Thursday, May 26, 2022

A Blog Update and an Ordination Lectionary

Dear friends,

It's been about three years since I last posted on this Watch the Shepherd blog, although I have posted on some of my other blogs! If you follow me on Facebook or in person, you know a lot has happened since summer 2019! (The big thing is that I graduated from Asbury Seminary with my MA in Ministry.) You can read last year's update here: Virginia's Summer 2021 Update


My dear friend and mentor Patricia, who was instrumental in me even going to seminary, was ordained as an Episcopal priest this past Sunday at the big Cathedral of St. Luke in downtown Orlando. I'll write more about that later since I sense a poem coming, but for now, I will just say that I had the honor of being one of her lectionary readers during the ordination service. It was an amazing experience that I will always treasure. I have linked the video below so that it starts with my reading. I am sure you will sense my exuberance, especially at the end!

What makes me think of this blog, though, is the text of that reading, 1 Peter 5:1-11. This is a perfect passage that she selected for me to read. It is at the heart of what I try to communicate, even after a long absence, on this blog.

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. 


Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 


In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud,  but gives grace to the humble.’


Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. 


Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 


And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.


The Word of the Lord.

(Thanks be to God!)

You may also wish to read this poem I wrote two months ago about Patricia's Advent sermon at the cathedral: Echo of the Sacred Story. I find it amusing that the word echo is in the title since when I did my soundcheck on Sunday, they reminded me to speak slowly and clearly since there is an echo in such a large sanctuary. They also advised me to project my voice, aiming for the choir loft way far in front of me. I appreciated the encouragement to lift my voice. It seemed symbolic for me as a woman. (For my thoughts on that topic, see The Power of a Christian Woman's Voice.)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Lectio Divina (Seminary Notes)


I love seminary. I always say it gave me my life back. Two years ago, I ran into my old friend Patricia on a fluke visit to a church where she happened to be helping lead the liturgy that morning. She invited me to a Lectio Divina series she was about to start there, and I soaked it in. At one of the classes, she shared with me about the much more in-depth Inductive Bible Study method developed at Asbury Theological Seminary, where she was an MDiv student. I started drooling. The next thing I knew I was in the Orlando campus admissions office, fulfilling a lifelong dream. True story. 

I'm well into my second year of seminary now. Three of my classes have at least touched on Lectio Divina, either in classroom discussion or in the assigned books Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton and Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson. I'd like to share with you two of my assignments for Biblical Narrative, an Old Testament / New Testament survey course I'm taking online now with Dr. Ruth Ann Reese. Keep in mind that these are in the format of a short seminary report, not in the format of how I would do a Lectio Divina session for my own devotional purposes! I have also participated in Lectio Divina in at least three different small groups. I have links and a photo at the bottom of this post which refer to my other Lectio Divina experiences, as well as a few other links to helpful articles. Keep reading!

Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) is not a formal systematic Bible study, even though the whole time is spent contemplating and praying through a passage of Scripture. It is an ancient devotional model first introduced by St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 330- 395) and established as a monastic practice by St. Benedict in the 6th century. It has several facets, which vary depending on what model you are using. These are the core ones, with some of the extras combined with the traditional four:
  • Lectio: prayerfully prepare your soul in silence (this first part is sometimes a separate step called Silencio), then read the passage slowly, savoring it - traditionally you are to choose one word or phrase which especially speaks to you. I don't tend to do this in private use, and if I do, it might be a whole cluster. 
  • Meditatio: read it again, reflecting or meditating on the meaning, and what God is trying to communicate to you through this reading today
  • Oratio: read it a third time, and respond to God in prayer, pouring out your heart to him about how this passage resonates in your soul
  • Contemplatio/Incarnatio: rest your mind and then, guided by the Holy Spirit, choose specific actions for application in the next few days so that you can "live the text in Jesus' name" 
Last month, I chose John 13:1-5, and this month I picked Isaiah 55:6-12. Here we go!

Lectio Divina #1: John 13:1-5

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Introduction & Setting: I did the Lectio exercise in my quiet study area in my bedroom in the afternoon. To set this in the context of my day, I had been outside gardening in the morning in my bare feet, getting quite dirty. This has something to do with my Lectio experience.

Lectio: I chose to study John 13:1-5, first reading aloud from my very old 1984 NIV Bible which is most comfortable for devotional purposes. This passage, which is about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, had stood out to me in this last week’s Gospel of John reading assignments. At that earlier time, reading in the library, I was thinking of it in sensory terms, such as the warm water, the texture of the towel, the tender touch of Jesus. I tried to recapture that during my re-reading of the verses, and this was more relevant after getting my feet dirty while gardening. The sensory experience of washing up added to my understanding during Lectio. However, a different word from verses 1 and 3 stands out to me in this reading of the passage: knew.

Meditatio: I read the passage again from my old Bible, as well as the most recent NIV and NRSV. In each of these readings, why did the word knew stand out to me? Jesus knew who he was, where had come from and where he was returning, what God’s plan was for that time, and what his essential work would be in the hours and days to come. Thus secure in his identity and his destiny, he could do the things he did, loving his disciples with humility and service. This is startling considering that this passage also includes his knowledge of the impending betrayal by Judas, leading to his death the next day. All of this touches a place in me. I know how much my own life proceeds from my sense of identity and destiny. It has to be firmly rooted in truth: I am made in the image of God, Jesus has redeemed and forgiven me, the Holy Spirit empowers me, God is working in my life for my good and his glory, and I have eternity in heaven as my destiny. My identity must not depend on my marital status, health, bank account, natural abilities, or any other things that come and go. It must not depend on how others have betrayed, rejected, or wounded me. All of these things can become shame traps for me as a divorced mother of 10. However, with my identity rooted in Christ, I can walk forward with joy and confidence into whatever ministry God has prepared for me. It is crucial that I remember who I am and whose I am. I have to know as Jesus did.

Oratio: My prayer, flowing directly from this passage and Meditatio, is that I will increasingly find my identity and destiny in Jesus, that I would be confident enough to live and serve with humility as he did. It is only because I know my identity as a daughter of the King that I can, as in Hebrews 4:16, “approach the throne of grace with confidence.” It is because of the identity that I can pray in the first place, and then praying, in turn, reinforces the identity. This is a good cycle to enter, with prayer and identity strengthening each other. So I pray, “Show me who you are. Show me who I am. Show me how to love. Show me what to do.”

Contemplatio: As Jesus set this example of humble service, so I must find ways to serve others that are not necessarily grand and lofty, but simple and earthy. I have an extremely busy week coming up with hybrid classes and homework assignments. I would like to hide away and study, but there are things I need to do for others, like buy groceries for my kids, help my daughter with her broken down car, bring a widowed neighbor to a church dinner, rehearse for a skit on the Reformation, go to work so I can pay our bills, and work out a misunderstanding with a friend. Those are things I personally need to do. At the same time, I need to be humble enough to realize I cannot do everything for everyone. Ego says I can, but I actually cannot. Jesus didn’t do everything. Later in John 13, he told his disciples he was leaving them behind to carry on his work, even “greater works.” I realize I have to ask for help. My identity isn’t based on how much I can pull off. Peter at first refused to receive a washing from Jesus, but he had to accept it. I can let others be the hands and feet of Jesus to me.

Conclusion: Through my Lectio experience, I experienced Jesus helping me to do the things I needed to get done that I could not do without him. In the middle of Lectio, I was interrupted by the opportunity to serve one of my teens with an urgent errand. Then another teen was yelling at me on the way home. Working from my core identity, I could stay calm, speak quietly, connect with needs, and defuse the anger. I thought of the Lectio passage in the context of the Last Supper as I brought my neighbor to my church dinner group even though I could have stayed home to do other things. I was quite tired, but thanks to the Lectio exercise, I had the extra energy and motivation to go forth in love. My neighbor and I were both very blessed by the Christian fellowship. That is what Lectio does; it brings us into divine presence and compassionate service in a fresh way.

Lectio Divina #2: Isaiah 55:6-12
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” NIV

Introduction & Setting: I did the Lectio exercise in my quiet study area in my bedroom in the morning. I had already selected and read the passage, but this was my first focused time for the full Lectio process of these verses. I should also say I chose this section from the assigned class readings because it made me sing. In post-Jesus-movement churches about 35-40 years ago, we often sang Bible verses nearly verbatim, and a few of them are right here. I can’t read them without singing them.

Lectio: I chose to study Isaiah 55:6-12, first reading aloud from the NIV Bible. I also read the NRSV, and noted the textual differences. One that I noticed immediately from my many years of singing verse 12 is that the NIV says “led forth in peace” whereas the NRSV says “led back in peace.” In the context of their impending return from exile, “back” makes more sense than “forth” if it is referring to Jerusalem. But I still prefer “forth” - as I see it is as encouragement to move forward in life, even if that is going back to what came before. I also note the difference in trees in verse 13. In the NRSV, it is cypress (one of my favorite trees to photograph here in Florida), but in the NIV it is translated juniper. This for me is not about technical study. It is about the pictures in my mind which fascinate me, and part of that is how they relate to my own context. Isaiah 55 is so full of poetic imagery. Beyond the pictures, there are the sounds. If you read the words aloud, there is a cadence of rhythm. This is not just in the English translation, but in the content and structure of the Hebrew literary forms. It is a call and response, like a psalm and a proverb, with one phrase echoing or contrasting the other. I can’t help but think of these things as I read. These speak to me. I also pasted the passage into my document from Bible Gateway and then experimented with the font; this is a novelty of the digital age, of course. I am a calligrapher, so I wonder how changing the visual style of writing affects how we process words internally, especially with Scripture? Did I gain a new perspective? How does God write, anyway? I think he has a way of invading our thoughts, right where we are, no matter what culture, gender, personality style, or in my case, aesthetic sensibilities. See the difference here?

Meditatio: What word stands out to me? It is thoughts! It is our thoughts which shape us. God knows this because he made us as reasoning beings. That is why he tells the evil man to forsake his wicked thoughts, why we are encouraged to lift our minds to God’s higher thoughts, why he sends forth his word to change our thoughts toward everlasting fruitfulness in our lives. When his Word achieves this purpose, our minds and hearts are renewed so we can truly “go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” Joy and peace find root in our attitudes. They are both a cognitive and emotive assent to what is good, which in this case is thinking the thoughts of God. The word thoughts resonates with me personally because I realize this is where it all starts. This is why I am in seminary, to shape my thoughts. I know how quickly thoughts can lead me off the path, and how powerfully they can lead me forth again when I return to God’s higher ways. I look at the verses about the thorn bushes and briers and realize that this could be symbolic of our thoughts too. We may have gnarly tangles in our minds that need to be cleared away so that the beautiful trees may take root and grow instead.

Oratio: My prayer is that I will continually seek God through the Scriptures and prayer, and that I will be able to flourish while thinking the thoughts of God. I pray that I will be a faithful messenger of the Word, for it is usually through his human servants that he sends it forth in any nation or generation. I pray that I will walk in joy and peace, filled with songs of deliverance.

Contemplatio: I will explore what unhealthy thoughts are holding me back from doing the things I am called to do, and seek them to replace them with divine wisdom instead. (I have a few podcasts queued up to listen to that may help.) I will create a blog post with this Lectio and the previous one, then share them on my social media, so that the Word may accomplish God’s purposes in my sphere of influence. I will write out two of the verses in calligraphy to include in that. I will listen to worship music (like the song “Sovereign Over Us”) to help me focus my thoughts on God. I will finish up my seminary assignments for my other class (Gospel Catechesis) which will help me better participate in delivery God’s word to others. I will continue to explore how media shapes the message.

Conclusion: Through my Lectio Divina experience today, I experienced an ancient God who is ever present thousands of years after these words were penned. We may have the Cloud to store our data, but his thoughts are still higher than that.

So those were my two Lectio Divina reports! They are much less complicated than the full research papers we also have to do. Better yet, they feed the soul, too. That's what I love about Asbury professors and leaders. They are determined to foster spiritual formation and growth in their students. And I love their t-shirts.

But I'm not done yet! Links to good stuff!

I'm planning to listen to The Presence Project Podcast by Summer Joy Gross. I am linking it here for your exploration but have to say I haven't listened to more than a few minutes, I don't know anything about the person who produces it except what's written here, and I can't even quite remember where I found it. I do know it comes from the more contemplative stream of Christianity that is likely to resonate with those who enjoy Lectio Divina.

More on Lectio Divina and Inductive Bible Study? Sure thing! Here are some from my blogs.
Here are some of my Lectio Divina notes from Patricia's series. When doing this by myself, I prefer my reading journal.

Here are some other helpful links:
And finally, because I just can't resist...

I was looking through my old blog posts to find some of my pictures of cypress trees.

Instead of the thorn bush, the cypress will grow...

May God bless you 
today and always
through the 
prayerful contemplation 
of his Word.

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Give Me Ears to Hear, Eyes to See, a Heart to Love

"Give me ears to hear, eyes to see..."

That's what I was thinking on the board walk at Blue Springs State Park.

I have only a half an hour, not nearly enough time for the extended exploring that I crave. 

I had been visiting with friends in Deltona, 45 minutes from my house, all afternoon. I would be meeting my daughter and her fiance a little later closer to home. Since I was still in Deltona, I wanted to squeeze in a little natural beauty when I could. It's kind of my thing: making the most of where I am when I'm there, not knowing when I'll be that way again.

I park my van and try to find a trail. Right next to the parking lot, I hear rustling. I turn to see an armadillo snuffling in the dirt for food. He (or she?) lets me quietly approach. 

After a few minutes of wandering, I find a boardwalk overlooking the river. Motion catches my eye. Can you see the squirrel peering around the tree? So elusive, I can only snap a dozen photos and hope one would find its focus.

Now can you see?

While trying to capture the squirrel with my lens, another swooshing sound piques my attention. The camouflaged owl perches on the branch, swiveling head to and fro, capturing the surroundings, yet seemingly oblivious to the potential dinner of squirrel. Must not be hungry?

Further down the boardwalk, a rotted and maybe burned out tree juts up.

What entire little worlds of insects and other tiny  animals dwell and thrive in what seems to be debris to me?

I peer down into the water. I see a long gray fish, but it barely appears on my camera. I snap the photo anyway. So much we don't clearly see beneath the surface at first glance.

Editing at home, adjusting the light, clarifying... Here it is.

This is better than the alligator. I see just the tip of the snout gliding along the surface of the water. Just the tip of the snout, but it is there, a silent witness to all that lurks beneath. There is always more than we see. Always. At one point the alligator turns, this time with only two eyes visible, staring right at me.

Blue Springs is famous for manatees, so I hope against hope to see one swimming, but no.... Then again? A mosaic manatee, beauty crafted from broken pieces.

The views from the boardwalk are beautiful, even if only for such a brief time. I am still trying to drink it all in. My motto: "Fill your soul with all good things, and let the beauty pour forth."

To fill the soul, we first need to notice.

Ears to hear? Bird song! I hit the video icon and slowly swivel to and fro to capture the music in the trees. Then I scurry back to my van because I have places to go, people to see. 

It isn't until I listen to the video later that I realize I must have hit the slo-mo instead. The first few seconds I hear cheerful chirping, and then... It's spooky. Weird. Intimidating. I think of how just this change of speed, or perception, makes all the difference in the atmosphere.

I had already been thinking back to my afternoon as I'd been ambling along the river. I had already been praying, "Give me ears to hear, eyes to see," knowing it wasn't just for the beauty around me.

It was for the broken, too. The world we hear as bird song may be to them a very scary place full of traumatic memories for those who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or spiritual abuse. Someone has been messing with their mind, their soul, their core identity, and even their perception of God. They don't know what to think or who to believe. They don't know where to turn. It's not safe out there.

And this was once the case for one of the friends I had been visiting. I'd like to introduce you to her.

Valerie is a home schooling mother of 11. She lives in Wisconsin but was in Florida visiting family. I met her on Facebook first, then in person last year. She is a domestic violence advocate, because she is first of all a survivor. Her family has suffered horrifically, first at the hands of the one who abused them for decades, and then at the hands of their church, which shunned her for taking action to protecting her children and herself.

Valerie and our other friends and I spent that afternoon talking about advocating for those who have abused in various ways within churches and families. We agreed that we need to learn to notice when others are suffering, to pick up on the subtle little clues they might not readily admit. We must pay attention, because it's not always obvious. And then we must be there, with emotional and spiritual and practical support. Tragically, many churches are aware that something is wrong, but choose to either turn a blind eye and shove it under the carpet, or to add insult to injury by blaming, shaming, and pressuring the victim. They must learn to love well and not spout off ignorant rhetoric. I still need to learn to do that, too.

If you know me well, you know that this attentive advocacy is what I have been called to do as a lifetime pursuit. It's one reason I blog about spiritual and domestic abuse here at Watch the Shepherd, one reason I'm a student at Asbury Seminary, one reason why I'm a presence on Facebook (whether in public or in advocacy groups), and one reason I started the Empowering Christian Women Facebook page. 

Not everyone will understand this or appreciate it. I don't care. I'm here for the hidden ones. One by one. It spreads. Ripple effect and all.

"Give me ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart to love." 

Friends, I plead with you: Listen to the words that others are saying, and the words they aren't saying. Hear the stress in the voice, the whimper, the awkward pause, the sighs. Watch the body language, the facial expressions, the deflected glance. Keep an eye out for bruises, scratches, other unexplained injuries. Pay attention to their texts, their emails, their social media. The clues may be there. It's up to you to notice. It's up to you to care.

What to do? Be gentle. Be trustworthy. Be patient. Be safe. Be vulnerable about your own story, as appropriate. Be involved. Not nosy. Not intrusive. Not bossy. Not gossiping. Not judging or shaming or blaming.

Listen well. Listen again. Listen. Love listens.

Love well. Love with words. Love with deeds. Love again. Love always.

Let me know if you need help. I can connect you with information and support. You can also check out my resource page here: Domestic Violence. It has links to my own articles, as well as to other web sites. Here are several blog posts to get you started:

Here's some music for you: "Give Me Your Eyes" by Brandon Heath.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Open a Door

Devote yourselves to prayer, 
being watchful and thankful.
And pray for us, too, that
God may open a door 
for our message
so that we may proclaim 
the mystery of Christ, 
for which I am in chains. 
Pray that I may proclaim it 
clearly, as I should. 
Be wise in the way you act 
toward outsiders; 
make the most 
of every opportunity. 
Let your conversation be 
always full of grace, 
seasoned with salt, 
so that you may know 
how to answer everyone.


I am taking the Vocation of Ministry class online this summer from Asbury Seminary. We are reading Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton as an encouragement to embrace the spiritual disciplines such as solitude, prayer, and Scripture. I have practiced Lectio Divina as an approach to Scripture study before. It is a slow, reflective reading of a short passage, seeking to hear from God, meditate on the words, pray the Scripture, and find ways to apply it. The goal is transformation rather than information. 

Barton also recommends listening for one word or phrase that stands out, one that God is bringing to mind right now. That is not my usual practice, but as I sat tonight with Colossians 4:2-6, I pondered it phrase by phrase, line by line. What resonated most with me? 

"Open a door..."

Why this phrase? I realize that in the strictest interpretive context, this is about evangelism. Paul is talking about God opening doors in the community and the world for people to hear and receive the gospel for the first time. 

However, what resonates with me, and is also true, is that God wants my own heart to be open to the word, too. Aren't there so many ways we close ourselves off to God? Even as a believer for 43 years, I know I do. Whether it is from apathy, or resistance, or fearful self-protection, I close myself off to what I need most: a fresh message from God, Scripture for my own soul. What is the remedy? That is here too: devotedly, prayerfully, watchfully, thankfully contemplating the mystery of God's message of grace and letting it do its deep work inside of me. I need God to open that door... in me!

And you know what? This is still about sharing the gospel with others.

When they see me embracing God's word, taking it seriously, letting it shape me, that speaks powerfully into their souls. When they hear gracious words, salted with divine wisdom, that's redemption on display. When I make the most of my time for the Kingdom, choosing my actions with intention, that's such a witness to the goodness of God. This is one way God opens the door in their lives: by seeing the open door in ours.

You know, God actually already said this through Colossians 3:16-17. The message dwelling within, the overflowing gratitude, the wise words and the deeds that please the Lord... It's all there.

Let the message of Christ 
among you richly 
as you teach and admonish 
one another with all wisdom 
through psalms, hymns, 
and songs from the Spirit, 
singing to God with 
gratitude in your hearts. 
And whatever you do, 
whether in word or deed
do it all in the name 
of the Lord Jesus, 
giving thanks 
to God the Father 
through him.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Open the door!

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. Related posts on Scripture and seminary:

Plus, one from another site, also an Asbury assignment:

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Goal is Not Control, But Empowerment

"Has the community served to make individuals free, strong, and mature, or has it made them insecure and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for a while so that they would learn again to walk by themselves, or has it made them anxious and unsure? This is one of the toughest and most serious questions that can be put to any form of everyday Christian life in community." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

I just read Bonhoeffer's book Life Together as a Church History assignment last week, and I love how this quote coincides with my own personal Scripture study. I'm working through Colossians right now, taking notes in my journal. This isn't a formal study of a passage, as I would do for my seminary classes. It's more of the Read + Reflect + Respond approach that I've used for about 40 years. I sometimes cover only a very short section each day. 

Today I pondered Colossians 2:2-3.

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

This is the apostle Paul describing his strenuous and sacrificial labors as a single man traveling in the ancient world, preaching the gospel, establishing churches, and writing letters of instruction and encouragement that we still read today. 

Here is what struck me as I sought to make application to my own life and ministry as a home school mom, grandma, seminary student, crisis hotline worker, friend, and social media user. What is the best way to help people grow in life? How will they be affected by my influence? How have I been affected by the influence of others on my spiritual life?

Many of the people in my own circle, both those I've met personally and my connections on social media, have experienced a significant amount of spiritual / emotional / physical abuse in the context of the church / family / organization. They are understandably wary of any kind of God-talk because religion has been used to control and coerce them. But that is not what God has in mind!

Read the verses again with me as I offer a little informal commentary along the way...

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart...

  • Goal: purpose, motivation, desired result
  • Encouraged: filled up, nourished, flourishing, refreshed, motivated, empowered, strengthened
  • Heart: inner being, spiritual center, core of who they are as an individual

Two questions: Is this your goal as you influence others? Is this the goal of those who are influencing you? An abuser or dysfunctional dominant leader may claim they want to lead others in the righteous ways of God, but what is the fruit? Are those in their "care" being filled up or drained out, nourished or famished, flourishing or withering, refreshed or parched, liberated or enslaved, healed or wounded, motivated or demoralized, empowered or hindered, strengthened or weakened?

...and united in love...

I see "united in love" as a healthy and healing bond. There is mutual strength, a synergy (working better together than apart) that enables greater fruitfulness. This is not a suffocating or constricting relationship. Some people think that an abusive relationship is disconnected, and in one sense it is because there is no sense of mutual partnership. However, there is a toxic bondage that throws others aside like trash but won't let them leave. Things may improve for a while, just enough to give hope that things will change. But then it escalates again, over and over. That's called the cycle of abuse, and it's why people stay instead of escaping! It's a "unity of control" but only unity in the sense that there is one person setting the agenda. That's not even true unity. It is just unilateral. 

But Colossians 2:2-3 offers a powerful contrast: wholesome bonding, being truly united in LOVE. Don't accept a counterfeit to that. that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden the treasures of wisdom and understanding.

So being encouraged in heart and united in love is a means to further goal, which is knowing and experiencing the abundance of a spiritual life in Jesus Christ. This is a growth and enlightenment process that starts in the heart, that core of who you are. It's walking with Jesus through grace and faith, leaning into who he is and what he wants. It's not a system of pointless rules, or of conforming to the selfish expectations of others. It's an authentic transformation. An abuser communicates, "All you need to know is what I tell you." Abusers want to control the narrative. If others are under their "leadership" they don't want them to explore the Bible for themselves, seek out more education that might contradict what they are being told, have their own opinions, know enough to contradict them or hold them accountable, or be emotionally strong enough to challenge or leave them. They paralyze others through confusion, deceit, accusations, threats, trauma bonding, and religious manipulation. They communicate either overtly (in direct words) or covertly (by implication): "You are being rebellious. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. I am your God-given leader. God wants you to obey me. You will never succeed unless you listen to me. God will punish you. I just want what's best for you. You are sowing discord. You are just bitter. You never want to be accountable to anyone. You are usurping my authority. You are out of line. Why don't you just let me lead? Look at me! I'm the important one here!" 

To a lesser extent, this dynamic of control can also occur inadvertently with leaders who aren't even trying to be selfish. They may think that  demanding compliance to their commands is what they are supposed to be doing as bold leaders, but this still leads to disillusioned, disempowered followers. I have often found myself slipping into this dynamic as a mother, usually as an overflow of the emotions of fear and shame. ("If I don't make them obey, I'll be a failure as a mother.")

I encourage you to evaluate your own family, friendships, churches, organizations and other your spiritually-based relationships, no matter which role you play. Does this relationship or community display the riches of God? Is this true wisdom that leads to abundant spiritual understanding? Are we growing together in our core relationships with Jesus and one another? Are we seeing Jesus as both the source and goal? Is this a treasure or a theft?

My goal is to be spiritually empowered so that I can empower others. I don't want to control or be controlled. I want to have a full life in Jesus Christ and inspire others to do the same. How about you?

Grace and peace,

P.S. Lots of links to extend these thoughts!