Holiness in the Hum Drum

The book of Leviticus, has always been a book that has stretched me and challenged my resolve to study God’s Word. The scope of topics and content can cause my mind and my stomach to convulse simultaneously. I cannot fathom keeping all the rules straight and my appetite is subdued when I review the various and very bloody sacrifices. For those of you who don’t tarry in the book of Leviticus, let me give you a very brief run down of the topics covered: different kinds of sacrifices and offerings, the ordination and role of priests, clean and unclean food, purification after childbirth (let’s be honest, that is messy work), infectious skin diseases, coping with mildew, intimate relationships, consequences of sin, feasts, sabbath, the Year of Jubilee and if that wasn’t inclusive enough there is a section called “various laws”.[1] Let me say this again: there is a whole section on mildew people. God wasn’t messing around.

I cannot even imagine living under these conditions, trying to follow all those rules and remembering when to offer which sacrifice. Frankly, I struggle with this book because of its complexity, but more importantly, it paints the image of a God who was strict and unreasonable. I can’t understand why all of this even mattered. Why was it so important that they follow all the rules so carefully?

It wasn’t until I had the privilege of reading a good portion of the Old Testament in a short time frame that the larger picture emerged. If you look at the end of the book of Exodus, the people set up the tabernacle according to the Lord’s instructions. As Moses finished the work of putting everything in its place, a “cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”[2]

Later in Leviticus we read, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the entire assemble of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’’”[3] When the LORD came to dwell among His people, He required holiness, or absolute purity, from the people. There were no mundane or unimportant aspects of life. Every part of life became sacred, not because of its own value, but because of God’s presence.

God tells His people not to live like the people who possessed the land before them. He wants them to be different because they belong to Him. “I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.”[4] He claims the entire nation as His own and promises to be with them. “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.”[5]

When I look at the bigger picture, I no longer see a collection of random rules and rituals meant to shackle God’s people. I see a nation set apart because God chose to dwell among them giving them an opportunity for tremendous blessing. However, living with God also carried the weight of the possibility of terrible destruction if His holiness was not respected.

Today, we no longer live under the law of the Old Testament and we don’t live near a tabernacle filled with the glory of the LORD. However, we are meant to be set apart from the society around us. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[6] Though we were not part of the Israelites who saw the pillar of cloud or of fire, we have God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t simply dwell near us; we are filled with His Holy Spirit.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says “for we are the temple of the living God.”[7] He then points right back to Leviticus 26:12 where God declares that He will be with His people (shared above).

When God chooses to dwell among us, there is no longer a differentiation between what is sacred and what is routine or tedious. When the Creator of the universe is present, every single aspect of life is affected. I find it simpler sometimes to separate life into different sections. I have boxes for church/God, family, work, health, friends and hobbies, though some boxes have become sad and forlorn since I had children. If I keep all these things as separate as possible, it means life isn’t as messy. I don’t have to worry about offending the people in one box by sharing beliefs or opinions from another. However, God refuses to fit neatly into the single box labelled “Church” or “Faith” that I prefer to confine Him to.

As the Holy Spirit changes us, the contents of the box overflow into all the different areas of my life. When that happens, I have a choice to make. I can try to force God back into His box, though He has a way of making His presence known anyway, or I can embrace the gift of having the Holy Spirit help me navigate all areas of life.

So many bits of my life can seem mundane at times. There is little excitement in the daily routine of laundry, packing lunches, calendar keeping and administrative tasks. While God may not have a preference on what laundry detergent I choose, His presence makes those moments matter. When God chose to dwell among His people, His expectation was that we would enjoy a relationship with Him recognizing His holiness. His presence transforms even the dullest moments into sacred seconds adding holiness to the hum drum.

[1] Leviticus 19 (New International Version)

[2] Exodus 40:34 (NIV)

[3] Leviticus 19:1-2 (NIV)

[4] Leviticus 20:24 (NIV)

[5] Leviticus 26:11-12 (NIV)

[6] 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NIV)

[7] 2 Corinthians 6:16 (NIV)

Resolving Not To Resolve

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution this year? Goals and lists are my friends. I like to make to-do lists and check off items when they are done, though these days they are more in my head than on paper. When I do write them down though, I especially like to add items that have already been completed and cross them off. Yes, I am absolutely that excited about feeling productive.

New Year’s resolutions promise a whole year of productivity. The idea of making goals for the year and crushing them appeals to me. I just don’t like the whole not finishing them thing. I’ve learned something about myself lately that is making me reconsider making yearly declarations. So, if you made a New Year’s resolution and you are achieving your goal, I suggest you stop reading because I don’t want to take any wind out of your sails. I am about to tell you why I didn’t make a resolution this year. If you aren’t totally encouraged on your resolution journey, then please keep reading and we can enjoy some grace together.

Let’s explore the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. I did some very basic research and found the most common resolutions are targeted at self-improvement or related to improvement of money matters, weight or relationships. Of those who make resolutions, under 10 % consistently feel successful. The remaining people are split almost evenly between enjoying some success and never attaining their resolution.[1] So if you aren’t feeling super successful with your goal, you are not alone. To wrap that up in a nutshell, people continue to make resolutions each year even though less than 10% consistently achieve them. Strangely, this is not the reason that I decided not to resolve something this year. As I mentioned, I like lists and the hunt to crush a goal. I enjoy the victory of conquering something through hard work and willpower though, of course, that isn’t always how it turns out. Nevertheless, I tend to go after it with a lot of determination because I really hate feeling like I have failed.

What I have found personally, is that I cannot handle focusing on a goal for too long before I become single-minded about it and it consumes me. While tenacity can be a huge asset, it can also become an enormous stumbling block. I enjoy coming up with new challenges for myself and I like to give it my best shot, and that is my dilemma. When I focus my best on any other goal, no matter how worthy it is, I give God my second best, or third or fourth. What would happen if I stopped fitting God in around the rest of my life and gave Him my very best? I mean, if I found the time of day when I was most alert to spend time with Him, not the few minutes in bed when I don’t want to get up yet, or as I drift off to sleep? Or if I were to pray first about something before I discuss it with others and not make it a last resort? What if I were to simply treasure God and value what He values?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe that we can try our best at things and make decisions to improve our lives. What I am talking about are the types of goals that, over long periods of time, start to rob other areas of your life. They creep into your mind with greater frequency until you are breathing and sleeping them, reorganizing everything else in your life around to achieve them. They can even start small, but grow into a monster of a task master. I am weary of trying to tame that beast. Instead, I will continue to make little goals and work towards them, but they won’t be “the goal”.

I have been thinking a lot lately of the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”[2]  I have heard this verse so many times that it is easy to overlook its importance. Honestly, what does that even mean? What would it look like to seek His Kingdom first in our day-to-day lives?

Later in Matthew when someone asks Jesus which commandment is the most important, Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[3] What would that look like?

God doesn’t want me to resolve something new each year, flitting from one concern to the next without including Him in the process. He desires for me to love Him and to allow the Holy Spirit to make those changes in me. Ironically, as I cooperate with the Holy Spirit I will gain more “love, joy, peace, [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control”.[4] I will achieve some of what I may have resolved to do on my own. If most people are wanting to improve in relationships, imagine how much a little more spiritual fruit could do. Or consider weight or money issues and enjoy the added self-control from heeding the Spirit.

I am not at all suggesting that we should ignore areas of our lives that need work. I would have to be blind to miss some of my faults. I am saying that I am going to bring them to the feet of Jesus and ask for help from the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to work to improve one area of my life, only to realize that I have jeopardized other, more important areas.

I am hoping that as I seek God’s Kingdom first, I can rest in a more gracious and joyful approach and know that the Holy Spirit will work on the areas that are a priority to God, not to me. Though I don’t always know exactly what seeking God’s Kingdom looks like in practical terms, I am going to pray and ask God to show me what it looks like today. And tomorrow, I will ask again.

[1] Statistic Brain, “New Years Resolution Statistics”, January 1, 2017, accessed January 22, 2017, http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/.

[2] Matthew 6:33, New International Version.

[3] Matthew 22:37, NIV.

[4] Galatians 5:22, NIV.

Mary’s Journey

As I sat perched uncomfortably on the back of our donkey, I ran my hand slowly down my side, feeling a tiny foot pushing back into my palm. The rocking of the donkey had mercifully soothed my little one and he was less active for the moment. My feet were swollen from walking and my back ached. I watched Joseph, while he led the donkey, wishing that I could somehow lighten his load. Our donkey couldn’t carry me and our few belongings, so Joseph carried most of them. I tried to walk, but I could barely see my feet and the ground was uneven, not to mention, I was creeping at a snail’s pace. To move things along, I agreed to ride and I was grateful for the reprieve.

My mind wandered back to when the angel Gabriel had interrupted me in the middle of my day. I wasn’t doing anything unusual, just thinking about what my future with Joseph might look like as I went about my work. Day dreaming you might say. Suddenly, Gabriel had appeared and announced that I would carry God’s son. I’m sorry, what?! Of course, I didn’t say that, but I was thinking it. That type of news takes a while to work through, though the presence of an angel tends to speed the process along. Something about Gabriel helped to push away the fear that threatened to overtake me. Everything was about to change and I needed space and time to think, but even as I reached Elizabeth, God was moving and showing me compassion through her words. Before I could tell her about my peculiar situation, she knew that I carried Jesus. How encouraging she was when I feared what everyone would think.

I am thankful Joseph stood by me. I wouldn’t have blamed him for not believing me, not many others did. I am so grateful that God gave Joseph a clear message that gave him no doubts about marrying me. As we began a completely different journey than we had planned together, I clung to each new sign that God was orchestrating all these things. As others shunned us, we tried to quietly go about our plans. We knew we would have to travel to Bethlehem, but knowing it and doing it were two completely different things. I have learned that I can plan for something carefully and then watch it all fall apart before my very eyes.

We packed wisely and I listened intently as my mother tried to explain everything that I would need to know to deliver this child and care for him. We started our journey early, so there would be no danger of delivering on the way. However, I had not anticipated exactly how large I would get, or that I would have to stop at e-v-e-r-y available chance to empty the bladder that this baby seemed to be leaning on. Uncomfortable does not even begin to describe how I felt.

As we reached Bethlehem, we quickly realized that finding a place to stay would not be an easy task. There were people everywhere and every home was filled to the brim. Joseph tried valiantly to find somewhere suitable for us to stay. As we checked with one place after another, I felt contractions. Initially, I gritted my teeth and kept quiet, but as they grew closer together I had to tell Joseph that we were running out of time. Surely God would provide a grand place for His son to be born. At least, that’s what I thought. That was not what God had in mind. Instead, we found ourselves sheltered where animals were kept. Joseph did his best to make it comfortable, finding his way around in the dim light, he cleaned it out and spread out new straw. It didn’t quite take care of that “fresh” smell or the drafts, but it was the best we could do. He found a manger and dumped it out, deeply annoying an old goat in the process who wandered over to munch on what was left of her meal laying on the ground. “Nesting” takes on a whole new meaning when you prepare to give birth where animals have made their home, while you are having contractions.

Labour and delivery were hard and as I strained both physically and mentally, trying to remember all that my mother had told me, I felt so alone. Joseph did all that he could, but men weren’t usually part of the birthing process. This was not how a baby normally came into the world. When I finally saw the face of my son, of God’s son, I cried tears of joy and relief. I stared into Jesus’s little face as I wrapped Him in the cloths that we had packed. I held Him close for a long while before I finally laid Him in the manger as exhaustion overcame me. Joseph watched over Him closely as I laid down. I was so tired that I didn’t even care that I was laying on straw. Just as I began to drift off to sleep, I heard voices approaching. Joseph and I glanced at each other and I moved to stand by the manger. As I leaned on it for strength, shepherds came in talking of angels and singing. They were filthy and smelled of sheep, and part of me wanted to grab Jesus and run, but as I caught the look in their eyes, I stopped. God had sent angels to tell these few that Jesus was born. For some reason, God wanted these shepherds to share this moment with us. I took every detail in, willing myself to remember all of the ways that God showed us that Jesus was indeed His.

God continued to provide for us and show us in both little and big ways that Jesus was His. We even had Magi find us by following a star that appeared when Jesus was born. Nothing ever worked out the way I planned, but I began to realize that even when things seemed to be spiraling out of control, God was working out His perfect plan.

Much of this narrative is fiction that I have added where details are unknown so I could imagine for a moment what Mary experienced.  I wanted to step into the story and see it with fresh eyes.  What was it about Mary that allowed her to let go of her hopes and dreams and embrace God’s plan for her? What made her able to embrace Jesus, though His very presence turned her life upside down?

What about the shepherds? What would your response be if smelly strangers wandered in to your maternity room? Or maybe you feel like you are the shepherd, generally ignored and unwelcome. You are still invited to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Perhaps you identify more with the Magi, whose journey didn’t end on Christmas, but was just beginning.

Christmas can be a beautiful time with joy and laughter, but if yours’ doesn’t live up to your hopes or expectations, it’s okay; Mary’s didn’t either. As I child I thought of Jesus’ birth in the stable as quaint or cute. Since then I have visited many barns and have given birth and I realize that those two things should never coincide. By all human standards, that first Christmas was a disaster. Only one thing went according to plan.

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

God isn’t concerned with human standards, so if your turkey burns this Christmas, celebrate anyway. If you feel lonely or uncomfortable this Christmas, remember that even Jesus’ mother likely felt that way just before she held her son. If you have unexpected guests, remember that Mary had those too and recognized that God had sent them to meet Jesus. Or if you have friends or family that aren’t clambering to celebrate Jesus this year, can you be patient and remember that they may just be starting their journey and like the Magi, it could take a while?

Christmas isn’t about feeling a certain way or having everything line up the way we expect. It marks the arrival of Jesus, who would one day conquer sin and death. I wish you joy this Christmas, but more importantly, I wish you Jesus. I hope and pray that we can all lay aside our own expectations for what Christmas should look like and embrace the heart of Christmas, Jesus.

Apparently, I have a “way”

I like order; not so much cleanliness (as my husband can attest to) but I like routine and productivity. I enjoy getting things done in an orderly fashion and used to schedule my life with military precision. I would pack it full of activities and feel great after a productive day. You could set your clock by me and I would not disappoint. Then my children arrived. You can probably guess what happened to my finely tuned schedule. As it turns out, my children have their own personalities. What?! Who said they could do that? Oh right, God did. Though we’ve talked about that, God thinks it’s a good thing, and they continue to have their own minds and are not shy in expressing them to me.

I used to think I was pretty flexible and easy going. I had no idea that I had a “way” of doing things. Then I tried baking cookies with my children. Oh yes, I definitely had a “way”. I recently asked my husband about this too.

“Do I have a way for doing things?” I asked. “Oh, you have a way all right”, he responded with a slight shake of his head while trying desperately to keep a straight face. I’m sure he meant it in his own loving and affirming “way”.

Now that I can’t do things in my pre-parental method (it has been 6 years), my productivity has gone down drastically. If I want to get things done, I have to cram it into the moments where my children are already committed to activities or are sleeping soundly. I plan things so carefully that I don’t have much wiggle room in my schedule, so it was quite a shock when I did something unprecedented this week. I spontaneously changed my workout plan. GASP! You can do that? Apparently yes! Even if you are scheduled for an indoor workout, you can go outside on a beautiful day and run without a GPS watch. I had no way to know how far or fast I was going, so instead I started to pay attention to the river and the fall colors. As I ran, I talked with God about some of the things He’s been teaching me and as I looked up to see the beautiful leaves, a large piece of a puzzle I’ve been working on clicked into place. The beauty is in the diversity.

I would be lying if I said that sameness doesn’t appeal to me, outright lying in fact. I like the idea that birds of a feather flock together and I like to find my kind of birds. Often it’s just easier to live life alongside people who do things the way I do and enjoy the same things as me. It frustrates me sometimes when people want to do things differently.

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Look at these pumpkins.  Does that not just give you a peaceful feeling to see all those pumpkins lined up together? The problem is that even though they look the same from afar, no two pumpkins are alike. God made us that way too. Even if I find someone who is 90% like me, we will always have some differences and those differences can present challenges.

The comparison dilemma is one challenge that arises when our individuality is revealed. Can I just say that trying to measure up to someone else is exhausting? Have you ever watched an artist at work and wondered why you can’t draw a straight line with a ruler? Or have you tasted an amazing meal and lamented the fact that you can’t cook macaroni and cheese to save your life? I used to look around and wonder why everyone around me seemed to have these amazing talents and abilities and why I couldn’t do what they did? It wasn’t until I started embracing my role as a child of God, made by God “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [me] to do” [1], that I learned to appreciate the gifts of others without resentment or envy. Learning to think of ourselves the way God created us frees us from the trap of trying to measure up. As Gordon T. Smith writes,

“We look at ourselves, we identify, accept and embrace who we are called to be. This focus on ourselves frees us from comparing ourselves to others. And this liberates. When we refuse to compare ourselves to others’ gifts and abilities and opportunities, we are freed to be who we are. This means, of course, that the giftedness of another person is not a threat to us.” [2]

Did you know that? We can enjoy how God made us and not feel less valued because someone else succeeds. I know that this concept is elementary in principle, but it is much harder to put into practice. You and I can learn to be content in exactly who God made us to be. It doesn’t mean we don’t try new things, or that we tolerate sin in our lives. It means that we can embrace who we are in Christ and not feel threatened by the success of others. We can rejoice in the path that we get to take and cheer others on as they walk their paths.

There is another challenge with diversity. Some people can be annoying. There is no other way to say it. You probably only need to pause for a minute or two to think of that person in your life. Every time you talk to them, you are afraid that your eyes will not return to their normal position after they have almost rolled out of your head. You need only look in their direction and your blood pressure rises and though you have the best of intentions, something about them just drives you mad. I used to be totally frustrated by those people in my life until I realized that I probably am that person in someone else’s life. Here’s the thing. That “annoying” person was created the same way you were; uniquely, with a plan in mind. Ephesians 2:2 tells us “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”[3] I find when I humble myself before my Creator, recognizing that I was made with a purpose in mind and that my neighbor was made with a different purpose, I can be more patient and understanding.

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When you look at the fall leaves you can see all the different shapes and colors. The eye is quickly drawn to the brilliant red, orange and yellow while the brown sort of blends into the background it is all part of the big picture. The diversity that makes the fall so stunning is what makes the body of Christ function. Each of us plays our role and though we all want to be the more honorable parts, “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be”[4]. We need each individual part and cannot function without each other. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”[5]

I am learning to embrace my uniqueness and celebrate differences in the people around me. I have even learned that my children’s own personalities contribute to our family, even if it does mean that you can’t set your clock by me anymore. Though I still hold on to some aspects of my “way”, I have been set free to celebrate the gifts of others without feeling like mine are somehow diminished. I can enjoy beautiful art, a song well sung and a race well run without feeling like I need to do better. More and more, I look forward to enjoying the gifts of those around me and expressing my own gifts when appropriate.  So if you ever need a schedule done with precision, you know where to find me.

[1] Ephesians 2:10 (New International Version)

[2] Gordon T. Smith, Courage & Calling (Downers Grove,  IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 129.

[3] Ephesians 2:2 (NIV)

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:18 (NIV)

[5] 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NIV)

Soul Prepping

There is a reason that I don’t have a fish on my car. I do not always control my temper while I am driving. If I have loads of time, I am patient and practice near perfect reciprocity on the roads. If I am behind schedule and get stuck in traffic, I have been known on occasion to get exasperated and frustrated. While not admitting anything, I can confirm that my children know the phrase “Come on, GO!” Let’s call it an area with potential for growth. While I consider it prudent not to alert other drivers to my faith in the event that I behave in a way that does not reflect Jesus while driving, it should not be our approach to every day living.

The trick with putting a fish on your car, or identifying as a Christian in some other way, is that you are supposed to act differently than others. If I am an angry driver (again, admitting nothing) then broadcasting that I am a Christian just makes Jesus look bad. The point is that we are supposed to stand out for our good behavior.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14 (New International Version)

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like the stars in the sky…” Philippians 2:14-15 (NIV)

Did you catch that? If we do things without “grumbling or arguing” that is noticeable in our world. Easier said than done though isn’t it? So often, my first response is to complain about the tiniest things, especially if I have had a day that was just a little too full. I want to live in a way that brings glory to God, but then I get stuck in traffic or someone cuts in front of me in a line or someone speaks harshly to one of my children and I lose perspective in a heart beat. How can we prepare ourselves for these moments that are really just small inconveniences or annoyances?

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 (NIV)

The transforming cannot happen while we are trying to keep up with the pace of this world. Among other things, “the pattern of this world” is to go from one activity to another without any downtime. We schedule every minute of the day and then do our best to hang on and get through it. Even when we don’t have something actually scheduled, we fill the time with noise or technology. We turn on the radio, or check our phones to see the latest on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or any other form of social media. We don’t take time to just be; time for God to work His transformation in us.

This week has been one of preparation for back to school at our house. The relaxed days of summer are almost over and we all have to get back to a normal routine. In some ways I crave that but as I was preparing I realized that I was doing a lot of physical or material preparation and not a lot of soul preparation. The kids got hair cuts  and some new fall clothes, because of course no one’s pants fit anymore (I firmly believe that sunshine makes my kids grow faster). I made meals to store in my freezer and snacks for school and preschool. We got new indoor shoes and lunch bags and cleaned out backpacks that were holding all kinds of treasures that the kids had stashed in them over the summer. After all that, while updating the calendar for September I realized that I hadn’t scheduled any “transformation time” yet. We are ready to start the activities of the year, but we haven’t made space to be transformed. I hadn’t scheduled in time for any of us to just be: To spend time together playing a silly game, to read a good book or to rest and be still before God. I’m not talking about time set aside to read your Bible and pray, though that is essential. I mean time that has no marked purpose. It seems to be a thing of the past.

Though later than it should be, I am now soul prepping for back to school. Whether you have kids in school or not, September is the time of year where you sign up for new activities and set your schedule. I am looking for those pockets of time where I get to just be and where I can help my kids do that too. (My husband is on his own, because my “helping” isn’t helpful.) When I am stressed, rushed and distracted I do not demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness [or] faithfulness” (Galatians 5:22 English Standard Version). If I allow that to go on, I will not represent Jesus well.

The trick to preparing your soul is knowing what sucks your soul dry and what refreshes it, not just for ourselves but for our loved ones too. Here are some of the ideas that I came up with for soul prepping around my house:

  • Freeze a bunch of meals to avoid the “I have no idea what we are having for supper” moment. Instead, I am hoping that I will be able to spend more time “just being” with my kids when we get home in the afternoon from school and that it will help alleviate some of that stressful time.
  • Take a book that I want to read with me to use when I have to wait for someone, changing that time from an annoyance to a surprise and cherished moment of downtime.
  • Use moments stuck in traffic to reflect on things I can be thankful for, making a game out of it to involve my kids. Anytime we can include more moments of gratitude, there will be less complaining, arguing and whining (and I’m all for that).
  • Turn off phone notifications and only check social media at certain times of the day, taking away the temptation to check it whenever I have a spare moment.
  • Walk through the house at night before bed praying for the different activities that happen in each area, being thankful and bringing any requests to God.
  • Giving everyone in the house a short time of solitude, not as a punishment but as a pleasant time. (This works better on some days than on others.)
  • Leave at least five minutes before necessary. When I can get everyone out the door without rushing, our whole day goes better and we will have a few minutes at our destination together, parting on much better terms and having happier souls.

These are just a few ways that I hope to use to keep from getting wrapped up in this world. I want room in my life for my mind to be transformed and for rest to make me more fun to be around. As for my unconfessed driving habits, I’m working on those too…. I encourage you to take a few minutes to consider some ways you can prepare your soul to “just be” and experience God’s transformation.  What are some of the ways that you prepare your soul for the annoyances and inconveniences of your day?

 

 

Better Than a Smartie Blizzard

While enthusiastically watching the Olympics, I have been reminiscing of the time when I too was an elite athlete. I was six and about to crush my first swimming race. The official signaled it was time to mount the starting blocks with one long whistle. Instead, I quivered beside the block, shaking my head. The official motioned with his arm to step up onto the block along side the other seven swimmers and I responded again with a vigorous shake of my head. I caught sight of my mother and she took the opportunity to give me The Look and  firmly suggested that I “GET UP ON THAT BLOCK!”* My father, though less demonstrative, was equally insistent that I get up there and move on with the race. I looked at the block, but I could not will myself to step up onto it. Having seen enough, my coach trudged all the way from the other end of the pool while the whole crowd watched and still I stood there unable to move. She reached my side and spoke a few forgettable words that had no affect. Finally she said,

“Elissa, if you get up on that block and swim this race, I will buy you a Blizzard.”

“What kind of Blizzard?” was my immediate reply.

“Any kind you want.”

“Smarties, I want a Smarties Blizzard.”

With that very important decision made, I climbed up onto the starting block and when the gun went off I dove in (more accurately, flopped) and perfected my doggy paddle across the pool. While that was not exactly the stroke I was supposed to be swimming (it’s called freestyle for a reason), I swam my heart out and won my heat.

That was the first of a few swims that day. My parents had suggested that I not participate in too many because it was my first meet. Later, while counting my ribbons, I suggested to my mother that “I would have more ribbons if you had let me do more races!”

I don’t know exactly what caused the race official to hold the race for me that day. There were seven other swimmers lined up waiting to race exactly as they were supposed to but for some reason they waited and I got to swim my race. Unfortunately, life isn’t always like that. Sometimes if we hesitate or refuse to obey out of fear, we miss our chance.

In Numbers 13, God tells Moses to send men to explore Canaan. The men return from investigating the land and all of them agree that the land is fruitful. However, ten of the men report back that the inhabitants are strong and the cities are well protected. The remaining two believe they should go into the land, but the others object and the people begin to panic. Joshua, one of the two, appeals to the Israelites, trying to persuade them to be courageous.

“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is please with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:7b-9 New International Version)

Instead of heeding Joshua’s advice, the people discuss stoning Joshua and Caleb. God intervenes, threatening  to wipe Israel out with a plague, but Moses pleads with God to forgive them. God relents, instead declaring the people will not enter the promised land.

…not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times – not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” (Numbers 14:22-23 NIV)

The Israelites had an opportunity to go into the promised land and enjoy its fruit. Instead, they chose to give in to their fear and disobey God. As a result, they remained in the desert for 40 years ensuring those who couldn’t muster the courage to go into the promised land that day never got to see it.

There are times in life when we have an opportunity to move obediently into God’s plan for us. We can step forward in faith and participate in the work or we can cower in fear and miss the blessing. Are you willing to take a risk on a God who made you, loves you and rescued you from your sin?

God has been changing my heart lately and showing me that instead of fearing Him, I should embrace being His child and learn to walk in obedience. I wish I could say that I have learned to eagerly jump into action when I sense His leading, but the truth is that I still need a lot of encouragement. For example, I have felt God nudging me towards some new ministry areas and I realized that more schooling would be valuable. I admit that I am afraid, but I don’t want to miss the blessing. So, despite my fear of failing, or letting down my family, I will begin seminary classes this fall and trust that God will guide my steps. I don’t know for sure that this is the right step for me. If we could be 100% certain of every step then we wouldn’t need faith.

Has God asked you to do something? Are you dragging your feet because it isn’t the right time, or because you are comfortable with life the way it is? How many times have we missed a blessing because we were too afraid to step into the plan that God has? As a six year old, I almost missed my first race because I was paralyzed by fear. It took the promise of a Smarties Blizzard to distract me from my fear and to get me to focus on the prize. I don’t want to miss any more of what God has for me and I know it will be so much better than a Smarties Blizzard. I am learning to take a deep breath, focus on Jesus and move forward in spite of my fear.

 

* I should note these events are written as I remember them decades after they occurred and not as my mother recalls them. 🙂

Can I trust God? – Part 2

In the last post we considered God’s faithfulness and whether He will keep His promises. While that is an important question, I have to admit that for me the next question has always been the tougher one. Can I trust God’s motives? I grew up hearing the Bible stories and singing the songs that told of God’s faithfulness, but to this day I struggle more to believe that God has my best interests at heart. I know it on paper and in my head, but it is much harder to live like I believe it when life gets hard.

There is a passage in John that paints a beautiful picture of who Jesus is. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and he begins talking about a flock of sheep in a pen. He explains that there is a gate to get into the pen and if the sheep enter through the gate, they are saved. However, if someone sneaks into the pen some other way, he is there to steal the sheep. The shepherd enters through the gate and the sheep follow him because they trust him and are familiar with the sound of his voice. The sheep are able to distinguish between the shepherd’s voice and someone else’s voice and will not follow someone they do not know. Jesus clarified that He was the gate and the shepherd.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11 New International Version)

Shepherds are responsible for the flock and to take care of them they have to make sure they have food, water, shelter and safety from predators. They build trust with the sheep through daily herding and provision and a good shepherd will know the personalities and characteristics of his sheep. He knows each sheep by name and knows that the one named Curly has a tendency to wander too deep into the water. The shepherd knows how far the flock can travel and when the sheep need to rest. He keeps an eye out for predators and finds safe places to rest and to get water. Jesus does that for us. He knows each of us well and He daily shepherds us allowing us to learn the sound of His voice. He provides all we need and knows where the enemy waits for us.

Are there times when you are frustrated by the direction life seems to be taking you? I have those moments. I get frustrated by something and spot a new opportunity, rushing towards it without considering what the consequences might be. I am like a sheep who sprints straight for green pasture, not realizing that there are wolves lurking in the nearby forest. Jesus can see those predators long before I can and he redirects me to safer pastures. At the time those pastures seem dry and boring, but later, with a different perspective, I can occasionally catch glimpses of the wolves. How often does Jesus redirect us without us even realizing that we were headed for disaster? Do you ever look back at a turn you didn’t want to take and realize how close you were to choosing a wrong path?

The Good Shepherd does not desert us when it gets difficult to guide us like a hired shepherd might. He cares too deeply for us. Instead, He protected us by sacrificing His own life. Jesus knows all about us and He wants us to have the life “to the full” that God planned for us. Meanwhile, Satan wants to destroy those plans and taint the fullness of life that God intended. When I entered through the gate I was saved and now I need to learn to distinguish Jesus’ voice so I can follow and not be led astray by a stranger. Time spent with the Shepherd will help me to learn the sound of His voice and teach me to follow His leading.

If you are still unsure if you can trust God’s motives, I encourage you to talk with the Shepherd: He is looking for you. In Luke chapter fifteen it says that the shepherd will leave the flock to go after the one lost sheep and when He finds that sheep He will carry it home. (Luke 15:4-5) Jesus wants to carry you home and all you have to do is stop and listen.

Life is rough sometimes and we cannot forget that Satan is present and his goal is to destroy us.  Lately as I watch the news I cannot explain how God can see all the evil and choose not to prevent it. I don’t know why He lets terrible things happen. I get confused and angry. How can justice be served? Why is God not intervening?

In those moments I cling to God’s promises knowing that He is faithful to keep them.

We know 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)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

When I don’t know where else to turn, I can go to the Good Shepherd and know that He wants me to have fullness of life. I know that I can trust Jesus with both my current life and my hope for eternity.

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Can I trust God? – Part 1

Have you ever been disappointed by a friend or family member? They said they would do something but they didn’t keep their word and their actions left you in a tight spot? Betrayal by someone close to us, no matter how significant, hurts and it shapes the way we form relationships moving forward.

While we have all been hurt, some of us bounce back faster than others. It has always taken me a while to trust someone and every time I am disappointed, it takes me that much longer to trust again. I like to know two things about someone before I am willing to deepen the relationship: 1) Is this person faithful to do what they say they will do, and 2) can I trust their motives? We can consider these same two questions when we need to decide if God is trustworthy. Today I want to look at whether God will do what He says. Is He faithful to keep His promises?

When I consider if someone will keep her promises, the only way to make that kind of decision is to look at her track record. Has she kept her promises before? Can I depend on her to do what she says she will, or has she backed out on me in the past? How has she treated others in the same or similar situations?

Chapter eleven of Hebrews, often referred to as the “Faith Hall of Fame”, is a passage that showcases the faith of men and women, but also more importantly demonstrates God’s faithfulness in return. By examining this section we are able to see how God has treated others in the past.

Consider Noah whose family was saved because he trusted God and built an ark. Rahab was saved because she dared to trust in a foreign God. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt passing through the Red Sea and Joshua marched around Jericho in faith that God would keep His promise that the walls would fall.

One story that illustrates God’s faithfulness extremely well is the life of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave the land he knew with the promise that he would bless him and give him an inheritance. (Hebrews 11:8 New International Version) Abraham went, at age 75, to a foreign land trusting that God would keep His promise. Later, God promised Abraham a son and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Genesis 15:4-5)

While Abraham and Sarah did not always wait on the Lord, He was still faithful to keep His promise to them. When Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the son who would fulfill the promise. (Genesis 21:1-5)

When I read through Hebrews chapter eleven, it seems so simple. We see people putting faith in God and the fulfillment of each promise. It’s when we really get into the details of each individual story that we see that life got messy for them. While Abraham and Sarah trusted God, they did not always wait for His timing and they made a whole mess of things, resulting in the birth of Ishmael. Isaac was not born until fourteen years later and even after he was born God tested Abraham’s faithfulness again by asking him to sacrifice Isaac and stopping him only at the last possible moment. (Genesis 22) We also see that Sarah and Abraham both died before they saw the promise of descendants fulfilled. (Hebrews 11:13)

When we look at God’s track record and consider whether He keeps His promises, there is a simple answer and a more realistic answer. The simple is answer is yes, God always keeps His promises. The messier answer that more accurately reflects real life is that sometimes we need to wait a long time to see God’s promises fulfilled. The most challenging part of waiting is knowing that what we hope for may not happen in our lifetime.

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39)

It can seem like forever, as I’m sure it did for Sarah and Abraham. It’s possible that we may not live to see the promise fulfilled, but God is not confined by time and is always faithful. There is no promise that God will break and we can always trust that He is faithful to do all that He says He will do.

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After Damascus

I recently had a bad parenting moment; the kind where you are left wondering how one little person can make you feel so much. I didn’t respond the way I should have to my son and I let myself wallow in that for a while. At the time, I was planning on working on this post, but I really didn’t feel like I could do that after failing so miserably: In short, I was ashamed.

Do you ever feel like you cannot be used by God because of something you have done? Does it ever seem like your past prevents you from being used by God in your future? Satan would love for us to believe that because of something we have done we are disqualified from serving God. Satan is a liar and a thief and wants to steal all that God has planned for us, using subtle tools like shame. When we feel ashamed, we isolate ourselves and shrink back from serving God because we feel inadequate and unworthy. In contrast, God takes away our shame and wants to use us to build His Kingdom.

Consider the apostle Paul as an example. Initially known as Saul, he was heavily involved in the persecution of Christians. Saul was present and approving when Stephen was stoned to death. Saul threatened disciples of Christ and worked to imprison them to stop their message from spreading. While on the road to Damascus, Saul met Jesus. He was blinded and had to be led by hand into Damascus where he sat for three days not eating or drinking. A man named Ananias came by instruction of the Lord and touched Saul telling him that Jesus had sent him so he would be both healed and filled with the Holy Spirit.

“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:18-22 New International Version)

Let’s do the math. One day Saul is traveling down the road intent on persecuting Christians when he meets Jesus and is blinded for three days. Saul is healed and spends a few more days with the disciples, the very people he was persecuting, in Damascus before he starts preaching for Jesus. Perhaps a week for that dramatic transformation. We don’t have exact numbers, but we are measuring in days, not weeks or months. Saul, who we know later as Paul, began spreading the gospel almost immediately after his conversion. Paul had a deep knowledge of the scriptures, allowing him to begin preaching right away, although he continuously learned throughout his ministry. We may need to increase our knowledge and find ways to equip ourselves, but we should not allow our past to paralyze us.

Is it also significant that in the time immediately following his encounter with Christ, Paul was with the disciples? When I was replaying my bad parenting, I wanted to sulk by myself. Discussing it with my husband brought perspective to the situation and prevented me from needlessly reliving it. Conviction of sin causes us to run to God and repent: Shame causes us to hide by ourselves.

Paul spent his early days in ministry with other believers and his transformation continued while he was in ministry. The road was not easy for Paul and like us, he struggled to do the right thing (Romans 7:15). With support from the disciples, he persevered allowing the Holy Spirit to change him.

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)

Paul repented and began telling others almost immediately that Jesus is the Son of God. He walked with other disciples and became so devoted to this task that everything else paled in comparison. That transformation happened because Paul was willing to accept God’s grace and move forward. The Bible is clear that once we confess our sin, God forgives us. So why is it so hard to live like we are forgiven? Why do we isolate ourselves and hang onto our shame, allowing it to limit our obedience to God?

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

We are forgiven. It does not matter if you have lied, cheated or stolen candy from a child. If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and have confessed your sin and asked for forgiveness, you have been forgiven. There is no probation period as a Christian. You do not have to go a certain number of days without sinning before you can tell others about Christ. Like Paul, if you have genuinely met Jesus, you are in ministry and your transformation will continue as you serve. Find other believers to walk with you and do not let Satan trick you into wallowing in your pit alone.

When we insist on living in shame we are rejecting the gift of grace that Jesus died for. When we accept forgiveness and begin to live in freedom, we are transformed and our lives whisper a tale of redemption. The beauty of allowing Christ to take away our sin and our shame is that our story brings God glory. If we are too ashamed of our past to spread the good news of God’s grace, we will never get to live the future that God intends.

Dry Bones and Orange Juice

Do you ever feel like your world is spinning just a little too fast, like you can’t quite keep up with the pace you have set for yourself? Are there times when you just can’t seem to drum up any enthusiasm for spending time with your Creator? Is it possible that one reason we don’t respond to God’s direction in our lives is we are too tired and over stimulated to sense the urging of the Holy Spirit?

I admit that there are times when I would rather sit and watch a TV show or read a book instead of praying or reading my Bible. Some days feel like they begin way too early and by the time I have a few minutes free, I just want to do something that doesn’t require anything of me; no thinking or feeling and definitely no decision making.

May and June flew by and I collapsed in a heap after racing from one activity to another. After school and preschool parties, concerts, tournaments, work, church commitments, household duties and the inevitable extra event that gets planned smack dab in the middle of it all, I was exhausted.  Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it that causes us to push ourselves to squeeze in one more activity and does it contribute to a lack of passion in our spiritual lives?

It is common in our society to plan each detail of our lives and to fill our agendas with activities. We even have names for this that make it socially acceptable. We say workaholic with a certain respect, or multi-tasker in a wistful tone. “Mombie” crossed my path recently, describing an over-tired mother, desperately seeking caffeine and staying up late in the golden hours after her children have gone to bed just to squeeze in her favorite TV shows. Regardless of role or title, our society encourages packing our schedules in the hopes of fulfilling our potential.

In Ezekiel chapter 36 and 37 we witness God promising a change. The Israelites had lived in a way that displeased God and he responded by removing them from their land and spreading them out. They no longer lived as one people in the land that was promised but instead lived separately among other people groups. They were immersed in a different culture, many choosing to worship the gods of their neighbors. Does any of this sound familiar? As Christians, we live in a foreign culture as our citizenship is in heaven. We immerse ourselves in the culture of this world and we begin to worship the idols of the people around us. One of those idols is busyness and as we bow down to that idol we damage our relationship with God. While we cram our days in the pursuit of physical and intellectual prizes, we neglect our souls and force our spiritual health to critical.

God understood that He needed to redeem the Israelites, not because they deserved it, but for his name’s sake. He spoke to Ezekiel with this message for the Israelites: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26 New International Version)

In Ezekiel chapter 37 God shows Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of bones. As Ezekiel passes through the bones he notes that they are very dry and God asks him if the bones can live. Ezekiel wisely answers that only God can know. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and step by step has Ezekiel speak life into them. The bones come together, connected by tendons and covered in skin. Breath enters the bodies and soon the valley is filled with living beings.

I have had times in my life where I have been like a set of dry bones. I have gone through the motions, praying and reading my bible out of discipline instead of relationship. There are times when discipline is an important part of our spiritual walk, but we also have the Holy Spirit who can change us more than will power ever can if only we let Him.

As a child, I once raced up the stairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen just in time to witness a jug of orange juice falling out of the fridge. I responded by yelling “Anyone want some orange juice? It’s already poured!” To my disappointment, not one member of my family grabbed a straw. While perhaps a strange analogy, we do the same thing with the Holy Spirit. As Christians we all have the Holy Spirit in us, but when we fill our lives with other things we don’t leave room for the Spirit to move. God has already poured out His Spirit and we don’t realize He is spilling out at our feet.

I can’t and won’t tell you that all you need to do is spend time with God. I know that anything we try to do with our own strength will fail miserably, but there is hope. Though you may feel defeated and dry, God can breathe new life into your dry bones. He is able to change your heart of stone and give you a teachable heart that desires Him more than anything else.

Last year, I had a hard time remembering to pray. I wanted to talk to God, but I went from one activity to another and just could not seem to remember. I would pray in the morning, at meals and at night, but throughout the day, I would completely forget unless I was faced with something difficult. I knew that if I wanted something to change in my spiritual life I needed to spend time with God throughout my whole day and not just at the standard times. Though it seemed slightly wrong, I decided to set my cellphone alarm to remind me to pray. I opened a tiny crack in my schedule and the Holy Spirit streamed in, changing my heart.

If you feel dry and unenthusiastic about your faith, I challenge you to set your cellphone alarm for two or three times throughout your day and use that reminder to pray and to ask your Heavenly Father to give you life. If you don’t know where to begin, you can try praying this prayer.

Father, I know that you are able to do all things. You can raise the dead to life and you can breathe new life into me. I’m sorry that I have filled my life so full that I have neglected my relationship with you. Please give me a new heart. Replace my prideful hard heart with a heart that is soft and pliable before you. Make me long for time spent with you. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and help me to sense your will and your direction.

Ask God for passion, life and a renewed sense of His presence and wait to see what He will do.