*In one way, this was a difficult blog to write, but in other ways, very, very easy.

Over the past few weeks, due to some different things, this word has been knocking about in my head – what family is and what family does.

There are those who define family by blood (I would include adoption in “blood” as well).  Blood is a starting point, but only a starting point, and, sadly, there are those who believe that “blood” is the “be all and end all” regarding what makes a family.

Sadly, they couldn’t be more wrong, because it is possible for those connected by “blood” to be at best acquaintances and at worst practical strangers.

True family is not about “blood;” it’s about connection.  True, shared “blood” can be the foundation for that connection but, not only is it not required, it can actually be a detriment to connection actually occurring, especially if there is a mindset present that it is “blood” that defines a true family.

In the past, there have been seminal moments in my life regarding understanding this idea of family.

One that comes to my mind is when I was introduced to the family of my beautiful bride.  Here was a family that didn’t have much, but what they did have, no amount of money could ever buy – strong connection with each other.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there has never been conflict or strife within this family, but that conflict and strife was never allowed to permanently sever those connections.

I have often wondered if this idea of family was driven by my bride’s maternal grandfather.  Being the first young man brought into this family into a generation of 6 granddaughters, Grandpa Redfield made a strong connection to me.  His impact on my life was so great that I name him as one of three men who had the greatest impact on my life and my path in life.  From Grandpa, I learned that real family is about connection, not blood.

My in-laws, Jim and Dianne Chadwell, have done the same, probably learning it from Grandpa, not only with me, but also with my two brothers-in-law who followed my footsteps into this family.  The three of us have been and are indeed blessed because of this.

Back to that connection thing.  When we all lived closer to each other, we all sought ways, opportunities, and times to come together.  We had more things in common with each other than just blood.  We genuinely enjoyed being together and the normal raucous result was proof of that.

Even now, with so many hundreds of miles separating the branches of the family, there is constant contact via Facebook and other avenues.  There is a desire to be together whenever time and finances allow, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that often.  That desire exists because we value, cherish, crave, and enjoy the connection.

So, how can you tell when someone is real family?

Well, just like the adage, “Follow the money,” works in police detective work, the adage, “Follow the connection,” is the key.

When a holiday or special event rolls around, whom do you want there?  If someone is not there, does it feel incomplete?  Then that person is part of the family.

When you need a piece advice or assistance in some way, who is the first person you think to call?  That person is part of the family.

If a person were to no longer be in your life because, God forbid, s/he suddenly died, would it impact you and how you live?  Then that person is part of the family.

Shared “blood” does not create that connection.  Sharing in each other’s lives does.  And that creates real family.

I am very thankful for family, my family, those with whom I have those connections because each one of them, some in small ways and others in much larger ways, have impacted me and helped shape me.

Family – real and true family: a reason for extreme thankfulness.

Father in heaven, thank You for my family here on earth.  I pray Your empowering presence upon each of them in incredible ways.  Amen.


What is a “word of grace?”

What is a “word of grace?”  In Luke 4, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” after having read from the prophet Isaiah, Luke says the people present in the synagogue there at Nazareth “bore witness to him and marveled at the grace of his words.”  To understand what a “word of grace” is, it is crucial to see this in the context of verse 14 of this chapter, which says, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.”

Grace in not God’s unmerited favor which is how it it commonly defined.  That is a result of grace, not grace itself.  If grace is undeserved favor, then Jesus had none because all the favor Jesus had was earned and deserved, yet we are told that Jesus grew in grace with God.  In a response to the Apostle Paul’s request to take away a “thorn in the flesh,” God says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”  And in his response, Paul says, “Most gladly, therefore, will I boast all the more in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ should dwell upon me.”  So, Paul’s ability to overcome his “thorn” is the result of God’s grace.

So then, what is grace?  Grace is the empowering presence of God.  Jesus moving in the power of the Spirit caused his words and teaching to be full of power and authority.  So, a “word of grace” is a word, a teaching, that is full of God’s empowering presence.  And it was that empowering presence within him that, after quoting a passage from Isaiah about having the Spirit of the Lord upon him and being anointed by the Lord so that he would carry out his mission of announcing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and sending forth the oppressed in deliverance, he could say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  It was a word of power.

It’s interesting that there are typically two responses to power and authority: positive or negative.  Rarely is there ever a middle of the road response.  Power and authority are polarizing – some for and some against.  And, sometimes, people switch their reaction based on outside influence and circumstances.  Consider how many of the same people who were shouting praises to Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem were shouting “Crucify him!” just a few days later.

Now, let’s connect some dots for us today and the implications of that empowering presence of God and “words of grace.”  Jesus, in Matthew 28:18, says, “All authority in heaven and upon the earth has been given to me.”  Paul tells us that when a person believes, God sends forth the Spirit of His Son into that person’s heart and becomes that person’s one and only true nature.  That means that Jesus’ authority is flowing to and through that person.  Furthermore, Paul states in Ephesians 1 that God has directed His surpassing greatness of power unto those who have believed “according to the energizing of the might of His strength, which He energized in Christ,” the very power that raised Christ from death.

So, how often do believers offer “words of grace,” words full of the empowering presence of God, to those around them?  How often do believers respond with and in power and authority to the situations around them?  Far less than what it should be.  How often do believers offer ineffective words, powerless words?  How often do believers offer domination instead of power and authority that empowers people, empowering that draws people to God?  Probably far less than I care to consider.

What is crucial for us who are believers, who are adopted sons and daughters of the living God, is that we remember who and what we are and what flows to us, in us, and through us.  When we see situations and people around us, our thought, our motivation, our modus operandi, must be to direct the empowering presence of God toward that person or situation as God would so His goal of drawing people to Himself is accomplished.

We must allow those “words of grace” to flow through us for all believers have been commissioned by Christ himself to continue his mission and even go beyond.  All believers must be continually asking questions like, “What of God’s empowering presence does this person need to experience?” or “How can this situation be impacted by God’s empowering presence?” so that God is revealed and people are drawn to Him.

So, what’s your story?

Yesterday, I listened to a presentation about our local public library given by the new library director.  It was enjoyable and informative.  There was one particular statement he made that resonated with me.

Let me paraphrase it: humanity is deeply rooted in, interested in, and shaped by story.

And I believe he is absolutely correct.  Why is it that humanity is drawn to things like books and movies and plays and musicals and magazines and social media?  What do all of these things have in common?  In some way they all tell a story to some degree.  We are exposed to plots and themes, whether they are real-life or made-up.  And people resonate with that.

Another word that could be used for “story” is “experiences.”  Our experiences in life, individual ones within the whole of our lives, make up our overall story.  Those experiences shape who we are and are becoming as people.  Numerous research has been conducted on the cyclical effects of environment of nurture experienced as children.  They form a baseline, a default mode, so to speak, for who we will become unless that baseline is intentionally broken.

When in conversations with people, when we respond to questions, we naturally share in story because we are sharing our experiences.  For example, I have been asked how I came to live in Iowa.  I then tell about my journey, which includes my experiences – my story, of growing up in Michigan, moving to Pennsylvania, and then finally coming to Iowa.  It is often the case that when I want to illustrate an answer to a question, I will use an experience to do so.

Jesus often taught in stories.  They are called parables.  And he often also used actual things witnessed to teach something.  Witnessing the widow that put just two small coins into the temple treasury after a very rich man put in a lot more in, but did so in small coins so it sounded like a huge amount comes to mind.

Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is important.  And it is important for us to listen to their stories, especially as followers of Jesus.  God has a story; it’s found in the Bible.  It’s His story of interacting with His creation.  It’s His story of physically interacting with humanity in Jesus.

But God’s story didn’t stop at the end of the Bible.  It is still ongoing.  It continues as He lives in His adopted sons and daughters.

But I must admit, there are those who have given God’s story a plot twist, a change of theme.  They have unfortunately reverted back to the plot as it existed during the early parts of the story, instead of continuing with the theme change God created in Jesus.

I think the advent of social media has increased the importance of story because the availability of information has increased astronomically.  People, more than ever, I believe, are interested in sharing their own experiences with people and people are interested in reading about them, because stories impact us.  I believe this to be the case because people are more interested in the “actual” (what has been a person’s experience and response regarding someone, some thing, or some situation) than they are in the “factual” (the facts of what occurred).

During much of the 20th century, the typical evangelism strategy of the church was preaching at people, declaring what was factual (and it was and still is true) about God and the gospel and the way to receive eternal life.  That method worked because people, though still interested in story, put a higher value on the actual facts rather than the experience of people regarding those facts.

But that’s not reality today.  There is a much higher value on story than on the facts, though the facts remain important.

So, what does that mean for the church and followers of Jesus?  It’s not that the facts aren’t important, because they are, but the reality of those facts is demonstrated in our own experiences, our story, and that is what people want to experience.  If there are no experiences of what we say is true to be experienced by another, then people are highly doubtful of the truth of what we say is true.

“You say God is a loving God and you have experienced His love?  Then why is so much of what you say filled with hate or passive-aggressiveness or judgment or condemnation or condescension?  No thank you, I don’t want to be like you.”

“You say God gives hope and peace through Jesus?  Then why do you live just like everyone else with stress, worry, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness?”

Here are three things followers of Jesus must do:

  1. Examine our own individual stories.  What does how I actually live say about what I proclaim as factual in God’s story?  What does that say to those around me when they experience my actual story?
  2. Be willing to take the time to “read” another person’s story.  This means not “judging a book by its cover.”  It means truly and honestly and genuinely diving into a person’s story, understanding the basis for that story.
  3. Finally, look for ways to connect God’s story as revealed in our stories to the story of the other so that the other’s story is impacted by God’s story.  This is what I call the bridge.

Admittedly, this takes time, and is often quite messy, but that’s okay.

So, maybe you’ll think about this the next time you ask someone, “So, what’s your story?”

I have a fear

I have a fear.  What is that fear?

I fear that there are many who, even though are followers of Christ, have not heard the voice of the Father.

I believe that when people transform the faith (Christianity) into a religion, using the Bible as a “rule” book what what must or must not be done, they have not heard the voice of the Father but, in reality, have fallen into the gross error of the Pharisees.

There is a monumental difference between knowing Scripture and hearing the voice of God.

The first is knowing rules and “laws” for behavior; the second is understanding the Spirit of God.

The first deems something bad if, in some way, no matter how small, it violates a written law; the second focuses on God’s intention and desired result.

The first uses Scripture to criticize, judge, and control people, while the second seeks to expose people to God’s heart and love for them.

This monumental difference is apparent from an episode between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious leaders which is found in John’s Gospel.  In chapter 5, John tells us how on one Sabbath day, Jesus happened to be in Jerusalem near what was called the Sheep Gate where there was a pool of water.

To make a long story short, Jesus had the audacity to heal a lame man who had been lame for 38 years.  Jesus then commanded this man to take up his mat and walk.  And this man did so.

The religious leaders told this healed man that he was sinning by taking up his mat because he was working on the Sabbath by doing so.  He then told them that he was just doing what he was told to do so by the one who healed him.

Later on, the man found out that it was Jesus who had healed him, and then told those criticizing him who it was who had healed him.  The Jews (meaning the religious leaders) took Jesus to task (John uses the word “persecuted”) for this law-breaking act.  Jesus broke the Sabbath by healing this man and then had the additional audacity to claim God as His own Father, which they said was Jesus making himself equal with God.

Near the end of his response to them, Jesus says this: “And the Father who sent me, He has testified concerning me.  You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor have you seen His form.  And you do not have His word abiding in you, for him whom He sent, this one you do not believe.  You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning me.”

Did you see the monumental difference?  Jesus told these people, those who were the experts on Scripture, on God’s Law, on the writings of the prophets, and said that even though they know the Scriptures and constantly search them, they have NEVER heard the voice of God at any time.  And they demonstrated this by their approach and resulting actions toward people.

Their error was that they used the writings to determine, define, and shape the heart of God when it is God’s heart that determines, defines, and shapes the writings.

And that means we must start with the heart of God and then see the writings through that lens, not the other way around.

That means we start with God’s heart for people.  We then move to where people currently are in their lives and seek to understand how to bring them to God’s heart for them.  We then take that understanding and carry it out.  And that may, on the surface, look like it violates Scripture as it is humanly understood.

But what must be remembered is that we start with God’s heart and allow that to guide us.

When charity becomes its own worst enemy

I cannot remember how many times I have heard someone comment that the way governmental aid programs, like welfare and the like, are constructed actually increase dependence in people rather than helping people improve their situation and get to the point where those aid programs are no longer needed.

But I also don’t recall hearing anyone give an actual reason why this is the case.  The article linked above does a very good job at explaining why.

And it’s just not with governmental programs that dependence increases but also church-based charity.  I think the problem truly enters when “chronic” needs are seen as the same as “crisis” needs.

“Crisis” needs are those immediate needs that are caused by occurrences like a natural disaster.  They are emergency needs.  The problem enters, as Robert Lupton states in the linked article, when we give “emergency responses to what is clearly chronic poverty, not a sudden, temporary crisis.”

It is when we give emergency responses to chronic situations that we are actually increasing a person’s level of dependency and charity becomes its own worst enemy.

The interview with Robert Lupton set me to thinking.  Here in First Baptist’s building, we house a clothes closet that is free to anyone who comes in.  And we have many who are repeat visitors, so it is apparent, I believe, that the need is a chronic one, not one from crisis, but is being met with emergency responses.

So, out of our desire to help people, are we in reality exacerbating the problem by causing a greater degree of dependency in people by just giving them clothes anytime they come in without there being any exchange of resources on their part in order to make use of the Closet?

I have a couple of ideas circulating in my head, but I am unsure of the legality of them.  So, I need to do some research, because the last thing I want to advocate is something that is illegal to do.  And that wouldn’t be very good.

But what I definitely want to do is help people break a cycle of dependency.

How do you see those around you?

Graham Cooke, who has been my theological mentor from afar for the past five years, wrote the following:

“To be astonished at what God wants for me is the starting place for living in a place of awe about everything He wants to accomplish in and around my life. What would it look like to people if we lived as though we were amazingly impressed by the Lord? What if it is entirely possible to restore the modern day church back to a place of real astonishment about Jesus? What if our total astonishment about the Christ in us made us a fascinating focal point for the world to discover the wonder of Jesus?”

What if we saw everyone around us in the way that God sees us?  The Apostle Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians 5:16 when he says, “Therefore, we, from now on, know no one according to the flesh; even though we knew Christ according to the flesh, but now we know Him no longer this way.

“…from now on, we recognize NO ONE according to the flesh…”  There are some pretty incredible, revolutionary actually, implications in that statement.  The word translated as “no one” is a very strong word.  It speaks to the reality that no one is exempted from this group.  Paul now views everyone, including himself and no matter whether a person is a follower of Christ or not, from a spiritual point of view.

That means that he views them as God views them because his view of others is molded by how he now sees and knows Christ.  And how he sees Christ, that approach, is revealed in how he sees and treats himself and those around him.

Here’s the key: when we see ourselves as God sees us, we automatically start seeing others differently.  How does God see us?  Through His extreme, infinite, unknowable, and unsearchable love.

I have many times said that we cannot give what we do not possess or have the authority to give.

And that’s why, anytime I see harshness coming from those who claim the name of Jesus and to be an adopted son or daughter of God, I stop and ask myself three questions:

How does this person view God?

How does this person think God views him/her?

What has this person truly experienced from God?

I ask these questions because one cannot share what one has not experienced or has been given the authority to share.

As illustration of this, let me use an illustration that John the Apostle uses in his first letter.  This is found in the 4th chapter.  After talking about having known (experiential knowledge) and believed (because of the experience) the love God has for him and others, John says that the one abiding in love abides in God because God is love.  And from that, God abides in that one.

But later on, John says the person who says he loves God but hates (in demonstration through words and actions) someone around him is a liar and God’s love is not in that person.

Why is what John says true?  Because truly experiencing the love of God and abiding, being immersed, in that love changes a person at the core level, in the nature of a person.  So, when a person demonstrates not love, that person is demonstrating that s/he has not truly experienced God’s love because what a person has truly experienced is what will be shared.

Jesus puts it quite succinctly.  How are we to love those around us?  In the same way we love ourselves.  Why can we love ourselves?  Because the reason we love God is because He first loved us and demonstrated that love in very real ways.

So, how do you see people around you?