IRVING—Author and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin challenged listeners to embrace the “upside-down” Christian life, while songwriter Laura Story shared what happens when life doesn’t turn out as expected to some 300 attendees at the Empower Conference Ladies Session on Monday.
Wilkin: Doing Over Being
Wilkin, executive director of family and next generation ministries at The Village Church in Flower Mound, spoke on 1 Peter 2:11-17 and Matthew 5.
Peter’s message to the five churches in Asia Minor is relevant for an evangelism conference, she said, as Peter writes to believers dispersed by persecution and experiencing discomfort. Stressing Peter’s emphasis on good deeds, Wilkin said the apostle exhorts Christians to “be do-gooders” that they might be recognized for who they are.
In the passage, Peter, the former firebrand, uses language echoing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had been preaching a message of repentance prior to his longest sermon, Wilkin said.
As for the “blessed” life depicted in Matthew 5, the disciples expected the Messiah to restore the Jews to a place of ascendancy as a warrior king. Jesus’ words were “the last thing [the disciples] would have expected to hear,” Wilkin said, introducing her theme of the upside-down life illustrated in the beatitudes.
Evangelists must focus not on having the right words, but on being the right people, she urged.
In the beatitudes, Jesus inverts traditional expectations to describe the character of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, called to be holy. The Lord pushes back on the idea of self-sufficiency by calling blessed those who are poor in spirit.
The Lord also warns against self-satisfaction. The citizen of heaven must grieve sin and those who mourn their sinfulness shall be comforted. “You cannot be comforted if you have not first grieved,” Wilkin said.
“Blessed are the meek,” she continued, nothing that the pattern of the upside-down kingdom is poverty, grief, submission, and adding that Jesus also argues against self-determination by extolling meekness, or “strength under control.”
Next, rather than engaging in self-righteousness, kingdom citizens must hunger and thirst for righteousness, she said.
“In order to be filled with the Spirit … the positive presence of God, we must first learn to be emptied of self,” Wilkin added, offering the prodigal son as an example of salvation and ongoing sanctification.
While the first four beatitudes emphasize the needs of kingdom citizens, the final four focus on deeds, Wilkin said, the lessons moving from the vertical plane to the horizontal. Believers, once needs are addressed, operate from a place of abundance and show mercy, becoming dispensaries of the things of God.
Wilkin posed the question: “Do you see yourself as a terminus or distribution point for God’s blessings?”
Believers must also be pure in heart, purified though not perfect; and peacemakers reconciling man to man and to God by telling the good news. Finally, they should expect persecution for the sake of righteousness because the very goodness of their lives indicts the sinful world. Heavenly reward is promised, too.
Wilkin closed with descriptions of what it means for believers to be salt and light amid inevitable persecution: “Even a bare-minimum Christian ends up being a reproach in a world that grows increasingly dark.”
She suggested modern Christians may find themselves less free to speak than in prior decades—not an “entirely terrible” circumstance that will challenge the church. She urged listeners to “live a life that sheds the gospel” and invites others to inquire about the reasons behind the hope.
Story: When It Doesn’t Happen As It Should
The afternoon’s second session featured Christian songwriter and worship leader Laura Story Elvington, whose song “Blessings” won a 2012 Grammy award.
“I never stay anywhere this long,” Story said, chuckling, noting that she had been in Texas for four days and praising the Lone Star State’s Buc-ee’s travel stops and hotels with Texas-shaped waffles.
She moved quickly to the heart of her message: “How do you evangelize or live an empowered life when your story doesn’t look like what it was supposed to?”
Calling herself a lifelong Baptist, the Spartanburg, S.C., native who today serves as worship director of Atlanta’s Perimeter Church, recalled people giving testimonies in her childhood church.
“Someone would talk about this really tough thing that happened, and then how they put their trust in Jesus. And all of a sudden, everything is so much better. And they have a time share in Tahiti,” she said with a laugh. The idea that “if you just trust, if you have enough faith, then God will deliver you” informed her notions of evangelism.
“What the Lord has taught me over the years is that’s not the only kind of testimony,” Story said. “It’s not just trusting him, him fixing it, and then you telling everyone how good God is.”
Even more often, Story said, “We are called to give testimony to the goodness of God in the midst of the trial,” describing her family’s struggles following her husband’s health crisis during their second year of marriage.
Story, a musician, met Martin, a baseball player at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function during high school.
“I’m still not sure how I made it to this FCA event,” said Story, noting she wasn’t an athlete. “I wanted to fellowship with a good-looking Christian athlete. And I did.”
Tragedy struck the young married when Martin was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“We were so young. So naïve. We wanted our marriage to glorify God,” Story recalled. The pair determined to trust God and assumed that eventually, they would “get back on the road, which is this wonderful plan we had.”
It didn’t work that way. An anticipated five days in the hospital after surgery stretched to three months. Martin experienced short-term memory loss doctors had warned might happen. While he remembered Laura, he did not recall being married to her.
“They were tough days. Funny days. Days of being grateful that Martin was surviving,” Story said. The day of his release brought mixed emotions. Though grateful to leave the hospital, the couple knew things were not the way that they were before.
A doctor gently explained to Story the “new normal” when she asked why her husband was being discharged when he was not back to normal. Martin suffers from memory and vision deficits yet today, Story admitted.
Loss and altered dreams are common to many, yet may leave us wondering what to do with situations the Lord has not fixed, Story said, turning to Philippians 4 and the apostle Paul’s own trials as he lived out his faith. She recommended the four Rs for the empowered woman:
- Rejoice: Not pretending to be happy when things are hard, but responding as David does in Psalm 13;
- Be Reasonable: Putting the energy of our minds towards profitable thought, enlisting other believers to help “rein in the crazy” when necessary;
- Present Requests to God: Being persistent, asking with “shameless audacity,” knowing that the size of God never changes based on the size of [one’s] faith;
- Rest: Which comes when the peace of God surpasses all understanding and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus—“the only place in life where rest can come before resolution.”
“True soul rest happens when souls rest in Jesus,” Story said, paraphrasing Augustine and emphasizing that resting in Christ is possible long before a problem is resolved.
She urged the audience to choose the open hand rather than the shaking fist when responding to God through the trials allowed in our lives.
Story closed by performing “Blessings” and leading attendees in a chorus of “I Surrender All.”
Additional conference music was provided by Brandon Ramey, worship leader at MacArthur Boulevard Baptist Church, and his wife, Bunni.
“We had a marvelous time,” Laura Taylor, SBTC women’s ministry associate, said afterward. “I am so impressed by both [Wilkin and Story] and the tools that they gave us and empowered us with to share the gospel. It’s not just your words, but it’s your actions. And it’s letting God shine through your story.”