More Lessons from Layla
By Shannon Laning
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.
Touched by an Angel
by Shannon Laning
As Jesus gets approaches the cross, we see shift in the urgency of his teaching. He seems more intense than before. I believe He senses his imminent and impending fate.
Chapter 18 begins with the disciples highlighting their humanity by asking Jesus who will be the greatest in the kingdom? Honestly, if I had just spent a ton of time with the gift of healing and ministering to all kinds of people, I think that my pride would be bursting from my body. Jesus doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t even sternly rebuke them. Instead, He turns upside down their thinking of what is great by saying that childlike faith is great. This is encouraging. Jesus isn’t looking for everyone to be Billy Graham. He wants us to take the gifts and abilities we’ve been given, lay them down before Him, and ask Him what to do with all of it. And then do it.
One thing that strikes me about Jesus is how he elevates the status woman and children in a culture that devalued them. Think about it, the fact that Jesus even talked to the Canaanite woman is astounding. She was a woman, not a Jew, and lived in a pagan party town. All of those things gave men in that day enough reason to ignore her. And now we see Jesus expressing love and affection for children. “Children should be seen and not heard.” Jesus didn’t think so.
“Take heed that you do not despise the little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 18:10). This is likely where the idea of “guardian angels” comes from, and while I don’t know for sure if each person has a guardian angel, I do believe that angels are around us. The Bible even says that we should be kind to strangers because in doing so we may have unknowingly been in the presence of an angel. How cool is that? Do you think you’ve ever met an angel? Well, I have. I know that might sound a little hokey to you, but let me lay out the evidence and you can decide for yourself what you think. Know this though; there is an entire spiritual universe that we can’t see.
Years ago, maybe even 20, my family and I were vacationing in the nation’s capital. Not only did we get to sit through a session of Congress where Michael (my younger brother) fell asleep, but we saw landmarks and historical sights that I had only read about. I was and am a history nerd; the entire experience was enthralling.
As a native west Texas family who felt that 10 minutes equates to a “long drive across town,” let’s just say that taking public transportation wasn’t the norm. One day in DC, my dad herded us toward a subway only to yell, “Not this one!” as my little brother, Michael, stepped into “this one.” The doors closed behind him, whisking him off to who-knows-where in one of the biggest cities on the eastern seaboard. My mom broke into hysterics as my dad ordered us to stay put while he alerted subway officials. Not 45 seconds later, Michael was walking back to us with a man in an expensive trench coat who simply said, “Here he is.” We grabbed Michael and turned to thank the man, but he vanished. My dad went to find him, describing him to people, and no one had seen him.
That man was an angel. I think we spend too much time explaining away miracles with medicine, science, common sense, etc. We think that it might seem weird to say the supernatural interacts with the natural world. But if we truly believe that Jesus is who He said He was and did what He said He did, then the supernatural is always with us. Regardless of what side of the argument you are on, can we just all agree with this: God is a loving Father, angels are real, and we are in desperate need of saving on a daily basis. I am so thankful we serve a God who elevates the status of women and children, intimately knows our needs, and rescues us from disaster. In Michael’s case, He just used a well dressed man to do it.
Two Ways I Hurt People, According to Matthew
By Kalyn Stralow
Matthew 16:13-17:13 (NASB)
Is this a safe place to talk about my failings? I’m going to assume it is as we’re in the second semester of The Table, and I can be completely honest with you all.
I have VERY little natural empathy for most of the day-to-day struggles that people around me are facing. I’m a fan of the “buck up, champ,” suffer-in-silence mentality. Because in light of the staggering scale of human injustice and suffering, the daily hardships and complaints I am exposed to often seem kind of….trite.
And isn’t that such a gross, self-gratifying way of rationalizing my lack of compassion? To frame it as if I am just so aware of the Really Big Issues that I don’t have the space for anyone’s smaller problem?
Frankly, the way that lack of empathy manifests itself in me is ugly, and it’s embarrassing to have you know I can be like this. Not to mention it’s downright toxic to both the people I interact with and to my own mental state. I’m not admiring grit or supporting loftier values – and it’s absolutely not edifying – when I’m internally eye-rolling at people’s struggles just because they might be lower on the suffering scale than what another human is facing.
I’ve been aware of this tendency of mine for years. And, in general, I thank God that He is often able to show His love for people through this personal failing of mine. Because whenever I do respond with empathy to others, it’s purely Him acting through me and to His glory.
The Lord nudged me to confront this part of my nature again when reading and preparing for this week. As I was reading Matthew 16:21-28, and then in discussion with women from The Table, God used this interaction between Jesus and Peter to reveal two specific truths that I needed to confront in my life:
Overcorrecting to something positive (yet insincere or without basis in truth) is not a better approach to empathy (v21-23).
When Jesus is preparing His disciples for His upcoming suffering and death, Peter’s immediate reaction is to say “Never. This will not happen to you.” He is offering…reassurance? Comfort? Optimism? Denial? Probably a bit of each. But he is also making a meaningless claim in the name of comfort and support that has no basis in truth and is actually detrimental to Jesus.
In that way you see your own faults clearly in others, I recognized the way Peter was extending a false verse of empathy that I am often guilty of:
“No, I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”
“Everything will turn out great.”
“You are doing the best you can. It’s not your fault.”
I often say these types of things in an attempt to correct for my natural inclination. I want to sound supportive and empathetic, whether or not there is ANY validity to my words. That’s not constructive or helpful. It’s simply a platitude that, at best, accomplishes nothing. At worst, it could tempt the person down the wrong path, bolstered by a misplaced sense of support or confidence.
My attitude is contributing to the fallacy that your suffering has to be on the level of the persecuted church or an abuse victim in order to truly be “taking up your cross.”
As we were preparing for this week’s message, the topic of suffering for the Gospel was discussed, and the many cultural and traditional expectations that have been overlaid on these verses. And intellectually, I hold the belief that a person does not have to be a literal martyr to be bearing their cross for the sake of Jesus.
Yet my lack of empathy for the so-called minor suffering of others? That communicates the opposite message! It was never my willful intention to contribute to holding up that viewpoint, but I was doing it all the same. Ouch.
Thank God that His word is constantly active – and He uses it to reveal new things I need to confront. And forgive me, friends, for the times when my empathy has rung false, or I have upheld this false metric for comparing our “worthiness” in suffering. I want to be better. And I want to reflect Jesus, not the Peter of Matthew 16:22.
Love you all. Praying that He also reveals the exact truths that you need to be confronted with this week.
The Feeding of the Four Thousand that No One Remembered
By Shannon Laning
Matthew 14:1-16:12 (NASB)
In this week’s reading of Matthew 14:1-16:12, Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000 from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. We ALL know that story from church preschool. But did you notice He also feeds a crowd of 4,000? I’m not gonna lie, I’ve read Matthew many times and for some reason the second feeding never stuck in my memory. Can anyone relate to me here?
Jesus lays aside His desire to grieve in quiet as his dear friend, brother in arms, John the Baptist, has just been killed in the most gruesome way to teach, feed and heal the masses. As they labored beside Jesus, the disciples (understandably) grew weary and they’re humanity was displayed in full force as they implored Jesus to send the crowds away. They desired the crowds to find their own food but Jesus had other plans.
Jesus isn’t done with miracles for the day. He takes a meager 5 loaves of bread and two small fish and turns them into enough food to feed upwards of 12,000-15,000 people, with twelve baskets remaining at the end. The disciples are not immune to miracles but this had to stop them in their tracks a little. They were not wealthy and had probably had many times when more food would have been welcome. The fact that Jesus could command more food from almost nothing is astounding, memorable and truly miraculous.
But as with all miracles, time passes. Whether it was a lot of time or a little we don’t know. And I am not going to lie to you all, I have NEVER really noticed that there are actually TWO different feedings of several thousand people. I have read Matthew so many times and seemed to have just glazed over the fact that these separate events exist. But hey, I am in good company because 12 others forgot as well.
I feel like we can relate though. As a mom, friend, daughter, sister or colleague there can be times that you feel like all you do is give. Whether it’s picking up copious amounts of tiny toys or shuffling through hundreds of emails that are all pressing, there comes a point in time that you just want to rest. After healing, walking, ministering, caring for and talking thousands of people, the disciples were probably spent. And on top of that all, these thousands of people had followed Jesus and the twelve around for three straight days and didn’t even plan enough to have food to eat the end of that third day. The disciples find themselves stricken with a disease that we all seem to get: spiritual amnesia. Jesus had literally JUST provided food for thousands and the twelve wonder (maybe with a sense of despair mixed with annoyance) where food could possibly come from.
I mean how thick can they get? Couldn’t they just see that Jesus had just performed the same miracle that they needed to remedy the situation? How could people who were walking with Jesus not remember such a miraculous event? Well, it’s probably the same way that we forget. We are literally sitting on the other side of righteous redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus and we still think He can’t handle it.
“You know Jesus, I am know that you died on the cross and raised yourself from the dead and all, blah, blah, blah… but there is no way that you know what it’s like to: be a mom, deal with THIS husband, lose a child, be addled by chronic anxiety and depression, have cancer, watch someone you love make horrendous decisions, be a woman, live on the earth in this day and age…” While we may not say the first part of that statement, we certainly act that way. Well, at least I do. My history of trying to desperately control people and situations would suggest that I don’t believe that Jesus can handle it. Why is that? Shouldn’t the fact that Jesus is who He said He was and did what He said He did be more than enough for us to trust Him with every facet of our lives?
But we, like the disciples, forget that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is alive and well today, now, 2,000 years later. It didn’t diminish with time. I hope that I never forget what God has done this year in our lives. Even 50 years ago, Layla would have died (you can read more about her story HERE.) She wouldn’t be the thriving, bubbly, drooling little angel that she is today. God came down and touched her. He touched all of us. This year changed our lives forever.
Dear Jesus, may the spiritual amnesia that has plagued me much of my life cease to exist. You can handle it all because you HAVE handled it all. The power of the cross reaches across time and space transcending race, age, gender, ethnicity, and basic humanity. Thank you for selflessly serving on earth even in the midst of unfathomable trials like your abundant grief at the loss of John. May we never forget what You have done in our lives and throughout history. You are the hope for hopelessness, rest for weariness, joy for sorrow, calm for anxiety, and more than capable to handle it ALL.
Is the Jesus of Matthew 1-13 enough?
By Kalyn Stralow
Matthew 1-13 (NASB)
Christmastime is such a joyous season. The word “joy” is quite literally written into a large portion of carols, cards, and Hobby Lobby decorations. (Honestly, it’s a bit much for me, decoratively speaking.) But I love that the emotion is so pure.
We celebrate the birth of the Messiah and the message of hope that He brought to the world. We spend a whole season basking in the joy of His mere presence on Earth. The Lord is come. Yet it’s only the beginning.
As we near the halfway point of the book of Matthew this time of year, I cannot help but see our study as an extension of this joyous spirit. At the end of Chapter 13, the most significant moments in the life and death – and LIFE AGAIN! – of Jesus are still ahead of us. Is what we have learned so far worth celebrating on its own? After all, we’re only part of the way through the story.
Even at this point in Jesus’s life and ministry, there is already both joy and certainty to be found in who Jesus is. John the Baptist never lived long enough to know more about Jesus than we have learned by Matthew 13. He never knew the resurrection and ascension. Yet he believed and declared Jesus the Messiah. The people choosing faith in Jesus up until this point in Matthew did so without the benefit of knowing the end of the story as we do. The disciples followed Him, giving up their careers and choosing instead to live as He taught them and to share his message. Jesus was enough for them, even then.
Even without the rest of the story, we can still find joy in the coming of the Messiah to the world. In His birth. In His fulfillment of prophecy throughout His early life and ministry. In His miracles. In the message of the Kingdom.
While I’m excited to delve deeply into the radical and climactic parts of Jesus’ death and resurrection next semester, it feels right to pause here in December and truly celebrate the joy to be found just in His presence with humanity. Because after studying His teaching and His ministry up to this point, Jesus is the Person that I would want to follow, even if the cross and salvation there were not a part of the story that I was privy to. For me, He is enough.
What Hartley Teaches Me About Jesus
By Shannon Laning
Matthew 13 (NASB)
I’m not the only one. I can’t be. I can’t be the only parent in the world who cannot stand the question, “Why?” It was cute at first, as it is with all new things that kids do, but there comes a point in time that this adorable new habit irritates like nails on a chalkboard. At times Hartley really wants to know something, but for the most part, asking why became that standard follow up to anything I said. However, I have found that if I actually try to explain things in new ways, ways that she understands, she tones down on the question asking.
In the midst of my sometimes-frustration over the constant barrage of “whys,” I have become convicted that I am the exact same way (and actually way worse) to God. I just simply don’t get it often. That is why it takes a long time for me to learn a lesson that I am sure God has been trying to teach me for quite some time. Once again, I know that I am not alone here. God is such a gracious God and doesn’t give up on trying to explain things to me in new and different ways so that I might actually get it.
As I read through Matthew 13, I see it in a new light. God is using the setting of farming to explain and re-explain what His kingdom is like. As you recall, Matthew has been all about what the kingdom of God is and is not. It is multifaceted, unique and beautiful. It is filled with all different types of people. Some people will have lived faithfully, loving and serving, and others will have not. Some have lived apathetically and some abundantly.
Jesus stresses over and over the importance of seeking to be more like Him every day. And He also stresses that it is very important to not worry about what everyone else around you is doing and how they are acting. But I want to ask you, what do you think Jesus is trying to teach you through this passage? How does the passage of Matthew 13 make you want to be more like Jesus?
I am so thankful that we have a God who does not mind our constant question-asking. He is able and willing to explain and re-explain things over and over so that we have a chance to actually get the point and make a change. Hopefully, I can be a little more like Jesus every day and treat my precious daughter’s question asking as an opportunity to be a little more like Jesus was in Matthew 13, coming up with creative and memorable ways to teach and explain.
The One Where Kalyn is Judgy Toward Jesus
By Kalyn Stralow
Matthew 12 and Mark 3:20-35 (NASB)
Have you ever found yourself muttering, “Wow. Rude!” under your breath as you read a passage from the Bible? Then you immediately catch yourself in horror as you realize that the person whose character you are questioning is NONE OTHER THAN JESUS HIMSELF.
Confession: I have done this. It happened in Matthew 12.
(Now, before we delve into my terrible instincts and the passage in question, I have to first say that Chapter 12 covers a LOT of ground. I’m just touching on a tiny segment of it here, but this chapter is rich. Read. Ponder. Join in the full message and discussion this Thursday here.)
The part where I apparently felt the need pass some knee-jerk dismissive judgement begins in verse 46. In this passage, Jesus’ family comes to see him and His response is, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
All I could think was, “I would be heartbroken if I was waiting to talk to my son – whom I never see anymore! – and he publicly rejected me so heartlessly in favor of these other people.”
And isn’t that the most flawed and human reaction possible? I summarily dismissed Jesus’ words at a glance because I made it ALL ABOUT ME. I was still completely embarrassed to realize that as a believer of over 20 years, I can still be susceptible to thoughts like that.
So what do you do with those type of thoughts when reading the Bible? If you are looking for an excuse to reject Jesus, you can use your own filter on passages like this as grounds to walk away and not pursue “someone like that” for another second.
But although I may not yet be successful in halting these self-centered observations altogether, I now respond to that instinct differently. If something that I read seems contrary to what I know of Jesus’ character or his overall message, it’s a giant flashing sign that I probably need to look a little closer at what is actually happening in the passage. I refuse to blow past those things in favor of parts that better align with my own expectations.
If we take the time to read the parallel passage in Mark 3:20-35, we get a much more complete picture of what is happening here. This interruption on behalf of His family comes during an important message that Jesus is preaching to the crowds. But Jesus isn’t, in fact, just arbitrarily ignoring his birth family in favor of a shinier new family he has made for himself. (I should have known better, of course.)
Rather, we see that his family is assuming Jesus is hungry and out of his mind, amidst the press of a crowd so thick that He and followers cannot break to find sustenance. So they send word to Him, interrupting the message to call Jesus to them and extricate him from the situation.
It’s somewhat like the “emergency” phone call your best friend makes to get you out of a bad date that’s making you crazy, but it turns out you were actually having a great time and are completely lucid.
Jesus does not need “rescued” from his ministry. He has let the people who are hungry for His teaching come to him. He doesn’t want to be called away from them. What He has to offer them is so much more important than food. And instead of using his family’s message as an excuse to dismantle the assembled crowd, he turns that interruption into a beautiful opportunity to paint a picture of how God accepts us into His family.
“For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
It’s not a message of callous exclusion toward his mother and siblings at all. Instead, it’s a message of poignant INCLUSION for those who choose to be his disciples. We all can choose to share in the richness of His family. And I almost missed that bigger message of love because I was projecting my own feelings onto the Son of God.
Lesson learned: when I find myself judging Jesus’ actions, odds are pretty good that I’m the problem, not Him.
The Apathetic Adamek Hutte
By Shannon Laning
Matthew 11 NASB
As I looked out from the Adamek Hutte (pronounces hoo-tay) nestled in the rocky slopes of the Austrian Alps, and eerie fog began to settle over the peeks of the majestic mountains. Unlike many other parts of Austria, there is no green to be seen. The Adamek Hutte is one in a series of huttes scattered throughout the Alps as a refuge for backpacking-weary souls. But it is one of the few that sits at the base of a glacier, completely surrounded by grey stones and chilly air. The next morning, we set out to summit the Hauher Dachstein, the tallest mountain in Austrian and our most difficult climb to date.
We were tethered together as we climbed higher and higher so that if one were to break through the glacier into the ice caverns below, they would be spared. Thankfully, no such thing happened, but of all the climbs I did in Austria this one is by far my favorite. It was difficult and freezing cold, yet breathtakingly resplendent. The frigid grey that clung to the mountainside was sharply contrasted by the warmth of God’s word that flowed through me during that trip. I was in Austria to climb, yes, but more importantly, to learn about Jesus with 39 other souls from every part of the globe.
On the peaks of almost every climbable mountain in Austria sits a cross. Some are made of wood and show the wear of sitting in the same place for hundreds of years. Some are made of steel, never to be moved. They are there as an Ebenezer, a memorial, to those who fought openly and smuggled Bibles quietly through the mountains years ago. But like most of the beautiful religious origins in Europe, they have simply become a sign that you’ve made it to the top, a selfie-worthy place to commemorate a climb. And like the Adamek Hutte’s environment, they feel dark and grey.
In Matthew 11 we see a change in Jesus’ speech. Until now, Jesus has healed, encouraged, preached and performed countless miracles. Chapter 11 dawns with a somber tone. John the Baptist, now sitting in Herod’s prison, asks a question to confirm that Jesus was truly the “Coming One,” even after seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God proclaiming Him as such. Then, starting in verse 20, Jesus sharply rebukes (“woe to you”) three cities..
Jesus’ main ministry was in the three cities that He denounced. They had seen it all and heard it all; yet they were indifferent to the call of repentance. And much like crosses that adorn the Austrian Alps, they forgot from whence they came. Jesus should matter! His life and teachings should challenge and change us. When we have been called to repent of the things we’ve done that are not pleasing to God, we are to do it! God is kind and loving and forgives openly, but that is not a call to live a “whatever” lifestyle.
Jesus provides a way that reveals the Father to us; even to those who have just an ounce of understanding. Jesus desires for us to seek Him, turn away from things that are not of Him, and find rest and refuge in Him. It’s like coming down from the haunting and chilly Hauher Dachstein into the warmth and laughter of Adamek Hutte, sipping hot cocoa by the fire and eating Kaiserschmarne. It is choosing to live abundantly in Christ instead of being apathetically entangled in the affairs of this world.
We know Him so let’s live like it.