Stand Firm

I heard a story about a couple of cowboys checking their open range when they came across a herd of wild horses. As they paused and watched them from a distance, they saw the band stallion suddenly become on high alert, watching the foothills nearby, ears pricked and body pointed like a well-muscled arrow. The band stallion was a big, mature horse, having weathered years of challenges, weather, and changes to his band. The cowboys watched the foothills until they could also see a young bachelor stallion approaching. Challenging. He moved strongly and quickly, with purpose, approaching the band. The band stallion moved out to meet him.

The first cowboy didn’t take his eyes off the action unfolding as the horse took his first steps of trot to the challenger, but said, “That stallion is going to lose his herd.” The second cowboy said nothing, but watched the action unfold. The stallions first quietly approached each other, smelling, circling, necks arched and prancing. It quickly escalated into lunges, kicks, rears, and bites. Each horse was coiled with wild power as they circled, lunged, made contact with teeth and sharp hooves. The challenger was much younger, but didn’t have the years of experience the band stallion had, or the determination to protect what was his. However, after several minutes of the wild energy, and without any obvious devastating injury or clear victory,  the band stallion backed off. He surrendered his herd to the young challenger. All he could do was watch as the challenger approached the mares and foals, snaking his head and moving them off. The mares reluctantly followed.

The second cowboy finally asked, “How did you know he was going to lose? By all accounts he was the better horse.”

The men moved their horses off, following their cattle trails. “That challenger made him move,” he answered. He didn’t stand his ground, make the challenger move off his course, make the challenger come to him.

He simply didn’t stand his ground.

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Photo by Robin Wadhams

I’ve seen that in the herd at the ranch. While the herd doesn’t have any stallions running loose, some of the geldings act more like studs than others. Every once in a while, especially in the spring, they like to rouse up whoever will play along, prance around, chase mares, and challenge each other loudly. Once I watched one of these boys challenge Sterling, the big gray who generally is very self-assured and keeps to himself. The other horse snorted, half-bucked, and pranced in circles.

 Sterling just stood there, head slightly tucked and neck subtly arched but a picture of calm. He didn’t even flinch or flick an ear away as the other horse squealed and nipped towards his shoulders. I had to laugh at the effort the other horse began to get into to get a reaction out of Sterling. He stomped, he shook his head and reared, feet pounding to the ground just inches from Sterling, loudly neighing snorting to punctuate his more aggressive moves. After several minutes, Sterling must have given some almost imperceptible signal to the other gelding and the whole thing was over. Sterling casually walked to sample another hay bale, a picture of calm and peace, but full of the simple, undefeatable power of standing his ground.

Therefore, put on the complete armor of God, so that you will be able to [successfully] resist and stand your ground in the evil day [of danger], and having done everything [that the crisis demands], to stand firm [in your place, fully prepared, immovable, victorious].            Ephesians 6:13, AMP

Stand firm, in your place, immovable and victorious.

In the face of fear, the challenge of the devil, the uncertainty and darkness, simply hold your ground.

In this passage, Paul reminds us that we don’t battle what is seen, that these are spiritual battles where we need God’s armor. In those times of danger and days of evil – which are many and frequent and relentless – we can’t fight the situation, the people involved, all the things we could use our own experience and wit and strength for.

The devil prowls around like a lion, as a challenger to your ministry, as a situation ready to tear down all you’ve worked for, as a threat to the vital work God is doing in you and through you. You are a target, your ministry stands out to evil like a light that must put out. You are building the city on the hill the devil can hardly wait to tear down, for all to see.

Hold. Your. Ground.

Stand firm.

Don’t move.

While physically you may move, you may shift something, you may change plans or techniques, your job may change, your life may change, all that is eternal and unending within you must remain still. Calm. Focused and rooted in the hope of Christ. Full of a wild, coiled, resurrecting power.

Your heart, your hope, your strength will not move. The things God whispers to you in the night will not change. The passion he has lit in your heart will not change. While the world around you may fall apart, the hopes you had for your ministry or family or future may change, but you must remain standing on the rock that won’t ever move, that will never change.

Remain in me, Christ urges us. Don’t move from my presence.

Be unshaken by fear, by the plans of the devil, by the loud, distracting challenges. Resist the urge to fight back in your own power, to go on the offensive against people God has called you to deeply love, do not take steps out of bitterness or unforgiveness. Tell your anxious heart to be still, tell all that within you that wants to do something to settle in for waiting. Simply stand firm, clothed in the power of a risen Christ.

Put on the full armor of God [for his precepts are like the splendid armor of a heavily-armed solider], so that you may be able to [successfully] stand up against all the schemes and the strategies and the deceits of the devil.   Ephesians 6:11 AMP

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Mary, Martha, and the One Thing

What would you do if Jesus quietly knocked on your door? Literally? Like he was your second cousin, passing through town. It’s mid-afternoon. A school day. The lawn should have been cut last week but it’s been so damp, and then there’s no time later in the day. You were due to grocery shop yesterday but had take the dog to the vet and just picked up milk and bread after school instead. You thought you’d probably have spaghetti tonight because there’s always sauce and some some pasta laying around.

And there is Jesus. He had to step over a bike to get to the front door because almost everyone comes to the back.

For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s say he wears jeans and a jacket and has a worn baseball cap on. Probably says some seed company on it. He looks like a farmer who pulled out the Sunday jeans and boots.

But he’s your savior. Your Lord. Your sweet Jesus. The one you live your whole life for.

And all you see is the mess. The clumps of dog hair in the corners. The toys that shouldn’t be in the dining room but of course they are. The dirty counters. It’s an hour until you have to pick up the kids from school, and does he really want spaghetti for supper?

This keeps you from running to him and throwing open the door. This keeps you from sitting on the porch swing, just to feel him, warm and peace and comfort, next to you. He caught you off guard. Unannounced. Unplanned. Unexpected.

My sweet child, grace is always unexpected.

We all know the Mary and Martha story. Especially women. It’s used, a lot. There are two people in this world, the Mary’s and the Martha’s, they say. Don’t get caught up in “doing”, they say. Don’t be like this woman, and while they’re talking about a Biblical figure you all look around the room and pick out the Martha’s and the Mary’s and look into your own heart and know you are a Martha and are so ashamed of it. You’re supposed to serve and juggle the balls and take care of it but you’re also supposed to sit calmly and peacefully at the feet of Jesus, like some full color Bible illustration.

But, when I read the story, found in Luke 10:38-42, something cried out to me. In the midst of Martha’s anger to have her sister just help her out for just one dang minute, Jesus saw past all that. It was more than wanting things to be taken care of for her beloved Jesus and probably more than a handful of travel-weary followers. It was more than trying to feed everyone, because they’re human and have to eat. It was more than Mary completely ignoring the preparations. It was more than having to be perfect. More than all those teachers and pastors have made it about.

“Martha, Martha,” The Lord answered. “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I think Mary had muddled this story. Because we, a people bent on comparison and first place and appearance, instantly compare Mary and Martha. Choose what Mary did. Don’t be a Martha. We have forgotten the words in red.

But I want to hear my gentle savior.

You are worried and upset about many things.

Oh my soul, you get lost in that worry. Those many things.

Few things are need. Indeed, only one thing is needed.

And here I am.

And I can never be taken away from you.

Health is stolen. Youth and beauty fades. Finances are insecure. Marriage is a war. Children become their own. Friends betray or slip away. Nothing in this world is certain. It is full of things to worry us and upset us.

So choose the other world.

The one we can’t see.

The one we have been adopted into by the blood of the sweet savior who rings our doorbell in jeans and a worn baseball cap. The one who is never fading, ever faithful, ever merciful.

We become lost in this world, full of beauty but also heartache. We become lost in being creatures of this earth, with families and jobs and churches and ministries and football and marching band and grocery shopping.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9 -10

The moment I look past Jesus, as he comes just to be with me, and see the un-mowed lawn, I have chosen this world over my inheritance as a child of God.

The moment I become too involved in pleasing him, my burden becomes heavy, and I have not chosen the one thing. The moment I let the shame of my sin keep me from the alter, I am forgetting his promises, the one thing.  As I let fear overcome, worry overtake me, I have lost sight of the one thing.

As with any Mary and Martha story, I have to add the obligatory “this doesn’t mean you get to sit around and not do anything as a Christian” disclaimer. But Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary wasn’t “doing anything”.

I think Jesus would tell those of us who need things spelled out It’s not about what you do! Even though that strikes me as so contrary to that inner darkness that compels me to prove myself.

It’s not about what you do, it’s about what I’ve done. I finished it. I’ve finished all of it. You don’t need to do anything else to complete salvation, to complete the work I’ve done in you.

If Jesus walked into the room where you are sitting now, where would your eyes go?

Could you meet his gaze?

Would the sin and the hidden things and the shame and all that is left undone keep you from looking into his face? Would the unfinished things scattered in your life keep you from offering him a seat? Keep you from running to him? In our effort to please him, do we forget about loving him? Would the half-lie that you are not enough keep distance between you until you’ve worn yourself to exhaustion trying to prove you are enough?

Choosing the one thing is often so hard and contrary and unbelievable because it is the mystery of love and grace. Because it means we have to drop all the balls we’re juggling and plates we’re spinning. We end up giving them all to the divine Lord of heaven’s army, the one who spoke the vastness of the universe into existence. But still, it’s hard. Impossible sometimes. Sometimes we just cry out to those around us, in a prayer but in an angry desperation, “Won’t you help me?!” Get on this hamster wheel of proving ourselves with me. Get consumed by serving and pleasing and earning that love, because it feels right to be doing something.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us… God saved you by his grace when you believed.
Ephesians 2:4 – 8

When Jesus calls your name, and says, “You are worried and upset about many things,” listen to him. Pause. Take a breath. Or take a month, or years, to get it worked out in your mind and heart.

Hear the love in his voice, the love for his dear child. Hear the pain as his heart breaks for you. As he sees your desperation, your anxiety, your full hands and life and schedule. Let him take your weary burden. Meet his gaze. Run to him, fall into his open arms.

Choose the one thing.

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

 

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.