes!” See the problem? Granted, our english language does not help this incongruence. But its clear.. the way we use the word in our language is so broad that at times we can forget the called-out kind of love the Bible speaks of. But even still, let’s give it a try. Let’s try defining love.  

Love is acceptance and tolerance, right?

To many, love is tolerance and acceptance. The idea is that rather than judge people, we should “love and accept” them no questions asked. Is there truth to this? Yea, there is some. But this is only part of the equation. However, what this means in our society is we should not communicate anything that is contradictory to someone’s actions, choices, or behavior—just love them. It sounds good. Sounds progressive. But it is only partly good. Society’s idea of love as it pertains to tolerance is not always in sync with that of the Kingdom of God and Scripture. In fact, it is far from it. True “Kingdom of God” love is not based on tolerance and acceptance, at the expense of life change and repentance.

Love is affection and joy, right? 

To many of us, love is passion and affection tied to our emotions. Is there truth to this as well? Yes, but again, this is only partially true. It’s the word we use to describe our feelings of affection. We love hiking, or we love a new song that just came out, or we love chips and guac. When we aim the word at people, we usually mean the exact same thing. When we say we love someone, we mean we have deep feelings of affection because they make us feel value and worth. Love, by this definition, is pure, unfiltered emotion. Think of the phrase “fall in love.” It’s like tripping over a rock or a curb. And it’s fantastic. But there’s a dark underbelly to feeling this kind of romantic love. If we can fall into it, then we can fall out of it because it was based on something that is often unstable emotions. 

With both of these attempts at defining “love” that we find in the junk drawer, we can see some challenges that wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny in the bible. With one we have an accepting and tolerant love. But if we bring this definition to Jesus—that’s not what we see. We see a love from Jesus that is yes, accepting of one’s divine personhood as being made in the image of God but equally transformative; inviting one to be transformed into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

With the other we have an affectionate and emotional love which is really our common understanding of love when we think of “things” and “people.” But again, if we bring this approach to the example of Jesus, while yes love is seen as an emotion in the life of Jesus—it most definitely is not all emotional. Emotions are fickle. They come and go. Jesus chose love time and time again. So, if our understanding of love is defined only by one of these two or both; look out! We are defining and conceptualizing “love” in a way that could set us up for disaster, broken relationships, adultery, addictions to lust, and more. We are loving with a shallow and conditional love; not the love Jesus modeled. Perhaps you are thinking, “Ok smarty pants. So, what the heck is love then?”

How would you define love? 

Here of late, I have been studying the letter of 1 John I have been learning about love as though it was the first time, I had discovered it. I have also asked many people how they would define love. I have asked friends, I have asked my kids, I have even asked some strangers. Most answers have sounded as though they are coming from a lexicon and very intellectual. However, there was one person that stood out. They defined love using phrases like, “when something happens.” She was defining love through her own experiences from her past. This of course can be dangerous as many of us have both positive and negative experiences that can cloud our judgment and understanding of love. However, she defined love in the way John did in his letter: personal encounter and experience. John kicks off his letter (not his gospel) like this:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. 

1 John 1:1-4

John highlights his experience of Jesus above all else. But experiencing “what” per se? What John is experiencing is love from God, as seen, experienced, and heard in JESUS. But it wasn’t just any love. It was a special kind of love that could not be found in a textbook or dictionary. A love that was hard to define. It was a love that was being defined on the fly as they observed Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work. On one in particular occasion, Jesus taught on love in such a way that the disciple Mark surely had never heard. In doing so, it created an experience for Mark that was so memorable he had to write it down in His Gospel about Jesus. 

On one occasion the disciple Mark (In Mark 12) observed Jesus talking with a religious leader. And he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important?” Jesus answered quoting Deut. 6:5, the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” So, Mark is thinking: “Ok! So, this is how Jesus defines love… an insatiable passion to love God only!” Well, not so fast Mark. Jesus then follows this up in Mark 12:31 with, “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”

If they were defining this love by what they hear and see from Jesus, they would ask, “So is true love defined as a pure love for God or a love for our neighbor? Which is more important?” Jesus would answer, “Yes.” These disciples who wrote much of the Scriptures then began to define love not as an either/ or. True biblical love the way they experienced in Jesus was a beautiful and profound action of loving God and loving others in synergy. To the point where your love for God will be expressed by your love for people and your love of people will express your love for God. Two sides of the same coin.

Just imagine a figure 8. Turn it sideways. Now it represents infinity involving continuous loops. In one loop the label is “love God.” In the other loop it is “love people.” For Jesus, love was defined by an endless looping of loving God and loving people. While you may think this doesn’t exactly define love, you would be correct. Jesus wasn’t interested in defining Kingdom of God love. He was passionate about demonstrating it with both piety and compassion. This understanding of love was not common. 

Let’s take a step back and think about John, who like Mark, was there watching and hearing Jesus like this. These experiences John had by hearing and observing Jesus formed his theology of love. They shaped how he saw the world, loved his friends, family, and fellow Christians. This went for all of them. It wasn’t studying love in a dictionary or Jewish and Greek society that gave them this radical love. It wasn’t from their already built in DNA of wanting to experience love and give love. This was supernatural love.  

As the story continues, by the end of His life, Jesus was calling out their shallow definitions of love at many turns. This led to Jesus demonstrating the highest ideal of love: loving your enemies. Then as the disciples look back on an even larger scale, they realize that it was the power of God’s love for the world that caused Jesus to do this. 1 John 4:9 says, “This is how God showed his love among us, he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” 

What could go wrong? 

It is clear that true biblical love is defined not intellectually but through experience with the power of God in Christ Jesus… the kind of love that is unexplainable and transforming, intrinsically connected to devotion to God and serving people—the same love that redeems us, picks us up, washes us up, and empowers us to live and love like Jesus—if it is clear that this love is what we are to love others with and God… What the enemy wants to do most is destroy this love within you. Let’s revisit both Johns Gospel and Letter.

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. 

John 3:19-21

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.

1 John 1:5-6

John’s relationship with Jesus can be described like no other. It is a place of security, deep love, passion, and joy. Make no mistake, the reason he talks about love more than any other biblical writer is because he had the revelation of God’s love by what He experienced. In turn, this brought a security that the enemy could not touch. The same can apply to us today.  

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me.” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; experiencing a loving presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. You can’t get that in a book or a dictionary, only in experience and relationship. 

Throughout the Bible Darkness was always the presence of the enemy seeking to draw children of God into the shadows where the light of God’s love is hard to penetrate. John makes it clear that God is light and that is where we are to stay the best we can with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and indwelling. 

Do you then see that if we are not experiencing Jesus… we are setting ourselves up for a path in the darkness? In this place love becomes distorted. What we pursue becomes off track. We begin to settle for versions of love that are dysfunctional. We allow the love we are to possess for our spouse and children to decay into something foreign to agape. Our love for God and passion for His word and truth descends to a faint glimmer of a candle where there is no brightness. Add all this up and what you get is walking in the darkness, where evil and sin abounds. We end up getting used to life outside of God’s bright shining love. 

But that doesn’t have to be your story. Your understanding of how you are loved and your ability to love others is to be formed by experiencing and observing…JESUS. Its meditating on stories like the Pharisee and Tax Collector, Woman at the Well, Jesus with the poor, sick, and broken throughout Luke. It’s studying God in Hosea and how he suffered for Israel. The Holy Spirit will use the living Word to help you experience Jesus. At the church I pastor one of our core values is to be: Faithful in the basics: Scripture, Prayer, and Serving Others. This is how we encounter Jesus and form our theology of love. 

For the love of God…stay in the light!

I encourage you: stay in the light. Ask the Holy Spirit to shine brightly on the areas of your life that are remaining in darkness. Do you see any darkness within you that could be clouding your vision? They could be holding grudges and clinging to bitterness. Remember, to love your enemy. Don’t give them power over you. You may be in chains because of your bitterness. 

It could be carrying an offense from a situation outside of you. Please release it and love or others are steering your ship. Related to this It could be an unforgiving heart. Maybe you think someone, or something is so unforgivable. I understand that. But remember, at one point that was you when Jesus found you. Agape love does not withhold forgiveness. Sure, it will take time and a process of healing, but we must endeavor to move towards that place. And just remember, if you choose not to, then you yourself will not be forgiven before God. Jesus makes this painfully clear in Matthew 6:14-15 Are you prepared to be unforgiven? These and more are areas of darkness many of us possess within our hearts that are clouding out the light of Christ. 

But God is ready to set you free. To wash away any definition you may have of love; and flood your life with new experiences of His love which lead you into the light of his love with Him and with one another. But you gotta want it. You gotta pick up the cross. He won’t do that part for you. He went on the cross so you can pick up your own. When you do, you will discover love in such a new and powerful way that it will transform you. Think to yourself: 

You want to redeem your marriage? Fall in love with Jesus and do whatever it takes as He leads you. 

You want to be the parent your children deserve? Experience Jesus.

You want to live out you’re calling and purpose? Intentionally experience His love daily in prayer and the Word. 

Want to overcome your past experiences of pain and hurt? Allow the Spirit to give fresh revelation of identity. 

Want to overcome addictions to porn, greed, slander, anger, and more? Rediscover fulfillment through agape.  

Let’s ask the question one more time, “what… is… love?” I am not sure I will ever be able to answer this question appropriately, nor do I think I or anyone was created to. But I do know Who can. And that One is ready to lead us to the discovery of it in ways we have yet to ever experience.

The Insanity of God’s Love

The love of God and the love of Man

The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days. 

Hosea 3:1-5

Years ago I was walking parts of Canton, OH during an evangelism night. I would go looking for individuals just hanging out and make friends, pray for any needs, and share the message of Christ where there were any openings. Well, I came across an older lady and she had a child with her. She was outside her apartment at the door. I introduced myself and we talked about simple things. She then asked me what I was doing in their area. I explained I was a Christian and I was seeing if there was anyone I could pray for, meet with, and share about the love of God. She responded, “oh, that’s nice.” 

But then she opened up in a profound way. We talked about her previous marriages, divorces, physical and emotional abuse she had been in, the pain of being physically abused. It was heart breaking. She then said, “that’s what i struggle to understand… that you are here talking about a loving God, but these men said they loved me.”  This led us down a long convo outside her door about the nature of God’s love vs. The broken love of humans. She quickly realized she had always lumped them together. I passionately explained to her how the love of God and especially the love of Jesus is nothing this world has ever seen or known. 

Near the end she began to begin to cry. I mean tears upon tears upon tears. She said, “I have always grown up hearing about that love but I just always thought it must have not been for me but for others.” 

What broke my heart about that was how she viewed herself as a person underserving of God’s beautiful and deep love. Unfortunately this is not uncommon. An experiment… if you could imagine God thinking about you, what would you assume he would think? A surprising number of us would be quick to use words like, “disappointment, hard worker, failure, and more.” We would use adjectives like these and every single one would be the opposite of how God sees us.  

In most cases it is usually our sin, we believe, that catches God’s attention first and foremost. That was the case for the woman I met that day as well as many of us. The consequences of this assumption is catastrophic for our experience of God’s love in this life. 

The Love of God is…

Regardless of what you have come to believe about God based upon your life experience, the truth is that when God thinks of you, love swells in his heart. God overflows with love for you; for humans. He is far from being emotionally uninvolved with his creation. God’s bias towards us is strong, persistent, and positive. Our God chooses to be known as love, and that love pervades every part of his relationship with us. 

Does this truth minimize sin? Of course not. Because sin does not change how God feels about humans. Read that last sentence again. It’s true. God is simply not that fickle. Like loving parents who see their child make a wrong decision—do you love this child less? Of course not. God loves us with a love that is not dependent upon our behavior. 

Christians who assume the opposite tend to live their lives focusing on sin and performance more so than the depth and beauty of God’s love. These are those who believe they are honoring God by focusing on sin as much as they can. At times this group will judge other christians for not taking sin as seriously as they do. This group tends to become uncomfortable with divine love and feel an urgent need to balance this love out by highlighting God’s hatred of sin. The saddest part is that this group will often give verbal recognition that such a deep and divine love exists; yet they will fail to experience much of it while they live their lives. 

On the flip side though, the one who can live their lives secure and at rest in the truth that God is head over heels in love with them as his daughter or son—what a different trajectory that one will experience than the others. Why? Because they are remaining in relationship with christ. Relationship with God is not found in performance or hatred of sin. Relationship with God is found in remaining in the very love of God:  

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:9-13

Do you see the primacy of love? 

What we see in Jesus was God’s heart all along. Hosea’s passionate plea for Israel to be faithful is not some original idea he woke up with and heard from God. The prophets and leaders before him were crying out for Israel to return to the divine and deep love seen in the garden of Eden. Even for us as Christians, the story of Jesus’ love for you and i did not begin with him…it began in genesis in the creation narrative. 

When this narrative in genesis is read as science, we are missing it. The goal of the biblical writer as well as the Hebrew language being used is not meant to be a scientific text. It was written as a love poem giving the origin story of humanity. Is it truth? Of course. Did God create the heavens and the earth? Of course. It is truth. But the entire narrative of truth rests on a deep love story between God and those he created.

And so, created from love and for love, human beings ran from this divine love in pursuit of what seemed to be “freedom.” The result was catastrophic. Freedom turned into bondage. Intimacy turned into alienation. Genuine love was reduced to self-love. All of this resulting in deep pride and unimaginable estrangement from our true selves and how God created us to be. Sin was the ultimate killer of faithful covenant love between God and us and has, ever since, led us into diluted and dysfunctional definitions and pursuits of love and intimacy. Many of us have been there, are there. We were never meant to stay in this place. Neither was Israel. 

God’s love for us is transforming… 

Hosea is living for us, with visible symbolism, the pain that God is feeling because of this rupture. His heart is in agony. Hosea is called to marry a woman who has been a prostitute and bear children with her. This prophetic action is illustrating how God, who is full of love, is patiently waiting for Israel to return to him and be faithful in return. But it isn’t happening. Its getting worse. 

Just when we think it is over, God goes further with Hosea. Look again at what Hosea is to do in an effort to rescue his bride

Read Hosea 3:1-3 above again. But slowly.

Can you imagine this? Hosea wakes up. He hears the rumors. He rushes to find gomer at the market. She isn’t there. He panics and hopes to God she did not return to the streets or to her pimp. He hopes she did not go back to prostituting herself. He thinks to himself, “why would she leave my love I am giving her, our love we have in marriage, and seeking “fake love” in these ways?!?” So he goes and finds her pimp. Poses as a customer. And says, “ill take that girl over there.” He pays for her. She comes and finds her customer. With shame she realizes its her husband. Hosea brings her back home. Literally brings her away from where she was because why? Because he loves her too much to be at peace with her decision to be in that place.] We will come back to this insane scenario but…

Lets not miss something so important about God’s love: Hosea shows us that the way to return to the place of God’s love and faithfulness is not a passive acceptance of where gomer is or where we are; but a shifting of our intentions, thinking, and actions, to leave that current place and journey into a new one. Do you see this? The love of man is passive and based on acceptance. It is focused on self and ego. Whatever makes you feel good…however you want to define yourself… love is love. For the world? Yes. This is true. For the love found within the kingdom of God? It is the opposite. The love of God is relentless and founded upon transformation. 

Hosea could not rest with his wife on the street. God cannot rest with his children living in sin. Does it change how much he loves them? Of course not! But it does not equally change his jealousy and passion for them to live lives that are being transformed by his love. 

This divine love of God, the love Jesus speaks of and Hosea demonstrates is transformative. Continually. If ever a message is preached or proclaimed that gives love without transformation—that is not the gospel. Repentance (turning from sin) is a foundational part of our faith. How can we discover true divine love if we do not leave behind our broken attempts at love? 

God’s desire was always to find a people for himself, call them out from the world, and show them his deep and divine love so that they could then show the rest of the world that same deep and divine love. To do this, the people must be called out. This means repentance, leave their old life for a new—because the true deep love from above is so inviting that they cannot help but be transformed by it. 

I have often loved with condition. I have often lived trying to earn God’s love. Not a decade ago. More like a week ago. The enemy’s fingerprints are upon all of our lives when it comes to the love we give to others. We must be aware of it and consume ourselves with his love to protect us. But you know where all of this begins? In our own thinking. We asked the question, “if you could imagine God thinking about you, what would you assume he would think?” Perhaps adjectives like “unfixable, unlovable, unworthy” come into our mind. 

What lengths will this love go?

What is most often missed in Hosea 3 is the reality of the lengths God will go to show love to his beloved—those who think they are “unfixable, unlovable, and unworthy.” We already saw what Hosea did. But lets look for a moment not at “what” but “how” he did it. 

 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley.

Hosea 3:2

He bought a person who was already his. Do you see this? And he does this for fifteen shekels of silver and some barley. For comparison, Exodus 21:32 says a slave cost 30 shekels, and joseph was sold for twenty in Genesis 37:28. So Hosea goes and pays a little less than a slaves wage to get back his wife from the pimp. He didn’t have to! She was his wife! But Hosea goes and brings her home to a place of safety where true love is found and he says, “stay here for many days and remain with me, and I will remain with you!” This is not Hosea making her his slave. This is not Hosea commanding her she must stay. This is Hosea, acting in the place of God, saying, “I know that you are already mine! I love you so much that even when you leave me again and again and return to your ways, I will search for you, I will find you, and I will pay the cost to have you back to me!” 

“I don’t know Noah. You think that shows a “great cost”? I mean, it was less than the price of a slave.” Ok. Fair enough. How about this… 

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 

Though Hosea obeyed God, showing gomer the deep love and faithfulness of God, in the long run, Israel still was Israel. And so, God did it a second time. But this time it was not with the price of a slave; but rather the price of a King. But not just any king. God’s personified love was found in the person and teaching of Jesus who came from above. Who suffered a horrendous death and sacrifice as a means to usher you into a true revelation and encounter of God’s “garden” love. 

Many have experienced this love. They are experiencing all of it through Jesus and their lives are being transformed becoming holy, free from the pain and delusion of sin. But for many others, we are still trapped living as spiritual orphans and slaves This was the message Jesus told them again and again about the father’s love. But many didn’t get it. 

I leave you with this: God loves you. There is no sin too large for God to forgive. No life too far gone for him to redeem. His love for you has never changed. We have. Remember that the true love of God—divine love– will lead to new life characterized by repentance, holiness, and pure joy in him. A life shaped by the kingdom of God and his Son Jesus.

And so, 

Hosea went to find his bride. 

God sent Jesus to find his bride. 

In both cases, the bride was found. 

But for you and I, the question remains, “will we be found by God?” Stop running. Surrender to the love of God and begin to form habits that reciprocate that love: prayer, scripture, and meditating on the love of God. And I promise you. Your life will never be the same.

Amen? 

Amen.

The Marks of Love…

We had just completed our first lap on our floor. With each aching step—slower than a snails pace—my mind began to swirl. “God this is hard. I am in serious pain. How long is this journey going to be? Is this child going to make it and do well? Is my mother going to be OK?” It was only day three.

My routine in the hospital was pretty simple. Each day began the same. Around 3:00 or 4:00am  I would be awoken for vitals and meds. It was hard to go fall back asleep, so I would usually stare at the ceiling and then decide I would get up and go on a walk with the help of a nurse. Then it would be back to my chair and then eventually back to the bed when I felt the need to spice it up. This process would repeat itself throughout the day mixed in with some Dr visits, reading, and mindless staring out the window at the Cleveland skyline. Bedtime was uneventful. Find the best position to sleep. When you find it… don’t you dare move. Take lots of meds. Get your nightly blood thinner shot and try to sleep off the pain.

But that day three morning was something. We came to my favorite spot on the floor. It was a window that looked outside. I loved going to it during my walk and watching the cars and everyone outside. Granted I was only in there for three days but at this point but my body felt like I had been steam rolled by a semi-truck. People and nature watching took my mind off of what I was feeling.

But during that morning’s routine I broke down. As Michelle and I stood at the window—one hand on the glass and the other grasping my IV pole—I sobbed. I couldn’t control it. Alarmed, Michelle asked what was wrong. All I could utter was, “It’s just so much… everything is hitting me. Hard.” I knew this moment would come. I am sure it will return at a later date.

Everything Set In…

What was hitting me was a wide array of emotions. There were the emotions of worry involving my mother. Which haven’t left. The emotions of wondering how the recipient was doing. I felt an odd mixture of humility, shame, and guilt watching Michelle and my nurses do literally everything for me. I went into the hospital as healthy as I could ever be. But in just a few short days I was experiencing something physically and mentally I was ill prepared for. Sure, I had knowledge, testimonies, and reading material. Nothing really prepares you to have a surgery like this.

The picture on the left was taken the night before. The picture on the right was a few days later. The bandage is covering a hole in which a drainage tube went up into the area where my liver was cut.

But there was something else that caused me to break down the morning of the third day outside of concern and worry. In that moment I was also overwhelmed with the reality of sacrificial love. The love that motivated our decision had finally set in. It went from talk to now something I see in the mirror, feel in my body, and it was costing me so much in that moment.

I had done interviews before this surgery. I had talked with Fox News out of NYC about “love” as the core motivator. I talked with a reporter from the local news about how common sense this decision was; because of “love.” A local newspaper wanted to do a story when they caught wind of everything and so we did. There too I explained that all of this was coming from a desire to “love” well—just as I would assume Jesus would.

But here is what I realized. We can use this word “love” quite easily. We can speak of a love for a friend, spouse, or God. But to bring costly action into the statements of our love; well it ceases to be just “love” at that point. It now becomes a love with some added adjectives: compassionate and sacrificial. That kind of love will almost always leave a mark.

It could be a mark that you bear on your body. It could be a mark that scars your soul. A mark that stays with you forever. Regardless, it is usually a mark that results from you loving sacrificially—with everything you have.

How did Jesus love?

I was asked a question by a reporter off the record before the surgery. “How is it that you are able to easily accept this kind of pain and struggle for someone you don’t even know?” Quickly I responded, “Didn’t Jesus? Wasn’t he reckless with his love? Wasn’t he driven by compassion and sacrifice for those he didn’t know?” Awkwardly, his response was, “I guess so.”

I really love Jesus. He is everything to me. I love him not only for how my life has changed because of him. But mainly for his example of costly love. The bleeding heart of Jesus was open to all those who were (are) lost, in anguish, in guilt. Thirsty for life, for love, for acceptance. He came to heal, to save, to free from bondage, to give rest, to empower—so that each one might know they are valued and honored. That’s how Jesus loved. It wasn’t easy and it was costly. So costly that his end was marked with torture and rutheless exectution.

While in recovery I have been prompted to study two areas: the life of Jesus and His desire for his church. Thus far In my study of the book of Luke I have realized a few simple things about his life. With this costly love in mind (the kind of love that is sure to leave a mark), Jesus was fully present to each person he encountered. He received more fully the pain of every person he came across. Strangers. Neighbors. Enemies. Family. Friends.

He took that pain and suffered with them in solidarity. He touched the deepest need in each person. Whether it be a cry for love, value, acceptance, vulnerability, or intimacy—he met each need. How? By demonstrating compassion. Grace. Mercy. Patience. Forgiveness. Kindness. By demonstrating sacrificial and costly love.

Jesus didn’t express this kind of love for the hell of it. He did it to demonstrate how Yahweh desires his children to live. It was the forging of a new way in how to love and welcome the poor and befriend the powerless, the strangers, and enemies.

Make no mistake. His followers were watching. They saw how Jesus lived—simply and poorly—open to each moment and each situation. Always open to the will of His heavenly Father. They saw how he was motivated. It wasn’t by a codified law or concrete set of legalistic expressions of righteousness. They knew. It was a motivation of costly love which came from above. A love the world had not known and was most definitely not prepared for.

Jesus the Agitator…

Jesus disturbed and agitated those who found him too radical, utopian, and unrealistic. Sadly, for those of us who love radically, we often hear these same accusations.

They would say,

“How can one give up wealth and share with the poor?”

“How can one renounce violence?”

“How can one love one’s enemies?”

“How can one live without security and money?”

“How can one become like a little child full of faith?”

“How can one eat his flesh and drink his blood?”

“How can one live in solidarity with sinners, rejects, and the broken?”

Those who questioned and wanted understanding were those who could not fit his ways and teachings into their own ideas and thus refused to trust him. As a result, they turned away. They found it impossible, unreasonable, and downright dangerous to accept the newness of his message. As I said in a previous post—Jesus was a badass in the purest sense of the word. He didn’t care what the “Righteous Monopoly” said.

As a result, his exression of love was costly. It left many marks in his young life. It was so costly that he even broke down in tears one lonely night in a garden. Perhaps then too Jesus was realizing just how costly this love was about to be.

Make no mistake. In no way could I equate my action with His. Ever. For goodness sake, he is Jesus who was crucified and tortured. I am a sinner saved by the glorious grace of God. I am nothing special nor of value. Only Christ within me.

However, the motivation of love is the same. Not only for me in giving a portion of my liver to a stranger but for all who would seek to love sacrificially. It will cost us like it cost him. It will hit us like a right hook out of nowhere as we fully realize just how costly and painful it will be and we just might be driven to tears. All of us at one time or another will have that opportunity in front of us. But what kind of love will we choose?

The Pain We Feel…

I beg you do not run from the pain this radical kind of love will bring. Pain is not the ultimate evil to be shunned. Neither is suffering. We must not flee it or be overcome by it. Those who flee pain flee people and opportunities. In fact, I believe Jesus invites us to accept pain. Nay, embrace it. To walk with it and even more to discover that it can be transformed by love into sacrament—a gift that brings life and enables new depths of love that is more akin to the love of God vs. the love of Man. Famed author and creator of Le’ Arche Jean Vanier dedicated his entire life to this kind of love. Much of what I have written here echos his teaching and example.

And when its all said and done… if your transition into a life of love that is compassion-driven, painful, and sacrificial—if that love bears marks upon you… be proud. Maybe take a picture with it so you don’t forget. Those are marks that will stay with you forever reminding you that you did your best to love like Jesus. And as you can see… that’s the only kind of love that can truly change the world.

Choose Compassionate and Sacrificial Love…

In conclusion I leave you with this: be compassionate. The world has enough hate, anger, and malice. What the world needs is compassionate love. A compassion that is best described by a beloved Dutch Priest named Henri Nouwen:

“Compassion is not a stooping down of the privileged to the level of those without privilege below. Neither is it a reaching down a hand from those above to the unhappy ones below. Nor a friendly gesture of pity to those who haven’t “made it.” Quite the opposite. Compassion goes and lives among people and in places where suffering and pain lives. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unlimited, and unbounded. It is the compassion of those who go to the forgotten corners of the earth and stay there until they are sure that not a single eye is still crying. It is the compassion of a God who doesn’t simply act like a servant, but whose behavior of service is the direct expression of his divinity.”

That.

Let’s do that and do it well. With no regrets.

And if it causes pain, leaves a scar across your stomach, or a mark on your heart.

If leaves you weary, broken, and tired…run down and even taken advantage of to an extent.

If you are told you are utopian, unbiblical, naïve, or reckless in your attempts to love like Jesus…

Well, who gives a damn.

I know Jesus doesn’t.

 

The Strength of My Wife…

An Easy Decision within Eight Seconds…

Sobbing and unable to speak clearly, I mustered out what I could. “It isn’t going to work hunny. My liver is not a match. I will die if we try. Or I will be put on the transplant list immediately.” She was silent and as shocked as I was. We were both devastated.

Finding the strength to say the ultimate curveball I went for it unsure how she would respond. I explained, “Hunny there is something I want to tell you. They said I could be a match for a pediatric child who needs a liver donation. A child who isn’t going to make it.” Anxiously I prepared for her response.

Would she disagree? Would she be hesitant for a stranger? Would it be emotionally just too much after going through everything we’ve been through in trying to save my mom? What would she say? I knew I couldn’t force a decision like this. We needed to be unified.

Her blunt and quick response to this new twist in our story illustrates why I love this woman more than any other on this planet. It was a response born out of conviction, boldness, and deep compassion. With zero hesitation she said, “Of course we can do this. This is the Gospel of Jesus.” I said, “That’s exactly what I thought! I have zero hesitation. I just wanted to confirm with you.”

And that was it. We took a mutual deep breath and said, “Ok… we are doing this.” The decision took a whole 8 seconds for us. Call it foolish, reckless, or unwise (as some have). We call it compassion and following the path God laid before us. A life is a life and all life is precious.

Some Background… 

In this post I want to give some background to Michelle whom I have the esteemed honor of calling my wife. Michelle has always been my best friend and soul mate. However, through our 13 years of marriage I have given an abundance of reasons for Michelle to throw in the towel. Not because of infidelity or abuse. But rather the quirks and challenges of me as a human being. I have not been an easy man to be married to and walk beside. I will gladly admit that.

Before getting married I never dealt with many of the issues which both blinded and stalled my development. Issues I was bringing in as baggage. There were bags stacked upon bags. Because of this I was always stunted in my ability to communicate and articulate my own emotions.

Along with this I have always had a fear that I would be forgotten, abandoned, or that those I love will walk out of my life. Sadly, it has been Michelle who has born the brunt of so many of these unfortunate parts of my insecure identity. Through counseling and lots of prayer as well as mentors by my side I have grown as a man and husband. But the journey hasn’t always been easy.And through it all, she never gave up on me. Not once.

A Radical Table Flipper

This is one of my all time favorite pictures. Her shirt says it all: “REBEL.” Our decor in the backround says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” -Jesus

A little more about my wife and then back to our journey and her role in this story:

Michelle is a fierce and reckless follower of Jesus. But sadly she has often been misunderstood. She is not the cookie cutout, Beth Moore Bible Study loving, etsy shop opening, clean mouth straight laced Betty Crocker type. No offense to any who are. That just isn’t Michelle. To be fair, that isn’t me either. But what she is, to me at least, is as close a representation to the Historical Jesus you can get barring some of the obvious differences (beard, gender, Arabic skin tone, ability to speak Hebrew).

When I think of Jesus this is what I see and read: Jesus was a table flipping, wine making/drinking, “righteous-anger” driven, justice loving, people supporting kind of man. He didn’t give injustice the time of day. He wanted it dealt with yesterday. He longed for Gods Kingdom to come in the dark and dangerous places. Where there was no way, he found a way. Where there was a wrong, he sought to bring the Kingdom of God to make it right. His entire mission and drive in life was “other’s focused.”

I see so much of that when I see my wife and our marriage. She (and we) goes where others will not go. She refuses to give up on anyone who needs hope. She will have the time of her life with the unbeliever who is raw versus the professional Christians who’s noses reach the heavens. She will gladly spend more time with an excluded individual who is struggling to find community because of their LGBTQ+ sexuality and being ostracized because of it. Versus the one who has the squeaky clean life with a perfect “Quiet Time” record who just finished the latest podcast of Steven Furtick, while sipping a latte, and listening to Hillsong Worship. Once more, to be fair, that goes for the both of us.

She’s been told she is a “badass.” Multiple times by multiple people. We aren’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment but we both took it as such. When we see Jesus in the Gospels was he not also “badass?” I too have been called a badass but she takes the cake. Easily.

She will put herself in situations no one else would, to see something happen which no one else could. Whether its personal danger, a risky situation, or something that would be offensive to the safe and comfortable religious folks—if it glorifies Jesus and brings value to a person; she’s doing it. Even if the “scared, comfortable, and/or lukewarm” warn her otherwise.

She’s real, loves likes a good glass of wine and will most definitely curse if it’s the only appropriate word. Lets be real. Sometimes no other word will due. She will give everything she has to embody Jesus in this life. One time we discussed how each of us would want to be remembered. She communicated in her typical way. She said, “I just want to be remembered to loving Jesus and loving people. Actually, making an impact.” Simple. Brief. Non-flashy. Christ-centered. Did I mention she loves Pac and Biggie?

That’s a really simple snapshot of Michelle. She is a passionate Christian and walks the talk. But it has been her actions this past year which have made this recent decision easy.

This is a picture of our 75+ other children. Michelle, our dear friend Kelli Cary, and a dedicated staff lead this ministry. It exists to reach children and youth in extreme poverty as well as broken families to give them a second chance. To emerge from where they are to go places they never dreamed! This is Michelle’s heart and passion. There she is in the middle with the Santa hat on. This is our Christmas party. Not all of our roster is present.

When Life and Ministry Got Rough…

Five months ago we experienced serious turmoil in the church we lead. We both love leading our church. However, we both loathe church drama and politics. Our passion is leading a church to accomplish the things Jesus accomplished. During this time, we had lies being spread about us, our marriage, me personally, and so on. We saw actions from Christians that you wouldn’t expect as followers of Jesus. We had people we loved (and always will) leaving us right and left. They walked out of our lives quickly and swiftly. It hurt deeply.

Thankfully, Gods love and grace carried us through to a place of healing and confidence moving forward. We only see what is ahead and what is ahead excites us more than ever. We couldn’t be more excited to lead our church following this journey of recovery. God has huge things in store for our city.

But it was in this season of loneliness and pain that I broke down. One night in our garage by our wood stove I began sobbing. It was just too much. I was ready to walk away from all of it. Michelle walked over to me. She gently placed her hands on my shoulders and began to pray over me. She will never know how her words brought tremendous healing in my life. This pattern would repeat for some time. Even when I was difficult towards her—her approach never changed. Always loving and full of grace. She was an extension of the love of Jesus when I felt the furthest away from Him.

It was in this same season we received the news regarding my mothers need for a liver transplant. And there through each tear and restless night Michelle was there to give me encouragement and help me/us stay focused on solutions: i.e. live liver donation to save her life.

Another Chance… 

And so her response on the phone that day in regards to this child wasn’t a surprise. That’s just who she is.

She wants a part in helping a child get a second shot at life.

A second shot at running and skinning their knees.

Another chance to run and jump high.

A shot at having a year where there are no more hospital visits, painful tests, or fear of death.  She, like myself, wants to do whatever we can to walk out the good news of Jesus Christ for this child that we do not know.

And so for all those reasons and more, I am thankful for her. She takes my breath away with her appearance. Her mind and heart are bottomless; full of wisdom and insight. Her convictions move me deeply and help me become a better human being. Her challenges lift me to new standards of excellence I didn’t know were possible. And her passion to make wrong things right in this world deeply inspires me and our three children.

If you read this long, you deserve an award. Seriously. I am straight up bragging on my wife. Kudos to you. And I admit, I think I wrote this one more for me. But to be fair, I believe every spouse ought to communicate just how much of a better human being they are because of their other half. You and I aren’t promised tomorrow. Why wait?

Honor Your Partner

Think about your partner, spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.

Recognize the beauty in what they bring to the table. Honor that.

Appreciate who they are and their quirks. Keep a sense of humor.

Thank them for their contribution to your convictions and beliefs. Grow because of them.Thank them for their abundant grace and mercy that was displayed when you least deserve it. Return the favor.

At each turn through this long journey I have Michelle my wife to thank for a large part of who I am. While she hates the limelight (as well as this blog post I am sure) I knew it was still important for me to communicate to all who are following our story that I owe a lot of who I am to my best friend.

Since I have been asked many times “why are you doing this?” or “How can you do this?” I felt it would only be right to explain the other person in my life who has had equal say in this fun new adventure. She too will be carrying a large burden of this surgery and recovery.

To be clear, she would be the first to tell you she is imperfect and has a long way to go. And Who doesn’t? I know I do. But… in my eyes, as her husband and soul mate, I see a gift given to me that I will cherish forever. Someone who I am still head over heels in love with. It has always been and always will be her and I against the world. Especially these past 8 months. But shouldn’t every true marriage be this way?

Thank You… 

Thank you Michelle for helping me become a better man and Jesus follower. For being the wife I could of only dreamed of

Also, thank you in advance for the many days of pain and fussiness which surely lie ahead. I found an APP that rings with each press when I need something. So… that’ll be fun.

I love you babe.

 

 

 

 

I am donating my liver…

The Story

About three months ago we found out my mother was ill. We didn’t know what was going on. But as my mom and our entire family continued to get answers from the doctor we found out she was (and is) in need of a transplant. Something I shared on Facebook about a month ago when she was approved.

When we found out she needed a liver transplant my wife Michelle did an enormous amount of research and found out that someone is able to be a Live Liver Donor. This not only saves one life but also two because it frees up a cadaver liver for another person. I can’t tell you enough how important live liver donation is. You can check out all the info you need on it right here.

For the sake of this story I will give some brief info. Your liver is extremely important. We found out it’s the second most important organ in the body according to many medical professionals. It is the miracle organ which does more than we could imagine and is the only organ that can regenerate. The surgery is an extremely serious and obviously invasive. The incision is usually 11 inches down the center of your chest and then heads left. A backwards L. There are possible complications and they are serious. I’m not gonna lie. And the recovery is daunting. No sugar coating here. We are fully aware of everything going into this decision. We are ready.

When we learned about this we knew without a doubt we wanted to do this right away. Michelle was tested but she didn’t match. I was also tested and we found out I am an exact match. O-negative. Zero hesitation, I am doing this. I want to save my mom and do this for her. She gave life to me. She brought me into this world. I am returning the favor the best way I could. I had never felt more excited for this moment.

And so off to Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH we went for three days of testing like you wouldn’t believe. It was intense. Tons of blood given, MRI, CAT scans, organ imaging, psych evaluations, social workers, medical ethicists, and more. It was intense. Everyone seemed to believe everything looked great. We were confident and ready. We left preparing ourselves for the tough journey ahead. Before giving us the green light they needed to get one more imaging result back from a company in Germany.

The Phone Call That Changed Everything

A few weeks later, my phone rang. It was my coordinator. I could tell something was wrong right when she answered. I said, “Hey Katey let’s hear the good news!” Her response made time stand still. I froze in a place of paralysis and dread. It was all brought on by the tone in her voice. With somber regret, she graciously and lovingly said three words which hurt to me to my core. She said, “Noah, I’m sorry…”

Right then I knew it was going to be one of the hardest days of my life. I collapsed right then. Put the phone down. And I sobbed. I couldnt move. The reason I was denied was based on the anatomy of my liver. It was not conducive to what my mom needed. I would of either died quickly or needed a transplant right away. The risk was huge. Obviously my mom would never let me go through this let alone the Cleveland clinic. But Michelle and I begged for them to try. Yes, we are a bit radical in our love for others.

But it’s something she said at the end of our convo that threw me for a loop and would change my life forever. She said, “Noah, I am sorry your liver is not a match for your mom. However, your liver is ideal for a pediatric patient who won’t make it unless they get a liver transplant.” Wow. This hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized this was someone’s son or daughter. A grandchild. A classmate maybe. A child.

Right away I knew what I wanted to do. But I had to call Michelle. Her response was short, simple, and tremendously profound. She said, “Of course we will! This is living out the Gospel of Jesus!” As Christians who live a life of love, sacrifice, and compassion–this is the best way we know how to walk it out.

And so after more testing, more blood given, more evaluations, and many more days and weeks of waiting– we got news Friday January 11th. I have been fully approved  to donate a portion of my liver to save the life of a child.

The Joy of Giving Life

We have been given a gift. Michelle, myself, and our three wonderful children. As a family we have the opportunity to follow Jesus to a depth we could only ever dream of. We will be able to meet the need of a family who is praying for a miracle for their child. I could never walk away. How could I?

As a father I can’t walk away.

As a descent human being who loves to love all people no questions asked– I can’t.

As a follower of the teachings of a man named Jesus…who instructs us to lay down our lives for our neighbor– I cant.

Myself as a person and us as a family live by two key principles:
– Life is a currency meant to be lived out for the betterment and welfare of others… Not ourselves.
– You have nothing to lose by giving everything you have. You have everything to lose by clinging to what you already have.

Some have said to me, “Why would you do this for a stranger? It’s anonymous! You won’t know this person!” I know. And with all do respect, who the hell cares? A life is a life. Jesus commanded us to be compassionate to our neighbor. To go and do likewise. Where does it say we must know the person? It doesn’t matter who it is. Do we say this to firefighters or soldiers or policemen? How much more so for the Christian who’s identity is wrapped up in sacrificial giving… even unto death?

Some have already said, “But you have kids and a wife!” I am aware. This is a family decision. What was our children’s response? “Wow Daddy. We get to save a life! That’s what Jesus would do right?” We are all in this together. We have made this decision as a family to take a risk, step out of the boat, and put action with our convictions. Something I pray and wish many other “Christians” would do.

This isn’t about us. This isn’t about my decision. We could care less about notoriety. This is about being obedient to the path before us. This gift and honor is before us and we are ready. We have peace. We know it will be difficult. Recovery will be daunting. We are looking at 2-4 months away. Surgery will be extremely invasive. There will be pain. But its worth every single part. Because we believe that life is lived and given freely out for #EverybodyAlways.

Our Excitement For the Future

I want to give a word of encouragment to the church Michelle and I are honored to lead.  I have never been more excited about HighMill Church, being your Lead Pastor, and the direction we are headed. The past 8 months have been a season of preparation for something new and fresh God is doing. Michelle and I have never felt more free, excited, and ready to lead into a glorious future! One that is centered around compassion for all and “Going and Doing Likewise.” I am excited to get through this and get back to leading an amazing church community! We got this! Let’s rally together. We need each other in the coming months. We will not miss a beat in this interim period. I am confident in the leader coming in to lead us and keep us focused on the love and truth of Jesus.

Lastly, thank you to my amazing wife Michelle. You are my inspiration and my greatest friend and love. It’s you and me against the world. We got this! This is a team journey. Not just me. You are my everything.

I ask that you please keep my mom in your prayers. She is the toughest woman I have ever met. She is a fighter and I love her with all my heart. It kills me that I can’t be this for her. I wont ever get past that. But i am who I am because of her as well. She is a radical Christ follower as is my dad. I trust God will walk her as well as our entire family through this. Have O- blood? Interested in being part of our miracle story? Nschumac@ashland.edu. Contact me.

Thanks everyone who read this far. It’s gonna be a long journey. But through it all, God is good and God is faithful.

Please share this blog post. The more people praying for us the better. As well as the recipient. Whoever you are… we pray you will receive a second chance at life and be a world changer! Someone who grows to love others with no strings attatched.

Many have asked how they can be part of this journey with us. We have decided that we will take a pay cut to alleviate the financial strain upon our church as well as feeling it is the right thing to do. And so we are going to do our best to raise support. We have also been instructed to raise support to cover any unforseen and unexpected costs that hit our family during the recovery period. And so here the three avenues set up by our support team:

  • A dear friend decided to begin a GoFundMe page. Visit here for the page.
  • You can call 1-330-497-3166 and speak with Emily Presley who is our Front Office Manager at HighMill Church. They have established a “Pastor’s Fund” which will be available for my wife and I and our family for any needs throughout recovery.
  • Lastly, if your local, there will be a fundraising benefit dinner February 6th 6-8:00 PM at HighMill Church in Canton, OH. For directions, click here. Feel free to drop by for some great food, an update on surgery and recovery, as well as literature detailing Live Liver Donation.

Thanks everyone. We will be sharing our story, pictures, and updates through my blog. Be sure and follow along with us!

In the love and peace of Christ Jesus our Lord,

Noah and Michelle Schumacher

Philippians 1:21- To Live is Christ; and To Die is Gain.

#EverybodyAlways #GoAndDoLikewise

 

 

 

Attaining the Height of Christ-Likeness…

Recently in my stay at the Genesee Monastery in upstate New York, one of the monks shared with me this image. He explained, “This is a painting of the trinity with an empty space at the table. God in all his mystery always welcomes us to his table. We should go and do likewise. The same unity we see in the Trinity is what we must aim to see with one another.”

1 Peter 3:8-12 NRSV

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For
“Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

A Dirt Road South of Cairo and a Response that Shocked the World

On May 26th of this year on a dirt road leading to a Monastery in Egypt, 130 miles south of Cairo a group of terrorists hijacked a bus leading to the monastery and killed more than half of the people inside. This was part of a continued rise in sectarian violence in Egypt. Immediately the outpouring of anger, frustration, and hate poured over from many throughout Egypt and the world since many of these victims were also children.

Those killed were Coptic Christians which is an ancient group of Christians who reside mostly in Egypt. They have a long history of violence coming against them. Their understanding of what propels them forward has always been the faith and blood of their martyrs, as they say.

And so over the years we have grown used to hearing these kinds of stories. Usually what follows are scenes where loved ones are carrying coffins in the streets on their way to the burial site. This then is usually followed by people speaking into cameras expressing their rage and frustration. Crying tears of vengeance and bewilderment. I get it.

However, with this latest attack in Egypt we come across something we rarely hear if ever. It came from one of the leaders of the Coptic church in Egypt. I am going to read what he has to say and I want you to keep in mind who he is talking about. He is talking about young men who took the lives of 28 people, many of them children. Here is his message to them:

“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved. You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.”

 “Christians believe in transformation”, he said, adding that even those who had persecuted Christ“went on to live with grace. We believe in transformation because, on a daily basis, we are personally transformed from a life of human weakness and sinfulness to a life of power and righteousness,” he added. “We believe in transformation because the whole message of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is to take humanity from the bonds of sin and death to a liberation in goodness and everlasting life.”

He admitted this is far from the reaction people may expect, but said it was the “Christian message”. Bishop Angaelos said he grieves for young men who see it as “not only justifiable, but glorious, to take the lives of other young men and women”. “No family should lose a son in this way, even if they are partially or wholly responsible for this flawed ideology,” the bishop added. Bishop Angaelos said these attacks come due to a loss of understanding of the sanctity of life.

 The bishop concluded:What is important is not that this message be read but that it be communicated; not that it be accepted but that it be understood as another perspective [lived out]; and not that it should be fully embraced, but that it may create at least a shadow of a doubt in the minds of those intent on inflicting harm and pain.”

You see the hope of this humble and Christ-like man is that this message will not so much be read to the attackers but rather demonstrated before them. That radical love and forgiveness would be what wins over the hearts of those set on inflicting harm. This is of course in opposition to the alternative which is with bullets and bombs.

In a day and age when retaliation, fear, and vengeance permeates much of our politics, society and even personal relationships, the words of Bishop Angaelos comes rushing in like a river of fresh water to a thirsty society and church. The ideals of not only forgiveness. Not only loving your enemies. But an ideal even more difficult than those two.

Forgiving is by no means easy, but it’s doable. Loving your enemies is also not easy but this too can be done. It is what this Bishop does which is inconceivable to many of us: Seeing Christ in the other person. Seeing Christ in the person who has harmed us. Seeing the image of God in the person who is grating at our patience. Seeing the beauty of Jesus in the person who has so harmed us, so wronged us. It is this ideal which is often the hardest and impossible among us Christians.

The height of Christian hypocrisy is demonstrating bitterness, un-forgiveness, and hate to others. It is completely antithetical to our nature. It shouldn’t be in our DNA. If it is then we must take a look in the mirror because everything we show towards others must run through the filter of what has been shown to us in Christ. We have done nothing to earn or receive it but in Christ we have mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, grace, love, and a continued disposition from Jesus where he sees the image of God in us. To not show all of this toward others denies the very pillars of the faith which we say we believe in.

I am sure many of us can think of situations, people, and circumstances where we have bitterness. We have hate. We have frustration. Guess what, its Ok! You are human! But we must never settle for this. What we must strive for, work towards, is to be so full of the love and power of Christ that we are able to demonstrate the skill of seeing Christ in others.

It begins right here. It begins with one another. In order to do the unthinkable of forgiving the unforgivable, seeing Christ in the most evil of people, it must begin first within our own heart but then in the community. As we revisit these words from Peter let us possess one trait more than any other this morning: humility.

1 Peter 3:8- The Tools of Our “Counter-Culture”

In order to get the full punch in the gut of Peters words here we must take a step back for a moment. Let’s remember exactly what is going on here. We have a large group of Christians who are trying to navigate their new lives in the midst of persecution, suffering, trials, and many other serious obstacles to their faith. They have people coming against them, kicking them out of the synagogues, families being split apart, people losing their jobs—all for their faith in Christ.

It is in this context that Peter reminds them to focus on two things: loving one another; and blessing others. If I was there I can imagine my response. “Really Peter? Do you know what this is like? Do you know what we are going through? This is every man for themselves! We can’t do this! We have to compromise somehow. We have to figure out a way to get through this!” And Peter would reiterate what he said. The way to get through it is to display the radical love of Christ first to one another and secondly to your persecutors. To those who bother you, grate at you, and cause you frustration.

What this speaks of isn’t conflict resolution 101. What Peter is instructing is embodying a foreign and supernatural culture. The big buzzword is being “counter-cultural.” That by the way we live and interact with others both in the church and outside of it, is so different and foreign to our culture that we are displaying a counter culture.

John Stott, an amazing British Christian writer, wrote a book on the sermon on the mount. This is the section in the book of Matthew where Jesus lays out what he expects from his followers, you and I, in how we live and interact with one another. Stott says,

“If the church realistically accepted Jesus’s standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counterculture.

Instead of doing this, the church throughout history has too often developed clever ways of explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said or why his teachings are not to be applied in the present time. Thankfully there have been prophetic voices bringing us back to the authentic gospel down through the ages.

The Christian community must be in some sense “other than” the world around it, maintaining fundamental points of divergence. That where the common ways of society and how we treat one another go this way, we represent a different way. For so long the church has tried to be “counter-culture” in all the wrong ways.

Through t-shirts, through alternative music, through our own education, our own this and our own that. Those do not make us a counter culture. Wearing a bracelet or a cross on your neck does not make you counter cultural. Posting the most Christian status or picture on Instagram does not make you countercultural. To be countercultural is to do exactly what Christ does for others; exactly what we see this Bishop doing: see the beauty of Christ in every person around us, which then transforms how we speak, view, and relate to them. That is real transformation. The rest is cheap, sleezy, and void of depth.

Peter is very specific on what the “tools” are for making this culture exist within our community which then goes outside these walls. He first mentions unity of spirit. This is the simple understanding that we are in this all together. No one has their stuff completely together. What we do have is each other. As imperfect as we all are, we are a family together.

Peter then mentions sympathy, love, and a tender heart for one another. These three adjectives really boil down to one thing: being selfless. Usually when we lack sympathy, when we lack love, when our heart turns brittle and cold it is due to a deep root of selfishness within us. We are either imposing our standards on the other person or we have outrageously high expectations that are unrealistic. We must be tender towards one another. Acknowledge the flaws, but wow, lets love one another through them.

Peter is a wise man. He is slowly turning up the heat on the community. He begins with unity, then heads to three areas that are doable, and now he is turning to something that is nearly impossible. The last tool he gives is the height of Christian maturity and character because it is the very essence of Christ himself.

1 Peter 3:9- The Height of Christ-likeness

Our Lord Jesus, when he was being crucified cried out with a loud voice, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Other ancient Christians who were either being martyred or persecuted offered forgiveness to their persecutors. A man by the name of Anacleto who was an advocate for peace during the Cristero war in the early 1900s in Mexico was quoted as saying with his last words,

“I pardon you from the heart; very soon we will see each other before the divine tribunal; the same judge that is going to judge me will be your judge; then you will have, in me, an intercessor with God on your behalf.”

As followers of Jesus our highest aim is to always emulate Jesus. Just as many who came after him have done. Just as Anacleto has done. And just as many of us can do today in the simple act of choosing to bless those who cause us frustration.

You know, Peter has some nerve to instruct the church to do this in light of what they were going through. Can you imagine right now living in the days of Peter, like many places around the world right now, and you are being instructed to bless others. To love your enemies. To show kindness, love, and mercy to those who have wronged you? This would be so difficult for us. But for Peter, this is our divine destiny.

Do you notice how he says “repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called that you might inherit a blessing.” The word blessing has been often hijacked from Christian pop culture. Over time it has been watered down to the point where we say we are “blessed” over everything. If we have a new car we will say, “God has blessed us!” Well not exactly. You are very fortunate to have a job, credit, and you have chosen a car to buy. Sorry to burst your blessed bubble.

Blessing is much deeper than that. The ancient understanding of blessing comes from the relationship of a parent to the child. For the father or mother to bless the child is to say, “I love you. I am for you. I empathize with you. I am proud of you.” The word blessing is tied more to relationship, less to the attainment of material goods. Even in ancient Israel when the Psalms or the prophets would seek the blessing of protection, food, or anything it was always within the context of their relationship with God.

Therefore, when Peter says to return a blessing after being insulted, he is not saying to bake cookies for the one who has wronged you. He is saying “look them in the eyes and find Christ, and find the good within them to love. Find what you can empathize with. Discover the pain and heartache that causes their lashing out. Pray for them. Sit with them. Have coffee with them. Value their personhood. Show them grace.” That is being a blessing to others. Baking cookies is easy. Finding Christ in them takes time and diligence.

Peter then ends with this beautiful phrase for his readers as well as us. He says, “so that you might inherit a blessing.” Again, keeping the right understanding of blessing in mind, let us remember that we do not bless others to receive anything in return. We do not aim to give our tithes and offerings so that God can “bless” us with financial prosperity. That is a lie and a gross misunderstanding of the Scriptures.

No. We bless others, we find Christ in others, we love and live in unity, empathy, humility with others, so that we might receive the blessing from the Father. And what is that blessing? It is a Father, a parent looking at their child saying, “I love you, I am for you, I am with you, I am proud of you!” This is the purest understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. Sure, our jobs, are food, our shelter are signs of Gods providence and we are fortunate to have these.

But they are not the end all be all blessing. The only blessing that ever means something worthwhile is the Father looking at us and our obedient hearts and saying, “I am proud of you. I love you. I see Christ in you.” That is it. And that is what Peter is longing for, for these people. But for them to get there, they need to begin to live differently from the world around them. The same goes for you and I.

What We Must Do/Be

A few weeks ago I had a rare parenting “win.” It’s nice to see when you are doing something right. My three children, whom I love with all of my heart, become combatant with one another occasionally. Well, one day a few weeks ago it was my oldest two going at it. Caleb and Kennedy were fighting so much. Rather than yelling I called them over. I sat them down. I explained to them that it wasn’t ok to talk to one another and treat one another the way they had been. They then rushed to say sorry and a little while later they were back at it.

This time I knew I had to do something different. This time I called them back. I made them come together and this time they each had to make a list of ten things they loved about each other. You would have thought I asked them to climb Everest. It took about 20 minutes but they did it. The rest of that day something was different in them. They played together, they laughed together, they helped one another. And why? Because they intentionally found the good in one another and it changed everything. At its simplest level, this is what Peter is instructing, this is what Jesus did with everyone, and this is what Bishop Angaelos did with those attackers.

Being a counter cultural community of love and Christlikeness begins in your own mind and heart. After we experience that same transformation this Egyptian Bishop speaks of, maybe then we will see ourselves truly walking in the footsteps of Jesus like never before.

We will know we are walking in those footsteps when we no longer look with suspicion, distaste, disgust, or even hate at groups like ISIS, the LGBTQ community, or people on the other side of the political aisle (yes believe it or not the love of Christ is found in Democrats, Repuplicans, Socialists, Communitst, and even Marxists) Or even people of a different race. People who bother us. People who have hurt us. People who grade at our nerves. Peter says it best: let us seek to live in

“unity of spirit, sympathy, love, and tenderness of heart. Not seeking to repay insult for insult but rather a blessing. Hoping that in doing so we might make our heavenly father proud.”

This is what HighMill church needs beofre anything else. We are not all going to always get along or see things the same way. But in walking out our faith we will seek to look at one another with humility as better than ourselves.

This is what our community needs. This is what our vast world needs. You want to change the world? Change you first. But to change superficially. Change deeply.

I encourage you. I beg you. As you go home today begin to look at your circle of family, friends, husband or wife, children—and ask the Holy Spirit to show you who you must first begin to find Christ in. Who you must begin to seek unity with.

As hard as it may be, it is the only right(eous) thing to do. If we fail to do so we are being disobedient. While walking this difficult task out, take joy in realizing you are experiencing the mysterious and beautiful  transformation of your heart.

From a heart of stone to a heart of tenderness.

Blessings+

Ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος.