Alone isn’t always better, especially when it comes to worship

When I’m tired and stressed out, the last thing I want to do is be around people. When I’m running behind on my deadlines and have so many unresolved issues in my own life, the last thing I want to do is talk to people about their lives.

With everything that’s been going on in my life–between work and sickness and family issues–I hadn’t been to church in about a month. I realized it as I was pulling into the parking lot yesterday. And to be quite honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I’ve managed to get myself over committed again. Some of it is my own doing. The rest of it is someone else’s doing (hence Friday’s post). But no matter who is responsible, I still have too much work to get done and not enough days left in 2014. Even as I was parking the car, I was thinking maybe I’d have opportunity to slip out early so I could get some work done.

Well, God took a 2×4 to my thick skull today and reminded me why I needed to be at my church today. Because hiding doesn’t help you manage your tiredness and your stress, and focusing on your own unresolved issues often makes them worse instead of better.

700879_77376177Today’s verse is Colossians 3:16.

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.

I spend most of my 45-minute commute every morning talking to God and singing along with the radio or my own personal mix of music. And that’s good for me. It helps me get my focus right. It helps me remember that my life isn’t about me and that God has put me where I am for a reason. But there’s something different about being in a group of people all singing together or all praying together. It’s important to do it on your own, but when you’re one voice among many, all talking to the same God, it becomes more real somehow.

I’m sure I’ve realized this before, but standing in worship yesterday with an auditorium full of other Christ-followers, all singing at the top of our lungs–it helped me remember that I’m not in this fight alone. And maybe that’s a silly thing to realize, because it’s something I already know. But when you lock yourself away, it’s easier to forget that you are surrounded by a community of people who believe the same way you do. People who understand you better than you think.

And instead of worrying about my problems and my issues and my deadlines and all the things that I am responsible to do, I just stood in awe, lifted up by 1500 voices (or however many our auditorium holds these days) all telling God how great He is. And all I could think about was how I hope it made Him happy, how I desperately wanted Him to know how thankful I am for my life and my family and my priceless friendship with Him.

Yeah, I’ve got a lot to do. But what really matters in the end?

It’s ironic, really. I didn’t want to go to church because I had too much to do. But I went anyway because I knew I needed to. And when I got home I finished three major things that I’d been trying to get done all last week. That should teach me something.

I’m so blessed to have a wonderful church. No, it’s not perfect, but no group of people is. What’s important is that it’s where I’m called to be right now. If you don’t have a church or some place you can go to worship–and I mean really worship–please do yourself a favor and find one. And once you find it, go. Yes, life is busy and frantic and stressful, and it’s getting ready to get worse with the holidays approaching, but the more time you spend alone on your own deadlines and problems, the more you focus on them and the less you focus on just being in God’s presence.

It’s the one place I can really be still. Where I can’t find words and I don’t worry about it because with Him I don’t need them. Where I don’t try to hide because He knows me inside and out. And, yeah, I can worship in my car on my own, but when you’re in a group of people all focusing on God and all telling Him how wonderful He is, your problems don’t seem so insurmountable.

It will seem like a hassle. It will seem like more trouble than it’s worth. It will sound like work. But going to church where you can worship God in a community of like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ is never a bad idea, no matter how busy you are. Take the time to do it. Get your focus off yourself, and put your focus where it belongs–on God.

Your problems won’t go away, but you’ll see them for what they are–opportunities for God to show you just how wonderful He truly is.

Clock on the living room wall at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Giving your time to get more back

2014 is shaping up to be a busy year. Maybe I shouldn’t say that because it’s not even halfway through January yet, but the way certain aspects of life seem to be coming together tells me that I’m going to be running crazy this year. Yes, I know, I’m always running crazy. So believe me when I say 2014 may be “worse” than any other year before it.

So as I’ve been making my plans and prioritizing my goals for this year in the last week or so, I’ve been trying to find God’s wisdom in dealing with a schedule that I can’t possible tackle on my own. I’ve always lived by a schedule I couldn’t handle, but in the past I’ve allowed myself to be stressed out and stretched thin. And I don’t want to live like that anymore. But at the same time, I don’t want to turn away from opportunities that God has given me, especially when He has made it abundantly clear what I’m supposed to do.

My question to God: if I have limited time, focus, and energy, how can I get more? And this is the verse that keeps coming back to me.

Clock on the living room wall at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Clock on the living room wall at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Luke 6:38.

Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.

I know I’ve blogged on this verse before, probably many times before, and maybe even about this very topic. But I need a refresher this morning because I struggle with this. It doesn’t make sense to take the limited time, focus, and energy you have and give it all to God because you have things you have to do. There’s only so much you can do, isn’t there?

I’ve already mentioned I started watching Dr. Who. I got really sick just before Christmas and was down for about three weeks, and I discovered Dr. Who on Amazon Prime. So I just curled up with my Coke Zero and cans of soup and watched episode after episode until I got through all seven seasons. It’s brilliant. It really is. And there’s something just fun about it. Who wouldn’t want a sentient time-and-space machine? You can go anywhere, anytime, do anything, and you never run out of time. For someone with limited time, that’s appealing.

I have so many things I want to do. I have so many goals I want to accomplish. And while I do believe I’ll still be able to do those things when I get to heaven, I don’t want to wait. The dreams I have can be useful here, if I can only do them. But how do you accomplish everything you want to do when you work 40 to 50 hours a week? When you have a house you have to keep up? When you have responsibilities to your church that take up time? When you have responsibilities to friends and family?  Just surviving life as it is takes most of my time, energy, focus and doesn’t leave me anything left to chase my dreams.

So how do you get more? If this verse is true, God gives back what you give to Him. And I’ll be the first to tell you financially that’s true. I remember the days in college when I was living on ramen noodles and bean burritos, and I refused to stop tithing because I trusted God would provide. And He did. But what about time? What about energy? What about focus?

Well, what if I give my time, energy, and focus to God? Instead of taking those three things to do my own thing, what happens if I give them to Him? Do you think He’ll give them back to me in greater measure?

I trust God, and I believe His Word. So I’m okay testing Him on this one. And 2014 will tell if this works or not. I hope it does because I don’t have a time machine. My abilities are limited, even if my dreams aren’t. So it only makes sense to trust my time and resources to Him.

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.

Tripping over your own feet

Living a Christian life is counter-intuitive to our own common sense. Did you realize that? So much of what we think we should do in our own strength is exactly what we shouldn’t do if we want to live the kind of life Christ did.

I mean, think of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The people who are happy are the poor, the meek, the unfortunate, the sorrowful.

Say good things about your enemies. Pray for people who manipulate you. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile for your oppressors. Forgive.

Does any of that sound intuitive to you? It doesn’t to me. My first instinct when I get my feelings hurt is to hurt the perpetrator back, not to turn around and say good things about them. And I don’t want to pray for people who use me. And I don’t want to work myself to death for someone who’s just going to hurt me in the end.

But . . . Jesus did.

Today’s verse is Psalm 25:14-15.

14 The Lord is a friend to those who fear him.
      He teaches them his covenant.
 15 My eyes are always on the Lord,
      for he rescues me from the traps of my enemies.

There’s a lot to cover in this passage, but the part that stood out to me this morning is verse 15.

Okay. I’m a fairly clumsy person. It’s not uncommon for me to run into things on the rare occasion. I’m not as bad as some people I know, but I’m certainly not the most graceful person in the world either. Just get me to try to mount a horse or ride in a canoe and you’ll find out how awkward I am. But walking doesn’t generally give me any trouble, unless there are a lot of obstacles on the ground.

I went to a writing workshop in Colorado in June of this year with my best buddy, Katie Morford, and we hiked up a mountain trail to take pictures. Well, I learned a long time ago that my asthma, though it is better than it was when I was a child, still loves to flare up in low-oxygen environments. And the only way I can keep going in a situation like that is if I look at my feet. If I try to walk like I normally do, over rocks and roots and beautiful bubbling streams, I will step wrong and fall on my face. I actually did fall during that hike, but I caught myself with one hand on a rock and the other on my camera to keep it from smashing into the ground.

I have to watch my feet. I have to second guess every step because my brain stops working. I can’t look at my destination because if I focus on where I’m going I won’t be able to get there. I have to focus on how I get there, where I step, how big of a step to take, how solid the ground is, how wiggly the rocks are, how tired my legs are, how much tread is on my twelve-year-old boots.

How many of us Christians are just stumbling through life? How many of us are bound to watch our feet and watch our step because if we dare to look up we’re scared that we’ll fall?

Here’s where Psalm 25:15 comes in. The Message, a paraphrase but a good translation, translates this verse:

15 If I keep my eyes on God,
   I won’t trip over my own feet.

What makes sense when you’re traveling rocky ground is to watch your feet to make sure that you don’t step wrong. That’s instinctive. What isn’t instinctive is to keep your eyes on your destination.

Living a Christian life isn’t easy. It’s hard. It’s harder than anything else. Becoming a Christian is easy. Living like one is a challenge. The ground is rocky and full of pits and traps, and my instinctive reaction when walking through a minefield is to stare at my feet. But that means that I’m trusting myself to get me through safely. And I can’t trust myself because I don’t know where I’m going. (I’m the person who got lost in Wal-Mart when their store designers moved the Katie Lee section.) I don’t know all the plans God has for me and for my life, and I have to look to Him constantly so that He can show me where I’m supposed to go.

I can’t watch my feet and His direction at the same time.

So the only thing to do is the counter-intuitive thing to do. To watch Him and trust that He won’t let me step wrong. If I’m watching Him and if I’m trusting Him for every step I take, He won’t let me stand on a loose rock or a weak bridge over a pit or step on a mine. If I watch Him and follow His directions, He will take me down safe paths. They won’t be easy and they may not be comfortable, but no matter where the path goes or how it gets me there, I will be safer with Him than I ever would be following my own directions.

And if I keep my eyes on Him, He will keep me from tripping over my own feet. If I keep my eyes on Him, He will prevent me from making mistakes I shouldn’t make.

And the awesome thing about God is that even if I’ve been following myself it’s not too late for me. God is big enough to pull me out of any pit I’ve fallen into. All I have to do is look to Him, and He will rescue me and put me on the safe path.