Darkness

Walking through the woods can be creepy. All the quiet serenity of nature is just that – quiet. And you never know what might be out there, hiding among the trees. The slightest sound of a creaking tree or rustling squirrel can make your heart skip a beat!

Hiking in the dark is exponentially creepier. The quiet is that much quieter, the occasional creaks and rustles that much more alarming, and the creepy things don’t even need to hide behind a tree – they could be standing right next to you and you wouldn’t even know 😱.

On our family backpacking overnight (that’s camping where you carry all of your stuff in a backpack to a site along a trail) a few weeks ago, our grand plans to catch the sunset from our favorite cliff overlook and then set up camp at a nearby site were foiled due to the first-come-first-served rule. The next site was over a mile away and it was dark.

We had flashlights, of course, and were traveling on a well-marked path, but as a mom, all of my irrational fears and protective instincts were in overdrive. Every noise that wasn’t us, every break in the eerie silence, every breeze that rustled a leaf upped the anxiety and dwindled my hopes of ‘staying calm for the sake of the kids’!

The longer I’m a parent, the more I understand the importance of staying calm. Raising my voice, using threatening words, and expressing all.the.feels. has never helped and will never help. My reaction affects the escalation of a situation more than any other factor.

But the longer I’m a parent, the more I also understand the incredible difficulty of carrying this out. Even my most disciplined efforts to stay calm can’t withstand the third time today someone has left the milk out, the seventh time someone has whined about doing a chore, and the fifteenth time I’ve asked you to put the technology away!

I’m fully aware at this point that I can’t remain calm on my own and that my only hope is the Holy Spirit’s continued work in me. And the work He’s been doing most recently is revealing my fear of the dark and exactly how misplaced my faith is.

In Paul’s second letter to his younger protege, Timothy, he focused on preparing and encouraging Timothy to deal with false teachers in the church he (Timothy) was pastoring. Though he might be intimidated and fearful of confronting false teaching, Paul reminded him that God had not given him a spirit of “timidity,” but of “power” (1:7). And although in his youthful zeal he may be tempted to react hotly through arguments and debates, he should “flee the evil desires of youth” (2:22) and respond with love and self-control.

The root of both of these extremes, for Timothy, was fear – fear that he was not old enough, wise enough, or good enough to handle this darkness or fear that the church he was leading would end up divided and destroyed by it.

But in the middle of his letter, Paul encouraged Timothy with these words:

If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.
(2:11‭-‬13)

Paul’s encouragement was that no amount of darkness – no dangerous predators, falling branches, or sinister figures lurking in the woods – could take the church down, because its real leader was God Himself, and He was and is nothing but faithful. Timothy could act and live out his role as pastor without fear. And with fear out of the way, every step he took as a leader could look more like power, love, and self-control.

Parenting feels like a hike in the dark over treacherous mountains in a menacing wilderness. Our strong reactions to the seemingly inconsequential “I’m tired” and “Are we almost there yet?” aren’t about those actual questions, but about the stress of the unknown that surrounds us.

We fear our children will get injured, sick, or suffer in some way. We fear they won’t take advantage of the opportunities placed in front of them to succeed and grow. We fear one bad choice will multiply, sending them down a path that leads away from Jesus. We fear they’ll never figure out how to “use their words” and have healthy relationships with their siblings. And we fear they’ll have lifelong brain-altering effects from all this screen time!

Reactionary parenting is always rooted in fear. Like Timothy, we fear that we’re not enough to handle this darkness or that if we don’t fight hard enough against it, we’ll fail our children. 

But if Paul was writing to our families today, he would say the same thing he said to Timothy: God is faithful. We’ve trusted our children to Him and His plans for them cannot be altered by our failures or our successes. Fear can be set aside because for Him there is no unknown – what looks like a shadowy dark forest to us is a perfectly sunlit clearing to Him. There are no surprises and He is never alarmed!

With our faces oriented toward His view, we can walk forward in our role as parents, every step looking more like power, love, and self-control, because we’re trusting in Him and not ourselves.

“Jesus, I feel within me a great desire to please You but at the same time, I feel totally incapable of doing this without your special light and help, which I can expect only from You. Accomplish Your will within me – even in spite of me. Amen.” -Claude La Colombière (1641-1682)

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Spill

In my obsession with coffee and making the perfect cup, I pride myself on doing it in a neat and clean manner. I’ve seen plenty of messy counters covered with spilled coffee grounds, but me? No way. I don’t want to waste a single ground of my precious coffee so when I spoon it into my little espresso pot, I do it very carefully and never spill any.

Or so I thought.

One day I was at my parents’ house and as I made my coffee, I looked down and saw some grounds on the counter. That’s weird, I thought, must be a fluke – I don’t usually do that!

But when it happened the next day and the day after that and the day after that, I realized something: I spill coffee grounds every day. I may not notice these spills at home because my countertops are the same color as the grounds, but with that mint green background, my sin could not be camouflaged!

I like to think that I’m a fair and unbiased judge of people. I like to think that I would never categorize a person based on their outward appearance. I like to think that I see every person I encounter as the actual person they are, not who someone else might assume them to be.

But it turns out that I’m just a human. And it turns out that like every other human, I have a strong unconscious bias. No matter how righteous I think I am, my initial view of every person I come face to face with is influenced by my childhood environment, the area of the world in which I live, my media exposure, and my self-protective sinful nature. 

It turns out there’s a whole mess of spilled coffee grounds on my counter.

One of the things I love the most about the Bible is the characters. I love that there are so many people who experienced what God was doing during those times and that someone thought to write down their stories so we would be able to relate and learn. Unfortunately, we’ve been trained by our instinctual self-righteousness to see ourselves in the “good guys” but not the “bad guys”. When we find out our heroes had flaws, we eagerly raise our hands to admit we struggle with the same things. Oh, I am such a Martha! Peter? Yeah, we could be friends.

But rarely do we read ourselves into the narratives of Cain, Pharoah, or Haman. We see ourselves in David, but never Goliath. Samson, but never Delilah. The bumbling, naive disciples, but never the harsh, judgmental Pharisees.* 

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, following in the traditions of the religious leaders of their past (**see all of the books of the prophets) were the people most highly criticized by Jesus in the gospels – not because of their sin, but because of their refusal to see their sin. Rather than asking God to reveal the truth about their own hearts, they successfully turned all the blame on others. They refused to see themselves as part of the problem.

It turns out I’m more of a Pharisee than I thought. My unconscious bias is just as much at play in my high view of my self as it is in my low view of others. If I look at myself and think for some reason I am above the entire rest of humanity, that I would never have an inaccurate assumption of another person based on their appearance, I am staring down a “whitewashed tomb” – “beautiful on the outside but on the inside… full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).

There’s debate in the psychology world about whether or not unconscious bias can be overcome, but as followers of Jesus, we have a major advantage! We are indwelled by the very Spirit of the only unbiased Being in all of eternity. Not only does He see every single person with complete accuracy, He Himself knit their very being together. The colors of our skin and the variation of our cultures were His idea, and with His help, our unconscious bias can become conscious – our spills can be decamouflaged, leading to repentance and change.

When David penned Psalm 139, he had no way of knowing how much we would need it in 2020. When he spoke the truth that God knows our every thought, he knew nothing about our modern studies of psychology and the human brain. 

But what David did know is that he wasn’t an expert on himself. He knew that he needed God to “search” him (v. 1). He needed the Spirit to “perceive” the thoughts he didn’t even know he was thinking (v. 2) and then reveal them to him.

As a follower of Jesus, this miraculous process is available to me as well. I may not understand my own brain, but I can put myself in a posture of daily dependence on the One who does:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Psalms 139:23‭-‬24

*“Disney Princess Theology & COVID19 Activism with Theon Hill,” The Holy Post Podcast, Episode 413, July 15, 2020

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Streams

Mondays are hard. Yes, even for those of us in ministry. You may think that the day after Sunday must be a relief for church staff, but when your work is people and almost everything you do builds up to one set of events on one day of the week, you can’t just take a “day off” the next day. It’s impossible to stop your brain from processing everything that happened, rehashing everything that was said, deciding who you might need to follow up with, and – especially in this season – evaluating what you need to adjust or change for next week.

By the end of May, after weeks of upheaval and “What do we do now?” and “Well, that didn’t work so let’s try this” and “How could we be doing this better?”, Tim and I finally realized the only way to unwind was to force ourselves to get outside. Conveniently, the trails near our quarantine-home in NC reopened around the same time and we were able to plan a Monday-morning adventure!

At one point during our run along the Forney Creek trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we stopped to take in the view of several small waterfalls tumbling through the dense green forest. The picture was probably beautiful, but I don’t remember it because rather than admire the scenery, we spent the whole time airing the grievances we had toward each other that had developed in the last 24 hours.

Back and forth we went, both of us trying to communicate our hurt and also defend our actions. “Well, you didn’t…” and “You shouldn’t expect…” and “I didn’t know…” and on and on and on. It didn’t feel like we got anywhere and as we resumed our run, I got even more mad at us: “Why did we just spend that whole time arguing and miss out on the view? What is wrong with us?! God, why can’t we get it together?”

I was only half-heartedly asking God that question, but don’t worry, He answered it. I felt Him very clearly say, “NO! You’ve got it all wrong! Yes, that view may have been beautiful, but the real beauty was found in the argument. The beauty is in the honesty. The beauty is in the communication, even when it’s hard. You are each a rushing river of wants and needs and you have to find a way to merge those streams together, even when it would be easier to veer off in another direction.”

A few minutes later we stopped again, this time agreeing to actually look at the view. We walked out onto a bridge and when we turned around, we saw this:

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Proverbs 24:26 says, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips”. Kissing is a strange thing – especially in our current state of social distancing. Why do we put our mouths on other people’s cheeks or even stranger – their mouths? Is it biological instinct or just cultural practice passed down through generations?

However it started, by King Solomon’s time, a kiss on the lips was a gesture of respect. When Isaac gave his formal blessing to Esau in Genesis 27, he expected his son to ‘Come here…and kiss me’. 1 Samuel 10:1 describes Samuel anointing King Saul with a flask of oil and a kiss. Along with respect, the kiss communicated favor and closeness of relationship, as in Genesis 33:4 when “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him”.

If an honest answer is like a “kiss on the lips,” then honesty communicates respect. When I am honest about my wants and needs as I speak with my husband, I am showing him that I respect him – that I regard him as worthy of hearing the truth. Respect means giving him the courtesy of plain communication rather than expecting him to pry it out of me or read into my nonverbal cues.

My honest answer also communicates my favor toward, or preference for, my husband. It’s super tempting to avoid the confrontation by complaining about him to others or to allow my grievances to simmer on medium-low because I’m afraid if I voice them I might hurt his feelings. In our vows we pledged to be honest, which seemed obvious and easy when we were 23 and 24 years old. But after almost 20 years of the same conversations, sometimes the thought of talking about it again seems pointless. 

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But talking about it again says, “I love you and I’m committed to this relationship.” Talking about it again says, “I respect you and trust that you will responsibly handle my honest feelings and ideas.” Talking about it again says, “We’re two separate people, but we’re in this together.”

Relationships are complicated. All of them. Being an honest communicator while also receiving honest communication will always be hard. Honesty may look like a mess of water swirling and whirling, splashing and bubbling, gurgling and churgling, but that’s exactly what makes the view worth stopping for!

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Both

If rainy days are blah, rainy days in *quarantine* are double blah. It’s not like you were planning on going anywhere, but you were at least hoping to get the kids outside so you don’t all spontaneously combust by 4pm!

Thankfully, one of our rainy days here in North Carolina was anything but blah because it ended with this:

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Rainbows have always fascinated me because every time you see one, you can’t help but feel lucky that you happened to be in the right place at the right time! Somehow the sun has to peek through the clouds and shine while water droplets are still falling from the sky. In order for a rainbow to form, sun and rain – which seem like two very opposite things – have to be happening at the same time.

A month ago, wrecked by anxiety and fear in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote this post about the sovereignty of God. Like many of us, my bubble of false security had been popped, leaving me feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed with worry. In the midst of panic, I was gently reminded by God, through His words in James 4:14 that my life – and the lives of my loved ones – are but a mist, and none of us are guaranteed a second past the gift of this moment. Our “safety” is, and has always been, in the hands of our all-powerful God.

Hitting the “Publish” button on that post felt like a sigh of relief – until I realized what I had learned was merely step one. Over the next few days, my brain reeled with the question: “What now? If I understand that God is Sovereign and that He’s gonna do what He’s gonna do, is my role to just sit down, shut up, and wait?”

If you ever want to shake up your comfortable faith (other than experiencing a pandemic) I suggest reading through the Old Testament! This year I’ve been doing one of those read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans* and one of the things I’ve been shaken by is the boldness of the prayers spoken by the people of Israel. Rarely do we see leaders like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, or David say something like, “Okay, Lord, do as You see fit!” Instead, we see them crying out and interceding on behalf of themselves or their people.

In Exodus 32, as Moses came down from meeting with God on the mountain and found the people worshiping a golden calf, God said, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (verse 10). But Moses “implored the LORD his God” by appealing to His character (verse 11) and His reputation (verse 12) and as a result, “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (verse 14). 

Over and over again, I see the servants of God, who supposedly submitted to His sovereignty, doing a seemingly opposite thing as they cried out and pleaded their case before Him. Did these bold arguments and requests mean they didn’t really trust Him or can these two things exist at the same time? Can I, in the same breath, declare my trust in God’s perfect ways and yet boldly ask for what my heart desires? 

It turns out it’s all about the angle.

One of the reasons a rainbow is such a rare occurrence is that you really do have to be in the right place at the right time. In order for the light to bounce off the water droplets and create that spread of color, the sun must be low in the sky and you, as the observer, must be in between the sun and the rain. If those angles aren’t correct, you won’t experience the beauty!

David (and the other writers’) words in the Psalms are some of the most prominent examples of this “both” kind of prayer. Song after song reveals a crying out to God and pleading for safety and yet in the same prayer a declaration of trust in His righteous ways. For example, Psalm 13 starts out with a desperate plea and request:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?…
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:1, 3)

A short two verses later, the Psalm concludes with a declaration:

“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;” (v. 5)

The important thing to note in these “both” kind of prayers, though, is the angle or the reasons the writers give for making these requests in the first place. 

“according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” (Psalm 25:7) Because You say You’re good and I take You at Your word on that.

“…that I may walk before God in the light of life.” (Psalm 56:13) Because I want to keep serving You and living this life You’ve given me!

“…that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion, I may rejoice in your salvation. ” (Psalm 9:14) Because then I can praise You and those around me will know how amazing You are!

“…that I may tell of all your works” and “…that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.” (Psalm 73:28 & 67:2) Because I want to keep spreading the message of who You are so that others will know You!

“Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.” (Psalm 106:8) Because then You can show the world Your power!

To speak from this angle, we have to stay in that very same place of humility we find ourselves in when we more fully accept the sovereignty of God. “Both” prayers happen when we trust Him enough to let Him show us the big-picture truth of what really matters from His perspective, but also when we trust Him enough to be honest about our heart’s desire.

Here’s how it works for me: Our oldest daughter has asthma, which puts her on the list of those “more vulnerable” to the severe effects of COVID-19. After repenting of my entitlement in seeing my child as a possession whose safety and well-being I am entirely in control of, I can then, in humility, see her as a gift from a Sovereign God who is, and has always been in control of her life. From that angle, I can pray bold prayers that she will live a long life of serving God on this earth. I can, without hesitation, beg Him to allow her to live out the purpose He has for her in spreading the gospel and helping others to know Him.

I can also, in the same breath, be honest about my heart as a mom. I can take Him at His word and appeal to His goodness to her and to our family. I can appeal to His reputation as a mighty God who has the power to save.

On my phone lock screen over the past month, I’ve had these two verses to remind me to pray these “both” prayers:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

When I’m looking for peace in these fearful days, I don’t have to be in the right place at the right time, but I do have to be looking from the right angle. God is both sovereign and good and I can appeal to both of those attributes at any moment!

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I can’t take much credit for these thoughts as they came about through several conversations with my friend Emma and my mentor Tracey. I’m so grateful for them and everyone else I’ve talked with during these weeks. Thank you for listening and for hashing this hard stuff out with me, even when my fears seem completely irrational!

*bibleproject.com

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Mist

A Smoky Mountain morning was not something this family expected to see again until August of 2021. Though Tim’s parents’ cabin in western North Carolina is one of our favorite places on the planet, the 12-hour drive only makes it practical for us to visit every other year. So when the two-week school closure was announced, we immediately packed up and took advantage of the opportunity!

If you’ve never been here, perhaps you’ve seen pictures or know that what happens in the mornings here is how the “Smoky” Mountains got their name. It doesn’t happen every day, but very often the sun rises to reveal low clouds filling the gaps between the mountain peaks. Soft, cushiony blankets of white roll slowly through the valleys, the mist gradually disappearing into the blue sky.

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If I had read James 4:13-15 even two months ago, I would have brushed over it with ease: 

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

I would have responded with a momentary wisp of repentance for my control issues, spoke a quick cliche reminder that “God is in control and I am only human,” and moved on.

But then March happened. And it seemed like every day something else was getting canceled due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. First it was school, then large gatherings, then smaller gatherings, then all gatherings. Social distancing meant all of our near-future plans were crossed off the calendar and as we got more information, all of our not-so-near-future plans vaporized as well. James’ words, “you do not know what tomorrow will bring” became our actual reality.

But it wasn’t just the first part of verse 14 that became real-real, the second part did, too: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Umm… Is there a skip button for that verse? Because I don’t like it. Especially not right now. With the statistics rolling in and case numbers multiplying exponentially, there’s no way to avoid being face-to-face with the reality that I or someone I love could die from COVID-19 or its long-term effects.

In recent times, technology and prosperity have lulled the vast majority of us – me included – into a false sense of security where we believe our life and plans to be a guarantee. In the great majority of our world’s past and in the great majority of our world today, this is not the case – ask anyone who lived through a world war or who currently lives in a war-, famine-, or disease-torn area. But COVID-19 has successfully popped the bubble of control we thought we had over our health and safety and we are shocked at the thought that tomorrow may not be a guarantee.*

The result of this shock is fear, which is only symptomatic of a deeper heart issue. A month ago it was easy for me to recite the words of James 4:15, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” believing that I really did believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, believing that I really did believe that all things are subject to His will, and believing that I really did believe that whatever He wills is the absolute best. But did I really believe it? I thought I did, but now that my bubble’s been popped, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

These words of James weren’t his first mention of the frailty of life (see James 1:10-11) and this was not his first effort to convince the church to, therefore, take a stance of humility before God. James knew that a person’s actions and lifestyle were the proof of their beliefs, so:

If they believed God to be good, they would take a stance of humility by remaining joyful in trials, persevering because they knew God to be using any and every trial to produce the good fruit of maturity in them. (1:2-4)

If they believed God to be wise, they would take a stance of humility by asking for and listening to His wisdom rather than trusting the wisdom of the world or their own thoughts (1:5-8, 3:13-18)

If they believed God to be the only righteous Judge, they would take a stance of humility by staying out of the judgment seat (2:1-13, 3:1-12, 4:1-12)

If they believed God to be merciful, they would take a stance of humility by showing mercy themselves. (1:27, 2:14-16, 4:5-10)

If they believed God to be sovereign, they would take a stance of humility by steering clear of presumption in making their plans. (4:13-16)

Every life, though incredibly and eternally valuable to the God who created it, is still but a mist on this earth. In contrast to His solid, enduring Presence, we are a passing vapor. We exist here on the terms of His will and will cease to exist here on the terms of His will – and it is incredibly presumptive for me to believe that my plans for tomorrow, my life, or the lives of my loved ones are any sort of guarantee.

In an interview on the Crossway Podcast, Dr. Bob Cutillo suggested that the solution to living in fear (and therefore unbelief) is to view our health (and plans) as a gift rather than a possession. When we change our perspective from “guaranteed” to “gifted,” we can confidently say “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” knowing that even in this darkness, the Father of heavenly lights is showering down “good and perfect gift(s)” (James 1:17). Whatever He allows is ultimately for His glory and whatever is for His glory is, by default, the best for us.

This is not a “Well, if we get the virus, it probably won’t be that bad” facade of security. It’s not an “I’m not high risk, so I’ll be fine” facade of security. It’s not an “As long as we stay home and protect ourselves we’ll avoid getting sick” facade of security. It’s a “God is God and I am not” ROCK of security. It is an every moment stance of humility that says, “I am not guaranteed anything” and a bowed-down acknowledgment that though I didn’t get the gift I wanted, I’m getting something better.

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When Paul said in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he wasn’t speaking figuratively. Writing from prison, Paul was face-to-face with his own mortality, but he was so confident in God’s goodness and sovereignty that He saw even death as a gift. Paul knew His life was a mist, but He also knew the vanishing of the mist was not the end. Choosing this joy allowed Paul to continue sharing the good news of Jesus in the thick of darkness.

I’m not Paul or James and don’t feel like I’m even close to being able to say the words of Philippians 1:21 or James 4:15 with confidence, but here’s what I’ve been doing to fight my fear:

  1. Acknowledge the fear, doubt, and grief. (I have no reason to sugar-coat my true feelings with spiritually-correct words when the God I’m talking to knows my every thought!)
  2. Ask God to give you a vision of the unspeakable JOY that is found in His plans and His will for you and your loved ones’ futures. Ask God to fill you so full of this joy that, like Paul, you can’t help but overflow it to those around you.
  3. Open your hands, release your grip, and as you do it, thank God for the gift of this moment. (I say “this moment,” because I have to do this about a thousand times a day 🙌)
  4. Worship, worship, worship. Here are some lines from my current go-to, “Sovereign Over Us” by Aaron Keyes:

There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You’re sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You’re teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You’re with us in the fire and the flood
You’re faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us

 

* “A Christian Doctor’s Guide to Thinking about Coronavirus (Bob Cutillo, MD)” Crossway Podcast, 3/19/2020  https://www.crossway.org/articles/podcast-a-christian-doctors-guide-to-thinking-about-coronavirus-bob-cutillo-md/

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Skis

No one goes cross-country skiing because they think it will be relaxing and easy. Although the Olympic athletes you’ve seen appear to zoom around corners and skate right up hills, this sport requires a substantial amount of effort just to stay standing!

On our recent trip to Vermont, my mom took me on my annual attempt at keeping up with her on the Nordic trails. I layered up for the 20° temperatures, put on the special boots, grabbed my poles and clicked into the skis. But as we set out on the trail I remembered how much work this was going to be!

First of all, skiing uphill is more like “hiking on skis”. Your first thought upon hearing that phrase might be, “Who would ever do such a thing?” and to that I would respond, “No one!”. In order to prevent gravity (and your slippery skis) from sweeping you right back down the hill, you must dig the skis into the snow at a sharp angle and pray that it holds.

When you (finally) get to the top, you might be tempted to think, “Yay! A downhill! I’ll get a break!” But those are famous last words as you go careening out of control, engaging every muscle but realizing there is no good way to slow yourself down and praying (again) that you don’t hit an unforeseen bump and end up a twisted pile of limbs and equipment at the bottom.

Even on the flats – having the coordination to put one foot in front of the other in a fluid motion is no walk in the park!

The thought that consumes the mind of the novice cross-country skier is: “Why in the world do I have these things attached to my feet? I could have been at the top of this incline ten minutes ago if I had just taken them off and walked! Walking would have also prevented the spectacular wipeout I took coming down that hill, and overall, I’m just not sure if it’s worth all this work just to keep moving!”

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The book of James is a letter written to believers who were facing “trials of many kinds” (1:2). From context and history, we know these trials were mostly coming in the form of persecution for their faith in Jesus. And though it appears they were holding fast to their confession of faith, they were struggling to hold to the whole-life of faith that would bring them to the maturity God intended for them to attain (1:4).  

Faith can be a huge benefit during difficult times. Knowing there’s a God who is sovereign over all, who is actively present and working, and who cares for us can give us peace and be the thing that keeps us going. I’m not sure how anyone faces trials without Him!

But faith can also be a huge burden during difficult times. When the going gets tough, our instinctive lean is toward self-protection and the last thing we want to think about is taking care of others – which is exactly what Jesus keeps asking us to do. As if this giant uphill in my life wasn’t hard enough, now you want me to do it while wearing these?

James’ readers knew this feeling all too well, and everything he wrote was to encourage them to keep the skis on. He knew they were thinking, “This would all be so much easier…”: 

  • If I could just focus on me and mine and make lots of money so I could feel secure. (1:11)
  • If I could stop being expected to take responsibility for my sin. (1:13, 5:16)
  • If I was free to say whatever I wanted, about whoever I wanted, to whoever I wanted to say it to – especially when I’ve been hurt or offended. (1:19, 26, 2:9, 4:11, 5:9)
  • If I could just hang out with the people I want to hang out with and not have to use any of my limited emotional and physical energy to make room for others. (2:8)
  • If I could soak in all the promises of God’s blessings, but not be expected to give out any of that blessing to anyone else. (2:16, 5:5)
  • If I could be excused from considering others and just do what feels right for me. (3:17, 4:1)
  • If I could stay in control and not feel like I was at the mercy of Someone else’s plans. (4:15)

Most of us have never and will never experience the kind of persecution James’ readers faced, but we do have trials – which means the temptation to ‘take off the skis’ and put the actions of faith aside (at least temporarily) is all too real. Jesus said His yoke was “light” (Matthew 11:30) but it sure feels heavy when we look around at our non-believing friends who don’t have to wear it.

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If cross-country skiing is so much work, then why do people do it? Maybe it’s the peacefulness of the snow-covered forest apart from the busy chaos of a traditional downhill ski area. But really – it’s the exercise! Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout (which my sore muscles the day after could attest to) that burns loads of calories and boosts endurance. 

James is clear that, for the believer, difficult times are opportunities to “let perseverance finish its work” or, in the ESV, to “have its full effect” (1:4). Yes, you can take off the skis and walk instead – it’ll be easier getting up the ups and you’ll maintain your sense of control on the downs – but you’ll only get the partial effect. Self-protection and “mature and complete” faith can’t coexist! 

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Google?

The first time it happened, we were sure it was a coincidence. “I was talking to so-and-so the other day about such-and-such and now I can’t stop seeing ads for that exact such-and-such all over my phone! How weird is that?”

It wasn’t long before we figured out this was no coincidence at all, but Google’s brilliant marketing strategy. As technology progresses, we expect our ‘smart’ phones to be smarter, or in other words, more ‘helpful’ to us – and everyone knows a good helper begins by listening! 

Whether we’re talking, messaging, searching, singing, driving, or shopping, our phones and home speakers are getting to know us. They’re working hard to determine (or prescribe) our future interests based on our current activity. The ads in my Instagram feed shift topics daily depending on what I Googled the day before. Yes, I looked up a cupcake recipe, but that doesn’t mean I plan on becoming a professional food blogger or visiting every possible cupcake bakery in my area! 

It’s gotten to the point that every time something we recently mentioned shows up in another conversation, in a TV show, or even on a billboard we look around in fear and say, “Google…?” 🤨

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Desire is a fickle thing. From the moment sin entered the human body, our senses have ached for all the pleasure, comfort, satisfaction, promotion, and protection the things of this world seem to offer. My desires seem to know me so well, showing up in more-than-coincidence-level form. Taking advantage of that heightened awareness, my very own sinful nature convinces me that ‘coincidence’ is, in fact, destiny.

Though we try to blame our temptation on anything (and anyone) else, James reminds us in his letter that: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” (1:14) If our desires come from within, we can’t blame our giving in to them on anyone else (not even Google!). Our attention, and therefore action, naturally defaults to our ever-shifting whims.

Just a few verses later, James gives us the antidote to our wayward desires – a Father who is not of this world who is only and always giving “good” and “perfect” gifts. Unlike my drifting desires, with Him “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). My Father knows me better than I know myself, better than my desires seem to know me, and yes, even better than Google knows me! He knew the whole me before I was born and will know the whole me at every moment for the rest of my life.

Because I have Him, I have everything I will ever need. When I’m being lured by my desires, I’m meant to remember that my Father has already given me every good gift. Positive or negative, joyful or painful, fulfilling or depleting, every circumstance has been prescribed by His desire to grow in me a greater desire for Him. That’s my destiny and there’s no such thing as a coincidence!

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1,000

My favorite subject in elementary and middle school was math. Numbers came naturally to me. I was in the special math ‘club’ and rarely got second place in the 50-problem  “Mad Minute” competitions. When 1 + 2 = 3 became a + b = c, I kept up, but after having an auctioneer for a geometry teacher (no joke!) and the introduction of equations that included words, math lost me 😮

You don’t have to be a math genius to know that 1 is a little and 1000 is a lot. 1 is 1 and 1000 is 1000 of those ones. 1 multiplies 1,000 times to get 1,000. 1,000 is 999 more 1’s than 1. 1 is a little and 1,000 is a lot more than that little.

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How lovely is your dwelling place,
  Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
  for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
  for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
  and the swallow a nest for herself,
  where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
  Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.  

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;      (Psalm 84:1-4, 10)

I am one person. I often wish I were more than one person because of the 1,000 things that are pulling for my attention. It feels like there are 1,000 things I could be doing at any given moment, but I can only do one of them. There’s work and writing and laundry and errands and scheduling and friends and keeping up with social media and texting people back and email and paperwork and bills and sleep and running and time with my kids – and oh yeah, I have a husband, too. Even at my multi-tasking best, I might be able to pull off two or three – but then none of them well. 

All of these 1,000 things are loud because if I don’t give my attention to them, there will be fairly immediate consequences. 

But one other thing has a much quieter voice. This voice doesn’t yell, demand, whine, or threaten. But this one thing may be more important – or in fact “better” – than all of those thousand yelling, demanding, whining, threatening things.

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;

In ancient Israel, the people met with God by physically entering the temple courts. They had no choice but to take the time to go there – sacrificing any work or gain they could have otherwise accrued during those hours. Once they entered, worship was the only thing they could ‘do’. There were no smartphones connecting them to what they left behind or buzzing to remind them of what they were missing out on.

In our post-Jesus world, traveling to God’s presence is no longer necessary. As a believer, the Spirit of God resides wherever I’m at and any 1 of the 1,000 minutes I’m awake each day can be a minute of worship. 

But spending time with God is exactly that – spending. Even though I don’t have to physically go somewhere, it’s still expensive. It costs productivity. It costs time with my kids and husband. It costs perfection in my work. Sometimes it costs sleep and entertainment and a clean house.

While [Jesus] was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.  (Mark 14:3-5)

Every minute I spend in God’s word, prayer, or worship feels like that perfume: wasted. “This time could have been used for something more profitable!” yell the voices of urgency and efficiency, “Why would you choose 1 when you could have chosen 1,000? Why would you waste what could have been 1,000 on 1?” 

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”  (Mark 14:6) 

Every minute you give to worship will cost you. On top of that, the minutes you invest will likely not return immediate tangible profit. And on top of that, there will always be 1,000 more-immediately-profitable “elsewheres”.

When you deposit money in an investment account, it can feel wasted – there are so many other things you could be spending it on! But interview someone who was able to retire comfortably and early, and you’ll hear them say that every dollar they invested was worth it. 

It may be costly, but it’s never wasted. In a world obsessed with tangible gain and instant gratification, there are 1,000 “better” things I could be doing at any moment. 1,000 goals I could be accomplishing. 1,000 tasks I could be completing. 1,000 good feelings I could be experiencing. But the numbers add up: Every one minute I invest in my relationship with Jesus now has a 1,000% return!

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;

 

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Wonder

We may have missed “foliage” season in Vermont, but we didn’t miss “frost” season. Last week’s Thanksgiving trip, during one of the blandest times of the year (as far as scenery goes), did not leave us disappointed! Though the trees had long lost their colorful leaves, those above a certain elevation had gained a shimmering layer of white that left us wanting to stop and take pictures around every corner.

On Friday morning, my restless husband convinced our family that, despite the below-freezing temperatures, it was a good idea to go for a hike. We layered up and headed out, parking at the base of a mountain, ready to trek up into the frosty heights!

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As we walked, the drab, dry, brown woods gave way to a winter wonderland. Yes, we had just seen Frozen 2 the night before, so yes, we all burst out in, “Into the unknown! Ah-ah-ah-ah!” as we gazed at the icy splendor around us. Every branch, down to the smallest twig, was coated in white. And good thing I had my camera because I never could have described what I saw when I got up close. Wow!

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Christmas is supposed to be a time of wonder. Mary’s troubling announcement, Joseph’s angelic dream, and the shepherds’ otherworldly experience were meant to bring us sensations of awe and amazement. We’re meant to be like the people of Bethlehem who “wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:18). 

This word “wondered” is used dozens of other times in the gospels as people eyewitnessed the God-in-human-flesh Messiah calming storms (Matthew 8:27), casting out demons (Matthew 9:33), and healing all sorts of human conditions (Matthew 15:31). It’s used to describe the reaction of the crowds to Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 22:22), the reaction of Pilate to His silence (Matthew 27:14), and the reaction of the disciples to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12).

To wonder means to be awestruck by something. It means to be confused and therefore question or speculate about that thing and what it might mean. It only makes sense that the Bible characters we read about would have “wondered” – a once-in-all-of-human-history event was taking place in front of their very eyes! They were genuinely confused as they didn’t know what was happening and had a very limited understanding of what it might mean. 

But 2,000 years later, we’re merely celebrating that event, which most of us have done every year for our entire lives. We know what the birth of Jesus means. We understand the significance of God coming to earth as a human to show us Himself and give His life to bring us permanently into His presence. We get it!

My childlike wonder at the celebration of Jesus’ birth may have existed at one time, but like the Vermont trees, it’s long lost its color and gone dull. For many of us, the wonder faded when we grew up and stopped believing in ‘magic’. Or maybe it was when we started taking on the stress of shopping and gifts and decorating. Or when we sang the same songs and heard the same stories year after year after year.

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My wonder at the mountain frost was nothing compared to my reaction when I took a closer look. How in the world did those icicles attach themselves like that? How were they staying like that? How did this happen? Sure, I could have pulled out my phone and Googled it, but for the moment I was content to remain in wonder.

This Christmas, a friend invited me to take a closer look at Jesus by joining her in reading through an Advent devotional called “Unwrapping the Names of Jesus”.* We’re only a couple of days in, but I’m looking forward to experiencing wonder – not because I want the magical Christmas feelings, but because I want my worship to be genuine. From a distance, the manger holds a baby, but up close I see the Bread of Life, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the King of Kings, the Man of Sorrows, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God!

*“Unwrapping the Names of Jesus: An Advent Devotional” by Asheritah Ciuciu

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Search

Despite my irrational fear of planes crashing, I love to fly in them. I love the anticipation of arriving at the airport, the feeling of hundreds-of-tons lifting like magic off the ground, and the temporary sense of bonding I feel with people who are all going to the same place as me 😊.

But what I don’t love are the lines. Especially the security line. Born with an innate fear of doing anything wrong, the security line is my nightmare. The possibility that I may unknowingly be breaking the law and that I may then be publicly exposed for breaking the law is unnerving!

Every time I set my backpack on the conveyor belt, I’m sure that it’s going to get pulled off for something. As a mom of three, my backpack just collects stuff. And in the last-minute-packing rush, dumping everything out to check for any TSA problem items isn’t at the forefront of my mind… until my bag disappears through the curtain into the luggage scanner.

Both Tim and I have had bags pulled off and hand searched, revealing giant pairs of scissors and pocket knives that we had no idea were in there 🤦. The funny part is that it’s always been on the flight home, which makes us a little concerned about the “security” of the Philadelphia Airport!

Before the first act of disobedience, all humankind knew was complete known-ness with God. Adam and Eve had nothing to hide and, had they heard them, the words of Hebrews 4:13 would not have induced even an ounce of anxiety:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

“Of course!” they would have said. The fact that they were unable to hide anything from their Creator was no big deal because they didn’t have anything to hide. They knew of no potential hazards to their relationship with Him and there were no surprises in their bags!

But in our post-fall world, hearing that “everything is uncovered and laid bare” before God can prompt panic. We’re packed with a mix of sin we are fully aware of, sin we are semi-conscious (but also potentially in denial) of, and sin we haven’t yet been humbled enough to see (but we know may exist). Fearing the humiliation and loss that might come with everything being uncovered, we zip up our bags and hope maybe He won’t notice us.

Psalm 44:21 says: 

If we had forgotten the name of our God
    or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
    since he knows the secrets of the heart?

Our hearts may be packed with secrets, but the Spirit of God is packed in there, too. There’s no thing that can be “hidden” from His awareness, so even if we have “spread out our hands to a foreign god” in ignorance, He knows because He was right there when it happened.

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On our trip to Colorado last year, we took on a whole new endeavor: getting our entire family through airport security. We were as prepared as we could have been (minus the “water baby” doll I had to frantically squeeze the life out of over a trash can 😜). Regardless, my bag was so chock full of stuff, I felt like I should have just handed it to an agent and said, “You might as well search this, I’m sure there’s something in there!”

I didn’t, but of course my bag did get pulled off and a thorough search involving multiple agents and special testing tapes revealed our snacks to be the culprit! Yes, my bag of “Snyder’s Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Pieces” had traces of a substance used in bomb making on it. I mean, the amount of cheese in these could surely cause some *explosive* activity for some people, but who knew the Target cashier’s hand lotion could make such a scene?

As strange as a voluntary bag search sounds, a voluntary “heart search” is always in order. As theologian A.W. Tozer taught, God is “never surprised, never amazed. He never wonders about anything nor (except when drawing men out for their own good) does He seek information or ask questions.”* God doesn’t have to search our hearts, but He is very willing to perform a scan for our “own good”. Especially if we ask!

Most of us know, like Adam and Eve probably did, that the “fig leaves” they used to cover themselves were not an effective way to “hide” from God. We know He knows it all, so when we’re hiding it’s not really that we’re trying to keep something from Him, but more that we’re trying to keep it from ourselves. Admitting there’s something in there means facing it, which makes us want to grab our stuff and exit the terminal immediately!

But what if? “Traces” of glycerin may not seem like a big deal, but what if there’s healing in my relationships that I don’t even know needs to happen? What if the particular weakness or temptation in me is something that, when shared, could help another believer who is struggling? What if it could lead someone to Jesus?

What if you handed your heart to God today and asked for a full search?

*A.W. Tozer, “The Knowledge of the Holy”

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