Hard hearts and ungrateful sheep

I don’t praise God enough. I get so caught up in the busy hustle and bustle of my life that many times I forget how good I’ve got it. And even in the dark times in my life, I’m still blessed. But I lose focus so quickly and I forget Who is responsible for blessing me.

And then I read a passage like today’s–Psalm 95:6-7.

 6 Come, let us worship and bow down.
      Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    7 for he is our God.
   We are the people he watches over,
      the flock under his care.
   If only you would listen to his voice today!

The rest of this Psalm is pretty amazing too and I’d recommend reading it if you have time.

I’m not much of a kneeled, honestly. I don’t do a lot of bowing. At least, not on the outside. For me personally, I just feel like kneeling or bowing during worship draws too much attention. Now, have I done it? Yes. On a few occasions–more during prayer than worship. And do I mind when other folks do it? Absolutely not. That’s between them and God, and some people express their emotions more physically than others. Me? Not so much. But that’s between me and God. And I can tell you that while I may not be kneeling on the outside, during worship I’m usually on my face on the inside.

Worship has so much to do with humility. If you can step back and seriously look at what God has done for you, you can’t help but be humbled. Realize, the God of the Universe loves you–sacrificed His Son for you–wants to be your friend–wants to help you–wants to spend eternity with you. What? I mean, what good thing did I ever do to deserve that sort of regard? The answer is nothing. I did nothing worthy of God’s love; just as I can’t do anything to lose it.

This Psalm goes so far as to compare us to a flock of sheep. Actually, the Bible compares us to sheep a lot–but then many times God is referred to as a shepherd, especially in the Psalms because that was something David could wrap his head around.

Shepherds in the Eastern world were different from shepherds in the West.  I can tell you sheep story after sheep story. I never understood the concept of why the Bible compared us to sheep until I raised them. They have to be the dumbest animals on the face of the planet. They’re right up there with turkeys.

But one of the major differences between Middle Eastern shepherds and us over here, around here, we chase our sheep (I ruined a good pair of pants during one of those pursuits). But in the East, sheep follow their shepherds. And shepherds will go to extreme lengths to protect their sheep too.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be compared to a sheep, I want to make sure I’m in God’s flock. Because not all shepherds are as careful as He is.

Understanding what God has done for us truly will make you look at your life differently. Whenever I’m feeling sad or depressed or alone or discouraged, all I have to do is start listing the blessings in my life. And in five minutes I can have a paper the length of my arm, filled with all the good things God has given me–filled with things that have become very good when at first I thought they would be bad. Because God has a habit of working things out, especially the things that don’t seem like they’ll have any sort of positive resolution. Has anyone else noticed that?

If only we’d listen to God’s voice today. If only I’d listen to God’s voice today. He’s talking, you know. He never stops. And what He has to say is important because it will help us survive these trying, dangerous times we’re living in.

The thing about Psalm 95 is that it starts out by talking about everything God has done. It talks about why He deserves praise. And then we get to today’s passage, that we need to worship Him. And the Psalm concludes with a haunting reminder–about how the Israelites hardened their hearts against Him. And about how He was angry with them for 40 years.

God made the universe. He made the world. He made me. He formed the continents. He carved out the oceans. He breathed the winds into existence. He has control of everything, and what He allows to happen happens for a reason.

I don’t want to be like the Israelites, who hardened their hearts after they had seen everything God had done for them. I want to listen to God’s voice today and tomorrow and the day after that and every day afterward until He calls me home. I want to give Him the praise He deserves because without Him I would be nothing. I can’t make it through life without Him.

Family

I don’t have a very large family. Granted, my extended family is pretty big. I have a lot of second and third cousins–fourth cousins now. But as far as immediate family, there aren’t a lot of us. I have my brother. And I have four first cousins. Two uncles. Two aunts. Two grandparents. My mom and dad, of course.

I’ve worked with people who are one of ten children. And I’ve met people with ten children. But even having five siblings is hard to wrap my head around. I can just imagine the chaos that many kids in one house has to result in.

So what I’m very interested to see is what life is going to be like when we all get to heaven. Because, let’s face it–we’re all family. If you believe in Christ, that makes you my brother or my sister. And when we all get to heaven, God’s going to have a huge house full of kids. Billions of them. Trillions. Probably some uncountable number–however many people have trusted either that Christ would come or that Christ did come.

Trusting in Christ makes us family. That’s what today’s verse is about.

Ephesians 2:19

19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.

God chose the Jewish people to be His people when Abraham took that leap of faith and followed God and left his home. And they are still His chosen people. But after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, He instructed the disciples to leave the borders of Israel and Judea, to take the Gospel to all corners of the world. And that’s how we un-Jewish folks came to be adopted into God’s family.

I know that I’ve blogged about this before, but there is one part of every mission’s trip I’ve ever taken that always strikes me. I love mission’s trips. I love serving. I love working. I love encouraging people. But if I had to narrow every trip I’ve taken down to one favorite part–it would be meeting completely strangers and knowing that we’re family because they believe in Jesus too.

I have a brother in a little village in Mexico called Las Hormigas. I can’t remember his real name, but we called him the “Lightning Man” because he’d been struck by lightning like six times.

I have a sister in a little village in the mountains of Mexico called Yiposo. Her name is Angelica, and she let me and a bunch of other girls stay in her log house while we were helping to build an addition onto their church. She didn’t speak any English, and I only spoke a little Spanish, but I was always the first one up so I would sit at her table and help her chop vegetables for breakfast every morning.

I have little brothers and sisters in ex-guerilla villages in Peten, Guatemala, who I taught how to act. And now I know I have Kekchi (or more officially now Q’eqchi) brothers and sisters all over the jungle in dozens of little villages that have no roads to reach them.

I have a brother and a sister in Botswana, Taffy and Gracious Chifamuna and their beautiful children. I’ve never met Taffy face to face, but we’ve been communicating with each other via mail and e-mail since I was in seventh grade.

And I know there are family members all across the planet that I have prayed for repeatedly, even though they don’t know I know anything about them. Nationals in Papua New Guinea, in Japan, in China, in Malaysia, in Iraq, in Scotland.

I have family all over the world. And it doesn’t matter if I’ve never met them in person. All I need to know is that they love Christ, and that makes us closer than blood can bring us. We’re all members of God’s family through Christ, and if that doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what else will. Because it’s so easy in our crazy busy age of technology to feel alone. It doesn’t make sense because we’re more connected now than we ever were, but even with all of our Facebooking and our blogging and our social networking, we still feel more isolated than ever.

But when I feel alone, all I have to do is remember how many brothers and sisters I have. And that they’re going through the same things I am. And that we’re all relying on God every day for every breath and every step. And I can’t wait for the day when I get to meet everyone, and then we’ll all get to spend eternity with God and with Christ. But until then, I pray for them, and I know they pray for me.

What else is family for?

My body has a first name . . . and a last name . . . but what does my soul have?

It’s easy to focus on our differences because so many times the only basis we have for figuring each other out is what we see. And at first glance, we are all very different from each other. But what we need to remember is that if we are followers of Christ, we all have one very important thing in common–we all have the Holy Spirit inside us. And if we have that commonality, no other difference matters.

Galatians 3:28 is the verse for today.

28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[a] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Now, does this verse mean that once you accept Christ, you’re no longer bound by racial heritage or governmental law or gender? No. I am a follower of Christ, but my physical self is still an American with an English-Scotish-Irish heritage and God created me to be a woman. But my spiritual self–which is what this verse is about–is beyond all that. My spirit–my soul–isn’t physical at all and it isn’t bound to any of the descriptions or labels we need for a human body.

During the time that we live on Earth, we have the bodies God gave us. And He gave us the bodies we have for a reason, whether they function the way we think they ought to or not.

He gave us the families and the family heritages we have for a purpose; some of our families are more interesting than others.

And He allowed us to be born where He wanted us. I count myself blessed that God chose to allow me to be born in America, and I know I take that for granted most of the time.

And I also know that God created me to be a woman for a reason, although most of the time I don’t feel like I fit in with others of the female variety because I don’t like painting my toenails or shopping or being overdramatic. In any case, God made me female and in a physical body there are differences between men and women. Obvious differences.

But when we’re talking about souls, everything we know goes out the window. Because we don’t understand souls. And we don’t understand spirits. We think we do. But honestly? We don’t have a clue.

But what this verse is saying to me is that our souls are far and away above our concept of existence. As we are now, we have to label each other so that our differences make sense. We shouldn’t most of the time, but we do it anyway. But souls defy explanation. Our souls supercede sterotypes.

Can we wrap our minds around someone not having a racial heritage? Can we truly grasp a person that has no cultural history? And can we really understand someone who is truly neither male nor female–not the mixed up Gay-Lesbian-Bi-Trans issues we deal with in our society (which isn’t an issue of sexual equality; rather, it’s sexual rebellion).

Of course, we can’t understand any of that. Because there’s never been a person on Earth who is none of those things. Maybe people think they are. Maybe people think that they can be neither. But it’s not true. It’s impossible physically. If you’re a human being, you have a race. And you have a culture and a country of origin. And you have a gender, whether you claim it or not.

Our souls, on the other hand, were created without race–without culture–without gender from the beginning. Granted, God chose to place those souls in physical bodies with all of the limitations of humanity, but the day is coming when we shed those physical bodies and leave this existence–and we’ll go either to heaven or to hell, where our lives will really begin.

And when we reach either of those eternities, it won’t matter if your family mostly ate potatoes . . . or if your heritage embraced Communism or Democracy . . . or if your physical body was male or female . . . . All that will matter is if you know Jesus because that’s what determines your final destination. Because God doesn’t make the choice to send anyone to hell; we send ourselves.

So what this verse helps me remember this morning is that even though we may be different on the outside, our souls all have equal worth to God. Our souls are all on the same level. There isn’t one that’s more worthy than another. There isn’t one with a better family–because we’re all from the same family. There isn’t one that descends from a greater country–because our souls didn’t come from a country. There isn’t a soul that is superior either for masculine qualities or feminine qualities–because our souls are gender-neutral.

The only difference in our souls is that some are redeemed and some are still broken. Those souls who haven’t made up their minds still have time to make a choice. And those of us who have already chosen Christ need to get it through our heads that even though our phsycial bodies may be different, our souls are the same–and we need to stand united in Christ now more than ever.

Splinter in the toe? Just chop off your foot, right?

4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. Romans 12:4-5.

Today’s verse is one of those that is used over and over again in the church, always focusing on how every member of a church has different skills and gifts. Some of this concept is continued in 1 Corinthians 12, talking about spiritual gifts.

For instance, one person may be very good speaker. He would represent the mouth. Others might be very strong at skilled labor or outdoor work–that could be the back or shoulders. Others might be compassionate and kind in serving others by doing housework for the elderly or making meals for the sick; they would be the hands.

Every person in a church has a different set of skills or a gift that God has given them, and no one should look down on someone else’s gift. Because they’re all important. One of the best lines in the King James version of the Bible comes out of the passage in 1 Corinthians 12:

 17If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?  

(Sorry. That verse just makes me giggle.)

I love thinking about the church as being a unified Body. I think that’s one of the reasons I love the Judgement House ministry at NewSpring so much. It uses every gift a church body possesses, whether it’s acting or praying or standing all night long or organizing or counseling or being able to ladle chili and cheese over fritos. It doesn’t matter what your gift is, there’s a place for you in Judgement House. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Body of Christ more engaged than in this crazy, awesome ministry. And I don’t think it’s ever been more obvious how important even the “small” roles are; because Judgement House doesn’t work if one of its parts is missing.

But as I was reading this very this morning, a part stuck out to me that I hadn’t thought about before.

“. . . we all belong to each other.”

It’s true, of course. I mean, look at a body. How could I say that my hands belong to someone else? Or that someone else’s feet are mine? Granted, in American idiom we say that we have our mother’s eyes or our father’s hair, but those are figures of speech. I mean, I know people who have organs who were donated (right, Gramps?), but even if those aren’t the organs we were born with, we still consider them ours, don’t we?

It should be the same in a church. If we’re all called to work together to accomplish something for God, we can’t be divided. God left us all here for a reason, and we have to work together with Him to get it done.

There may be people in the church who you don’t get along with, but they are still a part of the body of Christ . . . and they belong to you just like you belong to them. We need to get our heads around this concept because Satan is ever trying to divide us. He makes us focus on our differences and on how much we disagree with each other or what we disapprove of in others–but if we all believe and follow Jesus Christ, we are called to unity.

We need to keep the main thing, the main thing. Jesus is Who is important. Not our pasts. Not our preferences. Not our appearances.

Now am I saying that we need to make allowances for the sins of other believers? Absolutely not. Sin is sin and should be treated as such, but how do you treat a believer who has sinned? Do you shun them? No. You confront them lovingly, realizing that but for the grace of God go you. No one down here is immune from sin, and the only reason you aren’t in their place is the grace of God. So don’t cut them off or think badly of them. You aren’t in their shoes. So how do you know where they are in their walk with God? If they say they believe in Christ, treat them like your brother or your sister and pick them up and help them get back on the path.

If your hand is wounded, do you chop it off? No. You put a bandaid on it. You stitch it up. You put oitments and salves on it so it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Wouldn’t the same thing be true for a fellow believer?

And this is getting more and more important the further time goes on, the longer we’re here. We can’t afford to keep lopping off parts of our body and expecting that we will be able to accomplish the same amount of work. That’s psychotic. If you chop off your leg, you won’t be able to walk well. It’s the same with the church. The church–meaning Christians–can’t alienate people just because they don’t agree on a simple irrelevant point. It would be like cutting off your own thumb or your big toe; they may be small parts but try picking stuff up or walking without them and you’ll see how important they are.

We’re all in this together. And we belong together. And we belong to each other. And if we can wrap our heads around that, imagine what God could do! Imagine what God can do with a truly unified Body of Christ, not divided by denomination or preferences, but united in Christ, the one Person who really matters.

Peace comes from trusting not doing

What does it take to have peace in today’s world? I know a lot of people search for peace, but does anyone really find it? How would you even define peace?

The first definition in the dictionary refers to a “the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.” Well–that’s good. But I’m talking about having peace in your own mind. Oddly enough, that definition doesn’t pop up until number six on the list: “freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, an obsession, etc.; tranquillity; serenity.”

And because I’m a word nerd, I can’t help but post the etymology of the word peace. It was first used in the year 1140 to mean “freedom from civil disorder,” but it wasn’t used to mean peace of mind until c.1200.

But knowing what peace is doesn’t help us know how to find it. And I’m pretty sure that everyone wants it. We elect officials hoping for peace. We buy things, hoping they will bring us peace. We go on vacations looking for peace. We read books and change our lifestyles, expecting that peace will come with it. We do unto others as they would have us do unto them, and expect peace in return. But do we get it?

Rarely.

Because peace doesn’t come from action. Peace comes from trust.

If you think your actions will bring you peace, where do you draw the line? There is always work to do. You’ll never be able to work hard enough to finish everything that needs to be done or to make yourself perfect.

So what about trust? If you rely on trust to bring you peace, you’d better make sure you’re putting your trust in the right things. You can trust books, but how do you know they’re telling you right? And what happens when they’re wrong?

And I guess you can trust the elected officials since they’re there because God has ordained that they be there . . . but should you really trust a politician? When you peel away the layers of smiles and policy, a politician is a regular man or woman, just like us; so there’s no reason to trust a politician more than anyone else.

Do we trust our friends to bring us peace? Maybe. But our friends let us down, and if they haven’t let you down yet, they will eventually. What will happen to your peace when that happens?

And what about ourselves? Surely if anyone could bring us peace, it would be ourselves? But if that’s the case, why can’t we find peace on vacations? You escape your job, your family, the world, your life and go to some remote location and even then you can’t sleep. If you can’t even trust yourself to find your own peace, what do you do?

Today’s verse is Psalm 119:165.

165 Those who love your instructions have great peace
      and do not stumble.

If you want peace, you need to love God’s Word.

In all my life, those are the only people I have ever encountered who are truly at peace. And I’m not talking about the serene sort of zoned-out incapacity to feel–like they’re walking around in a trance. That’s not peace. True peace comes in the midst of adversity. When everything is falling apart around you and you’re still able to function and believe that things will turn out all right in the end.

That’s peace. It’s something you can’t buy or earn. The only way you can get that kind of peace is by trusting that God knows what He’s doing.

God gave us the Bible so that we can know Him and understand His thoughts. And those of us who trust Him understand His ways (not all of them; but we get the point that He is in control and is working everything out for our good). And once you wrap your head around the fact that you can trust God with everything, it doesn’t matter what you go through in life, you have peace. And not just peace–great peace.

And beyond that, loving God’s word and keeping His instructions will prevent you from doing something that will hurt you or the people around you. And that only adds to the depth of the peace you experience when you’re walking with Him.

Wouldn’t you agree that hurting yourself or others is often the source of greatest disharmony in your own mind? Regret? Or sadness? Or bitterness? Those are the voices that are the loudest when you’re seeking peace.

So stop going on vacations or working to make yourself feel better. Stop doing everything you’re doing in hopes to make your worries disappear. It won’t work.

If you want peace, stop seeking it and start trusting God. Read the Bible, make an effort to understand what’s written there, and keep His commandments. Experiencing great peace is inevitable if you trust that God knows what He’s doing

God bends down to our level so we can see that He hears us

I know people who believe God created the world and then washed His hands of it. I’ve always been told this belief is called Deism, that God is distant and impersonal and unreachable and that He has no interest in participating in our puny, little lives.

To those who are Deists, I really encourage them to actually study the Bible. Every story in the Bible demonstrates that God not only created the world but that He loves it too–enough to intervene its its affairs daily . . . on an extremely personal basis.

Like today’s verse, Psalm 116:1-2.

 1 I love the Lord because he hears my voice
      and my prayer for mercy.
 2 Because he bends down to listen,
      I will pray as long as I have breath!

Sorry but that doesn’t sound like a distant, uncaring, impersonal God to me.

I mean, if God didn’t care about us on a personal level, that would be completely understandable. Actually, it would make more sense. Because, seriously, God shouldn’t have anything to do with us. The difference between us and God isn’t just like the difference between a flea and a stray dog . . . it’s more like the difference between a flea and a dog-catcher. God is so high above us, so far beyond our understanding, it really doesn’t make sense that He would love us enough to care about our day-to-day troubles.

But the Bible says He does.

And if you haven’t read the Bible, how can you hope to know anything about God?

It’s a bad example, but think about how children love to talk to adults. Children love to tell adults things about their lives. I’ve never had a conversation with a child where that kid didn’t get super excited when I showed an interest in the things they cared about. And when I bend down to speak to a child on their level, that kid lights up and can talk my ear off for hours. It’s not that I can’t hear them when I’m standing up straight; I usually can. But have you ever tried to talk to someone much taller than you? It’s very frustrating because you can’t tell if they’re actually listening. So when I’m talking to a kid, I usually get down on my knees or try to get on their level so they can see that I really care about what they’re saying.

Don’t you think that’s how God is sometimes? Can’t you just see Him bending down to hear us talking? He probably smiles and nods a lot. And He listens. But He doesn’t just listen, He hears. And most of the time, He goes out of His way to make sure we know that He heard, whether it’s through an answer to prayer or one of those surprise occurences that remind us He’s there. But do you think He actually needed to send Jesus to Earth to hear us? No. God hears everything. But He wanted someone on our level–someone we could understand, someone who had lived everything we had lived–to demonstrate His great love for us.

It would have been enough for God to create us. It would have been enough for Him to send Jesus to die. It would have been enough for Him to offer us forgiveness. Even if He had done all that and still not cared enough about us to seek friendship with us, it would have been enough.

But then why would He create us in the first place?

A relationship with God through Jesus doesn’t just save us from eternal separation, it saves us from loneliness. More than anything, God wants to have a relationship with us. He wants to know us personally.

Do I understand that? No. If I were God, I wouldn’t want anything to do with me. But that’s what the Bible says, and I believe the Bible.

So I’m thankful. Because salvation would be empty without a God to love. Maybe I’d get my fire insurance, but if God wasn’t there to help me survive this broken life on earth, what good is living?

Where do you go to find comfort?

When your life turns upside down, where do you find comfort? Many people I know head straight for the chocolate. Some dive into a book. Others watch television or movies. Some turn to alcohol or drugs. The responses are as varied as the individuals.

When our lives go wrong, most of the time we try to escape it, usually because trying to fix it is beyond us. And focusing on everything that’s wrong is depressing.

But while the chocolate is good and the book or the movie may distract us for a while, when they’re done, the problem will still be there. And maybe alcohol can help you forget for a little while, but when you wake up in the morning, nothing will have changed . . . and you’ll have a hangover.

When life starts circling the drain and nothing seems to be going right, there’s really only one thing we can do. There’s really only one person we can turn to. And that’s God.

Today’s passage is Psalm 94:18-19.

18 I cried out, “I am slipping!”
      but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me.
 19 When doubts filled my mind,
      your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.

Any comfort we try to find on earth is going to be temporary. And even if it’s some solution we’ve concocted, usually it won’t work. Or it will only work for a little while until the situation gets worse.

Ultimately, it’s God who has to solve the problem. Granted, any solution He provides will be temporary too because Earth isn’t going to be around forever, just like we won’t be down here forever either. But His solutions not only solve the problems we’re facing today but also the ones we’ll face in the future.

Now that’s not saying His solutions always make sense. On the contrary, most of the time His solutions are more confusing than the problem! But do you want a God you can understand? I don’t. If I can understand God and know what He’s going to do and know how He thinks all the time, is He much higher than I am? No. God has to be bigger than me so that He is big enough to solve not only my problems but also the problems of everyone on Earth.

And He already solved our greatest problem and that was sin. We are no longer bound to sin. Those who follow Christ have a choice whether to sin or not. We don’t have to be controlled by our desires and our selfishness.

But what about sickness? What about hunger? What about financial instability? What about the economy? What about all the little pesky daily troubles we encounter?

God says He’s got it covered. And if you trust Him, you can take comfort in that. Because God isn’t going to tell you something if it isn’t true. You just have to get to the point where you believe Him.

And while most of what God does doesn’t make sense, there’s one thing you can always count on. And that is God’s unfailing love. No matter what you do or where you go or where you’ve been or where you’re headed, God loves you. He always has. He always will. And there’s nothing you can do to make Him stop . . . because there’s nothing you did to earn it in the first place.

God loves you. And if you are a Christ follower, God is working everything out for your good and for His glory. When you slip and fall, He’ll be there to catch you. And when you are full of doubts and uncertainties, just look back at all the times He’s helped you, all the instances where He has been present in your life. If He’s ordered your steps this far, He isn’t going to stop now.