Shoe Shopping in the Wilderness

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 I led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes and the sandals on your feet did not wear out… (Deuteronomy 29:5, CSB)

I had to throw away my favorite sandals this week, and I’m now going to dress in sackcloth and ashes for a few days. They were the perfect solution to my innate desire to be barefoot at all times in those situations where it is not socially acceptable to be so (and when my $2.99 black Old Navy flip-flops weren’t quite dressy enough). These sandals had been my companion for almost 10 years, which is pretty impressive for a pair of sandals that got regular wear.

As I got out of my car the other day, my right sandal felt weird. I started to walk and realized the back was flapping around, as if my foot had come out. Upon closer examination, however, I realized that it was time to say goodbye to my faithful footwear. It was the end of an era. But maybe, just maybe, it was a signal that my time in the Wilderness may be coming to an end…

When God rescued Israel from slavery and Egypt, He led them to safety in a place we Christians have come to associate with desolation, waiting, deep need, and even punishment. But a closer examination of their circumstances teaches us no such thing about those times God sends us into the Wilderness.

Initially, the Wilderness was a place of safety – far from Pharaoh’s grasp. As they stepped foot into the Sinai Desert in Arabia, they were officially free for the first time in 400 years. For the first time, they could breathe, rest, and worship. In the Wilderness, in those first days of freedom, God gave them water and food. He gave them His presence and permission to do nothing for a while after centuries of working every single day. The Wilderness was the first Sabbath for God’s people.

After the people had taken a few naps, the Wilderness became a classroom. In the Wilderness, God gave the people His Law, provided His leaders, and moved in with them into the Tabernacle. The Wilderness next provided a place to regroup as a people, to learn how to live in freedom, and it taught them about the God who had been caring for them all along.

The Wilderness was a place of blessing.

It wasn’t until Israel rebelled against God – a lot – that the Wilderness became a place of punishment. Because of their rebellion, the Wilderness brought plagues, fire from Heaven, sinkholes, and snakes. (See Numbers 11, 14, 16, and 21 for a sampling of Israel’s rebellion and God’s responses. It’s not pretty…)

But even then, even in those painful circumstances, God was with His people, feeding them, making sure they had water, and, keeping their sandals together.

I’ve been in the Wilderness for a long time, and until just recently when I was studying Exodus and reading Numbers, I kept begging God to let me out, let me go back to my life, to rescue me. But now I know, the Wilderness I’m in is a place of safety, of rest, of regrouping, of learning, and of worship. With this change in perspective, I have learned to enjoy this Wilderness time, to make the most of it, and to trust even more in the God who provides.

My favorite sandals, now broken and unwearable give me hope that it may soon be time to pack up my tent for good and head on over to the Promised Land God chose for me before He even said, “Let there be light”. (See Ephesians 1 for a powerful reminder of who you are in God’s sight!)

If you’re in the Wilderness, let me encourage you to take a close look at your surroundings. Is God providing for you? Is God giving you rest? Is God teaching you new things? Are you finding yourself worshipping Him more, trusting Him more, and learning more? I hope so, but if you’ve been viewing your time in the Wilderness as punishment, you may want to talk that over with God. It may be true, but the purpose of the Wilderness was never punishment.

Wilderness times are meant to heal and prepare us, not to hurt us.

How have you usually viewed your own Wilderness times? What do you need in order to see those times as a gift instead of a punishment? Where can I get a new pair of cute, “barely there” sandals? 😉 

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Wants vs. Needs

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The Lord is my Shepherd. I have what I need. (Psalm 23:1, CSB)

How many times have you read or heard Psalm 23? Between church, funerals, and bookmarks and wall hangings in Hobby Lobby, probably more than you can count, right?

Growing up, I learned Psalm 23 in the KJV, and it went like this: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want”. To my 3rd Grade mind this verse meant that God takes care of me, so I’m not supposed to want anything I don’t have. The idea I picked up in Sunday School and Christian school was that if I was supposed to have something, God would give it to me, and that if I wanted something He wasn’t giving me, I was just supposed to stop wanting it.

That worked ok when I was 9 and wanted a bike like my friend had, but as a grown up, my wants became weightier and more important, and that all fell apart a bit. I wanted a husband and God said “no”, but what was I supposed to do with the deepest wants in me that were placed there by God Himself? What did it mean to be single and have an innate desire for physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy with another person? And was I sinning by wanting these things God was choosing not to give me?

You probably have your own story of wanting something God isn’t giving you. Maybe for you it’s a biological child. Maybe it’s physical health and wholeness. Maybe it’s a spouse who actually loves you and treats you with dignity and respect. Whatever your “want” is, it’s deep and it hurts to think about not having it.

Allow me to shed some light on this by showing you where a big part of the problem is:

The phrase translated in many versions of the English Bible as “I shall not want”, is actually not a good translation, and it contributes to the pain this verse has caused some of us. In Hebrew, what the verse really says is, “I shall not lack”. That changes the meaning of the verse pretty significantly, doesn’t it?

Translating the word “chacer” as “lack” instead of “want” changes the focus of the verse. When we read “I shall not want”, the pressure is on us to become someone who is perfectly ok denying his or her basic needs and deepest desires. (Obviously, this isn’t what God intended for us, since He created us with those needs and desires.)

When “chacer” is translated, “I shall not lack”, or as the CSB puts it, “I have what I need”, the focus, correctly, shifts off of us, and onto our Shepherd. God knows what we need, and He has already promised to provide those things.

Jesus reminds us of this truth when He says,

So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. (Matthew 6:31-33, CSB)

Jesus says we don’t have to worry that our needs won’t be met, or spend a lot of time asking God to do what He’s already said He’s going to do. Instead, He says, spend your time and energy asking God to show you how you can live out His kingdom on earth for the people around you. How can He use you to meet someone else’s need the way He uses people to meet yours? Life on earth is a big circle of need-meeting orchestrated by our Shepherd who knows what we need, when we need it.

Our needs will be met. That is a given. But what about our wants, even the deepest ones we have? The Bible gives no guarantee that our wants will be met. Yes, God gives good gifts to His children (James 1:17), but just like good parents don’t give their kids everything they want, God knows which of our wants will be good for us, and which will inhibit healthy growth.

I’ve had to learn that the only healthy, right thing to do is to take my wants to my Shepherd and tell Him about them. Then, I have to choose to trust Him enough to accept His decision. Again, just like we teach children to trust their good parents, even when they don’t like the answer, God teaches us to trust Him by showing us His love and faithfulness over and over again.

It’s a process, and it takes time, but as God shows us more and more of His faithfulness, it becomes easier and easier to trust Him. As I’ve learned that He is unfailingly trustworthy, it’s become easier to live with open hands. Living with open hands means that He is free to take what He knows isn’t what’s best for me. And I am free to accept whatever He does chooses to give me, knowing it will be good.

The Lord is my Shepherd. I have what I need. How great is that?

How has a time of seeing God’s faithfulness and care for you in the past made it easier to give Him your wants today? 

The Word Made Flesh?

I’m reading a novel by a Japanese author about a young man who works for a company that is writing a new dictionary. The characters in the book spend a lot of time thinking and talking about words and what they mean. It sounds boring, I know, but I’m two (very long) chapters in, and I’m hooked.

In fact, I went to sleep last night trying to define the word “word”. Think about it for a minute. If someone asked you what the word “word” meant, what would you say to fully convey what its meaning? It’s harder than it seems, isn’t it? Here’s what I came up with before my brain told me it was tired and wanted to go to sleep (which was a refreshing exchange of roles for us):

  • In written form, a word is a collection of letters, which, in a particular order, convey a specific meaning.
  • In verbal/aural form, it’s a collection of sounds, which, in a particular order, convey a specific meaning.
  • In Sign Language, it’s a particular sequence of hand movements…

But then, there’s the various meanings of “word”, especially in the context of idioms. “Would you say a word about what you’re working on?” “I give you my word.”

Which got me thinking about John 1: “In the beginning was the Word…And the Word became flesh…” What does John mean, “The Word was with God and the Word was God”?

Since Jesus was not created, he can’t mean “word” the way we think of it in a literal sense the way we can with say, the Sun. Genesis 1:14-18 tells that God spoke the Sun into being: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night…They will be lights in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth’. And it was so.” God said the word, and the Sun came into existence. But God didn’t speak Jesus into existence – Jesus has always existed because He is God.

In saying that Jesus is the Word, John says that Jesus, in the flesh, was the fulfillment of the promise God made all the way back in Genesis 3 when He said to Satan, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham when He said, “All nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring” (Genesis 22:18).

Paul rephrases what John is saying this way: “For every one of God’s promises is ‘yes’ in [Jesus]…” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

What’s interesting about what Paul says is the context in which he says it. The Corinthian church was upset with him because he had told them he wanted to come to visit them in person, but circumstances beyond his control prevented him from coming. In this passage, he is defending himself by telling them that he didn’t make his promise to come see them lightly. He really wanted to come, but something prevented him from making the trip.

He then takes the opportunity to teach them some good doctrine: God always keeps His word. Nothing ever prevents God from doing what He says He will do. And the ultimate proof of God’s faithfulness is Jesus Himself. Jesus is the Word of God, the promise of God fulfilled in flesh and blood. Jesus is God at His word. Jesus is the proof that whatever God has said will happen will, in fact, happen.

Jesus is all the proof we need that God is unfailingly faithful. We don’t need to see a butterfly on Tuesday to prove God exists. We don’t need to read the perfect verse on Friday morning to know that God sees what’s going on in our lives and that He’s working everything out for our good. We don’t need to hear that one song on the way to church on Sunday to know that He has a plan for our future.

The only proof we need of God’s love, care, provision, and faithfulness is the proof He gave in Christ. The manger, the cross, the empty tomb, the tongues of flame, His Word in the Bible – these are the proof that we can take God at His word, regardless of which definition we use.

What does it mean to you that Jesus is the Word of God?

 

Purity Culture

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Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. ~ 1 Timothy 4:12

In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I’ve seen a lot of conversations about “Purity Culture”, especially amongst women who grew up in the 80s and 90s. For those unfamiliar with this idea, allow me to provide a brief explanation:

Coming out of the 60s and 70s – the age of free love and “Make Love, not War” – churches attempted to force the pendulum to the far opposite side of the love and sex spectrum. The result is what we refer to now as “Purity Culture”, filled with True Love Waits retreats for teenagers, Purity Contracts, and Father-Daughter date nights wherein daughters pledged to their fathers that they would save sex for their wedding night, and in some extreme cases, agreed that their fathers “owned” their virginity until that night. Rings were given, pledges were signed, and fathers shared such hilarious documents such as “The Contract to Date My Daughter“. 

You’ll note, I only talked about daughters in the previous paragraph. Well, that’s because all of this purity talk was almost exclusively directed at girls. Yes, boys got the talk too, but in all my time in fundamental churches, never once was a boy dragged to the front of the church to confess that he had had sex before marriage and gotten a girl pregnant. On the other hand, girls who got pregnant were often required to make a public apology to the church, and for some reason, weren’t seen very much in public after that.

Girls were talked to about wearing one-piece bathing suits with a t-shirt over top at Youth Group pool nights. Girls were talked to about the length of their skirts or how low cut their dresses were. Girls were talked to about modesty, about not being a temptation to boys (and horrifyingly, grown men). The message we girls received was that the most valuable, important thing about us was our virginity. This message was delivered through skits about torn up paper hearts and wilted flowers, and through object lessons using white t-shirts, dirt, mustard, and chocolate sauce. Imagine for a moment what that message did to the 1 in 4 girls who had already experienced sexual abuse, and worse, the 1 in 6 who had already lost that precious virginity through no fault of our own! 

Basically, Purity Culture was 100% about sex, and 98% of it, about girls’ sexual behavior. “Boys will be boys” but “Girls must pursue purity”.

Up until just a few hours ago, I still associated purity with my sexuality and only my sexuality. As a single woman, I assumed the directives in Scripture to be pure and to pursue purity were obeyed in my celibacy, in overcoming the addiction to pornography that plagued my 20s and 30s, and in being very, very careful about how I interacted with men, even my friends.

But this view has caused a lot of hurt and confusion as I’ve watched my friends who had had sex before marriage get married, buy houses, drive nice cars, and give birth to or adopt beautiful children, while I sit in my rented apartment alone, trying to avoid Mothers’ Day posts on social media, and hoping my car would start the next time I needed to go somewhere. Something wasn’t adding up – I had stayed pure, they hadn’t, and they were getting everything I thought (and had been told) would be the reward for my purity.

I was reading A.W. Tozer’s The Dangers of a Shallow Faith this morning (which I HIGHLY recommend to every Christian, but especially church leaders), and in the very last chapter, in just a few paragraphs, Tozer talks very briefly about purity, but here’s what grabbed my attention: He didn’t even mention sex. Rather, Tozer simply shared the definition of “purity”, stating that purity simply means that something isn’t mixed with anything else. Think pure, clean water. Think a diamond that scores high on all 5 Cs. Think Ivory soap (it’s 99 44/100% pure!).

Obviously, I see how this connects to my sexuality, but it’s so much more than just one small aspect of who I am! This simple definition completely changes how I read verses like the one quoted above, like Philippians 1:9-11, and like 1 Peter 3:1-2, all verses that were used in my Youth Group growing up to tell us girls not to have sex before marriage, to wear one-piece bathing suits, and to avoid wearing skirts and shorts that might tempt the boys.

Peter, Paul, James, and Jesus weren’t just talking about sex. They were talking about things like racism, misogyny, pride, bitterness, gluttony, lying, cheating, stealing, gossip, and every other sin that we in the church seem to have labeled as “minor” sins, and have allowed to continue unchecked in some of our leaders. They were talking about anything that doesn’t look like Jesus. It’s these things that make us impure, not just having sex before we’re married.

I have to tell you, the reason I’m writing this post is that this one truth gave me a new sense of freedom. What this told me is that as a woman, my pursuit of purity encompasses so much more than just my sexual behaviors. My pursuit of purity encompasses every part of my self – my mind, my soul, my spirit, and my body. It also means there is no “boys will be boys” exemption. All of us who wear Christ’s name are called to whole-life purity.

This definition of purity also means that those verses about being washed in the blood of the Lamb, about being made whiter than snow, and about how God sees the righteousness of Christ when He looks at me covers every part of my life. This may seem obvious, but for those of us raised in the Purity Culture, who were told that sexual sin was the one sin that could never be fully “repaired” (like that torn and crumpled paper heart), this is freedom.

Someone today needs to know that their sexual past doesn’t preclude them from ever being fully pure. That someone is probably somewhere between high school and their 50s or 60s. That someone has probably carried a lot of guilt for a long time. That someone has probably been confused and hurt that he or she isn’t married in spite of following all of the rules.

Purity is not something only the good people can experience. Purity is not something we either have or don’t depending on the decision we made that night in 11th Grade. Purity is a lifestyle that is made possible only through the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit living within us. Purity is a state of being wherein God sees no blemish or stain when He looks at us. Purity is something we continue to pursue in our businesses, our Netflix choices, and how we treat our neighbors. Purity is demonstrated in our genuine love for others, in our work, and in our personal spiritual practices that focus our hearts and minds on the God who gave Himself to make us pure.

Purity is not a burden. Purity is freedom. And you don’t even have to sign a contract with your dad to get it.

The Omnipotence of God

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Over the weekend, it came to light that a prominent denominational leader and the president of a large seminary (where our future pastors are being trained) counseled women who were in abusive marriages to stay in them, because by staying and praying for their abuser, God might save those men. Now, I get where he got this teaching – 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 7 both give instruction that if a woman is married to a man who isn’t a believer, and the man is willing for them to stay married, the woman shouldn’t seek a divorce, and, it’s possible, that the man might come to believe because of the woman’s holy conduct. And, of course, I have no problem with that teaching.

Where this pastor goes off the rails is when he uses these verses to justify the evil, dangerous behavior of an abusive spouse (NOTE: I’m making an assumption that he’s using these verses as justification – none of the statements he has made have referenced these or any other Scripture, but I have heard other “pastors” use these passages for similar justifications). In neither of these passages do we see Peter or Paul advocating for a woman (and likely her children) to live in danger so that God might save a husband. 

[This dangerous teaching, by the way, is the direct result of the Church making marriage into an idol. Marriage is not the be all end all of the Christian life, and being married is not more holy, more mature, or more godly than being unmarried. It is also the direct result of churches that teach that women are somehow less than men and that women are to submit to men, ignoring the call to mutual submission between all believers, and distorting the teaching found in Ephesians 5.]

This pastor gives the horrific example of a woman who came to him for help in such a situation and he encouraged her to stay in the home and to pray openly for her husband. He even warned her that the husband was likely to become more abusive when he found out she was praying for him. He ends the story by saying that the following Sunday, the woman showed up at church with visible bruises on her face, but guess what? Her husband came to church too! So it was all good. (What?!?)

Anyone who has experience with an abusive partner knows that abusers are master manipulators and will often apologize, behave for a while, and then, more often than not, pick up right where they left off. Showing up at church is not repentance, and this pastor (and the elders who didn’t challenge him and protect her) sinned grievously against this woman.

We could talk more about that, but that’s not my point today, so let’s go there instead. My point is that it seems this pastor serves an impotent god. Any god who requires someone to be abused in order to “save” the abuser demonstrates a terrifying lack of power (not to mention the evil that requires).

This is, perhaps, an extreme example, but how many of us serve that same impotent god? How many of us worship an impotent god who:

  • Can only answer our prayers if we phrase them just so, and repeat them the exact number of times the god arbitrarily and, unknowingly to us, requires?
  • Can only keep us safe on a road trip if we ask for “traveling mercies” before we leave the driveway?
  • Can only keep our kids safe if we pray for them everyday? (I’m not saying don’t pray for your kids everyday, but ask yourself, are you worried that something bad will happen to them if you don’t?)
  • Can only give us what we need if we promise to [fill in the blank]?
  • Can only bless His Word and use it to teach, correct, and comfort if it is preached by a man?
  • Can only accept our worship if we sing certain songs and read the Bible in a certain translation?

I’m guilty of some of these superstitions too (which is exactly what they are). We all are from time to time. But the good news is that we serve an omnipotent God who doesn’t need us to do anything at all for Him to act in our best interests.

Like any loving parent who cherishes His children, He wants us to ask Him for what we need, but how often do we fall into the trap of believing we didn’t get something we felt we needed because we didn’t think to ask for it, or we didn’t ask for it “correctly”?

God does not need anyone to stay in an abusive relationship so that He can save the abuser. God can reach that person just as well in a jail cell as He can laying in his or her own bed after causing damage to a spouse or child.

God does not need to hear us say exact words before He’ll listen to our prayers and answer them in a way that is good for us. He can give us what He knows we need without us even asking because He knows our needs better than we do. He wants us to ask, but He doesn’t need us to ask before He’ll act.

God does not need to limit His voice to only men who have been to seminary and have passed their ordination boards by giving all of the right answers. He can speak just as clearly and powerfully through women, through men who dropped out of high school, and yes, through the mouths of children who have His Word hidden in their tender hearts.

Bad things don’t happen because we didn’t pray right. Bad things happen because we live in a world that is full of sin and evil and sometimes, bad things happen simply because we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and we fall victim to the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We serve an omnipotent God. That means He can do anything He wants to do on His own, without our input. He needs nothing from us. But He wants us to serve Him, He wants us to love worshipping Him, and He wants us to talk to Him and tell Him what’s on our hearts and minds.

And I firmly believe that He wants us to live free from all forms of abuse and oppression, even if it means leaving an abusive spouse or a church that allows its pastor to preach a false gospel unchecked.

 

** If you are in an unsafe situation, get out and get help! Do whatever you need to to keep yourself and your children safe.

If you’ve gone to someone in your church for help and haven’t gotten it, leave that church and find another one. But more importantly, again, get out and get help.

If you’re local to me, I can and will help if you need it. Email me today: amy at aymiejoi dot com. If you need help, just ask. **

Obedience in a near-empty parking lot

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I sat in my car in the near-empty parking lot. “God, are You sure this is where I’m supposed to be?” The answer came quickly. “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

I had heard Him say that earlier in the week, and later in the week, and just this morning as I continued to check with Him about where He wanted me to worship. It’s a conversation He and I have had every week since I lost my job and my church. I ask Him where I should go to worship, and He always answers. Sometimes it’s a new church. Sometimes it’s a church I’ve visited before. And sometimes, it’s my couch, just to sit quietly with Him and rest. But there has not been a single Sunday since I lost my job in November that I haven’t had a great morning worshipping my God.

Well, there was one. One church I visited I’d written off before I’d even gotten home that day. It’s a small church, I didn’t get a lot out of the message, and about nine other reasons it wasn’t the church for me.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I asked God this week where He wanted me to worship and the name of that church came to mind. Most weeks, God and I have this conversation on Saturday. This week, for some reason, the conversation started all the way back on Monday. For a week, I kept asking God if I had heard Him right. “That church? Are you sure?” “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

By Saturday night, I was actually pretty excited to go to church. God had something He wanted me to see, and I couldn’t wait to see it! So when I pulled in about two minutes before the service was supposed to start and mine was one of four cars in the lot, I was a little confused, and, a little disappointed.


What you need to understand is this: the thing I hate the most about being single – more than not having a date to weddings and New Year’s parties, more than not having someone to help around the house and open stuck jars, more than not having anyone to talk to at the end of the day – is visiting churches. Visiting churches isn’t really fun for most people, but for a single introvert? It’s about as close to hell as I can come. Just about every visit is either full of awkward conversations that end when the other person runs out of things to ask me after I answer “no” to “Are you married?” and “Do you have kids?”, or complete isolation as I sit alone without being acknowledged by another person in any way, shape, or form. It’s awful and I hate it.

Pulling into a near-empty parking lot is crisis-worthy for me. The smaller the church, the higher the probability it will be an uncomfortable visit. This is math. It cannot be disputed.


So there I sat in my car, waiting, wondering, debating. Did they change the service time? Are they not actually meeting this week? God, is this really where I’m supposed to be?

“Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

I knew the only right decision was getting out of the car, walking into the church, and seeing what happened next. So after about ten minutes of debating, reaching for the door handle, stopping, debating some more, reaching for the door handle again, and watching a cat in a neighboring yard stalk an unsuspecting bird, I took a deep breath, grabbed my bag, and got out of the car. (Don’t worry, the cat, it turns out, is a terrible hunter. The bird got away and then sat in a tree and mocked it.)


My fear of awkwardness found a surprising comrade as soon as I walked in the door: The pastor. He greeted me with a warm smile and a bulletin, but I could tell he was uncomfortable. The worship team was already on stage, leading all of five people (including the pastor) in song.

For some reason, the minutes we spent singing and praying were some of the most precious moments with God I’ve had in a church in weeks. Our few voices sang out together about the joy of being in God’s presence, about His love and care for us, and about His holiness, filling the room in a way that made absolutely no sense. I found myself singing out louder than I had the previous week when I’d been in a church with about 1,000 other people.

God, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, isn’t it? “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”


My suspicions that this was not a normal Sunday were confirmed when the pastor took the stage to preach. He joked about the low numbers, about the rest of the regulars who were probably somewhere enjoying tacos in the sunshine (sorry, Northern friends!), and about how he hoped for rain next week so he could make fun of them for skipping out.

The message he preached to the nine of us (another family had arrived after me and doubled our number!) was full of answers to questions I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking. Questions about spiritual slavery. Questions about freedom. Questions about how God teaches us to listen and obey. Questions I had asked just minutes earlier as I sat in my car in a near-empty parking lot. Questions I’ll need to wrestle with as I work on the book I’m writing about Exodus.

God wanted me to see these questions, and their answers.

The service ended and the woman I’d been sitting next to immediately started asking me questions. We got into a conversation about my recent past, and about her husband who refuses to darken the door of the church. This stranger and I committed to pray for each other this week.

God wanted me to see her.

As we chatted, the pastor came over and sat next to us. He apologized to me for the small crowd, and said, “You walked in and I thought, ‘what a bad week for a visitor!’.”

God wanted me to see that it’s not the size of the church, it’s the heart of the worshipper.

As I sit and eat my pancakes with mixed berries, sausage, and a good cup of coffee (yay Sunday food!!), I feel a holy stillness deep in my soul. I barely want to breathe for fear it will go away. It’s there, welling up in my chest, bringing a smile to my face, and tears to my eyes. A holy stillness. The peace that can only be found in obedience.

God wanted me to see the blessing of obedience. Again.


I don’t want to think about what today would have been like if I had left that near-empty parking lot and gone to get tacos instead of going to church, but I also know, that’s not something I would have done. No, I’ve walked with God long enough to know that when I sense Him telling me to do something – especially something I’m scared or confused about – the only thing I want to do is obey. Obedience leads to freedom. Obedience leads to adventure. Obedience leads to holy stillness. Obedience lets me see things God wants me to see.

And today obedience has taught me to trust God more quickly the next time I’m sitting in a near-empty parking lot.

What did God want me to see? I think it was simply this: In the midst of my season of waiting, trusting, wondering, and more waiting, God wanted me to see Him.

 

 

Of Manna and wet rocks

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In the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, there were fine flakes on the desert surface, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they asked one another, “What is it?” because they didn’t know what it was. Moses told them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” ~ Exodus 16:13b-15a

The Lord answered Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go. I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb; when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. ~ Exodus 17:5-6

Sometimes the answer to our prayers is a bit convoluted, but God is always, always faithful! The Israelites learned this lesson first-hand just weeks after God rescued them from the cruel hand of Pharaoh.

Exhausted. Shell-shocked. Confused. But safe. This was the nation of Israel after God split the Red Sea for them, but threw it over Pharaoh’s army, burying them in a watery grave. One minute God’s chosen people were running for their lives. The next, they were safe, standing on dry land, staring into the water that had just wiped out their pursuers.

Moses leads them away from the sea, and as the reality of their situation starts to dawn on them, they quickly find themselves wondering where their next meal would come from. Suddenly, Egypt looked like Paradise. It had all this great food, it had actual houses, and wells, and shops, and… It’s a bit of a strange story on first reading, but the parallels between the Israelites’ hearts and our own quickly become painfully obvious. Yes, we too forget God’s faithfulness as we move from crisis to crisis. It’s the legacy of humanity.

The Israelites turn their wrath and fear on the closest thing they see: Moses. They blame him for the fact that they don’t have food and water. So, Moses asks God for a little bit of help. And God provides, because He’s God and that’s how He chooses to operate. Do you have a need? God will meet it.

But here’s where things get a little weird. God didn’t provide food in a normal way. Not at all. Plants didn’t suddenly spring up out of the desert ground. A stream didn’t suddenly come into view as the people wandered around complaining and crying out in fear.

No, rather than giving them what they knew, God answers them by giving them something they had never seen before: Manna. And the people were confused. The word Manna means something like, “What is it?” What was it, indeed? Psalm 78:25 tells us it was “the bread of angels”. Human beings ate food that had its origins in the heavens. Unexpected. Unprecedented. Hasn’t happened since.

And the water they so desperately needed? It came out of a rock. Have you ever gotten water to come out of a rock? It doesn’t happen. But God…

When we ask God for what we need, there are two things of which we can be 100% sure:

  1. He hears us.
  2. He will always provide what we need.

But there’s something really important we need to see in this story: The Israelites asked for meat, for garlic, for leeks, for the food they ate in Egypt. They asked for what they wanted. God gave them what they needed. This is critical information for us to understand if we’re going to learn to recognize God’s provision and His answers to our prayers.

God will answer our prayers. But more often than not, the answer will look nothing like what we imagined. Why? Because God is all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and He is beyond all we can imagine. God is not us. We are not God. That should go without saying, but sometimes, we just need the reminder.

God will always answer our cries for help. Always. But if we’re too busy looking at His hands, we will miss or misunderstand His answer. If we look, instead, at His face, we’ll see His love, compassion, care, and yes, His creativity. And only then will we see the answer He provides the way He does: It will be the absolute best for us in our situation. It will be the perfect answer to our imperfect prayers.

The bread of angels. A water-spewing rock. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is a bit convoluted, but God is always, always faithful!

What are you asking God to do for you today? How can you adjust your gaze from His hands to His face as you wait for His answer? 

Learning to tie our shoes

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When children are small and it’s time to leave the house, parents ask them to put on their shoes. For most parents I know, this request is made approximately 30 minutes and 63 times before any actual leaving occurs, and usually ends with someone in tears. Once shoes and feet have finally met, parents either plop their offspring in their lap, or kneel down in front of them to tie their tiny shoes.

When those children enter preschool, their constant shoe-related refrain is, “Mama, will you help me?” and thousands of times a year, Mama helps.

Now imagine for a moment, that this same child is now 16 years old and still saying, “Mama, will you help me tie my shoes?” Unless there are significant extenuating circumstances, one would agree, there’s a problem here. If an able-bodied 16 year old is still asking for help tying shoes, something has gone badly amiss.

At some point in a child’s life, Mom or Dad sits the child down and teaches him or her how to tie shoes. Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes it takes a few weeks, but eventually, children learn how to tie their own shoes, and while it may still take 30 minutes and 63 asks to get them to do it before leaving the house, there comes a day when a parent no longer needs to take a knee before leaving the house.

I have no idea what made me think of this, but as I mulled this all over, I realized something: At some point in my spiritual growing up, I need to learn how to tie my own shoes.

I see this in prayer journals where, for most of my life, my prayers have been “Father, help me ____”. Help me be better with my money. Help me be more humble. Help me control my tongue. And while God is happy to answer those prayers, I have to wonder if there comes a time when He, like our earthly parents decides it’s time to stop helping, and time to start teaching.

In asking God to help me be more patient, what I’m really saying is “give me more patience”. In asking God to help me be diligent in my work, what I’m really saying is, “give me the will to do well”. In asking God to help, what I’m really doing is putting the responsibility for my behavior on God, and that’s not where it’s meant to be.

Throughout Scripture we see instructions to “practice” godliness, holiness, patience, and love, among other things. In other words, these are not attributes we can just expect God to miraculously give us without us having to put in any effort. Rather, they are calls to a higher way of living that we are expected to actively pursue as we grow in our faith. Yes, we do all things through the strength we find in Christ (Philippians 4:13), but again, it’s not His responsibility to make us kinder – it’s our responsibility to practice kindness because He has been kind to us and we want to live like He did.

So back to my prayers for help… As I thought about all of this, I realized that it’s time for me to make a subtle, but important shift in my prayers. Rather than asking God to help me obey, I will ask Him to teach me to obey. “Help me to humble myself” is a good prayer, especially for a newer Christian. But “teach me to humble myself” is an indication we’re ready to grow up and to start taking responsibility for our actions and attitudes.

Asking God to teach us rather than help us means we’re ready to learn how to obey Him at a higher level – not in our own power, but in a way that indicates we’re becoming spiritual adults. Asking God to teach us rather than help us means we’re ready to make a greater commitment to studying His Word, to praying deeper, more fervent prayers, and we’re ready for Him to allow our faith to be stretched in new, scary, exciting ways.

And just like a parent teaching a child to tie her shoes, God takes us in His lap so that we share His perspective, and He gently guides us through the process of learning. He patiently explains things a few times, and He lets us try it on our own, all while He sits with us, encouraging us, and cheering us on.

God longs to see us grow into mature spiritual adults (see Ephesians 4) and like any good parent, He loves to hear us ask Him to teach us new things. And when we do, He is faithful, kind, and gentle. Brothers and sisters, is it time for you to learn how to tie your shoes?

Is there something you’ve been asking God to help you with for a while? How might your character or situation change if you asked Him to teach you instead?

The B-I-B-L-E: Why is that the book for me?

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I have sought You with my whole heart; don’t let me wander from Your commands!

Psalm 119:10

A quick survey of the “Bible studies” offered in many churches, especially for women, reveals a scary trend: Most studies are topical, rather than studies of the Bible itself. This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but consider this: How can someone who doesn’t know what the Bible says (or how to correctly interpret what it says) know that what they are learning in a topical study is true?

There is definitely a place for topical studies, but it’s not the correct place to begin. All believers need to know how to study the Bible for themselves. Every believer needs to develop some basic skills before she or he is ready for topical studies, or even to read the books that line the shelves of Christian bookstores:

  • How to choose a faithful translation of the Bible
  • How to identify the genre of a specific passage or book so that they read it the way it was intended to be read
  • How to understand the context of a verse within its paragraph, chapter, book, and the entirety of Scripture, as well as the cultural and historical context of the author and the original audience
  • How to use the tools available to us including a Bible dictionary, commentaries, and how to look up the meanings of words in the languages in which they were originally written
  • How to compare Scripture to Scripture to better understand difficult or confusing passages, and passages that are commonly misinterpreted

While there are many reasons to learn how to study the Bible, these are three of the most important:

The Bible is the only way we know God. How would we know to pray if we didn’t have the Bible teaching us through the prayers of our forerunners? How would we know to worship if not for songs of praise, lament, adoration, and surrender spread throughout the sacred pages? How would we know of God’s unfailing love for us if not for the stories of those who experienced it long ago? How would we know sin and salvation, grace and the Gospel, the Law and Love personified if not for the gift of God’s Word? The Bible is our first taste of the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Provider, and Healer to whom we pray and who our souls long to know.

The Bible is the standard by which everything is to be judged. In His prayer for us the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV). The Bible stands in direct opposition to a world that teaches that there is no absolute truth. There is, and it is God’s Word. While Scripture doesn’t directly address every possible situation in which we may find ourselves, there are principles within its pages that we can and should apply. When we know how to study the Bible and apply what we learn, our jobs, relationships, and finances will benefit in ways no topical Bible study could ever bring about.

We are responsible for what we do, not what we hear. While our pastors and Bible teachers are responsible to handle the Word and teach it correctly (see 2 Timothy 2:15), we are responsible for our actions in response to what we hear (see James 1:22-25). This means that we’re responsible for making sure what we’ve heard is biblically accurate and true, which we can only do if we know how to check. Acts 17:11 tells us that the believers in Berea listened to what Paul and Silas taught, and then, they searched the Scriptures for themselves to make sure what they had been told was actually true. Luke praises them as “being more noble than those in Thessalonica” because of their diligence.

Biblical literacy and regular study (not just reading – intentional study) are critical, especially for anyone God has called and gifted to teach, preach, and lead in His Church. We have been set apart by God in truth to teach and care for His people. God’s Word is truth.

How has studying the Bible changed your life?

Pastors, how have you equipped and encouraged the people in your church to study the Bible?

Don’t know where to start? I highly recommend Howard Hendricks’ “Living By the Book“.

Rejoice always (But grieve first)

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I don’t know what to say right now. I’m raw and bleeding, afraid and angry, hopeful and encouraged, trusting and believing. It’s a really messy combination.

This morning, I got to sit with a friend who is feeling exactly the same things because of circumstances God has allowed to touch her life. It was a beautiful conversation in which we gave each other permission to not be ok, to be honest about what’s going on and how we feel about it.

Sometimes, that’s what a hurting friend needs: permission to feel crappy, to say out loud that something is unfair, or painful, or just flat out stinks. There’s a strong temptation in the Church to put on “I’m rejoicing always” masks. We are told to rejoice in every situation (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and there are good reasons for this. But there are moments in life when what we really need to do is sit and grieve and talk honestly about the pain.

There’s a danger in immediately moving into “rejoicing” territory when we’re broken. Open honesty about how we’re feeling is an important component of healthy grieving, but I think it does something else for us. Being open and honest about our grief gets it out and makes room in our hearts and minds for rejoicing. Think about it this way: How can our rejoicing be genuine if our grief isn’t? How can we learn to trust in the midst of the storm if we’re busy acting like it’s a warm, sunny day?

We’re not called to live in a state of denial. In fact, to live in a state of denial about our circumstances is to lie, and as we all know, lying is against the Ten Commandments! So how do we obey the command to “rejoice always” when the rug has just been pulled out from under us and our nose is bleeding from hitting the floor so hard?

I don’t generally make it a habit to teach on just one verse, but there is a verse in Psalm 55 that has stopped me in my tracks every time I’ve run across it, because it’s such a complete picture of healthy grieving in just a few words:

Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and He hears my voice. ~ Psalm 55:17 (ESV)

This one verse is a perfect summation and example of healthy grieving:

  • It’s honest: “God, I have a complaint”
  • It’s raw: “God, my soul is moaning in pain”
  • It’s not time-limited: “Evening and morning and at noon, God, I’m going to keep bringing this to Your attention”
  • It’s hopeful: “God, I know You hear me”

If we do look at the immediate context of this one verse, we see that it is bookended with words of great faith: “The Lord will save me” (v. 16), and “He redeems my soul” (v. 18). In David’s suffering, he knew the truth, but – and here’s the key for us – he stopped and allowed himself to feel all of the negative feelings that came with his situation. David was trying to process deep betrayal as he ran for his life from King Saul. And he didn’t hold back in talking about how he was feeling about his circumstances.

Many of us have been taught and conditioned that our “bad” feelings (sadness, anger, despair, etc.) should be ignored or pushed aside, not trusted, or that they’re somehow sinful. But that’s not biblical. Our emotions are part of who God created us to be (and remember, we were made in His image). Our feelings in and of themselves are not sinful. And they are not to be ignored or discounted. They are part of who we are and they serve an important purpose as we navigate life. Yes, they need to be brought into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), but again, in and of themselves, they’re not “bad”.

Even Jesus expressed His “bad” feelings at times. We see Him angry in the Temple (Matthew 21:12), grieving at His friend’s grave (John 11:33-35), and in complete despair in the garden (Luke 22:41-44). In none of these stories do we see Jesus trying to cover up negative emotions, or even downplay or gloss over them. No, in these situations, Jesus’ emotions were on full display, and He made no excuses for them. And, in none of these stories do we see Jesus immediately jump to “rejoicing always”. No, He sat with His pain, and He brought it to God with the same kind of raw honesty we see throughout the Psalms.

David and Jesus didn’t disguise their “bad” feelings. And they didn’t brush past them so they could get to the rejoicing part. Did they rejoice eventually? Of course, and we need to as well. But first, we need to face our reality and deal honestly with how we feel about it.

So now that we’ve established how important it is to grieve honestly and to allow space for our friends to do the same, how do we move into the obedience of rejoicing?

As my friend and I listened to each other’s stories, we gave each other permission to grieve honestly, but we did something else equally important: We spoke a lot of biblical truth to each other. We didn’t hit each other over the head with verses, or discount how we were feeling in any way. We just gently reminded each other of the Truth so that in our processing and grieving, we can keep our eyes and hearts on our Healer, Redeemer, and Provider.

Before issuing the command to rejoice always, Paul says that we don’t grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our hope is, always has been, and always will be Jesus, and our job as brothers and sisters in Christ is to gently and with genuine love point each other right at Him. With our eyes focused on Him, then, and only then, can we really rejoice. And once we’re able to do that, we can work to stop the bleeding, put ice on the bruises, and start on the path toward healing.

What has helped you move from grief to rejoicing so that you could heal more fully?