Hooking On

 

I just started working with a black and white paint horse. She has been a broodmare for a long time, but “was well broke” (a relative term, I’m finding). She is comfortable around people, but it’s been a long time since anyone asked anything of her except to make babies. So this week, I brought her in, groomed and spoke softly to her, checked to make sure she understood “whoa” and “go” on the lunge line. And then I set her loose in the round pen.

When starting, or re-starting, I do a lot of groundwork. We need to form a working relationship, establish trust, learn to speak the same language. To do that, we start in the round pen and work on that connection. Different trainers call it different things: JoinUp, hooking on, catching by connection. I want to communicate to the horse that I am trustworthy, that I will be asking for things, and that she will be rewarded when we begin to communicate.

She trotted around, exploring things, but completely ignoring me. Not even an ear flicked in my direction. So I pushed her a bit, raised my whip and clucked at her, aiming my body and gaze at her shoulder, her “drive line”. She trotted around, still ignoring me, and I put more pressure on her if she turned her back to me. Eventually, she got a bit tired and slowed down, looking for the release of pressure. I continued to ask her to move until the moment came.

She looked at me.

Immediately I stopped, looked away and gave her a reward of release.

Focus on me. I’m the only thing I want you to think about.

It took a little more time, some more pressure and release, until she learned that if she stopped and looked at me, she wouldn’t have to work. The next time she stopped, she dropped her head, licked and chewed. Submissive and thinking. And she walked up to me. Hooked on. Without a halter, she followed calmly at my shoulder as I walked all over the arena.

She sought me.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord… (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

In that action – the seeking – our relationship is established. Each time we work, I will start with this. Remind her to focus on me, follow me, seek me. She pivots when I turn, she faces me, ears attentive.

God does this, too. He calls us out of the herd. He chooses us. His grace brings us into his holy presence. And then he asks for connection. For trust. For our laser focus on him. For us to wait on him, wait in him.

This is what he saves us for. For what’s next. Salvation is only the beginning.

We do not belong to the world any longer, but we are his.

He has plans – full of hope – for us, but it requires us walking in them. It requires a constant connection to the Holy Spirit. It requires us constantly seeking that connection, keeping our eyes focused on him, our entire life laid out as a sacrifice before him to be used for his glory.

God doesn’t catch us like an old-time cowboy, with ropes and intimidation and forcing a bit in our mouth and slapping a saddle on our back. He doesn’t “break” us. He doesn’t ride the will and spirit out of us. The world does, though. The world commands our attention, our devotion. The devil binds us in lies like a tie-down, locking us into positions where we can’t help but do his will or follow our own. But God is not like that. He pushes. He speaks softly. And he waits for us to move to him.

He will push us, to get that connection. As I pushed the mare around, I was 50 feet behind her, “pushing” with a raised lunge whip and clucking. I didn’t touch her. My body language said, “go”. God speaks to us so quiet we sometimes miss it. A whisper of the Holy Spirit, a pricking of conviction, a thousand different circumstances, a Bible verse that suddenly speaks to the deep reaches of our heart. He pushes from 50 feet away, subtly, waiting for us to flick an ear in his direction. When we finally stop and are still, he breathes, “yes”.

He invites us to come so close, feel him undeniably near, boldly approach the throne of grace.

Unless we are focused on him, those pushes and nudges don’t mean much. They’re annoying. They get ignored, filed away, told “later”. Until we learn to seek out God, seek out the connection and relationship and the whole-hearted desire to do his will, all we are doing is running in circles, avoiding the most powerful connection the universe has ever known.

Rebellion, fear, ignorance keeps us racing away from our maker. Pride keeps us from turning to the one who put breath in our lungs.  The Holy One, his Spirit within us, dances this dance of connection with us. He pushes us to himself. He calls us from the noise of our life by entering it silently; he asks quietly that we seek him with every fiber of our being.

Because he is so near. He is always near. He is always beside us, a breath away. Even when we can’t see him, when we look wildly around and can’t see him through the fear, he promises time and time again that he is right here. In, and all around.

So we turn to him. Focused.

Exhale. Release control and fear.

And then we can begin.

Whether you turn to the right or the the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21)

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Resistance
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Listening and working: the ear is on the person pushing her.
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Making the connection

 

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Broken Together

The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.
God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart. Psalm 51:17 HCSB

God makes it clear, woven through scripture and history, that he desires a heart turned completely to him, broken and humble: a life laid down on his altar. He proves his might and power and grace when he works through broken, lost, forgotten, and fallible people. God wants an empty vessel, he wants us to come to the end of ourselves, he wants us broken.

There are a million ways to get there. But our entire world works desperately and unceasingly to not be broken, to spurn meekness and humility and vulnerability. To not be remorseful. How much of the energy in our lives is spent on making sure we have it all together? How much time do we spend convincing ourselves that we are okay? That we don’t need anything, we’ve got this on our own, we’re self-made, to franticly hide our weakness? We don’t admit our struggles, admit we’ve sinned, admit we need help or each other, or bring our darkness to the light before our righteous God.

If the church is to be a fellowship of the broken, how do we make it a safe place to come apart and let God work to put us back together?

It’s not about living in chaos and messes. It’s not about airing all your junk for everyone. God never intended for us to stay a mess. He wants the skeletons we keep hidden in the closet to be abandoned and burned up on his altar. Brokenness is less about what is going on and more about what is stirring within our heart. It is humility. “Humility,” Andrew Murray writes, “is nothing but the disappearance of self in the vision that God is all.” How we get there and how we stay there are personal, between us and the Holy Spirit, and therefore looks different for everyone.

But, because we are sinful creatures, born into sin and living in a broken world, that path to brokenness is often rocky, bloody, violent, heartbreaking. It’s hard. It’s devastating. Destroying the god of pride in its many, many forms is probably the hardest thing the Holy Spirit will ever bring you through. Letting go of your very life, giving  over every thought of your mind, feeling of your heart, penny and possession, will take a miracle. A breaking miracle.

And we, as a church, need to create an environment where it’s safe to be broken. Where humility is coveted as the divine, holy virtue that it is. We need to boldly live and declare the backwards values of the kingdom we have been re-born into.

As the church, we need to fight against our very nature, push the world out of our sacred places, reclaim the altar for the sake of brokenness and rush of holy power that follows.

If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. Matthew 10:39 NLT

When we are a church of the broken, we embrace not having control. Time, money, routine mean less. Worship becomes less about Sunday morning and more about the times praise falls off our lips spontaneously or we find ourselves on our knees before our Father, when we discover what it means to offer our lives as living sacrifices. When we are a broken church, we find that while God is a God of order, it’s not about our order, our schedule, our traditions, our thoughts of “what comes next”. We are less concerned about our ideas and more concerned about what the Spirit may have in store. We pause. We listen. We move. When we are broken, we wait. We don’t move, can’t move, can’t imagine moving, without being certain the Spirit moves first. Church becomes a safe place to loose control, and to learn how to live in that.

When you are broken, your heart breaks with others. We see others with the eyes of Jesus, full of mercy and love. While we still hold each other accountable, urge others towards holiness, we will not condemn or only see their faults and mistakes. We will be searching for ways to serve the broken, to see past their circumstances to their heart. We will learn the sweet, life-giving way Jesus brought mercy. Church becomes a safe place to empathize, to cry beside, to let others not be okay, to carry them to Jesus when they can’t make it themselves.

When you are broken, you listen a lot more than you speak. The body becomes a place where you put your agenda and opinion and well-meaning advice aside for a moment. Sometimes you will need to wade though endless, spilling, tear-choked words to hear the heart of the matter. Sometimes it will take reading the silence, the unspoken words. And sometimes it will just take expectant listening, when your brother or sister can’t even speak, and needs to drink in the silence before feeling safe to break down the heart walls. Church becomes a safe place to wait and listen, to take as long as it takes, with one ear to the Holy Spirit and a desire and discipline to not answer back a single breath that is not from God.

Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Matthew 9:12, 13 NLT

The church is a fellowship of brokenness. We are a body learning how to be humble. We are here for the sick, the sinners, the lost, the forgotten, the prisoners, the least of these. Our embrace of our own brokenness works to sever the tie of shame, works to bring freedom from control and strength and pride. We soften hearts and tear down walls by our brokenness. As church becomes a safe place to be broken, we take away the wild, consuming fear of vulnerability. We learn to live in the triumphant power of the Holy Spirit, driven by his will, fully embracing losing our life to gain his kingdom.

Through offering our broken heart, and making church an authentic fellowship of the broken, we can learn what it truly means to be like Christ and overcome the world.

Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  Luke 22:19 NLT

Christmas: Loss, Gain, and What we Really Need

As the wind roars continuously around our house and the first snowfall is on the ground, I find myself wrestling with this season. I have also struggled with writing this. I feel it tugging at my heart, but I am trying to carefully find the words to speak it without sounding condemning or legalistic or self-righteous. Or like a Scrooge.

I have always struggled against materialism. America has whole-heartedly embraced  the lie that the more I have, the happier I will be. That I can buy something to give me peace. That I have to look and dress and shop a certain way, that I am defined by my possessions and my social standing. During this time of year I can’t escape the clamor of consumerism. It’s everywhere, saturating the season.

What we need and what we can give is not of this world, though the devil is desperately trying to convince us otherwise.

It seems like this battle for our hearts is at a crescendo at Christmas. Heavenly treasure against worldly treasure. Unseen against the visible. Kingdom values against earthly values. The world, loud and wrapped in gold and good cheer is in utter contrast to the nativity: a homeless savior, born in cave to an unknown, unmarried couple. The world begs us to be someone. Jesus became no one. The world sings of gain and gifts. Our Christ speaks of loss.

The world says, “Give me”. Christ whispers, “Go, sell all you have…” (Matthew 19:21)

The world says, “I deserve it”. God says, “You are saved by grace, so no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8) and “No one is righteous, not even one.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

The world shrugs and says, “I’ll build a bigger garage for my things.” Jesus cries, “You fool!” (Luke 12:13-21)

On that cold night so long ago (which history suggests was in late September or October, by the way) Jesus came in humility and poverty and grace. He gave up his kingship, he gave up his sovereignty, he gave up his rights, he gave up every breath in his lungs, every beat of his heart for us. For an adulterous, rebellious people, bent on our own destruction, blind to the evil in our heart. He came down to us as a helpless baby born on the outskirts of town for the sole purpose of taking the entire wrath of God on himself at the cross. He came to die for his enemies. Us.

Me.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24, 25)

Jesus lost everything for us. He poured himself out for me. And he calls me to do the same for him, for his people, for his enemies. For whatever crazy, love-driven quest he sends me on.

I see none of that in what our modern world calls Christmas. I see the church desperately trying to cram Jesus into a secular box, to add a Christian spin on pagan or worldly traditions. I see the nativity toppled by lust and Black Friday and deals at Target. I see us drowning with the weight of obligations and traditions, and treading water deep in the world of consumerism. Christianity still shines the star for us to find our way back to shore, but it is lost in the glitter and sparkle of the season. The song of a carol is overcome by jingle bells and the sound of wrapping paper torn open.

In a world obsessed with receiving, the very heart of Christianity is loss. That may seem to be a strange way of looking at it, but in this season of excess and gain and worldly pleasure, I want to know the loss – the emptying, the utter humility – of my savior.

I loose my identify as a sinner. I loose my life. I loose my control. I loose my ties to the material things of this world.  Jesus calls me to die, so that he can give me new life. So I may become a new creation. So I may accept his authority and control and direction. So his desires become mine, his sight is in my eyes, his love is what drives me.

God’s kingdom is upside down and backwards from ours. It’s foolish, he says.

So this Christmas, I ask you to dare to loose. Spend yourself. Risk going against the flow, against the massive tide of the world. It’s not about giving more, volunteering, listening only to Christian music, not having a Christmas tree or banning Santa (though those things may come). I urge you to think about all our savior eagerly gave up. All he joyfully lost – both in the moment he was born and every moment on earth after that – so that we might be found.

When the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father came to earth the first people to see him were shepherds.

They had nothing. They were no one. They brought nothing but themselves. They brought nothing but their worship, their bended knee, their acknowledgement of the holy and divine. God invited them – with an angel chorus, the likes of which I imagine had never been seen – first.

The first, our God says, will be last. The greatest among us will become the least. This Christmas, I ask for a shepherd’s heart. To be aware that I have absolutely nothing to bring before my king but my empty hands. To know my loss, my emptiness, my sacrifice is what he desires. In the midst of excess and greed and performance-driven rewards, I desire to only bring my worship. Only give my testimony. To be content with empty hands and a full heart. To embrace loss and humility, because it means life and power.

In this season of giving and receiving, I want to give myself, just as Jesus did. I want to become nothing, to have nothing, so that I can bring the world what it really needs: A Savior.

 

Set my Heart

I love the song “Set my Heart” by Vertical Church Band. The openness of it, the chorus that invites me to truly set my heart on God. Because we need to set ourselves on him. Not just turn, or glance, but set. We are a wandering people, fickle in mind and unfaithful in heart. Paul tells us to “fix our eyes” on Jesus, on the unseen, on heaven. When even our gaze wanders, we stumble and become lost.

“Set” and “fix” are also nautical words I’m very familiar with. We would set a sail, set a course. We would fix our position on a chart. They are action words, leading to a direction to go and the power to get there.

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A couple weeks ago I weeks ago I was able to take my girls sailing in a 12 foot wooden catboat on the Mystic River in Connecticut. It had been years since I sailed, but the tiller felt familiar in my hand; I think I could have still done it with my eyes closed. We stepped off the dock, untied the boat, and I set the sail. As soon as I pulled in the main sheet, that controls the sail, wind filled it and we pulled off into the open stretch of river. There was no partway. Either you’re in the boat or left on the dock. Either the sail is up and drawing and pulling your boat along or it is folded and the boat is motionless.

Setting the sail, like setting my heart, is commitment. It is an action. It is bold, defining everything that comes after. It requires me to do something to make that happen, it requires me to leave the safety of the dock, to turn my back on the sandy shore.

God calls us away from the shores of the world into the deep ocean of his love, off to grand adventures and work for him. “I know the plans I have for you,” he says. Plans. Courses to plot. He has people for us to touch and love and lead to Him.  He has deep and great secrets to whisper to us, wisdom to impart, a new life to live. But all this only comes when we set our weak, fearful, dark heart on him. His plans, His ways, His nature and heart and being. When we turn our back on all we know, that safe familiar shore, and set our selves in Him.

We also have to fix our eyes on Him, just as our motion and heart and life is set on Him. As my daughters took turn holding the tiller and sailing, I helped them find a point of land to fix their eyes on. “Aim towards that blue boat on the dock,” I told them. Or, “Keep the front of the boat pointed to that flag pole.” Without that, the boat would wander off course. The forces of the wind on the sail, the current, the natural way the boat slips a bit sideways through the water, all pulls on the tiller and rudder, pushing the boat slowly off course. When they had a point to fix on, they could make subtle adjustments to keep the boat on course, headed in a straight line. If they lost that point, even for a moment, the boat headed off course.

Left alone, hands off the tiller, the boat will head up into the wind. And stop. The sail will flap, useless, pointing like a flag and the boat will begin to get blown backwards. When the girls got slightly off course by looking around at something other than their flagpole or bridge, they found it hard to correct, to bring the bow back around to where we were supposed to go. Paul implores us to fix our eyes, not just look, or gaze, or consult occasionally because he knew how easy it is to get stuck in irons, how fast we can get off course, how the forces of the wind and sea pull on the boat and sails and draw us away from where we need to go. There is so much to distract us, pull our gaze and attention away: the everyday demands of life to our whole world falling at our feet. Still, God tells us: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds,” (Deuteronomy 11:18) and “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2nd Corinthians 4:18).

Offshore, out in the deep waters and out of sight of land, the concept is the same. We set a compass course and sail by it. We keep one eye on the bow of the boat and another on the compass, making subtle adjustments to keep that arrow pointed right on the course direction we have set. Even when the wind and seas pick up and the boat pitches 15 or more degrees of course as she climbs each wave, we have to keep heading in the right general direction.

Sometimes it is all we can do to set our hearts, our sails, our course on God. In the dark nights, the stormy mornings where dawn hardly seems to come, in the unearthly stillness of a calm when we can go nowhere, we have to set ourselves on Him. We have to fix our gaze on His Holiness, His goodness, His wisdom and plans and unexplainable love and endless grace. For only He is mighty to save, only He is the author and finisher of our faith.

Quiet the voice of doubt again,
Echo within me every promise
Let your word me louder than my fear.

Speak to the void when I can’t see,
Lift up my head in every valley, 
Let your joy be greater than my grief.

Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, of theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Jesus starts out his earthly ministry with a long message teaching his kingdom’s values.  The “sermon on the mount” lays out what he values, how we can please him, how to pray. He starts off with the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit. The meek will inherit the earth. Those with nothing will have everything. Blessed are the hungry and those who thirst. His kingdom, he explains, is upside down and backwards. At first glance it seems laughably foolish. But when we see things with spiritual eyes, it makes perfect sense.

The poor in spirit are those who are humble. Spiritually bankrupt. Aware of their lack and limitations and feebleness and poverty. Jesus calls you blessed when you come to the end of yourself, when you are humbled and broken before God. When you know you are simply an empty vessel for him to fill. When you can say with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death?” and then know: Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:24, 25)

I’ve been poor, financially, in a 1st world kind of way. In a food stamp and WIC and government housing and hand washing cloth diaper kind of way. Enough to give me a taste of that desperation and the stress and uncertainty. When you’re poor, you can’t forget it. It dictates most of your life. What you eat, how far you drive your car, if you can watch TV, how often you say no to your children or husband or self, what bills will be late, where you can go for help. You are constantly trying to be less poor, working more hours, looking for a better job, looking for side jobs. It is not a comfortable place to be; you can’t sit back and relax, you can’t be confident in your ability to make ends meet or take care of everything.

It’s humbling.

It’s right where God wants us. Knowing we can’t do it on our own, that even with all our effort it is not enough, that we need help.

We need to be aware of our own poverty so we can find the source of unending, unlimited, eternal riches beyond our wildest imagination.

Even Jesus – who is fully God and fully man – knew he was nothing without his father, that he could do nothing without him, that every word he spoke was only from God.

So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (John 5:19)

I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will. (John 5:30)

So Jesus told them, “My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me. (John 7:16) 

..Remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. (John 14:24)

God wants his church to be poor in spirit. To be as humble and surrendered as his son was on earth. God wants us to be painfully aware and broken over our poverty. Because he has what we need. He has unending riches of love and mercy and grace and victory for us. He has an eternal inheritance for us, as we are called his children. Like the parables Jesus told, he wants us to sell all we have for the treasure we found buried in a field. He wants us to become backwards and upside down for him. To become poor so he can make us rich. To die so we can live. To loose all so we can be found. To forget everything we think we know and be proven foolish so he will be proven wise. To be humbled and brought low so he will exalt us.

Let us take stock of our accounts. Note where we have our treasure stored. Check the condition of our heart, the thoughts of our mind, the wealth of the inheritance we are being kept for. If we are not aware of what we lack, Jesus says we can’t be blessed. We will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. I venture to say we won’t live in the victory of it here, either.

Lord, make us aware of our spiritual poverty so we might know true wealth in you.

Living Stones

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5)

You are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:20-22)

That section of Ephesians has been stuck with me for several weeks. The oxymoron and the imagery of living stones, and as it hints to “living sacrifices” (Romans 12). Sacrifices – the things burned at the altar – and stones are by very definition not alive. And yet both Peter and Paul describe us as living stones.

Not only are we supposed to dwell – abide – in the presence of God, but we are building that dwelling. We are building his kingdom here on earth, we are becoming that sanctuary, that safe place, that high tower and city on a hill, the rock that we cling to when our heart is faint.

It’s us.

The church.

Not a church, or a collection of churches, or camps of friends, or denominations, or Sunday morning services. While it’s fine to invite people to our service, we are not trying to get them to go to church. We are bringing them to Jesus. We want them to come to God and join the kingdom of heaven. The building on the corner can offer some comforts, but we can bring them to the very feet and overwhelming presence and power of our almighty Father God.

This “spiritual house” that we bring them to is our brothers and sisters in Christ, built together as living stones.

Our God is dynamic. Living. His character and promises don’t change, but how he is lived out in each of us changes. It adapts. It moves. It flows like the Spirit he is. How could his mercies be new and fresh every morning if his portion for us remained exactly the same? Some days – some moments – we need discipline, other times we need showers of grace. Some days we are hard, others we are soft. Some days we are silent, other times he calls us to raise our voice. Therefore, we are living stones. Building a dwelling that is big and open enough to hold an infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent God.

So, as a living stone, what are you doing? Waiting for the heavy machinery to move you around? Polishing your stone? Trying to find the blueprints for this temple? The zoning permits? Are you organizing the other workers? Or waiting for instructions?

I think that as living stones we need to simply live a life worthy of our calling. (Ephesians 4:1) We exist to serve and to love. Deeply, with abandon, with no thought to ourselves and led by the Spirit. That is all, and that is enough. You will not look or act or serve or love the way your neighbor does. God is too big for that. He needs each of us to just serve and surrender in our own way, as our own stone, as our own fragrant offering. The orchestrator of the heavens and the designer of the atom and everything in between calls us by name, according to his plans, to do his good works. He asks us to grasp how high and wide and deep his love is. It’s an ocean. It’s wild and lovely and always the same but incomprehensibly and fundamentally life altering in each moment he lives in us.

And as he builds us.

We are building as we encourage and strengthen each other. As we spur each other on towards good works. As we reach to the lost. As we speak life to the dying. As we offer ourselves as living sacrifices. As we serve and love and change this broken and dying world into a temple where our Father can dwell.

Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures? ‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.’ ” (Matthew 21:42) Jesus, the one we build this entire holy temple on, is our cornerstone that was rejected for us. Broken. Disgraced. 

But God takes the forgotten and broken things of this world and makes them beautiful. He turns a stone that was cast aside, rejected, into the very cornerstone.  He eagerly waits to do the same for us. He makes the broken whole. The ordinary, extraordinary. The fragile, strong. The lost, found. He makes us, the weak, sinful inhabitants of this dying world into holy, living stones built into the very temple where he will dwell.

So, again, I ask you to live a life worthy of your calling. Live up to what you have already attained (Philippians 3:16) Let the Spirit move in your life, direct your steps, allow you to be a living stone. Be built.

Become the sanctuary.

Face It

John held up the plastic grocery bag and gently shook it. Red Pepper, the stocky red spotted horse, tossed his head up in fear, his feet dancing. The trainer has been working with the little horse, getting him less “spooky”, nervous, and head-shy. Any time you would approach him quickly he would instantly react out of fear. Hands and ropes by his face, even a gently move to pet or brush him, would send him on high alert.

After working with him for about a week, John was ready to start “spook training.” Pepper was responding well, calm and settled with John, allowing him to lunge, move around, direct and handle him easily. However, he was very cautious of anything around his face, or quick movements in his surroundings. With the plastic bag and from the ground, John wanted to train Pepper to turn and face what was scaring him. “I want to have him stand and face what spooks him,” he explained. “I want to teach him to stand still. When you’re out on the trail and something scary comes along, it’s usually just something really quick.” A rabbit or bird leaping up, corn stalks blowing, another horse coming by. “If he takes off every time he’s scared, it’s really hard to get him back under control.” If he just stands, and can look at what’s scary, he will see it’s not so bad and you can settle him down a lot easier. And you won’t have to deal with trying to control a horse running in terror.

“I’m not going to ask him not to be scared,” John said before we started. “I’m just going to give him ways to deal with his fear.”

Starting small and looking for tiny tries, John shook the bag around, then rewarded Pepper by putting the bag behind his back. “When he does the right thing, by looking at me, the scary thing goes away,” John explained. “But if he moves away from it, I keep it up and ask him to move. He’s going to move until he stops.” He would shake the bag and drive Pepper in a trot around the round pen. “Eventually he’ll figure out it’s less work to face it.”

Red Pepper did. It took a lot of repetition, a lot of consistency. First he would stop, then he’d square up and look at John and the scary plastic bag. Sometimes he’d run off and have to trot around in a circle. But pretty soon only his hind feet would move as he swiveled to square up to John and the bag.

Pepper literally faced his fear, and it disappeared.

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First, fear
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Next, trying to escape
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Annoyance
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Facing what caused the fear, focused and calm

In the same way, God asks us to face Him. Focus on Him. Run to Him. Find our refuge, our salvation, our help in Him alone. Not in our own strength, in how fast we can run away, or how long we can ignore it.

I see myself in Pepper’s reactions. When things come along on my path, I don’t always face it. I tend to turn, run, avoid, ignore… There were a few times when Pepper was moving rhythmically and easily in a trot at the end of the lead line. His movements seemed to be saying, “You can chase me with that bag but I can go like this all day.” He looked towards the outside of the circle, ignoring what was driving him. Other times his head jerked back and up, his body tensed to tear off or rear. Everything about him screamed fear. Other times he leapt sideways, looking for an escape, just trying to get away from the fear.

I think we all have these moments, when something unexpected comes into our life and we have to react. Maybe it is fear. Fear of uncertainty, of rejection, of a health diagnosis, of vulnerability. It can be pride, the mistakes or pain of our past, poor choices we are still reaping the harvest of, a major life choice, a massive storm in our life, the devil whispering in our ear.

There are over 360 places where the Bible instructs us not to fear. Apparently, we need to hear it. A lot. Some of these are specific, like for when an angel appears. But so many are like Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
a helper who is always found
in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid,
though the earth trembles
and the mountains topple
into the depths of the seas,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with its turmoil.

This imagery is powerful, and loud, and wild. Still, God tells us Do not fear. Even when the seas boil because the mountains are crashing into them, when your world is literally or figuratively or emotionally coming apart at the seams, when it all is falling at your feet, when the very end seems near, when you don’t know how anything could be left after the quaking and shaking and destruction.

I am your safety, God says. I am your refuge and your strength and your salvation. The Psalms especially are full of this promise. The only thing God asks of us it to take refuge, be found in His high tower, hide under His wing.

Face our fear by turning to Him. And all will fade in His strength, and His love, and His purposes.

Just like John can’t expect Pepper to never get spooked by flushed birds, corn stalks, plastic bags, or even his own shadow, God doesn’t promise He will keep our world from falling apart. He doesn’t say He will keep us from all that might frighten us, or that any part of our walk with Him will be carefree. He does promise, over and over and over, that He will not once leave us. His grace will be sufficient for us. His strength will be made perfect in all our weaknesses.

Turn to Him. Focus on Him. Watch the fear or heartache or pride or hopelessness disappear in His perfect light.

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But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength… 2nd Timothy 4:17