All posts by Lorretta Stembridge

Those Rumors You May Have Heard? They’re True.

We are told of a man….. a merchant by trade, known throughout the ages as one who can spot something of real and lasting value. More than a skill, this merchant appears to have been on a mission, driven to seek the best and the finest.  Experience has taught him about quality; he knows it when he sees it, perhaps even when others do not, and he’ll spare no expense to obtain it.

That’s all we know for, in just two short verses and one simple matter-of -act statement found in Matthew 13, we’re told simply that this merchant was compelled to search, gifted enough to know what to seek, and led to find a single pearl of great value. Upon it’s discovery, and recognizing it’s tremendous worth, he sold everything and bought it.

Like other parables from Jesus, this one is ripe with meaning. In the context of the discussion, Jesus has been instructing his disciples on Kingdom matters: value, redemption, growth, purpose and perspective. He’s teaching them what’s important to God and therefore what should be important to them… and those of us who follow. While ultimately, we know this parable is about the nature of God, Jesus explains, it’s for our benefit too: 

  • God wants us to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
  • He desires that we should know His nature and have His image marked upon our souls.
  • He wants us to recognize lasting treasure and real value when we see it and to imitate the examples set before us as best as we can— to seek, find and spare no expense to bring our “pearls” into the Kingdom coffers.

You might know that pearls are born over time out of discomfort. A small irritating grain of sand gets lacquered by an oyster (typically), eventually becoming a highly prized gem. That’s a lesson in itself. But Jesus doesn’t focus on the process of how the pearl came to be. Instead he draws our attention to the outcome and the kingdom response to something so precious.

Notice also how Jesus points out this merchant’s success. He was a savvy  businessman with plenty of fine pearls already, yet we don’t sense that it was wrong for him to keep on searching. Something deep inside urged him on, knowing there was something more to be found. He surely valued what he had— a collection so beautiful and fine— but that didn’t stop him. Seeking, he found something of greater worth and had no problem selling ALL the rest to make it his own.

“The kingdom of heaven is like _____ ”. 

Here*  six times in six different ways Jesus expresses the kingdom equation in the simplest terms and the lavish kingdom response that turns our world economy upside down and inside out. This kind of extravagance made little sense then and even less now. Each time Jesus is spelling out further what He’d been teaching about the kingdom earlier in Matthew 6 where basically He says, “Look, your needs are known. Your needs are going to get met. Stop striving to meet your own needs and seek the kingdom first. The kingdom of heaven is like_____ and the treasure is tremendous and all the rest? You’ll be amazed by how those needs are met along the way.” (Some BIG time Lorretta paraphrasin’)

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about these things. As one who’s been brought into this kingdom by a judgement value and price set by God alone, it’s humbling enough to make me put on my merchant’s cap and look for others. Depending on where you find yourself today, a variety of ideas may spring to mind as you mentally “fill in the blanks” Jesus (thankfully) left in these parables. 

For me, today, it’s a little more plain and real than it was even a year ago. I don’t have to look far to see my collection of “fine pearls”: a solid home, a successful business, a loving community, healthy houseplants! The list goes on. Twenty-eight years of marriage, three grown children and a decent 18-year run at self-employment have provided us with a flexible lifestyle in a place we’ve grown to love. As Christ followers, we’ve been privileged to invest 15 years in our local congregation, cultivating our gifts and talents while raising our family. We are about to be “empty nesters”. We are blessed with good health and mobility.

We are comfortable.
We have enough.

By worldly standards— even by the basic American Christian understanding we are considered “successful” and it would be no big deal to keep on as we are without a hitch.

Except, like that merchant,  we have been led by God to seek the Kingdom’s more. This is why, within the coming year we will sort, sell and moderately store all that we have to take a ministry position overseas in January 2019. It’s why we have begun to tell our business clients that we’ll be stepping away by then (not now!) and why Christmas with our children was so precious this year. It’s all about to change: we have found a pearl of great value and we’re selling (most) everything to purchase it.

Lord knows it’s not easy. In fact, once you set aside all the ridiculously romantic ideals of doing such things, it’s downright terrifying. It should be. It’s also the most peace-filled place we’ve ever been.  All we know as we prepare to go is that there is a God who loves us and the world so much that in spite of our sin, He sacrificially made a way for us to know Him and His great love. The kingdom of heaven is like… more than we will ever really understand, more than we will ever really deserve and yet, it’s like… right in front of us at all times and there are others who need to know this too.

As with all  such things of great value,  there’s sacrifice involved— a constant stream of releasing things to God’s care as we seek first His kingdom with the remainder of our lives and step beyond all that we’ve known to acquire this “pearl”.  In pondering these things; the parables, the pearl and the price, I’m beginning to recognize, by God’s grace, that the “pearl” isn’t necessarily a thing, place or position. Ultimately, yes, it’s the prize of the stored up “treasure” we’re promised at the end of time but in practical terms, the pearl of great value is obedience… the “everyday yes” to whatever God has called us— and you— to do.

We are very much in process and the details of how to do such a thing are still a bit hazy. The invitation however,  is clear: “Release. Give up everything to secure THAT “pearl”. And all the rest?  That will be the icing on the cake.  I promise.”

Would you like to know more about what’s going on? Email me at dl@stembridge.us  and I’ll add you to the Facebook page and prayer letter list. Thanks!

* ( six times in six different ways…) I originally wrote “five”– missed one, sorry! 

Inexplicably Enough

Once upon a time, I wrote about what I feel might be the scariest thing in the history of ever. It has to do with unfulfilled potential and going soft on hard dreams.  But I have to confess— even on the cusp of potential hard-dream fulfillment, there are other scary things I’m reckoning with.      For instance:  gapsThey’re everywhere.

Overseas travelers quickly learn that adjustments are necessary when visiting other cultures.  Some are smallish, like the way timeliness is viewed (or not!), while others can mean the difference between life and death— such as which way the traffic flows when you’re stepping off the curb. Signs in train stations caution you to “mind the gaps”— to be aware of the space between solid ground and the moving train, which turns out to be good advice in every area of life.

Outside your comfort zone, you must be hyper-vigilant for a time because you just don’t know when you’re going to face a gap in your understanding of normal.

Gaps can be scary.

Perhaps, it’s due to something I read not long ago where the author wrote, “Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.”   Think about that for a moment: until it happens we’re not able to recognize there’s a gap in our understanding or ability to explain. We can’t totally prepare for it.  We can only be mindful of the potential and keep a posture of humility.

We Westerners like information, answers and resolution— like it’s our God-given right.  We also like safety.  A lot.  To the point of idolatrous worship. There’s nothing inherently wrong with needing answers or seeking safety except when it becomes the overriding impulse of our lives. Somehow society has equated having more answers with being more “safe”. It’s true for Believers as well. We forget that the need for more— or suspecting that God hadn’t given enough— triggered the original sin:

“Did God really say…?  You mean if I partake of this fruit I can be  ‘like God…. Knowing’?” Hmmmm.

And despite this wide-open age of bottomless information there are still some things we can not entirely know and that drives us crazy. As Believers, there are places where we are asked to proceed and not only be mindful of those gaps, but to embrace God through them.  Sometimes, that can be a little……. unsettling.

So…my husband and I are in the midst of a radical life transition that’s filled with more questions than answers. On the surface level, the struggles we’re facing are obvious —ours is a situation crazy-ripe with joys and complexities.

Just below the surface there are layers of potential angst and anxiety over the answers we just do not have yet— or maybe never will. This is combined with the additional challenges of facing off with information that doesn’t totally add up according to the World’s standards. What didn’t need to matter so much before, matters way much now as we let go of our tentative grasp on the so-called “American Dream”.

Seldom before did we have to think about or explain our understanding of the holy mysteries of God in light of the taught-as-true secular theories of origin, evolution and human sexuality. Those conversations don’t come up very often in our little town and if they do, it’s easy to rise, shake it off and move on quickly to something a little less confrontational.

However, when you pull the plug on “status quo” and step toward making the Gospel your life’s ambition, where the trusted hedges of protection are lower or non-existent and the questions aren’t so kind— where the gaps seem like chasms  then you can really feel what you’re up against.

The seemingly simple act of trying to explain Creation to a group of wiggly 3-year olds heightened this awareness in me. It’s not as easy as it sounds! Perhaps because these very discussions are taking place at home as hubby is in the throes of college-level courses in Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology, working to finish his degree. In that secular university setting the answers provided and expected have almost nothing to do with the neat and orderly, 7-day explanation of creation and all that follows.

It’s a challenge we cannot back away from because without a courageous and consistent witness, today’s chubby cheeked 3-year-olds risk becoming tomorrow’s leery-eyed college kids, regurgitating the lies simply to make the grade, perhaps never asking why.

It’s a big deal.

Although created in His image, I continually have to remind myself that God is so very… Other than us and good in ALL His ways and there will simply never be a way for anyone to comprehend that completely. It’s true: God designed us with the capacity to crave the harmony of facts and justice. We were designed with the need to have our questions satisfied but it does’t take long to realize that nothing we see, have or know in our own ability will fill it all in.

Honestly? Being able to fill in all the blanks still wouldn’t satisfy anyone. It’s not a cop-out nor are we backing away from the hard stuff. Lack of answers does not equal lack of God. It’s just as far as we are able and allowed to go. The remainder is holy ground where we can take off our shoes, unbutton our souls and be satisfied that we know enough.

That answer feels inadequate. The lack of “justice” chaps our proverbial hides. We think we need more ammunition or like we’ve been left in the dark to defend areas where the Big-Bangin’ theorists seem to have it all together. Until, upon closer inspection, you discover even LARGER gaps in the record that they’ve filled in with copious amounts of speculation, presented as fact, and held loosely together by self-serving ideologies. At the end of the day, they still have much to explain.

And Believers are not exempt from this frustration because we must live with the realization that the gap in our ability to provide all the answers— to be like God, knowing— is as wide as the chasm He fixed when our first sinning Parents were barred from Eden. This is God-territory and really, a grace-gift to us, which not only keeps us from having to bear the weight of information we can not handle, but also protects us from our pride over the ability to explain everything.   It’s in the spirit of that original sin… the  desire to know all and the overriding doubt of God’s provision, that one would refuse to trust Him and instead demand answers first to questions like:

What kind of God would allow_______________?
How did God__________________?
Do you really believe that God_____________ ?

What my husband and I are finding— if only considering why we’re doing any of this in the first place— is that when we have the courage to live honestly and generously share our personal faith experience, to live and give a reason for the Hope that we have, God is enough in His own defense of those “gappy places” and allows us the joy of being His witnesses, while equipping us to stand in the gap –bridging it– so another may cross over.

Some things cannot be fully explained now. But honestly, as we’ve matured in our journey with God we’ve discovered that He is able, willing and big enough to fill in ALL the gaps. Maybe not with the neat and tidy answers that used to seem so necessary, but more importantly— with Himself— strengthening us to bear witness to this confused, hurting world that it’s not more answers or information that we’re all needing to be satisfied, it’s God and God alone.

And He is inexplicably enough.

Now What?

In the typical vernacular of American hyperbole, the recent solar eclipse was promoted as the “Event of the Century”,  and met with the greatest fanfare and attention one might expect on the occasion of meticulously aligned celestial bodies.    It was spectacular.

While everybody was looking, God did it again: His miraculous nature on display. Some expressed awe over an easily explained scientific phenomenon, however no one would ever deny that NASA scientists neither put the sun and moon up there, nor did they orchestrate such an astounding event. No, like the rest of us, they could only watch in amazement as yet another, every day miracle testified to the unfathomably  precise mind of our Creator, God.

There, plain as day, the Sun and Moon effortlessly glided past one another, exchanged pleasantries (I’m sure), waved to the watching crowd and continued on their way.
Back to work people
.    Just like that it was over.

That same Sun and Moon are still right where we left them, more or less,  dancing their rhythmic do-si-do and declaring the glory of our Creator- right now – with scarcely anyone in attendance. Pulling tides, fueling photosynthesis, boiling mist into clouds to bring rain to parched ground and the countless other miraculous things we take for granted every day.

That moment is gone with another taking it’s place in the record books as a large portion of a large Texas is waterlogged and still in terrible distress. Same God. Same sun and moon. Radically different results.

This, on the heels of media-fueled firestorms disputing deep issues of truth and equality and how to represent our shared history fairly. Even the ugly bits. For my part, I confess my testimony shines brighter because I’ve been given the gift of grace to share the darker places honestly. There are scars because there is healing and this is the reference point orienting my course for the future.  Focus makes all the difference, even for a nation.

If we’re truly honest (and a little quieter), it’s the truth we all must walk by and all we’re left with at the end of every day.  Whether it’s one day gazing at the heavens in stark amazement or the next with eyes cast wide in disbelief at the overflowing waters of the sea, we must surely be struck by God’s power on display and our complete inability to do anything about it.

Not that we’re completely powerless. But we do tend to focus on things that really don’t matter– pushed along by popular opinion and media-driven mob mentality or most often frantically rushing through life striving to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite for goods and pleasure.

So bone wearying and tired.
So lost.
So meaningless.

What really matters?
I mean…REALLY.   What is the end goal?

Have you noticed?    It’s so easy to mindlessly tick off life events as if the only goal is their attainment while time slips through our fingers like the pages of a Very. Slender. Book.  If we could imagine such a book and that each page represented  a year of a “typical” life, most people would agree that 80 + years is a pretty long life, although to hold it in your hand it wouldn’t seem that long.

Our slender story begins when God the Author, in grand “Let there BE” fashion writes His miraculous “Once… Upon… A… Time…” and WHOOSH!  We’re born!      Then what?  

Well… for most of us it takes about 18 pages to grow up!  Page 3, we’re potty trained.  Page 5,  we start kindergarten. In the next 13 pages we lose teeth, fall in love, get mad at our parents,  learn to drive, go to proms work our first job and GRADUATE!  Then what? 

Possibly, we start a full time job.
Or go to college.
Maybe we find a mate
Get married, settle down and start a little family with little stories of their own!  Then what?

Pages 26 through 40-something have us raising that family. We might buy a house and a car, own some pets,  take a few vacations and lots of pictures,   SURVIVE TEENAGERS,   work a whole lot more and retire at page 65.      Then what? 

Hopefully our health is still good and the economy’s been kind.  In the final 20 or so pages we can finally enjoy life and maybe some grandchildren. Maybe we still need to work part time or there’s time to pursue some hobbies. Play a little golf… Take a cruise.  And…   then…   what? 

Nobody likes to talk about it, but at some point, the book of our earthly life will come to a close. There will be no more pages left to turn and no more time left on earth to write our story.   We will die.         Then what? 

Our earthly story is over but it’s not the end of us.

At this point, God’s word  teaches that the only two options for our final “Then What” are either eternal joy with Him in heaven because of the forgiveness we embraced through the cross of Jesus… or it’s the justice of eternal suffering and separation in hell because we refused to repent and receive His gift of salvation.

See, hopefully, at some point in the preceding pages of our life we heard and received God’s saving Gospel by faith. We understood we are sinners separated from God, but in His rich mercy, He made a way offering us forgiveness by sending his Son, Jesus who lived a sinless life and then took our place and paid the price on the cross for our sins.     And then what?

He defeated death and rose again on the 3rd day to claim the victory for us. So that we can live truly ALIVE now no matter how many “pages” we have and then.. someday when our earthly chapter closes, the next one begins with God eternally in heaven.

But only For those who believe.
Only For those who receive.
It’s what Jesus is teaching about in John 14: 6 when He said

      “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

I don’t know what page you’re on today. Me? I’m on page almost-50-something. I don’t know how many “pages” I have left.   None of us does.

What I can tell you is that at some point on about “page” 13 or 14, I heard the Gospel and received God’s salvation offered through Jesus. Since then, all of my “Then What? ” events have been forever shaped and guided by God’s Holy Spirit. Not living perfectly or without pain, but with a purpose.

That moment of decision causes me to joyfully testify and share about God’s mercy and goodness and to care enough that someone else may know Him too and ask, now what?

Maybe today you need to believe and receive God’s gift of salvation and start writing a new story on the pages you have remaining. So when there are no more words left to write in your earthly story the very next chapter begins in His presence.  I’m here for you.

Maybe you say you believe but you haven’t been living like it and you know deep inside that needs to change. Today.

This matters because our stories are never written in isolation and in a grander way, so many of our moments blend and count in the lives of others.

We need to live like that.
We need to love….like that.

Because, let’s face it: time… is short and the pages… are really few.

Being Written by Him,