Worshiping Changes You

Originally published June 22, 2012.

I remember starting out on this lifestyle of worship all those years ago, and how in the long day of worship seminars with different speakers, this one thought planted itself deep and grew a harvest in our hearts: “Leading worship on Sunday morning is the culmination of a week of personal worship; your heart should find its way easily into God’s presence so that when you are in front of others you can take them along in the path you know well already.” It was valuable advice from a veteran lead-worshiper, and a perspective that changed who we were as people.

It is no great wonder that when we focus our hearts and minds on knowing God it tends to spring up in deep wells of praise and thankfulness. What we couldn’t predict at the time was how the spiritual practice of focus and giving thanks would affect the way we thought about life, and hardships, and personal purity…how worship would drown out depression and grumbling, and soak into every fear-filled corner…how the practice of living in God’s presence would bring purpose and beauty to the treadmill of the mundane and transform it all into sacred…and isn’t that the way all of us Christ-followers should live together? As worshipers focused on the One who matters most?

What if each of us took seriously the calling to be a worshiper, and learned to tread that path into the presence of God so easily that no matter where we were or who we were with, we could lead others along in the paths we know well already? That is what it means to be a people who know God and make Him known.

~~~~~~~

In the silent times : seek God… In the painful times : praise God… In the harried times : hallow God… and in the terrible times : trust God. And at all times — at all times – Thank God.

Ann Voskamp

~~~~~~~

Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You. I will praise You as long as I live, and in Your name I will lift up my hands.

Psalm 63:3-4

Where Do We Go from Here?

If the difficulties of the past year have stripped away the comfortable veneer we wear– exposed what we actually value, what we actually depend on for well-being and security, and where we look to for deliverance– then the start of the new year begs us to consider what we will do with what we have learned. And my influence in the big wide world may be limited, but here in my heart I can choose to make a difference.

In the light of upheaval, my daily routines are thrown into sharper focus, and I find myself wanting to leave behind careless habits and mindless old grooves worn deep. As I step away from the lifestyle I took for granted, I can see how often I have done things to please others or to find comfort, and how slow I have been to learn wisdom. Difficult times have a way of shining a spotlight on just how flimsy and foolish is the shelter you are building, and how unreliable the foundation can be. As the calendar turns, I don’t know what this new year holds, but I want to know God better through His Word, and to build stronger… to pursue more wholeheartedly the things He values. There is freedom in a fresh start– whether it is a clean unwritten page in a planner, or the dawn of a new day in which to find His mercies poured out– and here within the boundaries of my heart I am free to change, to make better choices, and to grow.

This year I can choose to trust God more in what He gives and what He does not give. I can choose self-sacrifice, and generosity, and giving thanks in all things. I can choose above all to hope in His goodness, and to be awake to the transforming presence of His Spirit. The Church-planter’s words are ringing in my ears as he says “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) And if it is tempting to point fingers at all the institutions and individuals out there who have let us down in the past twelve months, then let us take responsibility to do better…be better…in our own circles in the months to come. Let us choose to turn our eyes on Jesus and what He is accomplishing through these difficulties, and let us rejoice in all the unexpected ways He provides for us, when we seek Him.

The Church-planter is laying it out plain as day for us….

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.  Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Romans 12:9-16

~~~~~~~

Scripture is filled with real people who had real failures, real struggles, real inadequacies, and real inabilities. And God shook the earth with them. For it is not so much from our strength that God draws, but from his own invincible might.

Scott Sauls

A Tale of Life-Changing Prayer

Originally published March 9, 2016.

Whenever I read Hannah’s story in the Bible, I pause to wonder over the fact that she gave up her sweet boy. After praying “year after year” for him (so the story goes), she finally promises to give him back if God will just hear her prayer for a child. It is reminiscent of the desperate promises that lead to tragedy in some of our best folk-tales, except this one seems to be told with joy and we hear her song of praise, get to see her leading the little boy to the Temple to live with old Eli, watch her making wee garments to take to him when she visits once a year and sees how much he has grown. I chose her words of faith as our own commitment when we dedicated our children: “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28) And I meant it, but I always wondered how she could bear to leave Samuel there to travel back home, after waiting so long to hold him. I always thought how she must be a stronger woman than I am.

Once you get past the main attraction here, that God answered a weeping woman’s prayers with a miracle baby, other valuable features of the story come to light, the first of which is that it is not really her story at all, but the beginning of Samuel’s. He himself is writing down the story he must have heard dozens of times– probably once a year when his parents came to visit. (I have it on good authority that parents tend to tell and re-tell their favorite stories about their children…you know we all do it.) And he records it with good reason, in all its detail, because his mother’s struggle has shaped his life– poured the foundation for who he is and the role he will play in the nation of Israel.

The first years of Hannah’s marriage read like an ancient soap opera, with two wives and one good-hearted husband caught in the middle. One wife loved, but barren; a second-choice wife (and probably younger) having child after child, but all too conscious of where their husband’s affections lay. Not surprisingly, their home becomes the grounds for some pretty serious rivalry and drama. Hannah weeps and prays and fasts. The husband gives gifts and coaxes her with declarations of his love. The other wife taunts and shows off her pregnancies and her children, jabs at Hannah’s faith year after year. You can’t help but wonder why Hannah kept praying: she keeps going to the Temple to worship, keeps asking God and does not give up. On the surface it appears that when Eli finally notices her praying in a public place, he casts his favor with her, and God at last gives her what she wants. But the year after year of praying without answers is a key element in the story that we would not want to miss.

We can feel it with her, the monthly cycle of hoping and praying and being disappointed yet again. Every month watching others flourish while she waited on her own body to bear life. Month after month pouring out her heart’s desires and believing that Someone out there was listening and could help her, despite every visible circumstance to the contrary.  And I wonder how her prayers began to change as she wrestled. We only catch glimpses of what was happening in her heart: Certainly she prayed for a child to fill her arms…to affirm her womanhood…to bring joy to her life. Surely she prayed for a child to please her husband and validate his love for her. Perhaps she prayed for a child to silence the neighbors’ whispering tongues. To restore her honor. Year after year, the narrative says. Her persistence speaks loudly of her devotion to God and her determination not to turn elsewhere for answers, and in the shape of her prayers we hear how God met her in those wilderness years. “… for the Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed….He will guard the feet of his faithful servants….” (1 Samuel 2:3,9)

She kept on giving her pain and her longing and her dreams into God’s care, until finally she just laid it all down– gave up her ideas of what should happen and why, and said Not my will but Your purposes be accomplished in my life…This child will be from You and for You, and this miracle will be for Your glory. And Samuel did belong to the Lord from the moment he was born, dedicated to serve Him as the last of the judges and the first of the prophets– the one who would guide the great kings of Israel’s Golden Age. Both mother and child were overshadowed by the Holy Spirit so that Hannah could prophesy “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high….for I delight in Your deliverance.” (1 Samuel 2:1) 

Maybe this is how she could give up little Samuel to be trained in the House of the Lord– because she had already surrendered her life and her son into the Lord’s good purposes for them. A thousand years later, Jesus will describe the rightful and appropriate cost of obedience this way: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” (Luke 9:24) So Samuel begins his book here, with the faith and perseverance and worship of a strong woman who understood her purpose to know God.

This is where Hannah’s story intersects our own, because whatever we long for most, and whenever we labor long in prayer and wait for answers, we can know there is much more at stake than the object of our desire. We can be assured that God’s purposes are much larger than ours, and that He will allow us to wrestle with our emotions, and our circumstances, and His answers, until we are ready to surrender to His right to rule. And we can know for sure “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

Hannah understood that if she turned away, He would not be diminished in the least; it was her own everyday experiences that would be affected most by the blessing or loss of His presence. She declared her commitment to draw near to Him: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2) Year after year she chose Him, and gained everything that mattered, for both her and for her little boy Samuel. May we be as strong and as faithful.

And we can hear Hannah joyfully singing, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8)

~~~~~~~

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:25-26

~~~~~~~

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Jim Elliot

Real People–Real Christmas

Coming into these final days before Christmas, maybe we are realizing the truth of what we’ve been telling ourselves all these years. That Christmas is not about the piles of gifts and the parties and the picture-perfect holiday homes and plates of goodies. That the true meaning of Christmas lies beyond the holiday trimmings– reaches down into the depths of collective history and collective longings of humankind, into the everyday dust of real place and time. We all know this in our heads, but it’s easy to say while we gather with friends and family in the comfort of our own living spaces, when the birth of the Savior can be one more blessing to add to our very rich lives.

This year when familiar traditions are suspended, and families are separated on purpose, the earthiness of the real Christmas story meets our very real needs. If there are no happy holiday gatherings, there is still a Child lying in a manger and angels singing the unending good news to the whole human race: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people….a Savior has been born to you.” (Luke 2:10-11) God’s favor has been turned toward us, and our stories are bound up in His happy ending.

And there are families in quarantine, and loved ones in hospitals, and even the decked out stores are not very merry with shoppers. But there’s a Baby’s cry in the dark and a mother’s soft voice, and we hear God’s declaration: “’The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:23) The One who created us all is right here, in the middle of real life, and we are not alone. In the middle of uncertainty and anxiety and grief this Christmas stand the rough-hewn timbers of stable and manger and cross, where God’s favor pours out in real life and death. Love and grace are not abstract sanitized words at all, but rugged real choices in the real world.

And maybe for the first time some of us have the chance to experience a very real Christmas, undistracted by the busy-ness and the glitter. Let go of the customs and comforts we hold dear and turn to the One who holds us. The prophet murmurs truth to our hearts about the everlasting God: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young….Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:11, 28-29)

This is Christmas, that a very real God is with us in real life. The rest is just decoration.

~~~~~~~


Preparing for Christmas means turning from the aches & worries and weariness of this world to focus on the One who came to be with us in it and save us from it.⠀
Even when life doesn’t look like we wanted it to—especially when life doesn’t look like we want it to—we can celebrate Christmas because we have a Messiah who came into this messy world to suffer on our behalf and secure the gift of eternal life.⠀

Lisa Appelo

~~~~~~~

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

Running for Cover

We all know how quickly the ordinary can take that sharp left turn into chaos…how your days can slide into hard with the inevitability of so many lined-up dominoes, and before you know it the Enemy of your soul is whispering in your ear that well-worn soundtrack of how you’ll never be enough for this life. And I know all about his lies, but somehow he still manages to catch me unawares at times.

But I am learning that when you have been blindsided by the Darkness, all you really need is enough presence of mind to run to the Father and lean into His love. Because we who stand in His presence are being given the power “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…” (Ephesians 3:18) And the Father promises that whenever we make the choice to turn away from the Accuser and toward Him, He will be our shield and protection.

It’s downright strange how long it takes for us to learn that spiritual life-skill, considering that it is one of the first lessons we learn in the tangible world. We teach our children that when danger threatens, you turn and run the other way, into the safety of someone bigger who can protect you. I wonder why that is so much more difficult in the spiritual world. Is it that we cannot clearly distinguish the danger? Or that we are hesitant to trust the source of our safety? Or maybe it’s just the mistaken notion that grown-ups don’t need help any more. And I know how suddenly the attack can come and how you can get paralyzed by the spiral of circumstances: grown-ups or not, any one of us can get swallowed up in the darkness if we aren’t careful. Jesus’ friend Peter warned the early believers from his own experience: Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He knew firsthand how easy it is to fall victim to the Enemy’s lies, and how much he needed a Savior to rescue him.

God clearly intends for us to be able to stand against these attacks, because the Church-planter Paul took a lot of time detailing for the early believers the armor of defense and the weapons that have been given to us; it is the body armor of a foot soldier on the front lines. Take them up, he says, and stand firm. I look at this inventory and see how they are all connected to Christ and what He has accomplished for us: the truth of His Word, righteousness, peace with God, faith, salvation– and my job is only to receive them. And for the first time I am seeing that this isn’t an action-filled battle strategy of things I have to do and remember. Paul’s injunction is to “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” (Ephesians 6:10) I tend to focus on the being strong, but Paul is focusing on our relationship with Christ.

Our job is to stay close to Jesus, and remember we belong to Him, because He has already won the victory in this battle. I can’t think of a better foundation of truth to build a life on, and who doesn’t want to stand strong and sure, in Heaven’s protective gear? James talks like everyone’s big brother, and he too puts it in relationship terms: “… humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” (James 4:7-8)

And maybe it is James who gives us the key, when he puts humility in first place. When I am listening to all the wrong voices and in danger of losing my way in the dark, it takes humility to admit that I need a truth-check. When I feel like a failure or less than I want to be, it takes humility to accept that I am indeed not all-sufficient. Humility runs for the shelter of the Almighty in the howling storm instead of trying to figure it out myself. Childlike humility knows that I need someone to rescue me. And the same humility that says Yes to God says No to the Enemy’s lies, and in the split-second of my reaching out to Him, Christ already has my back. When the darkness presses in all around, I can press into Him and know that after the battle I will still be standing in the Light.

~~~~~~~

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

~~~~~~~

We will not be moved
When the earth gives way,
For the risen One has overcome;
And for every fear
There’s an empty grave,
For the risen One has overcome.
He shall reign forever–
Strongholds now surrender,
For the Lord our God has overcome.
Who can be against us?
Jesus our Defender–
He is Lord and He has overcome.

Overcome, Elevation Worship

Listening for God’s Voice

Originally published December 7, 2012.

Sometimes we hear God’s voice in unexpected places. Take a look at Moses. A blazing bush all afire with glory and a mission impossible coming straight from heaven’s throne…not your ordinary day with the sheep. My life seems so much less amazing, more slow-moving, and sometimes I wish I could hear God that vividly and life-changingly.

But it occurs to me in this Advent season of waiting that it’s all a matter of perspective, because Moses spent forty years leading sheep around, day in and day out in that wilderness, occupied with the mind-numbingly everyday existence of water and grass, wool and lambs, getting married and raising a son. Decades of slow-moving days with only the ordinary sounds of life. But when he wrote it down later he was careful to note that “God saw the people of Israel– and God knew.” (Exodus 2:25) In all those ordinary slow-moving days, God was there and God was at work to bring about His plans, listening to the cries of His people for deliverance. And when the time was right He spoke to the man He had prepared for the task and bullied him into doing it. Really. A man just as full of insecurities and fears as I am, who needed some pushing to get him going.

When Moses saw the bush on that one not-so-ordinary day he knew it was worth turning aside from his work to see, important enough to stop and listen. An impressive sight, certainly, but in the solitude of the open spaces under the stars and the changing seasons he had already seen the glory of God in a million everyday ways, listened to the wind and the thunder and the still small voice of God’s presence…and I wonder if he felt like he was waiting for deliverance too… if he recognized the bush for what it was: a fiery milestone of change in his life.

As I listen for God’s voice amid the everyday sounds of an ordinary life, let me remember that He is here and He knows. He is working out His plans, listening to the cries of His people, has a part for me to play if I will pay attention and not get distracted by the demands of everyday chores and needs, or discouraged by the slow passage of time. Because here in the everyday I am tuning my heart to His, bending to obey, and persevering to fill the purpose He has for me.

And if I can learn to hear God’s voice in the ordinary days, then someday when the Extraordinary blazes down from heaven, I will recognize it and be ready to follow. Really, which is the larger miracle, that a bush can burn with glory in the desert… or that God Himself speaks to me in the everyday,  in the quiet spaces of my heart? Emmanuel, God with us…I am listening.

~~~~~~~

It is amazing what the quiet holding of the soul before the Lord will do to the external and seemingly uncontrollable tumult around us. It is in that stillness that the Voice will be heard, the only voice in all the universe that speaks peace to the deepest part of us.

Elizabeth Elliot

~~~~~~~

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 130:5-6

Faith Must Be Brave

There’s something about faith that is rather like dying, only no one ever tells you that. I imagine that Job felt it. Ask him what he thought…what he felt…what he was looking at, when he said “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. (Job 1:21) Abraham carried the weight of it in his spirit when he was climbing that mountain and telling his precious son “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering…” (Genesis 22:8). Mary must have felt it keenly in the reactions of her family and friends when she told them that she was pregnant. With the son of God? Oh sure.

But all three of them looked right past what was going on around them and into the unseen world to believe a Bigger Story. In the middle of the circumstances that unfolded from one day to the next, the way life does, there was an aspect of waiting to see what God would do. It’s like having one foot planted in the tangible here and now and the other foot in the unseen reality of where He will lead. Believing in the unseen world means releasing my version of reality, with all the things I am planning and working towards, and all the ways I feel about the life I am living. It means giving up any illusion of control, free-falling into whatever impossible and unexpected things God wants to accomplish. And there might be a flaming bush, or a damp fleece, or a voice in the night– or there might only be quiet waiting for a door to open, for a sudden shift in the-way-things-are. Sometimes it can be exhilarating. Sometimes, quite honestly, it feels like dying, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

The Letter-Writer to the believing Jews explained faith this way: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is seeing things with the eyes of the spirit– things the physical eye cannot see. So whenever we look beyond the good things of this world and see the Giver, faith is at work. And every time we look at the painful broken things around us and can still see Jesus, there is faith. And in seeing Him and giving thanks, in both the good and the bad, self-sufficiency and self-pity are put to death and we set our hearts on the invisible kingdom where Jesus rules forever.

Faith allows this world to be turned upside-down, for the joy of finding the right-side-up kingdom of heaven, and I can hear Jesus saying, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) And if the waiting and hoping are painful at times, still we believe we have found a Truth worth staking our lives on, and a Love worth pursuing with our whole hearts. Like Job and Abraham we are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” And the Letter-Writer says “…God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:16)

~~~~~~~

Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet
Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet

Do It Again, Elevation Worship

~~~~~~

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!

2 Corinthians 4:17

When You Need a Clear Path Through the Wilderness

We mark our way through November, silently counting as this strange year winds down to the end. Counting off the days, counting up the blessings “coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” And we can count ourselves blessed that when everything around us shifts and quakes until we hardly recognize the life we are living, still He “does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) The very act of thanks-giving plants our soul in the truth of the Giver’s goodness, of His unchanging nature. Make no mistake, gratitude is warfare– one simple constant refrain that shuts up the Enemy’s whispers about whether God is actually on our side.

It is as simple as this: the act of paying attention to God’s gifts and saying thank you opens my eyes to see Him present and active in my life. I need that constant reminder that I am His beloved child, especially when the winds blow hard, because the only way to get through the howling storm is to keep my eyes fixed on Him. And I need to remember over and over that all is gift, because it is so easy to slide into a sense of entitlement about what I have.

When I start to be consumed with the things I lack, or to obsess over what I might lose, or to compare what I have with what someone else has been given, it’s like losing my compass, and who knows what sad and hurtful paths I’ll tumble down before I finally come to my senses. After you get lost in the dark enough times you start to learn the importance of staying close to the Shepherd, to feel how good is His care. Being thankful re-orients my heart’s affection on the Giver of all things…reminds me that the very air I breathe is grace.

And when I can’t think of anything to thank Him for, I know it’s my focus that has shifted away from the Father, not His attention toward me. It is the red-flag warning that my vision is clouding over; I am trying to write my own story, instead of following where He leads. Funny how quick we are to criticize the wandering Israelites for being so blind. How could they keep whining about the good old days of planting cucumbers by the Nile when they were eating food God literally rained down on them? It seems like we all suffer from a blind eye–wanting a quick fix to our problems, an escape from the wilderness, any attractive thing– instead of cherishing the daily miracle of manna. Gratitude opens my eyes to see the bigger picture of God’s amazing plans.

It always surprises me how the Weeping Prophet could be living through a tragedy, but still could say somehow, “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23) When I choose to be thankful for God’s daily lovingkindness, I am setting aside my ideas of how things should be, and submitting to what He wants to do. Choosing to be thankful declares that I trust His loving rule. Telling Him I am thankful brings peace to my heart. Such a small simple practice that anchors the spirit in hope and blazes a trail through the wilderness.

~~~~~~~

Let all the earth, let every heart,
Come and sing how great You are;
Not even death could overcome
Jesus Christ, the King of love.
The curse of sin is broken now;
No fear, no lie will hold me down.
The Son of Man reigns over all–
Jesus Christ, the King of love

All my praise could never be enough
To give You thanks for all You’ve done.
Forever I will lift You up,
Jesus Christ, the King of love.

King of Love, Jesus Culture

~~~~~~~

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise….Then the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

What Sheep Really Need

Originally published on October 3, 2015.

Funny, isn’t it? How we can sit around talking about sheep and their needs as if we are farmers– except we all know what we are really digging at. (Without looking too desperate or anything…because we are all relatively successful, put-together women with careers and families and homes in a nice small town….and who wants to admit that sometimes you feel as harried and helpless as a sheep?) When we read the Musician-King’s familiar words, we can imagine him singing over his flock in the hills of Judea: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” (Psalm 23:1) And that’s what we are all looking for, right there….that relationship with God that satisfies our hearts, gives us peace. No matter how good our lives seem from the outside, there is still this longing on the inside, a kind of soul-hunger that we can be good at ignoring. So we keep on talking about woolly sheep, and what is it that we really need, anyway?

Thing is, only the Shepherd knows, for sure. Having been one himself, King David was convinced that a shepherd knew best for his sheep. Sheep need someone bigger than they, who knows what they need and can provide it– and Jesus said we are not so very different. Jesus told people not to worry about the necessities of life, because His Father “already knows all your needs.” And yet it is shockingly easy to spend our days on bringing home a paycheck…on shoes, electric bills, hobbies, and retirement funds. Jesus said the only important thing we really need to be doing is to “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously….” (Matthew 6:33) After all, our well-being rests in the hands of Someone who will provide for us in order to bring honor to His own eternal, glorious Name….we could not ask for a more fail-proof arrangement. So why not just get on with Kingdom business, live like we mean it, and trust the Shepherd to provide for our needs? As David sang, “Surely Your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life…” (Psalm 23:6).

And we need Goodness to pursue us.  Because life is a dangerous place, where a curve in the road or a routine lab test can change everything in a matter of minutes. Because even America is not necessarily a safe place for Christ-followers, any more. Because all the unexpected in a day serves to remind us over and over that our sense of control is only an illusion. I heard a preacher say once that sheep aren’t stupid– just vulnerable in a world where they have no natural defenses and many predators. We get that, and we work hard to cover up that vulnerability (as if masks can ward off the wolves). King David knew from experience how quickly people could turn on you, spent years on the run in the desert; he also knew the Infinite Goodness who was watching over him, and there he found peace and a safety he could trust. “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for You are close beside me.” (Psalm 23:4) 

Especially in the desert places, sheep need to belong. They need to be seen and heard individually, recognized by someone who loves them and would lay down his life to protect them. Jesus said the Good Shepherd “calls His own sheep by name and leads them out..He walks ahead of them, and they follow Him because they know His voice.” (John 10:4) Infinite Love takes on flesh and blood to come find all us sheep who have gotten hopelessly lost in the brambles and the mud. The sheep recognize the Shepherd’s voice because He has met their deepest needs– needs that go beyond the physical. Jesus told a woman He met at a well, “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:14) Because most of all, sheep need to be washed white as wool, to be forgiven and get a chance to start over. And this time we will listen to the voice of the One who loves us and calls us by name, and we will follow wherever He leads.  “He lets me rest in green meadows; He leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths…” (Psalm 23:2-3)

And the Shepherd is assuring us that we have all we really need: “For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17) What I need most is Him.

~~~~~~~

Your presence is all I need,
It’s all I want, all I seek,
And without it, without it there’s no meaning.

Your presence is the air I breathe,
The song I sing, the love I need
Without it, without it I’m not living.

I will exalt You Lord, I will exalt You Lord.
There is no one like You, God.

Amanda Faulk, I Will Exalt

~~~~~~~

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Psalm 34:8-10

Heart Remodeling 101

The question that keeps coming back to us is How do we live this out? What does trusting God, and glorifying Him, and realizing He is sufficient for us actually look like in everyday life? And I understand this sneaking suspicion that spiritual truths are not entirely practical. We are not questioning whether they are beautiful and inspiring and worthwhile, but how in the world do they intersect with work projects and arguing about chores and relatives, and the never-ending task of cleaning up the kitchen?

It’s like faith becomes a room we have added onto an already full house, and life is going on at mad pace while we try to get away for some refreshing moments (in there where it all works) before coming back to our messy lives. We even try our best to bring bits of it out with us, to decorate our space. Or maybe we add more rooms on, like doing ministry, and helping our neighbors, and teaching Scripture to our kids, and supporting missions– as if we can make the faith portions of our house large enough to eclipse the everyday stuff. But don’t you keep wondering if that abundant life Jesus offered is possible without getting exhausted? And what if we could instead just bust down some walls and live free in the light? I am beginning to think that these spiritual truths are the most practical of all, and it is our perspectives on life that need remodeling.

I keep hearing the echo of Church-Planter Paul’s simple instructions to the early believers in Philippi: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.  For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. ” (Philippians 2:12-13) We often take a detour at “work hard”….take a sharp left into self-effort and get lost in feelings of failure and guilt. But the working hard is all about focus and intentionality in life, not about our attaining anything. And Paul’s instruction is meant to be simple and straightforward– just look how he reduces all of life to worship and obedience toward God. This is the one thing we are to do, and even that is not depending on our desire and effort but on His. All that is up to us is to bow our hearts to the rightful King, Jesus. The constant refrain of the Kingdom is His “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

It gives us a different starting place. Instead of starting with my life and trying to apply faith to it, I can start with faith in Who He Is and what He is doing in me and then respond with awe and humility in all the down-to-earth details of everyday life. Regardless of season of life or marital status or where my work takes me, real life begins in my heart and where it is focused. The Wise King wasn’t just composing poetry when he wrote “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23), but speaking truth for our souls. Whether we are looking for a life change, or a heart change, or an attitude change….it isn’t about doing more good things. It is simply seeking the reign of Jesus over all things.

Simple and uncomplicated, but not easy by any means, and at times painful. The life we are building needs to come falling down so that He can build a new one on the foundation of Grace, with Himself in the center. So in faith we agree that His plans are best and true. By faith we throw Self down off the throne again and again, in obedience to King Jesus. In faith we persist in putting into practice what He says. One day at a time– in our work and our marriages and our parenting and our words– even when it runs counter to everything we are used to. By faith we swim against the current of popular opinion, and listen to His perspectives on reality and meaning and satisfaction and beauty, because we feel certain that having Him is better than having anything else in this world. By faith we trust the Creator and Architect who gave us life the first time to give us the abundant new life we long for.

We simply worship and obey… and miracle of miracles, we find that His Spirit is working out in us all that we cannot do for ourselves.

~~~~~~~

Out of the overflow of a properly aligned heart, the mouth speaks and the obedience follows.

Christine Hoover

~~~~~~~

For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: ‘I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be My people.’

2 Corinthians 6:16