All posts by Lorretta Stembridge

How Free Can You Get?

God bless, it’s “Murica” time!

Come on out and wave those banners and flags! Pull out the graphic tee, gather with the Fam, and find a spot on the grass for the annual fireworks display! Let freedom ring from the mountains to the prairies— if only for a day.

I can’t say much about what I knew as a child regarding freedom’s call or price but I surely knew the taste of it. The occasional family gathering at my grandmothers or the local lake seasons my memory with bluefish on the grill, some meat on the whining spit and lot’s of running wild in all directions. Sparklers and fireflies and the nylon-webbed aluminum chairs that clanked together as we took our place on the blanket spread before them. There the musky scent of rotting apples at the base of the tree, some sulphur and magnesium wafting through the air, blended together with the sharp smell of OFF! mosquito spray.

This only happened a handful of times but in my soul I felt cared for, loved and strangely free as I sat with my childhood family eating and watching the bursts of color spread over the sky above and rain down in streams of light.  I could relax in their presence if only for a moment. On that day, we were a family. We were Americans… citizens of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But the truth of the matter is that none of us was then truly as free as we could get.    Not yet.

It has made me ask: how free is free?  How free can you get? Is freedom based on where you’re born? Where you live and work? What your passport or driver’s license says? Is freedom based on a document? A constitution? A pledge, a vow or a good score on a citizenship test?

No doubt there are some places in the world where documents hold the key to our freedom and security. Those of us born into a world where this is never questioned cannot truly understand the inner workings of the heart and mind of those for whom this has never been true.  However, we owe every bit of our understanding to the ones who came before us, making the journey from wherever it was and deciding to walk towards the light of the freedom they dreamed could be a reality.  A “leave your kin, ticket-punched” kind of freedom purchased, no doubt, using all the guts and courage anyone could ever imagine. Fought for in various ways on various battle fronts both public and private, foreign and domestic, we live life in a “better country” someone else fought for…. and likely died for.

But is freedom an address? Is it simply where we get our mail? How free can you get? Is there still a freedom worth fighting for, sacrificing for, and on many levels, dying for?

Considering the past, the present and the future, I am grateful to know that the Holy Spirit has revealed a greater freedom in my life. The moments of celebration in my childhood were brief, sweet and precious few— shining against the backdrop of deep dysfunction and abuse. The family-styled celebrations of these moments in our nation’s collective history that provided these private highlights grow strangely dim in the light of that singular moment at the age of 12 or 13, when God revealed himself to me through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and showed me how to begin the walk of True freedom.

I was a child when it began. I spoke as a child and understood things through the eyes, mind and worldview of an American-born child. But now I’m grown… I’m growing… and I know that whatever rights and privileges I’ve ever known have only been granted to me in order to serve the cause of the Greatest Freedom there is as a citizen of Heaven.  No matter where in the future I may get my mail, I am grateful for the representative flag and banner I’ve been privileged to live under all my life but most especially, for the freedom it purchased so that the REAL FREEDOM I’ve come to know through Jesus as a result— can frame and foundation my life and future choices. It’s as free as one can get here on Earth at any address, in any capacity.

Free from guilt.
Free from sin.
Free from the demons of the past within.
Free from pain.
Free from loss.
Purchased by Christ’s heavenward cross.

This time next year, we will be living in another place where the 4th of July will merely be a date on the calendar. It will feel weird and bittersweet on some levels. Will we still celebrate? Most certainly. Because while our citizenship won’t change on earth we will still have reason to celebrate our freedom in Christ for, at the end of it all… it’s the only freedom that counts.

How free are you? Freedom is no small matter because God says so.  I am compelled to remember the many times I’ve flown across the continent or ocean hoping to shed some light for myself, but also for others in the name of the Gospel. Each time, the safety speech given about the oxygen mask procedure grabs me. I don’t ever want to use it! But it’s also the part where we’re told to secure our masks first ….then do so for another. Likewise, with our freedom in Christ. Once our freedom is secure, we must  do all we can to secure it for another.

Here. There. Everywhere.
This is the freedom  worth celebrating 24-7-365

Nothing is Wasted

God speaks. I just want to go ahead and say that right off the top because it’s the greatest truth a person can ever attempt to grasp and this truth is so personal and precious to me.

I don’t believe in coincidence. Not at all. I’ve seen too much in my lifetime to back away from that statement: there is no such thing. While it may take years and even seasons to understand the connections, I’ve seen it time and again. Everything is connected and nothing, if we allow, nothingnot a shred or a tear or an experience… is wasted.

This is a ridiculously crazy season of life–wonderful, terrifying and beautiful. I know I seem kinda “spiri-tchool” and  all but lemme just tell you– I can be one HUMAN being.  Ya know? Lately,  I am so full of every emotion you can imagine and sometimes, just for the fun of it, I just go on and experience them all in the same day even at the same time! A few months ago I summed it up like this: “It takes a boatload of endings to make a new beginning.”   Do you feel me here?

There’s that whole “empty nest” label thing (which we are refusing to wear), the “fix up, sell all, finish and tie up loose ends and go” thing and then the real, physical emotions that accompany the letting go as gracefully as possible. It’s the effort required to let things naturally come to a beautiful end so we can embrace the beginning God has set before us. There are a bazillion unknowns and the things that we might be permitted to know are not yet made clear. The only thing— the only thing we can hold fast to at all is our speaking God
THE in our midst,
with us and for us,
Emmanuel…. God.

So when I find myself here… this place that causes me to sit down and start typing it all out… I must choose to cast aside Every. Other. Method or Mode for coping with the emotions and uncertainties. Whatever it takes, I have to choose to lean in to the One Who Knows. Obey. Trust.    When it’s hard… lean harder.

Today is just one of those days. I’m so grateful to be doing ANY of this at all, but sometimes I feel a little loose and crazy. Know what I mean? Like my feet aren’t connecting with solid ground and my heart wants to grab my head and fly out the door hollerin’ “See ya!!” So… I did the very thing I must do: I leaned harder. Asked for GOD’S affirmation and to remind me what it’s all about one more time.  He did.

Remember that story we love to tell the children in Sunday school? The version in Matthew 14 is the one we seem to like best because it’s where Jesus sends the disciples out to the other side of the sea while He hangs back to dismiss the crowds. Then, late at night, He decides to join them… walking across the water to the boat. They are naturally afraid and He says, “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!.

Peter, (we love this part don’t we?) full of bravado says, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” Jesus tells Peter to come and well, we know that Peter starts out great.

Then he looks around.
Maybe he looks within?
Maybe he looks down and back or at others…but he isn’t looking at Jesus anymore.
Nope.

We read then that Peter begins to flounder and cries out “Lord save me!” and Jesus, chastising him gently pulls him into the boat with the others who then worship Him in awe as the Son of God.

VOLUMES have been written on this passage and I’ve heard many sermons from many different angles. Oh, but nothing comes close to the deep understanding you need to keep from going under when you’re the one gladly answering the call to “Come.”

Then the wind whips up and the spiritual attacks and distractions begin. Oh man… you’re drifting off center because the logistics are not lining up yet and gee,  it’s getting very lonely out here…There’s just so much to do!  You’re feeling a bit over your head and well, you’ve never been this far out before… and the shoreline still seems so far away. Ugh… now you’re sinking.  Aahh! “Lord save me!”  And He does.

Think about it for a moment–He does.   Bless Peter’s heart, we often imagine that Jesus might be scolding Peter with His response: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” As if Jesus might be pointing to Peter’s doubt more than his faith. Well, I wasn’t there so I’m not sure what Jesus’ words were pointing to…but I can wonder. Imagine…what if Jesus was in effect saying, “Oh Peter… look at your little faith. I’m glad to see it. Did you doubt I’d stay so near to you right now? Why?”   One can imagine…

I’d like to believe that, if the very next day the same scene was reenacted, Jesus would allow for Peter’s little faith to come to Him all over again even though eventually Peter would flounder, cry out and need to get pulled up again. I believe this because Jesus is allowing me with my little faith to do the same.

The beautiful gifts I’ve been given during this season from our Speaking God are sometimes subtle. Today it was deeply personal. In the midst of an inner meltdown, I got a call out of the blue to help a neighbor. Taking our son’s car, I was sure to plug in my phone for the call from Boot Camp which could come at any time. Equipped with a bluetooth thingie, it picked up on my music playlist and randomly played this sweet song by Jason Gray entitled “Nothing Is Wasted”.

Wow. I wanted to pull over.  I first heard that song during a season of deep pain when I wondered if God would ever lead me back out of the wilderness and show us the path of His call. Say what you will but this was a reminder… His reminder that He is near. He is faithful. He is leading and guiding and that nothing… not a shred, or a tear or an experience is wasted in the hands of our Redeemer.      I can lean as hard as I want.

Here: give it a listen.

Those Rumors? 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. 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.”

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