Worthy Friends of God

There are some songs that just have a way of getting stuck in one’s head. A lot of what seems to crop up in my mind comes from the dregs of my childhood. If it’s not eighties music that my dad played in the car, it’s musicals with which I was obsessed or songs that I have belted in various church settings over the years. 

This week, it is the song, “I Am a Friend of God”. It is such a happy go lucky song and, as soon as it finds its way into my brain, I’m subject to an earworm for at least a few days. In this instance, the first few lines have found their way into my mind and I have not been able to shake them:

“Who am I that you are mindful of me? That you hear me when I call? Is it true that you are thinking of me? How you love me–it’s amazing!”

I love the boisterous declaration at the end that celebrates how deeply loved the person finds themselves to be in the eyes of God, but I was really drawn to the questions that come before it. Why in the world would God pay attention to me? How in the world could I ever believe that I am worthy to be on the Lord’s mind? Who am I in light of all that God is?

These words pulled me to Psalm 8, specifically verses 3 and 4. They read:

“When I consider your heavens, 

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place, 

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?” (NIV)

Have you ever felt this way? When you actually pause to consider all that God has done and continues to do, His incredible character and the beauty of the Divine existence, do you ever stop and wonder what in the world God was doing when He decided to give us a second thought?

I know that I really resonate with the Psalmist here. Nothing can squelch my sometimes dangerous pride faster than any amount of considering God’s infinite beauty and goodness. All of a sudden my best things seem tiny and my greatest achievements seem miniscule. Sometimes, it can be good to be reminded that we are small in the grand scheme of things.

But how quickly this can cause us to fall into the trap of self-loathing! In an attempt to make sure we understand that we are a sinful people, I believe that we have sometimes erred too far on the side of viewing ourselves as little more than worms. While it is true that the human condition is one of brokenness that can be mended in Christ Jesus, the Psalmist goes on to declare that we are, in fact, something far better than slimy creatures. Verses 5-8 read:

“You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds,

and the animals of the wild, 

the birds in the sky,

and the fish in the sea,

all that swim the paths of the seas.” (NIV)

Here we get a glimpse into how God truly views us. This is who we are. He has made human beings a little lower than angels, He has given us the task of caring for His creation. He has called us not just good, but very good. 

Sometimes it can feel difficult to live into the reality of being “very good”. We can be so cruel to ourselves. We fall short. Again, while we should certainly be aware of our need for Jesus to come and heal us from the effects of darkness, it is also far too easy to move into a place in which we believe that we are worthless, despite what God has spoken over us.

This is certainly something with which I have struggled, but so many of those battles I have fought have been a result of lies the enemy has whispered in my ear. Where God says “worthy”, a million other lesser things scream “worthless”. 

But that is exactly what those whispers are: lies. Whether you see feelings of worthlessness pop up in your marriage, your friendships, your work, or even just your inner dialogue while standing in front of the mirror, those feelings (while valid in your experience) are nothing but smoke and mirrors. 

The truth: we are worthy because of God’s love for us. We are chosen. We are meant to thrive in His care. Who are we that He is mindful of us? We are His, plain and simple.

Yes, it is true that He is thinking of you. How He loves you–it’s amazing!

I simply want today’s devotion to be an encouragement to each of us. Pause and consider the vastness of God and allow yourself to feel small in His presence. Small, however, does not mean insignificant. When you begin to slide into those old patterns of belief, think of the Psalmist, who looked up to the heavens, wondered at God’s grace, and went on to proclaim the incredible role humans play in the midst of it all. He has lifted us up to be more than we could ever imagine, and that is the truth we can use to combat the lies. 

God loves you and has called you worthy. Even more, He has called you to a life of stewardship, of living into the gifts He has given you to help fulfill the mission He has placed on humankind and uniquely on each of our lives. I felt like someone today needed to hear this: God loves you, God has a plan for you, and you are very good.

In short, against all odds, God calls us friend. Amen.

Mid-Week Mid-Day Meditation

Stop what you are doing.

Lift your hand from the plow. 

Feel the sun on your neck–

when you stop to consider, 

you find it is more warm than hot,

more sustaining than shriveling.

Look up.

Whisper to the God who surrounds you, 

“We are fully present, together. 

You with me.

Me with you.

We are fully present, together.”

When your mind returns to 

whatever soil you are tilling,

reserve the back half 

of your attention

for the ever-present

life-giving

Sun.

Our Best, Transforming Selves

The past couple months have felt like such a whirlwind. They have been full of good things and rife with blessings, but I find that in the midst of so much happening (even so many good things), my soul becomes a little parched. My time spent with the Lord gets shorter and shorter and my prayers become more like darts hurled in the Spirit’s direction. Though I do sense God’s presence patiently enduring beside me, I hate to admit that acknowledging that presence becomes routine at best and an afterthought at worst. I get so caught up in life that I numb the line that connects me to Life itself.

Has this ever happened to you? We all get busy and it can seem like we drag God along for the ride rather than following where He might lead. Our disciplines slip and before we know it, we are presenting a self to the world that is operating on the fumes of humanity rather than the fuel that comes with drawing near to God. If you’re feeling this way, know that you are not alone. 

One thing that can usually help pull me out of a slump is to read the words of someone that can impart wisdom for my journey. This time around, it is Ruth Haley Barton, a former pastor who now spends her time pouring into ministry leaders to help them have the rich spiritual life that we preach to our people. Her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership is one that I encountered in seminary and has continued to pop up since. I figured it was time to take the hint God was giving me.

I could go on for days about even the first few pages, but allow me to share my favorite line so far:

“Truly, the best thing any of us have to bring to leadership is our own transforming selves.” (pg. 19)

This was convicting and encouraging all at once. I did internalize this truth as a leader, but even if you don’t find yourself in a position of leadership, it works on all levels. Perhaps we can say this:

“Truly, the best thing any of us have to bring to life is our own transforming selves.”

We often hear about what it takes to “live our best lives”. One foray through Instagram will yield at least ten thousand solutions to the age old question of how to thrive. There’s nothing wrong with trying a new moisturizer now and then, but I think Barton has found the true secret. Living our best life means arriving at the party with a consistent desire to grow and be transformed. We all stagnate sometimes, and that is normal, but moving in that direction of growth and transformation makes all the difference in the world.

We are transformed when we abide in the presence of God. No matter what abiding might look like for you, it is God who is working out transformation in our lives. He can move us from bitter to loving, broken to healed, complacent and bored to full of passion and zeal. As Christians, it is our goal to always be on the road of transformation into holiness and daily looking more like Jesus. 

So what is the best way to show up to life? How can we live so that we aren’t drained to husks? Stay in God’s presence.

But, as I shared before, sometimes our spiritual lives stall out a bit. When we show up to life, we are doing so in our own power. When we aren’t seeking transformation, we can’t bring our best selves, our transforming selves, to the table.

So what do we do?

Know that God isn’t mad at you.

I don’t know about you, but when I am adrift, it can be easy to believe that the Lord is just tapping His toes, waiting for me to return so He can give me a piece of His mind. This simply is not true. When you feel like you have lost your connection to God, He is still holding on to the other end of the thread. Give it a tug and He will be there, ready to continue growing you in love. Feeling shame over having lost the way is one of the chief reasons that many of us struggle to get back on course. In the name of Jesus, there is no shame–the Creator is always ready to welcome you back. 

Do what works for you.

For me, getting out of my slump almost always involves reading and quiet, still mornings. I feel empowered by words and I feel refreshed when I get to sit in the silence. It can be hard to force myself to do these things, but I never regret the effort. For you, it might take a kayaking trip or cooking a good meal or cranking up music until you can’t hear yourself as you cry out to God. There is no one right way to connect with the Lord, so step back into your roots and follow what feels best. God made you exactly as you are and that is who He wants to see. 

 Baby steps.

It’s not a race. A step back on the right track is a step in the right direction. Give yourself grace. If you were reading large swaths of Scripture, start by reading a chapter. If you were spending hours in prayer, start by working back into 15 minutes. Ease into it, be patient, and soon you’ll find your rhythm once again.

 Remember that only God transforms.

God is the one that brings about transformation. If we want to return to bringing our transforming selves into the lives we lead, we have to understand that we can’t manufacture that in our own strength. Believe me, I’ve tried. It just results in another mask to be worn. All we can do is position ourselves for that transformation and watch God work. To show up to life as someone who is transforming is to show up hand in hand with the Holy Spirit. We can’t do it ourselves, but we can really can enjoy the process. 

So in the end, no matter how far you feel you’ve drifted, God is still in the business of transformation and being someone who is consistently being transformed in His presence is still the best way to live. Turn back, find your stride, give and receive grace, and be transformed.

Prayer Before the Alarm Goes Off

Lord, 

When my eyes crack open reluctantly and I see just enough sunlight coming through the window to signify that the day is creeping in, help my vision open wider. When I reach for my phone, catch my hand and tug me gently out of repose and into Your lap. Transform thirty minutes of “I could have been sleeping” into “Thanks for the nudge, this time with You has been nice.” Let the words of holy writ fuel me in ways that feel like gulping cool water when my throat is screaming. Let silence infiltrate my frenetic spirit; calm me down. Remind me that sometimes, the alarms you set go off before my own, and that can be a grace handed to me, whispers of true rest into my sleepy brain, breakfast in bed. 

Thank you. Amen.

Our Good and Baffling God

Have you ever had a moment in which you think God gets a little carried away?

I cognitively believe in the goodness of God and that His movements are perfectly loving and just, but sometimes the pages of Scripture just baffle me. A woman looks back at her burning hometown and turns into a pillar of salt. A couple is not entirely truthful about how much money they got from selling a piece of property, so they both fall down dead. I will just be honest and say that sometimes it is hard to read these types of stories and understand what, exactly, God is trying to do. If you feel the same way, you are not alone.

One such story that has stuck out to me from childhood was that of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. I had an illustrated Bible as a kid and I can still picture the image of a menacing angel standing at the entrance to a jungle landscape with a flaming sword while Eve and Adam huddled together and walked away, weeping. Little eyes do not forget such things!

But recently, I was sitting on a sunny patio and wrestling through Genesis with some strong women whom I love, and this story struck me in a different way than it ever had before. Adam and Eve had just taken the plunge into disobedience and, through their actions, the curse of sin entered the world. Verses 21 through 24 follow:

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (NIV)

As a child, I always thought that God really didn’t want the people to be as cool as Him and so had to make sure that He eliminated the possibility. This is, in fact, true in a way, but it does not come from some warped sense of jealousy or territorialism. The simple truth is that, try as we might, we can never be like God. We must, first and foremost, accept this fact.

The sentence that really stuck out to me this time around was when God said, “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Why? Doesn’t God want us to live with Him forever? Isn’t that the whole point?

Now, I read God’s actions as incredibly merciful.

When Eve and her husband took those fateful bites, they were broken in a way that they were not broken before. Their relationship with God was strained for the first time in history and they now tasted the shame that they were never meant to stomach. In short, our early sister and brother were in sorry shape.

If we follow that thread, it stands to reason that, were Adam and Eve to take a bite of that second tree and go on to live forever, they would live forever in the state in which they currently found themselves. They would live forever in alienation and guilt and shame. The redemption story would end there.

God, in His mercy, had other plans. Jesus would come and make it so that the forever offered to us would be a reconciled one. God was working it out so that we would not live forever in the throes of brokenness, but in the cradle of healing. He would bring about a way for this curse to be reversed; the Lord was rewriting their doomed eternity.

So, for this to happen, He had to say “no”. He had to shut Eve and Adam out. He had to station that intimidating angel with the flashing sword to get the point across: “You can’t live forever like this. We can’t live forever apart.”

Though I might struggle with some of the things I read in Scripture, I wholeheartedly affirm that God is just and loving, plain and simple. When we look at some of the tough things that confuse us or that we find off putting through the lens of God’s gracious character, they begin to shift into clearer focus. God is good to the core and His actions are always in line with HIs personality. We can trust Him, even when we don’t get it. 

Now comes the time to apply this to our own lives. When has God said, “no”? When has God’s actions caused you to reel and spiral in confusion and dismay? When has God forced you to leave your own proverbial Eden? 

We all have these moments in life. We all have things we are hoping for and have not received. We all have disappointments and confusions for which we blame the Lord. This is normal, a part of the human experience. Your pain in these situations is valid and it is healthy and good to admit and process them. Jesus is with you in those journeys, too. 

But next time you feel hurt and misunderstood and disoriented by God’s movements, think about Eve and Adam as they were led from Eden. They were probably wounded and terrified in more ways than we can imagine. However, behind that flaming sword was a lesser fate that God would not let seize them. They did not see and they did not understand, but the Lord was playing the long game. Humans would not be allowed to live forever in brokenness. Instead, rescue was on the way. 

Hallelujah to our good and baffling God.

Prayer for Bed, Evening and Morning

God of Sleeping, God of Waking,

You were there as I laid down and you were there as I arose. You were the comforting, quiet presence that never left your vigil and I acknowledge your reign over this space where muscles relax and muscles wind back up. Ease me in, ease me out. Help me, by Your Spirit, to lay the spent day aside and to welcome the new day with a hospitable heart. When I once again rest my head, may I look ever so slightly more like You, Lord Jesus, who refreshes and renews through the gift of repose. 

Amen

Sunday Afternoon Poetry: “God of Good Things”

You are God of Good Things, 
of autumnal weather
and blueberries
and sculpture;
of libraries
and acceptance
and the specific itch of healing;
of decorated altars
and spouses in homes
and desserts;
of friendship 
and thrilling challenges
and gentle drifting, gentle rising.
You are God of Good Things
which is to say
our gratitude orients us
toward Life,
if we choose.
 
We must choose. 

Ascension Thursday

There are some aspects of the Christian faith that are a little bit odd when you stop to think about them. We believe that a sea was parted so that the oppressed could walk free. We believe that a donkey spoke. We believe that a blind man was healed with a little bit of spit. We believe that our Messiah defeated death.

I affirm all of these statements with the entirety of my heart, but I am not naïve enough to say that they don’t sound a bit fantastical. I love that my faith can transcend (though it does not exclude) all the reason the human mind can muster—that is what makes it faith, after all.

One of these tenets of Christianity is the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven, which we celebrate today, on the 40th day of the Easter Season (39 days after Easter Sunday). The story is outlined in Acts 1:6-11

“They gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you sand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” (NIV)

The story goes like this: Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus was raised again, and Jesus ascended into heaven. But the story does not end here! As we see at the end of this passage, Jesus will be coming back in the same way they saw Him go.

Pretty unbelievable; but again, faith enters the picture.

So, once we become Christians and state this in our list of beliefs, what do we do with it? What does it mean for us to have a savior who ascended? Why does the Church worldwide celebrate this momentous day?

I’ve been doing some reflecting on these questions, and I have a few thoughts:

1.   Jesus is alive, and so are we.

The first, and perhaps the most important, implication is that Jesus is alive right now. When He ascended, He had already shirked the gates of Hell and ushered in new life. He is the first fruit of the New Creation so, just as we will all one day live eternally, so He is living and breathing as we speak. We will follow in His footsteps and also have life eternal. This can be a difficult thing to fathom because Jesus feels so far away and ethereal, but He is flesh and blood, a fully redeemed and renewed body, who is alive and well and watching over us. This is good news, indeed!

2.   Jesus is interceding for us.

The book of Romans assures us that Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. (Romans 8:34)To intercede is to plead on one’s behalf. We intercede for our friends when we pray for them and Jesus intercedes for us when He affirms our worthiness into the ear of the Father. Jesus is our advocate and He is the only one worthy to assume that role. He is there as the symbol of our freedom, a marker that those who call upon the name of God will be saved. In short, Jesus is now the go-between. He is the bridge who invites us into relationship with Divinity and is untiring in His speaking up on our behalf.

3.   Jesus will come again.

 The fact that we have an ascended, risen Lord means that He is not only alive, not only interceding for us, but also poised and ready to return when the time is right. In the passage that we read, the angels who appeared affirmed that He will come back in the same way He went. When He does, the throne on which He now sits in Heaven will be forever established on Earth and all darkness, sin, and death will be gone. When we look at the broken world around us, this might be the hardest part of the story to believe. But I heard an insight this week (I think it was Tom Wright?–forgive my lack of reference!) that stated that, as Kingdom people, we are not sitting in a dark room waiting for someone to light a candle. Rather, we have seen the sun rise and we are confident that full daylight is on its way. Jesus will come again, the sun will reach the heights of perfect day.

4. We have the Holy Spirit.

The final exhortation for Easter people with a living, ascended God: go and tell! When Jesus went up, the Holy Spirit came down. Not only does this mean that we have a comforter and friend in the very presence of God that lives within us, it also means that we have the power to be witnesses to this story. While we wait for Him to return, fully embodied and fully glorious, we are to let as many people in on this beautiful narrative as possible. Our aid and power in this is the Holy Spirit, who is power and light and healing this side of Paradise and beyond. If we trust the Spirit and live in Her influence, we will find our greatest joy in bringing God glory. 

Happy Ascension Thursday, friends! Having a risen and ascended savior makes all of the difference. Live in that strange and glorious reality today and be at peace.