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Decision Point

by Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 28 (NASB)

We’ve arrived at the epic conclusion of the greatest story of our faith – the crux of Christianity. And Matthew, who has regularly subjected us to chapters that top out at over 70 verses detailing the parables and teachings of Jesus, gives us a whole 20 verses to wrap up everything from Jesus’ resurrection to his commissioning of the apostles. It’s almost startling in its brevity.

But it makes the details that Matthew DOES choose to focus on that much more interesting for their inclusion. He records how the very same events that occurred on the morning of the resurrection play out in dramatically different ways for the two sets of witnesses at the tomb.

On the one hand, we have the women who have been a constant presence throughout the events leading up to Jesus’ death and burial. When they see the open tomb and the angel, their response is a combination of fear, joy, and action. They are the first to hear of Jesus rising from the dead, and they are obedient in going to tell the disciples the good news. On their way, they see Jesus Himself, and their immediate instinct is to fall down and worship Him in response to his Godship and his triumph over death.

The women go on to share their message with the disciples, who meet with Jesus just as he promised in Galilee, where they also worship Him and receive their commission. It’s a truly joyful, miraculous event – sprinkled with some very realistic fear and doubt on the part of His followers – as they hope for the story of the resurrection to be true and then see that their hopes are not in vain.

On the other hand, we have the guards at the tomb, who experience the exact same opened tomb and angelic visit. And this also strikes fear in them, but this is where the similarity of their story ends….Their fear leads to inaction.They became “as dead men.” These miraculous events were not greeted with joy and wonder, despite the amazing things that were occurring right in front of them.

Matthew recounts that at the same time that the women are going in obedience and excitement to tell the disciples the news, members of the guard (who have apparently recovered from the events) also head out to report what happened to the chief priests. You can almost picture the two groups of messengers, forking away in different directions from the point of origin, racing to tell their tales.

When the guards recount the incredible events that occurred, there is no reaction of joy or wonder or even shame or regret for what has been done. There is no being swayed by this final, epic miracle – the kind of sign that they had all mockingly clamored for leading up to Jesus’ death. There is only the practical calculation of how best to control the damage and manage the fallout. The plan includes hush money, a weak cover story, political maneuvering, and an attempt to get their own spin on the tale out in front of the public first.

The same tomb. The same set of events. Two very different reactions and the consequences of the actions taken by those present at the empty tomb.

It’s the same set of choices we have have today when we encounter the story of Jesus. Matthew has laid out all his evidence of Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. And then he leaves us with Jesus’ great commission for those who choose to believe.

At the very end of the story, when we arrive at His resurrection, we get to choose our own response. Do we take the path of the guards or the women? Do we choose to turn away from what we’ve seen and allow ourselves to be talked into a different version of how events must have gone? Or do we choose Him?

The Grave Mistake of Not Listening to Your Wife

by Shannon Laning

Matthew 27 (NASB)

Every time I read through the Bible I see something new. Sometimes I glean really important, life-changing truths from it and sometimes it reaffirms the things that I already know. Regardless, there is much to be learned in Matthew 27.
The story of Jesus, His trial, and the crucifixion are not new to me or most of you. One thing that jumped out this week: Pilate’s wife warned him against doing anything to Jesus. “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.” Pilate did not listen to this sage advice. Pilate cared more about popular and political opinion, so gave Jesus over to be crucified.
While it’s very tempting to make this entire post all about the importance of a woman’s point of view and her God-given intuition that her husband should take into account and hold it with the highest esteem, I want to focus more on the things that we even as women might do. In today’s society, it is easy to want to go with the flow to do what is popular instead of what is right. We have seen this with so many popular Christian authors and speakers. They have fallen away from fighting for truth and have traded that in for a life of popularity. The Bible is very clear that following Jesus will not make you the most popular person.

Our society is easily offended, and the last thing we as Christians want to do is provoke disagreement. But our job is to stand for truth. And on the flip side, sometimes it is hard to hear truth from when we aren’t perfect. I like to think that I am more like Pilate’s wife, the wise council not headed, but sometimes I find myself being more like Pilate. Thankfully, the cost of what I have done didn’t lead to the crucifixion of Jesus, but, then again, it kind of did. Jesus died for and covers the sin of all. So even though I did not physically put Jesus on the cross, my actions did.
There’s an old Dixie Chicks song that says, “Trading truth and for a lie; cheating really ain’t a crime.” We sometimes want to trade in what is true, right and just for the lies the world disguises as justice, righteousness and truth. Wise counsel can be something like Pilate’s wife, someone really close, whom we really care about and whose opinion matters. It could even be someone you don’t know that well like a pastor, acquaintance, or speaker you’ve never met. I don’t want to be like Pilate, not at all.

Speak truth in love. Listen to truth with a teachable heart. This will be a battle. And men, for God’s sake, listen to your wife!

When Christians are the WORST

By Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 26 (NASB)

Let’s be honest about something for a minute, shall we? Christians really are the worst sometimes. Pretentious, judgy, unwilling to entertain conversations that might go against what they (or should I say “we”?) have decided is the “right” way to do things.

I’ve overheard conversations between Christians that made me cringe.

I’ve experienced behavior from fellow believers that was incredibly wounding.

I’ve also said things in the name of my faith that I am ashamed of when I think back on them.

It was not until college that I started to fully become aware of the extent of the damage inflicted on people by Christians. That’s when I really started to see people leave behind the church and Jesus, not just because they were out from under the authority of their parents, but because they didn’t want anything more to do with the type of Christians that they had known.

As a proponent of many legalistic ideas when I was younger, and then the recipient of misconduct from a fellow believer, it’s frankly not hard to see why some people choose to walk away from Christianity altogether.

Who wants to be a part of a group that turned its back on you when you were a single teen mom who needed their help the most? Or condemned you for not following their checklist of “rules for good behavior.” Or weaponized Jesus’ name, turning Him into a symbol of hatred toward those who don’t share their faith. Or when a person who was supposed to be a safe and trusted spiritual leader abused you?

I am so sorry.

If you’ve been hurt by this type of Christ-follower, or that type of church, I hope that you find solace and strength in Matthew 26. It’s a poignant reminder that the wounds you bear from religious people may be inexcusable, but they also put you in good company. This chapter is the culmination of a building hatred toward Jesus Himself by the devoutly religious of His day, resulting in betrayal, mockery and a farce of a trial by the leaders of His own faith. It’s the secret and rushed plot to kill Him because the leaders of the faith so disliked His words and actions. His betrayer was one of His own disciples, and the rest of His followers scattered in the aftermath of the arrest.

No one understands better than Jesus the pain of betrayal and hate from the very group of people who should best understand faith and love and redemption. It’s frankly uncomfortable to see the parallels between what Christians can sometimes act like today and the actions of the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. People are broken and fallible and sometimes misguided – even in the best-case scenarios where their intentions, at least, start out as good.

Christians are not Christ. When the church fails you, Jesus still remains true. And as for us, His followers, most of us truly want to be a better reflection of Jesus than those people who hurt you. Thanks for giving us another chance. We’ll do our best to live up to His example, ask for forgiveness and grace when we fall short, and continue to pursue Kingdom life together.

A Wasted Life

by Shannon Laning

Matthew 25 (NASB)

Stephen Hawking was arguably one of the smartest men who has ever lived. Even though he was diagnosed with a rare form of ALS when he was 22 and spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk, his mind didn’t surrender until his body did just a year ago at the age of 76. He devoted his entire time on earth to science and proving that science can answer any question.

He famously stated in his book, “A Brief History of Time,” that understanding the universe offers a glimpse into the mind of God, which some took to mean that Hawking did in fact believe in God. He later went on to explain that what he meant was that understanding the universe gives you the mind of God and therefore God is obsolete. He asserted that he had reached the level of understanding the complexity and intricacy of the universe. And yet, of all the quotes he is most famous for about God, I believe the saddest is this: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

His quest for knowledge ended in death and his legacy is this: the smartest man in the world spent his entire life proving that order and life came from nothing and to nothing we will go when we die. So what was the point of him living? What a wasted life. For all the sadness that his arrogant and narcissist life left behind, he did get one thing right; this life is all that we have. But what the brilliant mind of this man didn’t see is that this life lasts for eternity.

Matthew 25 can seem daunting and even scary. The story of the ten virgins and 3 servants make me stop and think about the life that I am living. While we aren’t actively try to refute the existence of God, many just simply live in apathy, and our world seems to only encourage this thinking more and more everyday. “You do you,” and, “Love yourself first,” have become the mantras of what “healthy people” should be about. But if I spend my life focused solely on myself, I run the risk of wasting my time on earth.

We only have one life to live; that much is true. But what Matthew 25 reiterates is that we should spend our lives focused on eternity with God. When we focus on Him, our thoughts are not directed toward ourselves, they are instead directed toward others.

“God, how can I  honor you today?”

I may have not been granted the mind of Stephen Hawking, but I have been given the gift of eternal life. A gift so precious and at such great a cost to the giver that I should be compelled to live well. Jesus is coming back and we should be ready. Stephen Hawking undoubtedly knows now that he wasted his life. Don’t waste yours.

The Sleepover Theologian

by Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 24 (NASB)

It was around 2am, and I was engrossed in conversation with my friends; our heads leaned in close and piles of pillows and blankets scattered around us on the floor. At 12 years old, there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from staying up super late, giggling with friends until all hours on a weekend night. We were past the giggly stage and had moved on to what we considered earnest and deep topics.

(The middle-school age is a sweetly earnest time of life – when one considers both the mysteries of the world and the crooked smile of a cute boy with the same intensity.)

Our topic that night? The end times! I attended a Christian boarding school in a small town in the Ivory Coast with limited access to TV or the internet. Armed with what we had read in our Bibles (Matthew 24!), mixed with questionable sources like the Thief in the Night and Left Behind movies, as well as an impassioned message or two from a guest speaker in chapel, we whispered our fears and thrills about what The End might look like, and if we would live to see it.

We debated if Jesus would rapture us before the tribulation or if we would have to live through the end times. Were we ready to be martyrs (yes, really … we took this very seriously)? Someone brought it back to the classic junior high perspective: “Well, Jesus better not come back too soon because then I’ll never be able to marry Chris,” my friend sighed dramatically, thinking wistfully of her crush. (Spoiler Alert – they didn’t get married).

Present-day-me wants to roll my eyes thinking about those naive and limited views. But I also have to acknowledge that as adults we aren’t that different in our thinking.

When reading Matthew 24 and the teachings about the signs of Jesus return, a different facet of that old concern emerged for me. This time, verse 19, “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!” stopped me in my tracks. Since I’m super pregnant as a write this, I couldn’t help the knee-jerk reaction: “Please, not now.”

And isn’t that just how it is with us? Expending so much energy on “Lord, not yet,” and, “If I could only get through THIS phase, then I’d really be ready.” But I’m willing to bet that I’ll never truly feel “ready” on behalf of myself and my children to happily embrace a future that promises trials.

The truth is, we cannot know when that future will come – just as we never truly know what our future will hold, good or bad. Being consumed with worry about hypothetical future suffering – whether the literal “End Times” or fretting about all bad things that MIGHT happen – only takes away from experiencing present joy.

But I see something else woven through this scripture. Jesus offers perspective and strength: “See to it that no one misleads you…,” “See to it that you are not frightened…,” “…if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him,” “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

His assures us not to be concerned with rumors and proclamations and fears about the future. We cannot know when He will return, and so to fret about it is a waste of time and energy. Can it be fun to discuss? Sure. I regret nothing about those late night chats developing my worldview with my young friends.

Live Kingdom life, as Jesus exemplified and taught throughout the book of Matthew. It’s enough. Being consumed with future, and trying to read the signs, and fearing what it all might signal? It only gets in the way of effectively living out the present for His glory.

Challenge this week: May we run after Kingdom life TODAY, confident in our pursuit of His will, and live without fear of the future.

A Georgeous Trash Can

by Shannon Laning

Matthew 23 (NASB)

It’s so hard to think of how to apply Matthew 23 to my everyday life… on opposite day! When thinking about my post this week, my thought process went as follows: verses 1-12 “Okay, this is what I need to talk about because how often do I do things to be seen by others?!”… and then each subsequent set of verses became more and more convicting, so since I don’t like hard things, I am not going to talk about it. Just kidding! But seriously, how crazy convicting is each part of Matthew 23?

The Pharisees were condemned over and over in for lacking humility, choosing the easy way out of things, not practicing what they preached and loving their outward appearance more than what was in their hearts. Ouch, that sounds all too familiar.

Those who know me best know I am a major hypochondriac. Germs, hate them. Sickness, stay away. You threw up 2 days ago, stay at arm’s length. Spraying Seventh Generation disinfecting spray everywhere, normal.


So what “woe” do you think stood out to me? Verse 25-26 which says, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.” Y’all, I am good at cleaning. And you bet I don’t forget the inside of the dish, but since we know this is a metaphor, let’s drive into it together.

As a woman and fashion blogger, I have become pretty adept in making my appearance look good. I know how to apply makeup and dress to cover those extra baby pounds that just won’t come off. They’ve taken refuge in my hips like guests who’ve overstayed their holiday welcome by three years. But you can’t overdress you heart. The Bible says that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).

I can be the “prettiest” woman in the room yet with a heart filled with hate, comparison, and self-indulgence. And do you know where I see my Pharisee-likeness the most? It’s in the way I react to my kids or husband when they do things I don’t like. If my first thought is to get angry or think “they/he are just not being fair” that’s a real #checkyourheart (thanks John Crist) moment for me. My outward appearance is constantly losing collagen and luster. But because of God’s grace, our insides can do the exact opposite. The more time we spend in the Bible, meditating on the word, and acting as Jesus would, the more beautiful and clean (yay!) our insides become.

While God certainly does care about us taking care of our physical bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), His utmost care is for our souls. He is not like the Pharisees in Matthew 23:14 who share the amazing news of His glory and then leave us to blindly figure it out on our own. The more we try to know Him, the more we will and the more our inside being, the more sacred part of our person, becomes more and more beautiful like Christ himself.

Clean is good. I love being clean and germ-free. But if I stayed away from temptation and things that aren’t like Christ as much as I spray sanitizer, and if I attack my depravity with as much fervor as I do the rhinovirus, how much better off is my soul?

And since I know you’re not supposed to end a blog post with a question, just know that the Seventh Generation disinfecting spray is amazing and doesn’t have to be wiped off like its competitors. You’re welcome.

What Internet Comments Taught Me About Sadducees

By Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 22 (NASB)

A running blogger that I have followed for years recently shared a rather in-depth post about her faith that I found fascinating. It was completely off-topic from the usual content of her blog, but after years of offhanded references to her beliefs, the post was super popular and prompted lots of follow-up discussion from her readers.

I was curious about what strangers’ reactions would be, and found myself scrolling through the comments section (something I almost NEVER do) to see what people were saying. Most were incredibly respectful, but people had questions. She belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so many people were asking some version of, “Do you guys really believe in ____?” In particular, there were tons of questions on the church’s views on marriage for eternity. I kept reading in fascination as some comments grilled her on the subject by presenting specific and complex hypothetical situations regarding divorce, wanting her to address who would “get custody of the kids” in blended families for eternity.

Reading those comments IMMEDIATELY brought Matthew 22 to mind. And they provided some fresh perspective on how we humans approach discussions of faith.

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; 26 so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh.27 Last of all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.” Matthew 22:24-28

Just like internet commenters looking for an explanation of how heaven might work under the most complicated of family dynamics, we see the Sadducees fishing for Jesus’ answer about the afterlife by presenting a scenario with seven husbands. Their baited question was so similar to my own observation in that running blog comments section – right down to the specifics of how multiple marriages in life would impact family life after death – that it was striking.

There really is nothing new under the sun, is there? Our human inclination, both now and then, is to try to trap the respondent by presenting an extreme case that tests the ability of the person to explain their worldview. It’s a really unfair way to debate – used by those who are more interested in winning the moment than having a meaningful discussion.

Jesus, though, never engages these baiting questions as expected. He rises above our natural tendency to respond directly to the attack and instead addresses the underlying issue at the root of their question. The Sadducees question of “whose wife is she in the afterlife” was meant to point out the absurdity of holding a belief in the resurrection of the dead. But rather than get bogged down by their riddle, Jesus points them back to the words of Moses to reveal a greater truth that they have had in front of them all along.

It’s so effective that he silences them. And he does the same thing multiple times in this chapter alone, overturning traps from the religious leaders by pointing them to the Scripture that they have had at their disposal the entire time. His responses are simple and clear, but are always guiding them back to God’s heart on these hotly debated yet narrowly-focused issues that were so divisive among the Jews of the day.

It’s hardly a stretch to imagine how Jesus might address the divisive views within our own fragmented church community today. Our tendency, whether among fellow believers or with anyone who shares an opposing viewpoint to our own, is to immediately turn our attention to some detail that will best allow us to lay an effective trap for our “opponents.” Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Just like the commenters.

I don’t think Jesus would stoop to our level any more today than he did then, do you? He is still beckoning us back toward God’s intent. Next time I find myself in the weeds on a divisive issue, my prayer is that rather than getting lost in a line of cross-examination that is only meant to trap, He will gently prod my perspective and my choice of words back toward His heart.

 

More Lessons from Layla

By Shannon Laning

Matthew 21 (NASB)

My daughter, Layla, turned one the week (read her story here). I’ve been reminiscing on all we’ve been through this last year: 53 day NICU stay, 3 major surgeries, 10 smaller procedures, months of physical and speech (for feeding) therapy. Couched in between each of those stats is the countless list of ways that God has showed up for us.

As the list of what I’ve learned this year continues to grow, I am emboldened to tell others about what God has done. You’d think this would be easy for a woman who’s been a Christian for almost 30 years. But, since my natural bent is to not offend or make others uncomfortable, my boldness for Jesus has been masked by fear of what others might think. The minute that Layla was taken from my arms and loaded onto a helicopter to be flown 100 miles away the night she was born, something in me shifted.

Stuck in a hospital bed with my 4-pound newborn taken from me, I felt my desperation turn to prayer. I could tangibly feel the power that night. Something in my subconscious said, “Be bold, because your baby can’t be.” I began to tell any nurse or doctor that came in the room about Layla and how we needed God right then.

In the NICU, I found that the more I talked about Jesus, the more others wanted to talk about Him as well!

What does this all have to do with Matthew 21? Jesus is more intentional in His behavior and speech. We see Him boldly entering into Jerusalem while crowds proclaim Him to be, “Hosanna, Son of David, He who comes in the name of the Lord.” He overthrows the tables of money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He harshly criticizes the Pharisees and predicts the acceptance of Gentiles (whom Jews hated) into God’s family. His boldness seems to know no bounds; Jesus is always harsh toward the religious leaders and truthful with the crowds. But it’s that “truthful” part that I sometimes miss out on.

Since my goal should be to emulate Christ in everything that I do, I want to be more and more like Him by boldly proclaiming His goodness and grace to others. Layla has taught me a lot this year, but I never want to lose the sense of urgency that I have felt to let others know why Jesus is so good.

The Eleventh Hour

By Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 20 (NASB)

“And about the eleventh hour [the owner of the vineyard] went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” (Matthew 20: 6-7)

The “eleventh hour” is one of those idioms that feels like it has always existed in public consciousness. Seriously, hop on Wikipedia for two seconds and just see how many movies, books, shows, songs and albums use it as their title. And with good reason. It’s a great phrase that projects a sense of drama and suspense. (And if it was good enough for all them, you better believe it was good enough to be the title of this blog post too.)

I had never really considered it to be a religious phrase. In fact, I usually think of it in the context of a last minute agreement between opposing government parties before a looming deadline, or a dramatic rescue from a building seconds before the roof caved in. Or the kind of miracle the creators of Fyre Festival seemed to think would somehow magically occur as their ill-fated luxury music weekend loomed.

But it originates in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, a story told by Jesus that is unique to the book of Matthew. What I find most interesting is what we have retained about the essence of “the eleventh hour” in popular sentiment – an undercurrent of heroism, or of near disaster averted at the last possible moment.

That’s not exactly how we Christians usually view those eleventh-hour joiners in Jesus’ parable, is it? It was a story originally intended for the disciples, setting the reader up to empathize with the viewpoint of those early-morning laborers, who get paid the agreed upon price, yet still feel this sense of frustration that the people who only worked one hour are also being paid a full day’s wage.

We focus on the chastening component of it, and the reminder that making comparisons and grumbling is NOT a Kingdom-focused attitude.

But this is one of those rare cases where I also love what culture has held onto from this parable over time: the heroic, last-minute rescue. It focuses on the most beautiful and grace-filled part of the parable, as the landowner is still actively seeking out and drawing in people to his vineyard even in the final hour. The landowner graciously chooses to give payment far beyond what their eleventh-hour labor deserves. It is indeed a rescue story. It is our rescue story!

Even though I often relate most to those earlier workers – working to heed the warning not to draw comparisons or pass judgment against other laborers – I want the grace and mercy of God to come shining through first and foremost from this parable to the culture at large.

And it’s incredible to think of all the pastors and preachers and readers of Scripture in ages past who so clearly communicated this aspect of Jesus’s parable in Matthew 20 – so much so that the heroism in God’s desire to continue rescuing people to the very last possible moment managed to make it through the gradual secularization of the phrase. It’s a point of connection that I am glad to draw attention to with those who don’t believe in Jesus.

“Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15)

May our eyes not be envious, but instead celebrate the generosity of our Rescuer, who continues to make room for anyone who will come, no matter how late the hour.

Into His Arms

Matthew 19 (NASB)

In this week’s Scripture, Jesus tells His disciples to “let the little children come to Me.” Imagine for a moment that you are busy with the day’s routine tasks when you hear that Jesus is passing through your village. You cannot miss this opportunity. You scoop up your young toddler, push you’re way through the crowd, and make it close enough for the disciples catch on to your plan and tell you to stay back.

But then, Jesus.

Jesus sees you, invites you near, lays His hands on the child, and offers a prayer. Wouldn’t you love to have the opportunity to present your child to the Christ?

You do.

Women, we have spiritual access to God and the right to request spiritual blessings for the lives under our care. Our words can be words that speak God’s blessings into children’s lives and into their HEARTS. Do you know how impactful that is? Instead of trying to control circumstances, why not ask God to bless their circumstances (time in the nursery, first day of school, a play date, a new job, a new relationship); whatever they may be.

Prayer is a mighty mother’s tool to scoop up her child, of any age or size, and place that precious one into the arms of a loving savior.  Does this change the way you think about praying for your child?