The Shepherd of My Life

Last week, my Bible reading plan took me through the final chapters of Genesis. I was listening to these chapters on CD as I attempted to drive to school Tuesday night. Going 25mph on a snow and ice-covered interstate, the words of Genesis 48:15 filled the tight space in the car:

“The God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…”

As I heard Jacob’s tender reference to God as his shepherd in his words of blessing over Joseph’s sons, I simply cried. But I also couldn’t shake the echo of Genesis 47:9 (“Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life”) and wondered at how Jacob could tell the great Egyptian ruler that the days of his life had been few and evil…and then these words about God as his shepherd?

In pondering these two things for a week now, I am wondering if it is not at all the juxtaposition that it, at first, seems to be. What if Jacob is just plainly stating how hard and sorrow-filled his life has been? Truth. And, yet, in the midst of the days and years of suffering and pain he experienced, he is also honestly saying that he has known nothing but the gentle, guiding hand of the Shepherd? Also truth.

In the many years that Jacob lived, he had more than his share of family struggles and grief. His parents each had a favorite son (Gen. 25:28), the animosity between the brothers was deep and great (Gen. 27:41), Jacob had to leave his family for fear of being killed by Esau (Gen. 27:42-45), he was deceived and treated poorly by his father-in-law (Gen. 29-31), family strife between his wives and sons continued throughout his entire life, Rachel died in childbirth, his favorite son was all but dead to him for at least twenty years, famine struck their land, and he finally came to a land of foreigners to die.

It seemed like a bitter life, riddled with loss, conflict, and deep sorrow. Where was God? God had promised to lead him his entire life (Gen. 28:15), but this was a life that hardly seemed blessed.

And yet…

Throughout Jacob’s story a ribbon of grace runs deep. Stitched through family grief, personal failings and sin, and sorrows too deep for words are threads of blessing and kindness held by the gracious hand of Jacob’s Shepherd.

Lying on his death bed, he was able to honestly say that God had never failed him all his life long. As was often the case with many of the characters in the Bible, they felt the darkness and spoke from the despondency of their souls. That may have been true of Jacob at the time he spoke to Pharaoh, but even if he were speaking from a place of melancholy, his words were entirely true.

And even if in the very next chapter, he was feeling the smile of God upon him as he prepared to die, those beautiful words about God as his shepherd were also completely true.

Friends, this is the Christian life.

Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Crying and celebrating. Dying and living. Breaking and being healed. Mourning and dancing.

It is not an all of one or the other. It is both.

We may have been told that followers of Jesus always smile and praise God in the hardest times (even if it is fake). We may have also had our ears filled with the damaging words of “if you are going through suffering, you must be experiencing the judgment of God for some sin.” Or the words of the prosperity “gospel” have seeped into our souls like a damp basement and all we smell is condemnation because our lives are not crowned with the favor of men and showers of golden coins.

This was not Jacob’s life. Nor was it Joseph’s, Paul’s, Peter’s, John’s, or David’s. These men, among many others, lived lives that were deeply painful and yet deeply trusting in God.

Our own lives are often colored in violent shades of family conflict, broken relationships, false accusations, deaths of our dearest friends and family, sin and regret, shame, and grief. We feel burdened beyond our years with the heavy sorrows we carry.

We are dying every day.

As we look back on the sorrows that roll over our years like the waves of the sea, we may be tempted to think that God has left us. When all we feel is pain and all we see is darkness, we may want to doubt the goodness of God in our lives.

But these sorrows we face will not even be worth remembering or mentioning in light of the glory that is coming (2 Cor. 4:17, Rom. 8:18).

Because, if we were to look back, we would likely see that our very days have been held in the hands of our Shepherd. We have not lacked because Jesus is fullness itself. We have been led by refreshing streams. He has restored our souls. Even when he has led us through death’s valleys, we have not feared because he has never left us. His staff has protected and comforted us. He has prepared a feast for us in the midst of our hardest days, before the toughest people. His fullness continues to fill up our emptiness, and grace flows over. Truly, his goodness and his mercy have continually pursued us all our lives, and we know that one day, we will spend all of forever in his beautiful presence.

The days of our years may have been heavy and hard, but the joy of being forever with Jesus will make this earthy life seem inconsequential. When we see the face of Jesus, we will fully know that the Shepherd of our souls has led us all this way.

 

 

 

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On Birthdays, and Jesus, and Relationships

On my walk around the lake last night, I was thinking about the past year and talking to Jesus about it. I had no idea that this year would impact my life in the way it came to. Nor that my soul would find such rest, life, and hope in the midst of such brokenness, bitter waters, and black skies.

Friends, God brings such beauty from such ugliness. He gives life in place of death. He serves up a feast in the midst of the driest desert. But oftentimes, we cannot see it until we’ve walked much further down the road. And, sometimes, this doesn’t happen until eternity.

The best year of my life was the year I found saving faith in Jesus—the year Jesus truly captured my heart and life. But this year would be close to that one, in its own odd way. Whereas 2009 was pure, unbroken beauty, because I couldn’t see anything but Jesus; 2017 brought its own beauty, though it came crushed, hidden, and disguised in pain and tears.

Birthdays are the days I look back on the past year and reflect on all that filled up the previous several hundred days. Some years have been mostly bitter, some years have been mostly sweet. At first, this year looked like it would be all bitter, but the sweetness was just so wrapped up in the bitter as to not be able to taste it for a little while.

And when I step back from this year, this I know…Jesus is everything. And relationships are precious gifts.

Jesus

Jesus is everything because he created it all, holds it all, and it is all for him, through him, and because of him (Romans 11:36). Nothing in life even comes close to comparing to him. And nothing matters more than having a real relationship with him—where he is loved, treasured, and delighted in. Jesus is all.

This winter, when the stress and strain I had been experiencing turned into physical pain, I was confronted with the questions, “If you never had another good day in your life, would you still worship Jesus? If the pain doesn’t go away and you are never able to run again, sleep comfortably again, or simply breathe without it hurting, will Jesus still have your heart?”

He was enough for those months and he will be enough for every day after them.

And People

For most of us, if we could see our lives as a tapestry or mosaic made up of all the people who have been or are in our lives, we would likely see something so beautiful we would cry—and thank God. Relationships are such a gracious gift and one of the most precious things in all of life. It is in the context of relationships that we experience even more of Christ. Relationships with tangible human beings allow us to feel the love, affection, and kindness of Christ in ways we never would be able to if we were not in community with others.

For me, this year has been sprinkled with some very deep, grace-filled, gospel-focused, Jesus-centered relationships. Gratitude to God feels so small for the enormous blessing these people’s lives are. Such grace.

For sure, it was a year. But it was a year that was held in the sovereign hands of our Savior. He was enough and will always be enough. And being loved by him is everything.

Satisfied in Jesus

As I was driving home from school last night, I was thinking about the start of a new ministry year and all the many things that will take place in this coming year. While I was praying for the children we will have in our Sunday school classes this year, these verses came to mind:

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:14-17)

For whatever we do this year to have any meaningful or lasting value, it has to come from hearts that have been satisfied with Jesus and all he is for us. Knowing his great love for us should make us deeply joyful (v. 14). But Moses, the writer of this psalm, doesn’t want to eventually be satisfied in God or find God after chasing after God-substitutes all day long (Jer. 2:13). He is asking God for this to happen early in the morning. He is thirsting for the water that eternally satisfies (Jn. 7:37-38).

For most of us, our lives have had pain, suffering, or loss. But the writer of this psalm is asking God to make them glad for as many years as they have experienced suffering (v. 15). It’s like he knows that is actually going to take place! That one day it is entirely possible to have a joy in God that is so overwhelmingly great as to make all the sorrow from the past days and years simply fade away (Rev. 21:4).

He also wants God’s works to be shown to both his people but also to their children. He longs for the next generation to be amazed at the glory of God in what God does (v. 16). But he has also had enough experience with humanity to know that the only way one can see God as glorious, amazing, and powerful is to first behold him for who he really is and to be deeply satisfied in him. The same goes for children…how will they see Jesus as the treasure he is if they do not see the adults in their lives delighting in Jesus?

Moses then closes his psalm by asking for the favor of God to rest upon them, but also to establish the work they will do (v. 17). He doesn’t want to just do things, as he surely remembers what it is like to do things a part from God (Num. 20). And he doesn’t want to simply do all the right things if they don’t come from a place of both knowing God but also knowing that his smile is upon them.

Ministry can and does happen with God only making a cameo appearance. It is entirely possible to serve without being satisfied in Jesus. Things get done, but there is not the joy in Jesus that should characterize our service. Instead, we are left feeling incredibly empty, lonely, and sad. It was never how it was supposed to be. Nor should we ever be content with doing the right things if they do not come from a place of deeply knowing and loving Jesus.

We must behold Jesus and delight in him as our One Thing (Luke 10:42), joyfully serve his people, and be all there in our relationships with him and with his people.

 

Do the Next Thing

With the beginning of a new school year, so many pieces of the past year have flashed before my eyes, with their own questions trailing behind them. How is possible that an entire year has gone by just like that? After everything the past year contained—what deep grace is this to be in the grace-filled place I am today? Am I seeing tiny glimpses and bold swaths of God’s presence in this last year (Gen. 39:21)? Do I see how much of the previous year was covered in a love so vast, so deep that one day it will simply cover over all the pain, failings, and brokenness of these years (Rev. 21:4)?

Over the couple weeks off between semesters, I wrote a lot. Prayed a lot. Read a lot. Cried a lot. Dreamed a lot. Hoped a lot. Listened a lot. And was helped and encouraged a lot.

For several weeks before break began, I had great expectations of using the time away from school to write a half dozen blog posts. But that did not happen. Over the course of the two-week break, numerous topics found their way into my journal or a Word document. Sometimes, it was something someone said, a verse I read, something from one of the many books I’d been reading, or something I was wakened up to during the night. But I was not able to finish anything.

The words just were not there to bring even one thing to completion.

It is like seeing something but not being able to see it clear enough to adequately describe it.

So, instead there is this post about doing the next thing.

Be Faithful in Doing the Next Thing

Truly, there are days and years and seasons when that is all any of us can do. Or should do.

Trust God, listen to him, be with his people, and simply do the next thing.

Three weeks ago, I received an email from Travelocity, asking me if I were ready to go back to Great Falls, MT, as it had been nearly a year since I had been there. And over the past couple months, Facebook has regurgitated quite a few memories and blog posts from my summer trips to Myanmar and the Dominican Republic. Another lifetime ago.

But I am not going back to the reservation in Montana this fall. Nor am I in another country.

No, I am going to school, while living in a small town in the Midwest.

Doing the next thing. With joy.

If someone had told me last summer what my life would look like this year, I never would have believed them. But I am deeply thankful to be here. There are not enough words to express how much I love my school and church and the people who make up both. Nor is there enough gratitude for the sisters, friends, pastors, instructors, and classmates who share life with me. God has been kind.

And I am realizing that doing the next thing can look a million different ways for a million different people.

It may mean showing up to work or it could be resigning from a job. It could be serving in the church or it could be taking a season off to just attend. It could be moving far away or staying in the same place. It could be continual doctor visits or unending tears in the midst of broken hearts, lives, or bodies. It could be laying under the stars or driving home at night. It could be singing worship songs to Jesus in the shower or pouring your heart out to him on a late evening run. It could be admitting your fragile faith and great unbelief to God. It could be sharing Jesus with your unsaved coworkers or encouraging a friend. It could be listening to the breaking hearts of people you hardly know or simply offering a greeting to someone who doesn’t look at all like you. It could be seeing a counselor or finding a mentor. Or it could be realizing that it is one’s time to pour into the soul work of others. It could be a time for more afternoon coffee dates or a time to stay home and read to your children. It could be any of these things or a hundred thousand other things.

Be Faithful in the Time Given

When Frodo mournfully told Gandalf that he wished all the mess with the ring had never happened to him, Gandalf spoke words to him that are also thoughtful for us, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

To a follower of Jesus, deciding “what to do with the time that is given to us” should, above all else, be consumed with living lives that proclaim the glory and worth of Christ (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Rev. 4:11; Jude 1:24-25). This also means deeply loving, knowing, and treasuring Jesus (Ps. 16:11; Luke 10:27a; Matt. 13:44; Phil. 3:7-8). And it should also mean that we love others out of the overflow of God’s great love to us and in us (Eph. 5:2; 15-16; Luke 10:27b). The million smaller things we do next should first have their source in our One Thing—Jesus (Luke 10:42).

His grace, strength, and love are enough for every next thing, every next step (2 Cor. 9:8). He is always enough. We are simply called to love him deeply, love others greatly, and be faithful in doing what he has called us to do.

 

 

Fall Into Jesus

Grief reminds us that life is broken and sorrow reminds us that we are not whole.

But we do not fall into despair. We fall into Jesus.

We grieve hard and long. We mourn deeply and cry long. We feel the loss as close as the skin stretched tight over bone.

Our faces are wet with something akin to rain and seas.

We remember and it cuts like a sword. We stare at dark ceilings and the years roll over our hearts like rivers in springtime.

But we do not stop at the ceiling. Instead, we pour out our hearts to our Father and Friend who is even closer than the ceiling and our own skin pulled tight.

Our hearts break. We hurt like we are going to die. And then we are afraid we will forever live like we are dying.

Yet, one day, we will realize that we are really dying to live. And because of Jesus we will live again.

We go through days and weeks and months that feel like all is dark, all is silence, all is loss.

We will doubt ourselves. We will doubt everything we ever did. And we will doubt the goodness of God himself.

Words will flow from our wounded hearts like November winds—pointed yet empty. We will hurt people because we hurt.

Our sorrows will burst out of their bandages at the strangest of times. The oddest of things will remind us that we are not healed. Not yet.

Not fully until Jesus comes back.

Sleep will haunt us or consume us. Music will choke our throats. More memories of something else. Something we wanted to forget.

But God is with us…

We will hear unhelpful things, hurtful things, hateful things. Hurting people hurt people.

We will be broken yet greater and cut still deeper.

We will doubt love. We will question the effort 1 Corinthians 13 calls for. We will be tempted to never love again.

We will dump buckets of pieces of our broken hearts at Jesus’ feet and ask him why it hurts so much.

He will again remind us of how greatly and deeply he loved us then and how greatly and deeply he loves us still.

Gospel.

We will not fall into despair. Instead, again, we will fall into Jesus.

And in his broken hands, our broken hearts will realize that we will be okay.

Sea billows will roll over our souls, but because of Jesus, it will be well with our souls.

Maybe not fully today or tomorrow or even next year but One Day. On that day, all sorrow will be crushed under the feet of the One whose Presence is the very fullness of joy itself.

Beauty from ashes. Joy in place of sorrow. All comfort for all mourning.

We do not fall into despair. Instead, we fall into Jesus.

Safe.

Whole.

 

 

Dandelions

 

One can either see them as hideous, nuisance weeds or one can choose to see them as flowers the color of sun and hope. Either they are pepper shakers of seeds that will cause more problems in future years or they are vessels for a thousand wishes to be carried off in the wind.

During my couple weeks off between semesters, I was able to spend much time in prayer and reflection on the previous months. And either they can be viewed as a series of hard days or they can be viewed as the means God used to bring me to this very place. I will not say that I’ve always seen the past months and years as a blessing—far from it on many days. But through it all, I deeply believe that Jesus does all things well (Mark 7:37). Even the things that hurt. And sometimes especially the things that hurt.

My heart and soul are at peace that my time simply ran out. I have no other way to describe it except to say that the sand in the glass finished falling, the track ran out of blacktop, and ashes were all that remained of the fire. In some ways I burned out, in other ways God called me out. In both ways, he was speaking to me. Both were a gift even if they didn’t both look that way at the time.

Though I may not be done with the after effects of the past, it is with deep gratitude that I look back and see that Jesus has led me all this way, even when I couldn’t see him, feel him, or hear him. He is my salvation, and it is with joy that I draw from that well—the one with living water that will never run out (Isaiah 12:2; 55:1, John 7:37).

God was very kind and brought some precious people into my life to walk this journey with me. I have not gone alone. Their prayers, care, grace, and encouragement were the sweet gifts of a compassionate God. Because of these people, I know more of grace now than I ever did before this year. And to these people who embodied this grace of Jesus in ways I neither expected nor deserved—I am forever grateful.

Along with gratitude for the faithfulness of God in this past season, I look forward to this next year with joy. Joy does not erase all sorrows or heal all hurts, but there is a deeper joy in Jesus that goes far below the past and present circumstances of life (Psalm 16:11).

There is much joy at returning to school. Joy in learning more about Jesus to love him more. Joy in the rejoicing of being with family and friends. Joy in delighting in the little things—bugs dancing on the water, lilacs outside the window, owls crying in the trees at night. Joy in both old and new relationships. Joy in a church that feels like coming home every week. Joy in the full, precious, beautiful gospel. Joy in the majesty, grace, and sovereignty of our Savior King. So much joy.

In this next year of life, I long to more fully see the past grace that brought me to this place in the same light as the dandelions in the field behind my apartment. Beautiful. Immensely so.

The Day In Between

In between the day we remember Jesus dying a brutal death on the cross and the day he rose from the dead, we have this day of silence. It was a day of brokenness, deep sorrow, and heavy questions. Outwardly, it looked like the devil had won. Wrapped in soft linen, Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb. He had not taken himself off the cross, he had not called down an army of angels, and he had not even yelled insults from the rough tree. Instead, offering forgiveness to his killers, he simply placed his spirit in his Father’s hands and died.

To Jesus’ followers, it probably looked like everything had come to a close. For Peter, it was likely a day of deep anguish and shame. For the other disciples, it surely carried much grief and loss. The acrid tastes of extreme emptiness, inconsolable sorrow, and unending questions would have been nearly too much to bear. Simply put, it was a hard day.

In pondering that day of in-between, two things stand out:

From the ashes, beauty will rise

In the aftermath of Good Friday, it looked like all was lost. Hopeless. Death was still king. Could anything good come from so much bad?

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. (1 Cor. 15:20a)

From the ashes of death and loss, Jesus broke in. In the strength of the undefeated King he truly is, he smashed Death into the ground. From the horribleness of Friday, hope rose with the Son of God.

Even when our situations in life tell us that nothing good could come from the wreckage, we are not without hope. We may be crushed, but we are not in despair. We may be dying to live, but because of Jesus, live we will. We may be broken beyond recognition, but we are not destroyed. We may be utterly forsaken, but we are never alone. In great sorrow, but still rejoicing (2 Cor. 4:8-18; 6:4-10).

Having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6:10)

Because of Jesus, we have everything. These trials and the smoldering ashes they leave behind are working in us an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). One day, we won’t even think of mentioning the great suffering and sorrow we experienced down here, because it will seem so very, very small and weightless compared to the greatness of being with Jesus.

Everything is held in sovereign hands

There is a great assurance to be had in knowing that nothing will fall into our lives that has not already been sifted through the sovereign, gracious hands of God. No sickness, no pain, no loss, no death, no nothing has ever taken God by surprise. And nothing ever will.

Even when that day before Jesus rose looked hopeless, God still had it.

Death did not have a hold on Jesus, because God was always in control. He is the one who calms storms, commands seas to give up their dead and raises the dead, tells the number of the stars, knows every hair on our heads, counts every tear on our faces, and brings forth the seasons in his time (Mark 4:39-41, Rev. 20:13, John 11, Ps. 147:4, Luke 12:7, Ps. 56:8, Job 38). This is our God.

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:6)

In his sovereignty, God saw the days and times of our lives long before we ever took our first breaths, dreamed our first dreams, and cried our first tears. How precious it is to know that the very hands that were nailed to a tree for each one of our sins are the very same hands that created us from dust and will sustain us until we are with Jesus forever.

Even on that middle day, when things looked hopeless, God was still reigning. Jesus would rise. Death did not win. And even in our middle days (or years), when things appear hopeless to us, God is still reigning. Sovereign hands of infinite kindness hold each of our moments and will safely bring us home to Jesus.

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Tim. 4:18)