My dad passed away fairly suddenly on Valentine’s Day. I wrote these words a few days after, in a state of shock, haze, and grief. May this be a reminder of the fragility of life and of a hope that stands even when life is hard.
In the rapid falling of dominos in motion, A whirlwind came and dropped me in the ocean. Days drenched in hope quickly became days of despair, With no sight of familiar shores anywhere.
His mortal shell could take no more of the domino toll, For it was weary from all that cancer gave and stole. Once so strong he quickly grew so weak, And his spirit knew that the situation was bleak.
I’ll never forget those boney limbs and yellow skin, Screaming of the multitude of cancer’s assaults within. Nor will I forget eyes half-open yet seemingly unaware, And arms that kept moving until our embrace found them there.
Twenty-seven years were not enough, no number ever would be, But I didn’t expect to find myself so soon in this uncharted sea. Normal will never return because he is not here, Only days in and that truth is crystal clear.
Today the ocean feels so deep and vast, Though I may see beauty too once time has passed. For I know that the waters will someday turn tranquil, When I look back on memories for which I am thankful.
Planes, trains, and grins that made me smile too, And a special sense of humor that always shone through. The smell of hazelnut coffee reminding me of my childhood, And all the little things he did that made that time good.
Yet even in time, I know the waves will still sometimes churn, For mourning has no timeline and tends to repeat and return. Now and then, I will be tossed to and fro like I am today, For that is grief’s cruel and callous way.
Yet whether now or then, I do not dwell in stormy seas alone, For many others have been tossed into similar oceans of their own. And even though the sea seems too deep to chart, There is One who knows its every single part.
When the waves roar and I find myself flailing about, He walks on water, reaching His hand out. Though the Great High Priest and Lord of lords, He doesn’t hide from the hurting, but instead moves towards.
I need not hide my tears or messy feelings away, For they do not have the power to make Love sway. Jesus Himself knows what it means to weep, And He is present now as I swim in emotions deep.
He gives me relief in ways I would not have asked for, Yet still it comes, in ways I cannot ignore. He loves us both more than I can understand, And in that hope, I now choose to stand.
The Lord is my shepherd and He knows my name, And He spoke it to lead me out of my shame. He found me when I was the sheep that had gone astray, And brought me back to the flock where I now long to stay.
He is the good Shepherd, not merely a hired hand – The one who cares so deeply, more than I can understand! He laid down His life for me on His own accord, And paid a ransom I could never afford.
Each day He leads me to green pastures full of provision, Where life and restoration are freely and fully given. There, I walk near streams of living water, Not as a slave but as the Father’s daughter.
As I learn to recognize His voice, I learn more of His ways too, And He guides me to do what is righteous and true. Sometimes I try my own way but find His rod is there, Not to harm but to keep me from a deadly snare.
Some days I also find myself in the valley for a duration, But He leads me through it for it is not my final destination. I have no need to fear, for even then He is near, And though I cling to Him, He holds me more dear.
He invites me to a table where my enemies can clearly see, That the one who is His will always His be. They cannot prevail or snatch me from His hand, For in His presence, they are too weak to even stand!
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all my days, And I will dwell with Him both now and always. The Lord is my shepherd and He knows my name, And because of that – I will never be the same.
I’ve held on so tightly to what is not mine to hold,
Grasping for control like a drowning man violently flails,
Trying to save himself from sinking when the lifeguard is approaching.
Clinging to the shimmering pyrite I worked so hard to obtain,
Turning away from true treasure, the only lasting gain.
My fists have been clenched for so long now,
Knuckles white, fingers stiff –
Difficult to flex, painful to unbend.
My hands grip the remnants of my pride,
Serving the master of self that ought to be crucified.
Once a slave to sin, I know this master well,
No longer my king yet still a brutal power.
I belong to another Kingdom now,
But Pride holds on tightly to the prey it seeks to devour,
Lulling me back like a clever, abusive lover.
I’m afraid of surrender,
Defensiveness is my nature.
Fists are great for holding but also for fighting.
I’m weary and burdened yet still terrified
Of the pain it takes to loosen my grip and kill my pride.
Yet I cannot change the past,
Nor ever tame the future while still in the present –
And I cannot hold onto this good façade forever.
The control I thought I had and carefully clung to,
Was really just a figment and not something true.
This life is not my own.
I was bought with a price at Calvary.
He saw me then, He knew His purpose for me,
For I was formed by the hands that made all things,
And forever belong to the King of Kings.
By the strength of Him who opened His hands on a cross for me,
Whose arms now embrace me and whose lips call me ‘beloved,’
I can learn to slowly unclench,
To let go of this wretched pride,
To surrender and follow my Savior, my ultimate guide.
For only with open hands can I receive
His gifts that are never earned but always given freely,
The grace that abounds, the mercies that are new each morning,
And learn to stop fighting the Lifeguard who came to me,
When I was sinking under the waves of the deep sea.
You say to cast all anxieties on You,
And going through the motions, I say that I do.
But how many times have I cast
With strings still very attached?
Like a ball and chain imprisoning,
Or like a handle for carrying?
Checking in my luggage for the baggage car,
And re-claiming it again before I get too far?
Like a pack mule with a back aching,
I’ve trudged on in a desert of my own making.
Carrying baggage I’m not meant to carry,
My soul only becoming more and more weary.
My worries are really just masks for my heart,
Filled with pride, unbelief, and spiritual rot.
Heavy façades I got used to hauling,
That only grew heavier with every new morning.
These masks may have fooled me, but not my adversary.
He knows the truth of the weight that I carry.
He prowls around with never-ending hunger,
Seeking proud souls like mine to devour.
It became too much and I fell to my knees in exhaustion,
And in a moment of surrender, I was given the gift of adoption.
The LORD lifted me up and beckoned me to follow,
And reminded me there is no room for this particular cargo.
These masks had fooled others, but not my Father.
He knows all yet still loves and to me now gives the power
To stand, to resist, to let go of the masks, and to believe
Not criteria to meet but a gift to receive.
And with His gifts of grace and mercy,
He gives strength to throw what I once struggled to carry.
He cared for me today, He’ll care for me tomorrow.
Like the anxieties I cast now, I can cast the ones tomorrow.
This past weekend, I went to a young adult conference. I was admittedly very cynical and a little anxious about it, but I went anyways. I have to say I am glad I did.
The final session was supposed to be about authenticity in missions, but the speaker (Miles Fidell) felt led by the Holy Spirit to completely change the subject after the first session that had taken place the night before. He changed his talk to the topic of anxiety, using John 10: 1-18 (Jesus as the Good Shepherd) and Psalm 23 as the major scriptural references. He started the session with a lot of talk about sheep. He discussed how sheep are defenseless in the face of predators and not particularly smart when it comes to survival. Sheep need a good caretaker to ensure that they eat, drink, and don’t become paralyzed under the weight of unshorn wool. Like sheep, we, too, need a Good Shepherd to lead us. We need Jesus. When we admit that we are not in control and that we are like sheep who need a Shepherd, there is a peace unlike any that the world offers. The Good Shepherd takes care of all the things that make us anxious in the best ways like only he can.
At this point, I really couldn’t help but smile and laugh quietly from my seat. First, this speaker was talking about anxiety when he had not originally planned to. Anxiety is an enemy that has a stronghold in my life right now. Anxiety almost kept me from going to the conference. Anxiety about work-related stuff and the future led to two complete breakdowns in the week leading up to the conference. Anxiety impacts my work, my sleep, my relationships, my energy levels, my faith, and every other aspect of my life. Second, he was talking about sheep. I currently work at a museum with two flocks of sheep. I have more pictures of sheep on my phone and computer than any normal person should have. I have spent time in a sheep pen, trying to film them even though they kept trying to get away from me, the scary stranger who invaded their pen. I have seen the farmers shear the sheep and I have seen the wool cleaned, carded, dyed, and spun into yarn. I may not have grown up on a farm or in an agricultural society, but I am very familiar with sheep.
Reflecting on the message after the fact, I really couldn’t help but think of our sheep at work. Every afternoon at around 3:00, our main flock of sheep is let out of their fenced-in enclosure and they run across the Village common to their nighttime home in the barn. There, they are sheltered, fed, and kept safe from the predators that lurk about at night. The sheep are familiar with this routine. If someone approaches the gate around 2:30 or so, they all come up to the gate, expecting it to be opened. Those unfamiliar with this daily routine (mainly, young lambs in the spring) simply follow those who do know the routine. It’s a sight to see:
While the sheep are familiar with this daily routine and they are going to a good thing (that is, food and shelter), occasionally they get distracted. Once on a beautiful spring day, we had a great crowd of visitors in the museum, many more people than usual. When one of the farmers opened the gate, the sheep ran out but some of them (especially the younger ones) got distracted by all the people around them (many of whom were laughing and squealing in excitement at the sight). They dispersed all over the town common, not really seeming to know where they were going. The farmers had to run after the sheep and carry some of them all the way to the barn where they would be safe.
How often are we like these distracted sheep? We know that our Shepherd (that is, Jesus) leads us to good things (the bread of life, protection from the evil one, etc.) but we get distracted by the circumstances around us. We see the situations in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and world or we compare ourselves to others and we lose our focus. We flee. We run from the path that our Shepherd has for us. We run in the opposite direction of the truest food and the shelter that he wants us to be in. We run away from what is gold and chase after what is fool’s gold. We run after plans, individualistic paths, and glimmers of what the world calls freedom. We run away and we do not usually realize that we are running towards destruction.
If the farmers didn’t go after the sheep who had gone astray all over the common, those sheep would likely not survive for long. They certainly would not thrive. Though it is a major blow to our pride, the same can be said of us. Left alone and to our own devices, we can’t survive for long. The evil one will eventually overtake us. We are like prey to be devoured either now or later. If we do manage to survive for a little while, we certainly will not thrive. Jesus came so we could have life and life abundant. Apart from him, true life is not possible. Thankfully, our Savior is also a Shepherd who cares deeply for his sheep, so much he laid his life down for them, knows each one by name, and will not lose a single one. He goes after the one that is lost and brings it safely to the fold.
“So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
(John 10: 7-11, ESV)
Sheep can also be a bit stubborn in their running away and ignorance. This past spring, one of the sheep ran away from the farmer who was shearing it and managed to escape capture for some time. Shearing is a good (necessary) thing for the sheep but it still ran. The sheep would likely feel much freer and cool in the warmer weather but it tried to evade shearing. Multiple farmers had to work together to corner the sheep and eventually get it back to the skilled hands of the shearer. How often do we run away from what is good for us (that is, God and His promises for us) like a sheep runs away from a shearer? I know my answer: more times than I can count.
Thankfully, the Good Shepherd is one who does not abandon his wayward sheep. In the words of David, shepherd boy later turned king, the Lord is a shepherd who cares for all needs, leads in all good ways, and seeks more than contractual business meetings.
The speaker at the conference also helped bring the often cliche feeling words of Psalm 23 to life. If the Lord is our Good Shepherd, the often recited words of Psalm 23 carry great comfort, and not just for funerals. For if the Lord is our shepherd, He is provider and provision. There is no need to worry and fret about getting what we need. A shepherd makes sure his flock is fed. With Jesus, not only does he provide, but he provides himself. He leads us to places of rest in a world that never sleeps and restores our souls. He leads us along His path and not our own for the sake of His name. Sometimes the Shepherd does things that do not make sense to us. He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t want to go there but He leads us there. The key is that He leads us through the valley – not just to it. In the valley, He is with us. He prepares a table for a relational dinner where it is easy to lose track of time because we are enjoying one another’s company, not just a fast food working lunch that will result in a list of to-dos and plans to act on afterward. Our enemies (even anxiety) are around as He prepares this dinner, but they cannot stand long in His glorious presence. And with the Good Shepherd, all of his sheep shall dwell in God’s house forever.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
(Psalm 23, ESV)
We are easily distracted and often stubborn sheep who are not in control of our own stories no matter how much we plan or try to figure things out – but we belong to a faithful Shepherd who knows how to care for his sheep and help them when they are in trouble. That is a splendid relief for the burdened and anxious heart. We may be easily distracted sheep, but the Shepherd never takes his eyes or focus off of us, our needs, or our ultimate good.
I almost always get in a really weird, not particularly good mood on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It’s like regrets from the year coming to a rapid close and fears about the future are combined with a bunch of sentimental crap, making a poisonous concoction. It’s isn’t exactly deadly, but it certainly is sickening.
I also get annoyed by all the fanfare. Maybe I’m just a New Year’s Scrooge, but I can’t help it. People are celebrating all things new when really the only thing new is the year listed on the calendar. And so what? The numbering of years is just an earthy construct used to organize the passing of time. It’s useful, but not exactly earth-shattering. People make ambitious resolutions (and I have too), knowing full well that they will probably fail within the first month. These resolutions are usually good things – like eating healthy, reading the Bible daily, or exercising more – but rarely does one actually succeed in a resolution without falling at least a little. People shout “new year, new me!” as if they didn’t say the same exact cliché last year, only to be stuck in their same old ways by February.
As Christians, we can celebrate true newness every single day – not just one day a year. And this newness isn’t like the newness that the world parades with. The newness that the world offers is really just a mask on the same old deadness inside. The newness that God offers reaches to the deepest darkest places in our souls. It brings what is dead back to life and replaces cold, hard hearts.
As this year comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular passage of scripture: Lamentations 3:22-24. Read it once, and read it again.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”
(Lamentations 3:22-24, ESV)
Did you catch that? His mercies are new every morning. Not just the day you first believed. Not just the moment you first trusted Jesus. Every morning. Every single day. His faithfulness doesn’t end. For every morning we wake, His mercies for us are new.
Of course, it doesn’t always feel that way. More often than not, our hearts and minds are flooded with worries, doubts, pain, and the weight of yesterday as soon as the alarm sounds and our eyes open. Mornings are filled with dread and not celebration. In these groggy moments, it is so easy to lose sight of truth. Just like our eyes struggle to adjust to the bright light of day after hours of darkness, our minds struggle to focus on the Light of Christ after hours of sleep. These early morning moments can easily define the rest of our day – at least, they tend to do so for me. Most mornings I struggle to get up – fighting anxiety about the past and the future, doubts, guilt, and just sheer exhaustion.
Whatever I’m feeling though, that doesn’t make truth any less true. The truth is that God is faithful and His mercies are continually new. I don’t have to carry the weight of yesterday’s shame, failures, and struggles, nor do I have to carry the worries of tomorrow. For the past few weeks, my nightly prayer as been “God, help me remember your mercies when I wake.” God is faithful. He has reminded me of them. It makes me almost teary eyed to think of it. Mornings still feel like a struggle. I have to wrestle with the thoughts that flood to my mind. It’s a battle and I don’t always win. Still – God is faithful. His mercies are continually renewed. They were new today, on the last day of 2018. They will be new tomorrow, as 2019 dawns. They will always be new. And thanks be to God.
Everyday, we’re rushing. Rushing to get work done, rushing to check things off the ever growing to-do list, rushing to create a happier life, rushing to shape our identities with all the things we’ve done. We rush about our days to get this and that done and often wonder if we will have the time (and energy) to complete all we have to do or feel we need to do. This time of year, we rush at an even more rapid pace, as we rush to get the perfect gifts for everyone on our lists and rush to make a picture-perfect Christmas scene in our homes. We rush. We run. We race against the clock. We bow down to time. We bow down to the things our little screens scream we need. We bow down to lists and desires. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.
But God isn’t rushing.
God isn’t frantic.
Yes, God is working. He is working every moment. Yes, God is moving. He is moving in people’s lives every second of everyday.
But God is not rushing.
God was never rushing. He is outside of time. He isn’t confined by it. We rush. He works in the best time.
I recently re-read the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Verse 5 stopped me in my tracks for a moment.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
John 11:5 (ESV)
At first glance, this verse doesn’t make a lot of sense. When a dear friend or family member is on death’s doorstep, we (rightfully and understandably) rush to their side if it is at all humanly possible. In this scenario, though, Jesus stayed where He was for two days. He didn’t do this out of apathy or selfishness. He did this because He loved Mary and Martha and by Him staying where He was for a couple days, God would receive greater glory.
In those two days, Lazarus died. His family and friends grieved and were hopeless. But that isn’t the end of the story.
Jesus arrives and sees Mary, Martha, and the others mourning. He asks where they have laid Lazarus and He goes to that place. He asks for the stone to be rolled away, which sounds crazy to all the mourners as the stench of a decaying body is strong. They do as He says though and Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus comes back to life. Hope is restored. God is glorified. And perhaps the faith of those involved grew.
Had Jesus rushed to Lazarus and healed him of his illness immediately, none of those things would have happened.
This story is one of countless examples both from the Bible and the lives of believers shows that God’s timing is perfect. His timing is sometimes (often times) a bit different from our own. Sometimes He seems painfully slow or perhaps even absent. But He is faithful. He knows how to use time in our lives to grow us in faith and to sanctify us. God isn’t confined by time but He uses it as a tool for our good and His glory.
This is something I have been struggling with. I have begged God to change certain things in my life and my growth in Him feels agonizingly slow. I want things to change with the flick of a switch. I want a painless healing. I want painless change. God is capable of that. He is capable of all things. But true growth and change don’t happen without time and sometimes pain. Instead of instant gratification for my desperate pleas, God tells me two things that I don’t really want to hear but that I need to hear:
“Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10)
“…He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
In all my worries and anxieties, in all my rushing to be good at things and succeed at work and in life, God says to be still. Stop. Slow down. Don’t rush. Know that God is here and God is in control. I may not know how many days I have and it may feel like a race against the clock for me, but God knows how many days I have and what it will take to fully sanctify me. He will bring the good work He began in me to completion – not in my time, but in His.
And while my tenancy is to rush, it’s great news to hear that God doesn’t rush. For when an artist rushes, the work of art rarely comes out well. Rushing rarely produces quality. We are God’s creation, creations being created, His masterpieces. As a dedicated Creator, He takes His time and skillfully molds us. We just have to be still and trust His promises.