Twenty-Three

The day before everything happened, I wrote in my journal, “Psalm 23 for my 23rd year?”

I wrote this because I had been listening to the song “Twenty-three” by Enter the Worship Circle, and I like that song a lot, especially the repetition of “I will not be in want.” I hoped to declare that over my life, especially as I worried about the details of a trip I’m no longer taking.

I also loved the traditional wording of verse 5, “My cup runneth over.” I made that my Facebook status. I was proclaiming God’s goodness, provision, and sovereignty. I thought it all fit great for the season of life I thought I was entering.

The very next day, my dad went to the emergency room, and that night, he passed away. Perhaps the psalm about walking through the valley of the shadow of death fits this season even more so than I thought. (Yet another thing the Spirit knew that I didn’t. I have to hope–and not grumble– in that, I have to…)

On my plane ride across the country to be with my family, I listened to “Twenty-three” over and over again. The song begins, “Arise, O LORD. Lift up Your eyes. Don’t forget I’m helpless.” I cried out.

Oh, You lead me to waters and pastures so green.
Oh, You pour out Your oil and choose goodness and mercy for me.
No, I will not be in want.

I thought I was scaling a mountain, but now I have fallen off. I’m left to wander in this unforeseen valley, walking under the shadow of death, and I am afraid.

I find it so interesting that Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same author, David, writes in Psalm 23, “God is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” He felt both emotions, despair and hope, and he felt them strongly. And now, thousands of years later, I feel them too, together at the same time.

The verses I took as promises, I will not be in want, my cup runneth over… they have to still be true. The Father of Heavenly Lights does not change His words just because a shadow has fallen. They don’t feel true right now, though, and the Spirit tells me I need not fear, but I am so afraid…

“Thou art with me.”
23.

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He Delights in You

Please check out the rest of my latest post over at Small, Still Voices. I know these are some words I need to read over and over again to myself. God delights in you, He really does!

A good king, a change of heart

IMG_1512Alright, blog, it’s time to get back to my trek through the story of the Israelites. In my life recently, in the midst of my ups and downs, my immense unfaithfulness and God’s everlasting faithfulness, I have found myself aching to go back to these stories, the stories of a people loved and chosen and cherished by God, a people who continually turn from Him and a God who continually draws them back to Him.

When we last left off, I was returning to Chronicles to read the ancient stories again as they were told to the returning exiles. I had just related the change of seasons, from war to rest, between David and Solomon. The other day I was reading about the kings that came after Solomon, and the story of one really stood out to me: King Asa of Judah.

His story, told in 2 Chronicles 14-16,  recounts a spectacular reign of God-honoring reforms, victory, and peace on every side. Asa destroyed the idols and commanded his people to serve the God of their fathers.

However, 36 years into his reign, Asa of Judah faces the threat of the king of Israel, and instead of trusting in his God to deliver him, just as He’d done before, he takes the dedicated silver and gold out of the temple of the LORD and gives it to a pagan king to win him as an ally. With the help of this ally, he succeeds in getting the king of Israel to back off, but he doesn’t defeat him. Hanani the prophet says to him, “You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.” (16:9)

Rather than listening to the prophet and turning to God, he gets angry and throws the prophet in prison. He mistreats his people, and three years later comes down with a disease and still refuses to turn to God for help (16:12). He dies, but he is buried in glory and honor, his reign still celebrated by his people.

He is commended as one of the great kings of Judah, he is still remembered as a “godly king who reformed Judah.” In 1 Kings 15, there is no mention of his turn from the LORD, only that he took the silver and gold out of the treasuries of the temple. He is remembered as a good king. But I can’t help but think, in light of 2 Chronicles, that in his personal relationship with God, in his cries behind closed doors, in his heart, he lost something…

He lost something.

Earlier in his reign, when faced with a vast army, he prayed: “LORD, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O LORD our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O LORD, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11)

What happened? How could he have gone from that to stealing from the temple to buy a foreign ally? Was it fear? Was it pride? I don’t know, but it troubles my heart, and I don’t want it to happen to me.

I don’t want to forget what the LORD has done, to forget His power, His goodness, His closeness, even when I’m lost in terror and darkness. I dont want to attribute success and prosperity to my own doing, when all good gifts come from the Father. I don’t want to win a battle on my own effort, but lose the war in the long run. I don’t want to turn my back on conviction, but rather I want to repent and seek the LORD. I want to come to Him, to humble myself before Him. I want my heart to be fully committed to the LORD, all my life, as is written about King Asa in 2 Chronicles 15:17—but I want it to be completely true, all the days of my life.

A good day.

I had planned to post this on Small, Still Voices this week, but we’re currently taking a little hiatus. I didn’t want to wait to post this, seeing as it refers to the days we commemorate this week, so I’m going to publish it here as part of my personal act of worship.

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Community, we know what Friday is. It is a day of remembrance, and we call it good– because it is. This day we mourn our sin that caused the death of our Savior, but we also marvel at His grace, at His beauty, at His willingness to sacrifice His own life for the sake of ours. This day we think about His death, but we also know that the death of Christ was not the end of the story.

Today, I want to think about the night before this good day. I want to think about the night Jesus was betrayed, about the songs he might’ve sung at the last supper Passover meal, and the prayer he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I am blessed to have been able to visit Jerusalem and see what’s left of the garden on the Mount of Olives, the tiny park of majestic, ancient olive trees enclosed in a metal fence. Olive trees can survive for centuries, but these trees may or may not have been there with Jesus on the night of His agony. It doesn’t really matter, because it was still beautiful to see these gnarled, stubborn trees growing and growing for so long that part of their trunks have to be held up by cinder-blocks just to keep them upright.

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The place was real, the olive press. Jesus knelt here and asked for the cup to be passed, asked to be spared from the suffering that would press His blood into the anointing oil of gladness that would save the world. And yet, He submitted. “Not my will, but Yours be done.” He prayed for us, too. He prayed for his disciples that couldn’t even stay awake long enough to keep watch and pray with Him.

Before going to the garden, Jesus ate a meal with His disciples, the Passover meal, where it was tradition to sing Psalms 113 to 118. I love studying these psalms and thinking about Jesus singing them. (We can’t know for certain that He did, but it is likely, and the psalms speak of His glory regardless. For this post, I am going to assume that these hymns were sung at Passover.) In Psalm 115, the disciples would sing about the idols of the nations with mouths that cannot speak and eyes that cannot see, and all the while here is their God sitting among them, signing hymns with them.

In Psalm 116, Jesus would sing, “How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. O Lord, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, your faithful son” (v.12-15).

Finally, in Psalm 118 comes the prophecy: “The stone the builders have rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (v.22-23). On the night of His betrayal, the night that led into His suffering and death, Christ would sing verse 24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I encourage you to read these psalms today. I encourage you to think about the garden, about the suffering and obedience of our Savior. But most of all, I encourage you to draw closer to that Savior, because He has conquered death and is very much alive. Sunday has already come, friends, it came a very long time ago. Let us rejoice and be glad in the goodness of our God.

Photos by Robyn: Sculpture by Rick Wienecke; Olive tree from Gethsemane.

The Fisherman and the Shepherd

If you’ve ever heard me talk about the disciples before, or my favorite characters (other than God of course) in the Bible, you probably heard me gushing about the one Jesus called Peter. Ever since I started learning more about the disciples in the Gospels, Peter has stood out to me to the point where I read certain verses now and just say, “Oh, Peter.” It probably has something to do with the fact that he gets the most in-depth attention in the story, the most complete character arc, if you will. But I’m sure it also has to do with the way Jesus loved him, constantly and consistently, even after he still didn’t get it, even after he finally got it but ran away. Peter just seems so real, you know? His character makes sense, and Jesus’ love for him doesn’t, which makes his life such a great picture of Grace.

The Sea of Galilee

So we’re studying the book of 2 Peter in church this month. I’ve also been going through Luke, and I just finished reading about Peter’s first encounter with Jesus (which you can read about at Small, Still Voices on Friday.) Then, Peter came up again in my reading of Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What. So you could say I’ve got Peter on the brain.

Donald Miller talks about Peter’s last recorded conversation with Christ on earth, where Jesus asks him to feed His sheep, and Miller really drew my attention to the significance of that encounter so much so that I felt I should blog about it. Now, I could write a book on Peter (but that probably already exists), and in fact I’ve led an entire Bible study session centered on what we can learn from Peter’s story…. but there is always more to glean, more to think about, and so today I just want to meditate on this single encounter in John 21.

In this last chapter of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved records a moment after the Resurrected Jesus has already appeared to His disciples and a few of them have gone fishing. Simon Peter is back where he was at the beginning of the story, in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. He is doing what he was doing long before he ever met Jesus: fishing.

He has just spent three years living and learning and walking with the Creator of the Universe. He saw Him transfigured before his very eyes, but he also watched Him betrayed to death, and then he saw Him return, completely alive. And now Peter’s back on the sea, fishing.

Perhaps he was hungry. Perhaps he didn’t know what else to do. Perhaps he wanted to be back in a place of comfort where he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe he wanted to return to this fishing business because he was good at it, he understood it, it made sense. But he fishes all night and never catches anything, until Stranger calls out to him from the shore in the early morning light and tells him to let down his nets again.

The same miracle happens again, the one I had just finished reading about in Luke 5 at the beginning of Peter’s story. It’s as if Jesus is gently reminding him of the time he once pulled his boat ashore and left everything behind to follow the Lord, that time when he was called to something greater: to catch men in the net of the Gospel of salvation and grace.

Jesus called him to something greater, and He wouldn’t let Peter run from it. “Feed my sheep,” he said, “Take care of my lambs.” The fisherman is called to be a shepherd.

Am I returning to something other than what Christ has called me to because it’s safe, reliable, and all I’ve ever known? Because it’s all I think I’m capable of?

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Christ calls us to something higher, and He equips us with everything we need to do the job. He breathes His Holy Spirit into his disciples, and the Spirit teaches Simon the fisherman how to be Peter the shepherd. It’s exciting to think that God is working in me right now to prepare me for each moment, hour, day, and year that lies ahead. It’s comforting to know that He won’t leave me alone in the boat on the sea, but will continue to call me ashore and help me to follow Him. What is it that He is calling me to? What is it that He is calling you to? Oh, Peter.

P.s. Who is your favorite disciple?

Takeaways from Two Prophets

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I haven’t been able to put together a sufficient blog post for my readings of Zechariah, but keeping up on this blog has really helped me process through the Scriptures, and I didn’t want to skip over an entire book. So I am going to list here some various notes and “takeaways” from my reading of Zechariah. I’m also including some notes from Ezekiel, since that is a very long book and I only briefly touched on it. These are still only brief notes, but it was helpful to me to write them out here.

God spoke not only through Ezekiel’s words, but also his actions. Ezekiel’s entire life was the message. Sometimes, Ezekiel didn’t even speak at all. God told Ezekiel to do certain things as an example for his people– certain crazy things like lying on his side in front of a model of Jerusalem for 430 days (390 for Israel days for the sins of Israel, 40 for Judah). That’s over a year, and it boggles my mind. Also, while he was doing this, he had to cook his food over cow manure. In chapter 24, we see that Ezekiel had a wife. I wonder what it was like for her in times like these…

God gave Ezekiel some amazing visions of His glory and His power. These come in the very first chapter, because Ezekiel has to know the power and the presence of the LORD Almighty before he can submit to speaking such bold words and doing such crazy things. We have no way of knowing whether or not his wife experienced such visions, but there must have been some incredible faith on her part if she didn’t.

The need for Christ: “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” — Ezekiel 22:30

A very great promise: “I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.” –Ezekiel 37:26-27

Zechariah means “God has remembered.” Throughout the book, God is described to be “choosing” Jerusalem.

Zechariah, like Haggai, called the people to return to God and rebuild the temple, but he also points to a greater future: rebuilding the physical remains of Jerusalem is powerful, but it is not all that God has for his people. Look ahead to the glory of the LORD.

Zechariah speaks of one who will be both ruler and priest. At the end of Haggai, the governor, Zerubabbel, is appointed by God to rule over Israel. In Zechariah, Joshua, the high priest over Israel, is anointed and referred to as a man “symbolic of things to come” when “the Branch” will be a priest and rule on his throne, and there will be harmony between the two. (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12-13)

“I will remove the sin from this land in a single day.” — Zechariah 3:9

When the LORD comes to reign, “Holy to the LORD” will be inscribed not only on the priestly garments, but even on the horses, and pots and pans for cooking will be the same as the sacred bowls used at the altar (Zechariah 14). Everything in the LORD’s city will be sacred.

Haggai: “Give careful thought to your ways.”

Today, I moved in my Biblical trek through Israel’s history to the book of Ezra, and I was pretty excited. This is it, the promises that God made through Jeremiah are being fulfilled! God has allowed His people to return to their inheritance, and they are eagerly choosing to leave the prosperity of Babylon behind in order to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem. What a story!

In Ezra 3, they start right away with building an altar and sacrificing to the LORD. Alright, Israelites, that’s what I like to see! Ezra goes on to record the building of the second temple, and how the enemies around Jerusalem tried to thwart the process, but God continued to move the Persian kings’ hearts to favor His people and order the empire to comply with the rebuilding of the temple. This is pretty awesome!

It all goes so fast in Ezra, but I almost missed something. Did you know there were almost twenty years and two prophets between the first exiles’ return to Jerusalem and the actual building of the second temple? Those prophets were Haggai and Zechariah, and they urged the Israelites to refocus on the LORD Almighty, and the people listened.

So today, I read Haggai. Haggai’s name derives from words meaning “festive,” “feast,” and “the festival of the Lord.” His prophetic words call the Israelites to honor and worship God by rebuilding His temple. It’s as if he’s saying, “Come on, look at what God has done for us. He has given us reason to be festive, let us honor Him.” The message God gave him, recorded in only two chapters, can be summed up in 1:4-6:

“Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses while this house [the temple] remains a ruin?” Now this is what the LORD Almighty says, “Give careful thought to your ways. You planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

The exiles had returned to their home, to the land promised by God, and they began to rebuild it. They built houses for themselves and tried to restart the economy, but the land was desolate. They worked on everything else except the house of the LORD, and they lacked some serious blessings because of it. Haggai 1:11 speaks of a drought that halted the production of every kind of crop in the land.

The people weren’t deliberately turning away from the LORD, they just weren’t thinking very clearly. They had hit some roadblocks in the construction process, so they set it aside and just kind of forgot. And so God offered them a reminder that I’d like to paraphrase:

“Hey, Israel, remember: I promised to be with you, and here I am. Rebuild My dwelling place, and the land will bloom in abundance.” 

As I read this today, God added between the lines: “Give careful thought to your ways. Are you seeking me? Are you serving me? Or are you seeking to rebuild your own house, to have all of your own affairs in order, before you work on Mine?”

For the past couple of days, I’ve been working on this blog and applying to countless jobs and trying to build my own dwelling place for the future, but I haven’t been spending very much time focusing on the Word of my God.

In church this week, the pastor told us that when the Bible calls us to meditate on the things of God, the same type of wording can be used to describe a dog gnawing on a bone. It’s the same type of idea, chewing on the Word of the God, absorbing every bit of it.

I want to do that. Nothing else matters. Nothing I build matters, unless I am first and foremost building a dwelling place for the LORD. I am a dwelling place for the LORD. Am I increasing His space daily? Haggai served as a gentle reminder to the people of Israel to keep their focus on the LORD alone. I pray that I can respond as they did, and earnestly prepare a place for Him.

New book, same story.

So, if you couldn’t guess from my last post, I’ve been reading the good ole book of Jeremiah in my journey to read about the story of the Israelites chronologically. As I finished Jeremiah, my next plan was to read Ezekiel. I was excited at first, because, while Jeremiah had his depressing moments, his prophecies of God’s promises to restore Israel and take care of them even in exile were very encouraging to me. So I thought, bring it on Ezekiel!

But I’m twenty chapters in now, and I’m tired of reading about exile.* I want to get to Ezra and start reading about the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. (I know it’s going to be similar, but at least I can jump to a different time frame.) It’s tiring to read over and over again about Israel’s sin, the same sins, over and over, and God’s plan to punish, purify, and restore them.

However, it is sobering too. Because of Israel’s sins, God drove them into exile, destroyed Jerusalem, and killed many, in order for His just nature to be satisfied. He would again tend to them and turn His face toward them, but justice had to be enacted first. And still He loved His people. And still he pleaded with them to stop following false idols and come back to Him.

We no longer live in an age where exile and punishment are necessary to satisfy the righteous anger of God. Centuries after the Israelites returned to their inherited land and still continued to sin, God decided to come to earth and take the wrath Himself. And that just blows my mind.

Reading Ezekiel has been challenging, and I almost wanted to skip it, since I’ve read it already before and it’s all about the same themes as Jeremiah, but I’m glad to stick with it now. The book of Ezekiel recounts God’s overwhelming power and surpassing greatness that the prophet sees in his visions, and recounts how that powerful God has complete sovereignty and deserves all of our honor and praise, and all of our very lives. It also shows how God acts on His words. He warned the Israelites, and they didn’t listen, and now what He already spoke is being fulfilled. It has to, because He is just and righteous.

And yet that power, the power of One full of fire, surrounded by brilliant light on a throne of sapphire,** loved and loves relentlessly this crooked creation, and confined Himself to flesh to dwell among us and take our punishment upon Him. I know I seem to be saying this a lot in recent posts, but that is a good thing. I want to declare the Gospel, I want to walk in this, live by this, marvel at this daily. All of the Bible speaks of Christ, even the books of exile, and I love it.

Ezekiel means “God Strengthens.” I’ve moved from God will uplift, to God will strengthen. More in the days to come. <3

*Don’t worry, I found the need to balance it out with some New Testament letters. Currently I’m in Philippians.
**See Ezekiel 1:25-28 for a description of the prophet’s vision of God.

Fruitful in Exile

IMG_0975Ever since I started going deeper into my journey of faith, I’ve been obsessed with the symbol of exile. I remember how in middle school, after reading The Lord of the Rings and geeking out over spiritual themes, I made this entire AOL instant message profile (remember those days, guys?) about being in exile. My username was “RangerInExlie” and I remember quoting something about Aragorn, a king, living willingly in exile while protecting secretly those who think he’s a scoundrel, and I also quoted the Bible calling us “strangers” and exiles in this land (1 Peter 2:11).

Yeah, it was a big deal to me. We are exiles. This is not our home, but we have work to do here. But then I got older, and I guess I kind of set that idea on the shelf. I still thought it was cool, but I stopped thinking about it.

Well, now I’m reading Jeremiah and his prophecies about God carrying the Jews into exile to Babylon, and the symbol of exile has been making its way back to the forefront of my mind, and God has been helping me to see it in new ways.

I love the history of the Old Testament, so here’s the deal in Jeremiah: Israel, the northern kingdom, has already been lost to Babylon, and the southern kingdom of Judah is about to be. The timeline skips around a bit, but in the chapters I’m speaking about in this post, King Jehoiachin has been captured, and a host of Jews have already been carried into exile, but Jerusalem remains under King Zedekiah and faces a two-year siege by the Babylonians. So Jeremiah prophesies. He doesn’t say that everything’s going to be okay, he says that the siege of the city is going to be successful, and the Jews are going to be carried into exile, no matter what other false prophets may say. But in chapter 29, he offers hope for the future. After seventy years, declares the LORD, the Jews will return. God will bring them back from captivity and restore their fortunes.

Okay, so you’ve been carried into exile, away from your home and the promised land of God, and now a prophet tells you that you will return …in seventy years. I’m trying to imagine what Jeremiah’s listeners must have thought. Surely most of them wouldn’t be around in seventy years, so they’re stuck in exile, where life seems worthless and unimportant. They’re captives of a foreign empire, and they know things aren’t going to change any time soon, so I imagine some of them would give way to despair. I probably would.

But what does Jeremiah say?

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

He tells them to settle, to make a life in Babylon, to make their time in exile purposeful. They are not wasted, their lives are not wasted. And they must rejoice. In chapter 31, the LORD calls them to praise, to sing with joy about His promise to save them, even if it won’t happen during their lifetime.

Reading Jeremiah has been an immense encouragement to me during this season. I don’t know what’s going on right now. I know that eventually, my future holds the fulfillment of some pretty awesome promises, but I don’t know how to get there yet. Unlike the exiles in Babylon, I don’t know if it’s going to take seventy years, or ten, or twenty, but it is comforting to trust that this time of waiting can be just as fruitful.

The name Jeremiah means “He will uplift,” which I find incredibly interesting, since most of his prophecies are about the destruction of Judah. But God promises, through Jeremiah, that after that destruction, He will uplift His people. In exile, He is with His people (30:11), and He will uplift them. For His plans are to prosper His people, not to harm them, and He will bring them back to Him.

In the time of exile, don’t despair.

The Water of Life

Praise the LORD, o my soul, and forget not all His benefits –

who FORGIVES all your sins,

and HEALS all your diseases,

who REDEEMS your life from the pit

and CROWNS you with love and compassion,

who SATISFIES your desires with good things,

so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.

Psalm 103:2-5