The view from Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Staying focused in the midst of the storm

I didn’t get to do some of the things I’d planned to do last night. I had every intention of getting some laundry done, and I wanted to do my dishes (seriously, I promise). But doing dishes would require me to stand by the window in the kitchen, and last night when I had planned to do my dishes, another massive storm swept through here. The sun is still coming up, so I haven’t been outside to check the damage, but three miles south of me reported tennis-ball sized hail. And I’m pretty sure I heard some that big when they were hitting the house. And when you have tennis ball size hail and 75 mile per hour wind, standing in front of a window isn’t a good idea.

So I sat in the basement, watching the weather reports so I would know how to prepare for what was coming. It was more than one storm cell with lots of pink, red, and yellow. But as I was sitting there, I got to thinking about all the things I could have been doing. Even as the hail started coming down, I thought about the things I would have been able to accomplish if the storm hadn’t interrupted me.

And then I kicked myself. Not literally because that would have taken dexterity I’m not capable of. But mentally because I had some things I could do remotely, using my netbook. Technology is a wonderful thing. So as the storm raged outside, I worked on drama team planning and some of the other writing projects I’d put off because I didn’t have time for them.

No, I didn’t get the dishes done. And my laundry is still dirty. But I did get quite a few things done in spite of the storm.

The view from Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

The view from Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verse is Ephesians 5:16.

Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.

Storms are going to come in our lives. Some are worse than others. Some leave us feeling beaten and battered, and others are more of an annoyance than anything else. But kind of like living in Kansas, if you don’t expect the storms, they’ll blow you off your feet. And if you don’t have a good foundation, you won’t be able to stand up.

You have to expect the storms. They’re part of life. You have to be ready for them, and you have to be able to keep functioning when they hit.

I think that’s part of the Christian life, honestly, is learning how to keep focused and keep doing what God has called you to do even when the storm is raging around you. It’s not easy, but God calls Himself a shelter and a safe place for a reason.

If there’s a storm blowing outside or even if you’re waiting for a storm to get to you because you can see it coming, you have a choice on how to handle it. You can hide from it or you can embrace it. And when I say embrace I don’t mean run outside and take photographs, although that’s perfectly fine. I’ve done my fair share of that.

But don’t use the storm as an excuse to hunker down and stop what you’re doing. Don’t use the storm as a sword to cut yourself off from people or from what God has called you to do. Yes, storms are scary, but weathering them alone is scarier.

You don’t have to stop working just because a storm rises up around you. Do what you need to do to survive it and push forward. Your other choice is to cower in fear of it and do nothing.

Maybe you’re okay with that. I’m not. There’s too much to do. There’s too much wrong in the world. There’s too much at stake. And I personally let too many opportunities pass me by.

So if you’re facing a storm today, don’t be afraid of it. God lets storms into our lives for a reason, and He never leaves us to face them alone. Ask someone for help. Tell someone what you’re feeling. And whatever you do, don’t focus on the storm. Focusing on the storm is what got Peter in trouble when he walked on water with Jesus. Instead, focus on Jesus. Focus on what He’s doing. Focus on what He’s called you to do.

You’ll be amazed at how the size and scope of the storm fades when you do that. And what’s more, you’ll be shocked at how quickly the storm passes.

Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico, Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Fresh strength for the worn out

Do you ever get tired of everything? When you hit that wall on the edge of burn out where you’re not ready to give up but you’re too worn down to keep trying? Anyone else ever been there? I end up there more frequently than I care to admit, and there are a number of reasons for it. The primary reason is simply that I load myself down with too much to accomplish. I was lauhing at a drama team leader meeting last night that I had made a priority list of things I needed to do, and it turned out to be two pages long.

Sometimes I have those moments where I know everything is fine and even if it’s not fine, I know it will be. But even so, I just get tired. And as busy as my year has been up until this point, it’s fixing to get even busier, and if I’m already exhausted now, I’m kind of nervous about fall, which is when my life turns upside down.

So if any of you out there are where I am this morning–skirting the edge of burn out, trying to stay focused, grasping for the strength you need to accomplish things that used to bring you joy–this is for you. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico, Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico, Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Isaiah 40:12-31 (The Message)

Who has scooped up the ocean
    in his two hands,
    or measured the sky between his thumb and little finger,
Who has put all the earth’s dirt in one of his baskets,
    weighed each mountain and hill?
Who could ever have told God what to do
    or taught him his business?
What expert would he have gone to for advice,
    what school would he attend to learn justice?
What god do you suppose might have taught him what he knows,
    showed him how things work?
Why, the nations are but a drop in a bucket,
    a mere smudge on a window.
Watch him sweep up the islands
    like so much dust off the floor!
There aren’t enough trees in Lebanon
    nor enough animals in those vast forests
    to furnish adequate fuel and offerings for his worship.
All the nations add up to simply nothing before him—
    less than nothing is more like it. A minus.

So who even comes close to being like God?
    To whom or what can you compare him?
Some no-god idol? Ridiculous!
    It’s made in a workshop, cast in bronze,
Given a thin veneer of gold,
    and draped with silver filigree.
Or, perhaps someone will select a fine wood—
    olive wood, say—that won’t rot,
 Then hire a woodcarver to make a no-god,
    giving special care to its base so it won’t tip over!

Have you not been paying attention?
    Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
    Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?
God sits high above the round ball of earth.
    The people look like mere ants.
He stretches out the skies like a canvas—
    yes, like a tent canvas to live under.
He ignores what all the princes say and do.
    The rulers of the earth count for nothing.
 Princes and rulers don’t amount to much.
    Like seeds barely rooted, just sprouted,
They shrivel when God blows on them.
    Like flecks of chaff, they’re gone with the wind.

“So—who is like me?
    Who holds a candle to me?” says The Holy.
Look at the night skies:
    Who do you think made all this?
Who marches this army of stars out each night,
    counts them off, calls each by name
—so magnificent! so powerful!—
    and never overlooks a single one?

Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,
     or, whine, Israel, saying,
“God has lost track of me.
    He doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything?
Haven’t you been listening?
God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
    He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.
    And he knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
    gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
    young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
    They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
    they walk and don’t lag behind.

Stones of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

What we expect determines our focus

My brain is a mess this morning. I’m not exactly sure why. It may be because I had a very pleasant, thoroughly relaxing weekend where I didn’t think about anything and accomplished even less. I woke up this morning, and my brain just simply won’t engage. Have you ever experienced that? Where your brain simply won’t settle on a topic and jumps randomly from distraction to distraction? It happens to me frequently, and sometimes it’s useful. But when I’m trying to get something done, it’s a pain in the neck.

It’s times like those I really pray for focus because there are important things to do, and if I can’t bring my focus in, they won’t get done. When I was thinking about staying focused this morning, today’s verses came to mind.

Stones of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Stones of Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verses are Matthew 24:42-44.

“So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”

This is Jesus talking about the End Days, about watching for the day when He will return to Earth to take His followers home. Most times you’ll hear this referred to as The Rapture. That’s not a term that’s used in Scripture, but it’s what we use to describe what happens.

It’s hard to stay focused on something you’re not expecting. That’s kind of the point of this passage. If you expect that something is going to happen, you’ll be alert. You’ll be watching for it. You’ll be focused on it. If you’re not expecting anything to happen, you’ll be content to sit down, kick up your feet, and chill out. And I don’t suppose there’s any harm in that, but you wouldn’t be doing your job, especially if you’re supposed to be watching.

It’s kind of like this blog, honestly. If I’m not expecting God to do anything with it, it’s easy to get sidetracked in the mornings when I’m writing it, especially when I wake up in such a fog. I don’t really write this blog for anyone else but me, and it’s miraculous that my working through what God is doing in my life out loud actually encourages other people. I don’t take credit for that; that’s all Him. But if I don’t expect that I’m going to see something true or something encouraging out of the Bible in the mornings, it’s easy for me to suddenly want to give up. Or at least go back to bed and sleep for another half hour before I have to go to work.

What we expect determines our focus.

So what do you expect today? And I’m not exactly talking about what you expect to happen today. You can try to plan for what’s going to happen today, and that’s a good idea. It’s a good idea to be prepared if you can be. But what happens to you isn’t as important what you learn from it. So I guess a better question would be what do you expect to learn today? What do you expect to get out of the events of today? What do you expect you will learn about God today?

Do you expect anything at all? If you don’t, your focus is going to suffer. If you’re a guard watching a door, if you don’t expect someone to come out of that door, you won’t be ready when they do. Your focus will fail. It’s the same with life. If you don’t expect to learn something about God today, you won’t. If you don’t expect God to provide you an opportunity to help someone, you won’t see it when it comes. You’ll blow right past it. You’ll miss it.

If that’s what you expect, that’s what you’ll be focused on.

Instead, think about focusing on who God is. Remember, He’s God. He can do anything, and He’s promised that we can do anything through Him. So if you’re in a place where you don’t get to see Him working, or if you’re too busy, or if you’re too stressed, try to expect Him anyway. You never know where He might show up, but if you’re not expecting Him, you’ll miss Him.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Why I shouldn’t be discouraged

There’s a lot to be afraid of in life. I’m sure if you tried, you could make an exhaustive list of all the possibilities without too much effort. There is so much that we face on a daily basis that we could be afraid of if we choose. I’m sorry to say many times I choose fear when it comes to certain situations, especially like talking to people I don’t know. And maybe this is just me, but once I give in to fear, discouragement follows soon after–because I know better. I know that fear is a choice. I know that fear is not from God, but there are times when I choose it anyway.

The Bible amazes me because so often it has already made connections between emotions that we don’t think about.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Today’s verse is Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

If you asked another person why they shouldn’t be afraid, I’m pretty positive the answer would come back as a list of reasons, depending on the situation. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a break-in? You have a security system. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a hail storm? You have car insurance. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of the dentist? And so on and so forth. So when God chooses to give reasons for why we shouldn’t be afraid or discouraged in this verse, it’s interesting to note His reasons.

Don’t be afraid because God is with you.

Don’t be discouraged because I am your God.

Are those sufficient reasons to turn from fear and discouragement? Obviously, God thinks so, or He wouldn’t have said it. These are His words via the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel, offering comfort and help.

The fear part I get. We shouldn’t be afraid because God is with us. If God’s with us, who can be against us? If God is with us, nothing can harm us that He hasn’t allowed, and even if something does harm us, He’ll be there throughout. He won’t leave us. I can grasp that on a rational level, although the emotional level is a little more difficult. Once fear gets its claws in you, it’s hard to break loose of its hold.

We don’t need to fear the unknown. We don’t need to fear what we don’t know. We don’t need to fear period. God is with us. He’s got it handled. He knows what’s He’s doing.

Okay. So what about discouragement? Don’t be discouraged because God is our God. What? What sense does that make? Is that even an answer to the question?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but God doesn’t always answer our questions in a way that we expect. Half the time, He’ll answer with a question. And the rest of the time He’ll answer the question we don’t even know we’re asking. He knows our hearts, and He knows what we need to hear, especially when we don’t know. But He’s always right. And He always says what we need. So what does this mean?

Why shouldn’t I be discouraged? I am your God.

Think about that statement for a moment. I am your God. What does that mean to you? To me, it means that I have access to a power greater than myself. It means that God has got everything figured out and He’s willing to let me in on it. It means that God has chosen me, not that I chose Him. I have, but He chose me first to be a part of His big plan.

For me, discouragement comes when I’ve failed or when I’ve given in to something I know I shouldn’t have done. For me, discouragement is a response to my inadequacy. And when I think about it that way, it suddenly makes sense.

I shouldn’t discouraged because God chose me in spite of my failures and inadequacies. My shortcomings are no surprise to Him. He knows all about them. I shouldn’t be trying to get through life on my own anyway. Remember? God is with me? That means He’s with me in the good times as well as the bad times.

When discouragement rears its ugly head, I need to remember that my life isn’t about me. It’s not about my failures or my successes. It’s about God and what God is doing and what He wants to do. I’m a part of His plan because He put me there–right where He wants me–and nothing is going to happen that He didn’t already know about. Nothing is going to catch Him off guard. And when I fail–and I will–I don’t need to give in to discouragement because He’s my God and He never leaves people behind.

Discouragement is as much a choice as fear is. True, I think it’s more of a response to giving into fear, but both of them are choices. And God has equipped us to face both down. So if you’re facing a tough situation today or if you’re just feeling blue, don’t give in. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.

God is with you. He’s your God. He wants to help.

Choose to let Him.

Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Living life like a sheep

My brother and I raised 4-H market lambs for two years, and during that process, I learned a lot about sheep. And I learned why the Bible compares people to them. Sheep are pretty stupid, even though they think they’re awfully smart. They fall prey to the herd mentality. They will gorge themselves if allowed. They always think they know where they’re going, and they’re very, very stubborn about changing their minds.

Sound like anyone you know? I think every person needs to have experience raising sheep, especially if you’re a Christ-follower. It will open your eyes.

Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verses are John 10:11-18.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.

“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”

I never had opportunity to sacrifice my life for any of my sheep. I can’t say that I would have, honestly, because their purpose was to go to market. They existed in my life for experience and education and hopefully a decent premium at auction that would jumpstart my puny savings account. In that context, my sheep weren’t worth my life.

But shepherding in Jesus’ day was different than it is today. Around here, my neighbors “shepherd” with four-wheelers and a lot of shouting. In Jesus’ time, shepherds led their sheep. Sheep were their livelihood, and you didn’t need to raise sheep for the experience of it. It was a full-time occupation. So if anything ever threatened the sheep, it was worth it to the shepherd to intervene. Why? Because they were his sheep. They were his life.

To a sheep, a shepherd is everything: guide, provider, protector, friend. The shepherd is the one who knows where the best grazing is. The shepherd is the one who knows the safe paths to travel. The shepherd is the one who leads. The shepherd is the one who makes the plan. It’s up to the sheep to follow. The sheep don’t have to do anything else. They just have to keep up, and even if they can’t keep up, the shepherd won’t leave them behind.

Thinking about our relationship with Jesus in that context leaves me speechless. I am very much like a sheep in my life. I really think I know what’s best for me. I think I know where I can find the best prospects for my life, and I am certain I know how to handle the opportunities that come at me without help. I convince myself I know when I push myself too hard, and I’m incredibly too stubborn about everything, especially the things I don’t actually know.

Jesus is patient with me anyway. He gently corrects, carefully guides, consistently provides, and always protects me no matter where I go and no matter how often I bite off more than I can actually chew.

A shepherd who’s in it for the money can always find another opportunity for cash if the sheep are in danger. There’s no need to risk life and limb. But the shepherd who’s in it for the sheep will do crazy things to keep them safe, and that’s what Jesus did for us. No one compelled Him to sacrifice His life for us. Yes, God the Father sent Him, but Jesus didn’t have to do what He did.

So what does all this mean for our lives today? It means a lot, honestly. It means that we don’t really know best, even though we think we do. It means God has a plan, and it means our job is to follow and not worry about things we can’t control. Yes, do your best. Use your gifts to their fullest extent. But Jesus wouldn’t lead you down a path without a reason. Just like a good shepherd wouldn’t lead his sheep to an area without good grazing.

Maybe your life hasn’t turned out the way you expected. That’s okay. God still has a plan, Jesus is still the Shepherd, and you’re still the sheep. The roles haven’t changed, even if your location has. So rest. Find some nice grass to munch on. Live. Enjoy the view. And take it easy until Jesus calls you again. Then follow. If He’s willing to lay His life down for you, He’s not going to lead you wrong.