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.
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.
Life is not a masquerade.
It may be fun to go to the ball,
But it isn’t where real life happens.
A dressed up skeleton is still lifeless,
A decorated corpse is still hopeless.
We spend hours crafting our image for others to see,
Hoping words of admiration and approval
will satisfy the darkness gnawing deep inside.
Smile for the camera, boast of successes,
We bury the brokenness only to find we are digging our grave.
We paint on a mask at such an early age,
And curtail it to match what we perceive others desire.
When one version no longer suits us,
we add another layer. The mask grows thicker,
And day by day, our hearts also become harder.
We do it so well we don’t always realize we are doing it at all,
Masters of individual PR, masters of deception.
Wearing a mask daily, letting it become our identity.
With each layer, with each empty word,
We only dig our graves deeper.
It may be what we do, but it’s not what we were made to do.
Life was not given just to be lived under a disguise,
Nor our energy be exhausted to keep up an image.
Life sometimes beats us up all black and blue,
But in the scars and bruises, the light can seep through.
Life does not have to be a masquerade.
A masquerade is not where real life happens.
Real life is messy, complicated, and sometimes painful.
But it is only when the masks are taken off,
That the darkness within can see the light.
I was recently in New York City, the largest city in the United States. His presence with me was so obvious throughout the anxiety-inducing trip, but there was a particular moment that He spoke to me to remind me of a mind-blowing fact that many of us, myself included, either don’t fully believe and/or take for granted. He also used this reminder to send some much needed conviction to my heart.
There are more than 8 million people living in New York City. Sitting in my hotel room at night and looking down, I could see countless people hurrying along the bustling streets below. From my perspective on the 24th floor, the people looked tiny and I couldn’t see much detail, even though the streets were well lit with flashing billboards and bright lights. As I sat and watched, God reminded me that each of these people, though they are complete strangers to me, has a story that He is the author of.
And of course, the 8 million people in NYC are just a fraction of the 7 billion people on the planet right now. And that is just a fraction of the God only knows how many billions of people who have lived and will live on this planet. The number doesn’t even compute in human minds.
That is a lot of people. A lot of stories. And God knows them all. He doesn’t just have a summary of each person either or see them from a distance like I did from the hotel. He knows every detail of every soul and story. In fact, He knows them better than the people themselves. Matthew 10:30 says that “even the hairs on [our] head are numbered!
How incredible is that? Take a moment to ponder it. Ask God to help you believe it as much as is possible. Know that you are loved so intimately by the Creator of all things that He knows even the number of hairs on your head. You don’t even know how many hairs are on your head! He knows your past, present, and future, and despite all the muck in your life, He loves you still.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
(Psalm 139: 1 – 4)
Since God is the creator of so many stories, and we are made in His image, it’s no surprise that we are people who like stories. Our societies are saturated with them! Throughout history, people have told stories, both real and imagined. We learn through stories and entertain ourselves with stories. It’s really impossible to go through a day without hearing or reading some stories. Sometimes we become engrossed in stories that we just can’t stop reading or watching until the end. We all have certain stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, that we love to hear, watch, and read about.
Some real-life stories, like those that hit the news media and trends on social media, are well known by seemingly everyone around us. Some names, like those of our political leaders and the most popular actors are a part of our vocabulary. This widespread knowing in our technologically advanced society reaches an even higher level when a man-man tragedy, like a shooting, strikes and moral outrage ensues.
What about the stories that don’t make good headlines though? What about the stories of ordinary people? What about the stories of people in your own town or city? What about the stories of the people you try not to look at as you go down the street? What about the stories of people who don’t look or dress like you? What about the stories of the people you don’t like? Do these stories matter less since they aren’t blared on every screen? Do the tragedies and issues that strike these people mean less simply because it’s not in the national spotlight for a few days?
Of course not!
Every person’s story matters. And even more than that, every person matters. That includes the people that we intentionally or unintentionally mentally categorize as “less than” in society. And as cliché as it might be, we cannot judge a book (or person) by its cover (or outward appearance).
The kingdom of God works differently than the world. In our world, those with prestige, power, money, fame, or great talents are the ones who are revered. In the kingdom of God though, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus spoke to, healed, and hung out with the outcasts of society – the leper, the bleeding woman, the Samaritan woman, the tax collector, and so many other people that lived on the outskirts of society, shunned by the majority. Jesus saw them. If we are truly following Jesus, we will see them too, and do what we can to serve them and point them to eternal hope.
For me, that includes the people, especially the kids, living in the city next to my hometown in white suburbia. Growing up, whenever I heard people talk about the people in that city, it was rarely in a positive light. The city deals with the same problems that plague any urban area – poverty, violence, drugs, broken families, failing infrastructure, abuse, trafficking, etc. Many people on the outskirts seem to want to just sweep that whole city, and its problems, under the rug. God sees those people though. He hears the cries of the abused, oppressed, and hurting. He knows their names. He knows their struggles. He knows their pasts and futures. And as uncomfortable as it is for me sometimes, God has put it in me to want to know more of their stories too. He wants me to see them and love them as He does.
So as we begin another week, let us pray that God would help us to see the people around us with His eyes, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. May we also remember that He knows every detail of our own stories too, and loves us the same. May our stories ultimately point to Him, the author of them all. We are all living stories, and our days were known by God Almighty before they had even begun. All of us have dirt in our stories, but the best stories always have some triumph over struggle, some good overcoming bad, some hope in hopeless situations. We all have stories both to tell, and probably more often, to listen to. Let us live telling our stories and listening to the stories of even “the least of these.”
Peace. We hear this word thrown around a lot. It’s sung in music, written on t-shirts, talked about on TV, and offered as a greeting. Yet usually when this term is tossed out, it is merely a wishful thought in a world filled with more violence, turmoil and hate then we can even fully comprehend or fathom.
The dictionary says that “peace” is a period in which there is no fighting, a time of security, a state of concord. The world sets this “peace” as a lofty goal on a pedestal. We are told that if we just reach a little farther, work a little harder, and hope a little stronger, we can obtain it.
The problem is that this “peace” the world gives is an unreachable hope that never lasts. Even in so-called “peacetime” eras between official wars, there is plenty of strife on the streets and in homes, much of which goes unreported and unheard except by the victims. And of course even when there is peace among governments or neighbors, there is still inner conflict hidden within the walls of every person’s chest cavity and skull.
The world says that “peace” is a lack of conflict, but “peace” means something different in God’s word. After all, the apostles certainly didn’t live lives free of conflict but instead were faced with jail, slander, and indescribable brutalities.
Knowing full well what strife his disciples would face after the ascension, Jesus tells them “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27, ESV). He takes this thought a little further in John 16:33 saying “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
So what peace is Jesus referring to, if it isn’t a life free from trouble? There are no words to adequately describe it, as Philippians 4:7 says that the peace of God “surpasses all understanding.” Still, there are words to help us identify what this peace is. Ephesians 2:14 says that Jesus is our peace. Our relationship with him, and through him God the Father, is our peace. We have been reconciled to Him and we belong to Him both in our life and in our death. No earlthy strife can take us from Him. As Isaiah 54:17 says, “no weapon that is fashioned against [us] shall succeed.”
This peace is resting in God’s sovereignty even when the storms of life are raging and chaos seems to be reigning. This is why the peace that Jesus gives is “not as the world gives;” it is a peace that remains and survives even in bitter outer conflict. This peace is sweeter and more filling than any “peace” the world tries to dish up. This peace allows us to live in freedom that only Christ can give us.
This all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Of course, in reality life doesn’t usually feel like this. Peace sometimes seems unattainable at best. Life is full of stress and worry, and I fall victim to this as much as anyone. In fact, lately my anxiety has been even worse than usual because of my dad’s recent cancer diagnosis and a boss that gets on my nerves at work. How more wonderful is it, then, to know that God’s promises and His gifts are not reliant on human feelings? He gives His peace to us as an unmerited gift every moment. We just have to accept it, and allow Him to change our focus from earthly stress to His promises.
I’m still learning to live in this peace and freedom. I will need to continually be reminded of these promises for as long as God grants me breath. Yet in these struggles, He is still sovereign and this peace is unwavering just like His love for us.
Knowing this, let our prayer for ourselves and each other be as Paul says in Colossians 3:15; that the peace of Christ will rule our hearts, even in a world filled to the brim with every type of conflict.
I just came back from a wonderful weekend in the mountains of Maine. Looking at the mountains, everything looks absolutely beautiful. The trees, the sky, the water below, everything. That’s the big picture and it’s beautiful. As I stood in awe of this part of creation, I started to think about how this stunning display of nature was formed. What about all the time it took for the mountains to take their present shape or for the little seedling trees to grow into massive forests? What about all the dirt that allows those trees and all the other plants to grow? What about all the dead and rotting plants and animals that nourish that soil and make it fertile? What about all the creepy, crawly bugs at the bottom of the food chain that are bothersome to us but vital to the entire ecosystem? The mountains are a messy place when you’re at the micro level, but the big picture is breathtaking.
Perhaps our own stories are similar. Our lives have plenty of dirt. Plenty of dead things (or things that should die). Plenty of mess. Sin creeps and crawls in our minds and hearts. Some things in our lives (like pride, lust, hatred, etc.) need to die for better things to take place. Our lives are covered in filth from our sin. Yet the big picture is God’s glorious masterpiece that He is creating in all of His children. God meets us at the micro level, in our sin, in our dirt. He doesn’t finish there though. Over time, He grows good things in us. In time, he makes us His masterpiece.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10, ESV)
We live at the micro level. We see all the dirt. In time though, and through the dirt, God does wonders. We can’t always see it from our perspective on the ground, but in the long run, God does amazing things through His people. The big picture is God’s glorious work in us. Even the dirty, bothersome, and dangerous things have a purpose. We are a masterpiece of His design and in His time.
Several years ago I set out to read the entire Bible in order in a year. I figured if I was going to call myself a Christian, I should read the entire thing that I call God’s word. I had read it to check it off my “to do list” of being a Christian. I succeeded in literally reading the entire Bible. I did not study it nor did I give much thought to the cultural contexts in which it was written. I did not pray about what I read nor did I ask many questions. I read the book to say I had read the book.
After officially finishing the Bible, I figured I could set it aside and maybe refer to it once in a while. After all, I had read the entire thing. I foolishly thought I “knew” at least the high points of every story. The crazy thing is, my actions were as if I ate a big meal and then decided to not eat again after that except for the occasional small snack. If I stopped eating food, I’d slowly grow weaker until I died. A strikingly similar statement can be said about time in God’s word. God’s word truly is the bread of life and should be a staple of our daily lives. Without regular time in His word and in prayer, our soul weakens and eventually, dies.
Saying that you don’t need to read the Bible or a specific passage in the Bible because you have already read it so many times is like saying you don’t need to eat food. You have probably eaten bread thousands of times and yet it’s likely you’re going to consume some form of bread again within the next twenty-four hours.
I grew up in church and therefore there are Bible stories I’ve read or heard about thousands of times. It is so easy to look at these stories now with a glazed eye. Stories like Jesus feeding the masses with a few loaves and fishes are told so regularly that it’s easy to think that we, as Christians, don’t need to re-read them or study them. During my sophomore year of college, I joined the Bible study group on campus. We have gone over some of those stories that I’ve heard more times than I can count. Yet when I prayerfully study those passages, whether alone or in a group, God often shows me a detail I didn’t notice before or gives me some new revelation. There is so much under the surface of these stories and unless we take the time to really prayerfully study them, we only scratch the surface.
Jesus himself knew the importance of God’s word in people’s lives. When Jesus was fasting in the wilderness, the devil came along and told him to turn some stones into bread. Jesus replied:
““…It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Here, Jesus is actually referencing Deuteronomy 8:3, which refers to the Israelites. What was true for the Israelites and Jesus is true for us as well. If bread (or any sort of grain) is such a daily staple of our diets for our physical bodies, surely the Word of God is the same staple for our souls. Rather than thinking of the Bible or prayer as things to check off our to do lists, let us truly see them as our daily bread for our souls. Let us remember that bread requires chewing even in our rushed lives. Let us prayerfully meditate on each passage and word in order to get all the flavor.
Satan tells a lot of lies. He tells us that we are worthless and not good enough. He tells us that our mistakes define us. He tells us that no one could really love us. He tells us that we are forever filthy, forever stained by our selfishness, lust, jealousy, pride and hate. It is easy to believe Satan’s lies because they make sense to our human minds whereas God’s grace does not. We do mess up. We have all sinned. We can never attain perfection on our own no matter how hard we try. We will never be “good enough” on our own accord. We deserve hell. God’s grace however, is beyond human comprehension. To think that God would send His son to save us mere sinners. To think that Jesus would leave his place in heaven, his home, to come down to mankind knowing that he would be slandered, rejected, mocked, tortured, and killed. To think that God would want a relationship with each of us and call us His children. All of this is so beyond what we humans can comprehend. His love for us is greater than we can see or understand. His grace is not what we deserve and yet He gives it to us and calls us His own. Yes, we are all sinners. Yes, we have all fallen short. Yes, we have all been covered by our own evil deeds. Satan twists these facts however and tells us that our sins define us and that God could never accept us. Truth is, we are not defined by our mistakes and shortcomings. We are defined by what Christ did on that cross. No longer are we covered by our crimson stains. We are God’s and He is ours. We no longer live but rather Christ lives within each of us who are called His children. And someday soon, Satan’s lies will never again torment us. But for now, we must strive to listen to God’s voice and not Satan’s. We must draw closer to God and His Truth.