Be Still My Soul

One of the astute observations my counseling professor made about me was, “There is something moving in you that needs to stop.”  I am feeling that very tangibly lately, and I think I am able to feel it now that my external life is finally slowing down.  Perhaps it is like a program on your computer that is running and taking up memory and computer “focus” so that the programs you are trying to use are slowed down considerably.  There is something in constant motion inside of me just like that unseen computer program which drains the whole system of the energy needed to run the desired programs.

I might call it “anxiousness” as the closest description possible, but it isn’t directly related to a particular upcoming event or present circumstance.  It feels more like habit.  It seems to be this internal sense of hurry that oddly ends up slowing me down or paralyzing me altogether.  The hurry stems from a fear of impending chaos if x, y and z don’t happen immediately.  Sometimes, this is absolutely accurate – if I don’t leave right now, we’ll miss our flight and not get to our destination.  But most of the things I respond to with that same level of panic just aren’t that consequential.  That hurry in my chest, that sense that if “x” is not addressed or corrected or completed or avoided that our future well being is in peril, is both a product of fear and control.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:10

Stillness goes against all of my compulsions to be my own god and god of my world.  Knowing that God is over the heavens and the earth, over the relational dynamics and political processes, over the financial structures and weather patterns, and over every aspect of redeeming and recreating all things is the only possible way I can be still.  My inability to be still is not simply cute hyperactivity but something deeper and more toxic to the efficient running of my “system”.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.  Psalm 37:7

I fret.  I’m a good fretter. I’m not a verbal fretter so that people would identify me as one who frets, but that is exactly what that spinning ball of fire in my chest is fueled by doing.  It takes many forms:  limited time, growing to do lists, dreams, goals, desires, obstacles, opinions of others, fear of loss, grieving of loss, fear of failure and then the real life disappointments – How did the mean lady, the selfish neighbor, the naysayers, the antagonists end up getting their way and preventing me/us from doing this beautiful thing? Oh no! Fret, fret, fret.  Worry, worry, worry.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  In this state, do you notice who has been left on the throne of the universe and who is conspicuously missing?

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2:13

In connection with the word “slow”, “to be angry” is the most connected phrase in the Old Testament.  This would help my heart a great deal since all that hurry, worry and fretting inevitably leads to anger.  God is slow to anger because He is anxious for nothing.  He is anxious for nothing because He is in control of everything.  This preserves His anger for the righteous responses to wickedness and not the vast array of personal violations which provoke my anger.  God is God, so be still.  God has it under control, so slow down little camper.  God is at peace, so peace be with you.

OK, so its that simple.  Just be still, slow down and have peace.  Check.  Done.  Internal ball of motion eradicated.  Much to the disappointment of my hurried demand for instant sanctification, no, knowledge of my problem and awareness of the antidote are not the tools to heal myself.  If that would work permanently, I would not need Jesus.  Instead, He gives me Himself.  He is the Prince of Peace. He stills the storm.  He is my righteousness.  He is making me holy, by His work, in His time…which is often quite slower than my schedule yet far more dependable.

The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. Is. 32:17

I’m grateful for this coming season of less external hurry.  I am grateful that it exposes my internal hurry so I can realize my need for His work on that area where my faith has much growing to do.  As I rest in His righteousness, peace grows in place of the anxious motion.  This peace will result in quietness and increased confidence in the One who has not left His throne empty.  Good news indeed.

Where Does My Help Come From?

It is always surprising to me each time I discover another way in which my Christianity is lived out in self-reliance rather than genuine faith.  My most recent discovery is where I go for help in stressful situations.  If there is a relationship that feels more disconnected than harmonious or a circumstance that is just not making sense or going how I imagined it might, my Christian response is to race through the catalogue of verses about loving as I have been loved or seeking to serve rather than be served.  Or, I will search as if left on a scavenger hunt for the right theological framework with which to better approach the situation:  this is an opportunity to experience broken things and be part of their restoration.  There, all better now?  Of course not because a better perspective, a different angle from which to view the situation or person, nor a new resolve to be at peace, to block out the negative or to just be free in the midst of trial may be the best I can come up from within myself, but effective help can only come from outside of myself.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Psalm 121:1-2

The help God offers is not a pithy quote to put up on a white board, nor is it merely a philosophy to buy into nor is it a new set of laws to apply wisely at the right times.  He offers us the real person of Jesus, at work now through His Spirit, also one of the three persons of the Trinity.  My help is a person not a new perspective.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  Is. 41:10

I have loved this verse for years, but even the “I am with you” wasn’t taken literally by my heart.  Instead, it is more like I take it to mean, “My good wishes are with you” or “My love is with you” or “The force be with you”.  And, these would all be nice encouragements for sure.  But they fall short of the far better reality promised over and over through all of Scripture…that God Himself, not just in idea or theory, is with me.

The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.  News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.  Acts. 11:21-23

God’s hand was at work for real.  The grace of God was at work, doing real, tangible work from the outside in to bring about change from the inside out.  My help is the person of God in Jesus coming physically to His creation, by faith present where my sight is weak, to do what my best resolves and internal Biblical resources cannot accomplish independently.  (Just reciting a Bible verse over and over can be more like superstition than faith when divorced from the living and active person present with me always.)

So why do I look first inside myself in frustrating relationships, discouraging circumstances or puzzling challenges?  My best guess is that I am not yet convinced of the bankruptcy of my own ability to redeem the world around me and my own self.  I think I can fix him or her or me with a simple reboot and tenacity.  The second part is my unbelief.  It feels silly to call on a person I cannot see to do something I cannot prescribe.  (Don’t I even trust more in the kinds of prayers that tell God exactly what I think is needed than the simple “Help Me!” variety?)

Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Gen. 32:36

I’ve always read that with some discomfort because it sounds a lot like health and wealth to me, demanding something of God as if I were his master and He existed to serve me.  But what if instead I saw that Jacob understood what I rarely do?  I am doomed if left to encounter my brother and you are not with me?  I actually need You to give me fish, not just teach me to fish so You don’t have to exist anymore.  Please oh please don’t leave me to handle it myself or I will certainly be defeated.

The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.  Ex. 33:14-15

It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  Gen. 2:18

I have always read this as a benevolent gesture on God’s part to have compassion on the loneliness of man.  In a puzzling way, it also seemed to indicate an inadequacy about God’s presence with Adam in the pre-fall Garden.  But, again, I figured it to be a condescension on God’s part to meet the needs of man’s weakness in that way.  It was only recently that I was struck with how inconsistent my reading of this one statement was in light of all that God reveals about Himself and His plan of redemption in all of Scripture.

Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” Gen. 31:3

There is something in me, just like Jacob, that would rather flee from conflict or settings of discord than run at full speed into them.  Like the early church fathers in the monastic movement who set out into the desert to be more holy, I too would be far more holy in isolation.  It am easily the most patient person on earth when nobody is around to test or require it of me.  I perceive myself to be full of love for all of humanity when there is no humanity encroaching on my space or interrupting my routines or challenging my perspective.  But as soon as another voice enters into my monologue, (besides the obvious fact that it by definition can no longer be a monologue), my neatly constructed world gets bumped a bit.  He continually sends His people toward His people, to live with one another rather than in escapist isolation.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. Matt. 18:20

Do I suppose this means that when I am alone, He is not with me?  Of course not.  In the same way, perhaps Adam’s loneliness is not what prompted God’s statement before creating Eve.  What if God knows it is not good for man to be alone because alone it is easier to feel self-sufficient, complete and lacking nothing?   These, of course, describe Jesus alone, yet I am more inclined to feel they describe me when there is nothing to challenge the veracity of that notion.  I lack a whole lot less in a space that I can fully control and dictate than in one that must be shared with others with distinct wills of their own.

What if in God’s grand plan of redemption, the story of His taking His creation from fallible to infallible, from able to sin to the final state of not being able to sin, the first step was for man to recognize such holiness, righteousness and love is not possible independent from God?  And how might I ever come to realize this truth unless confronted with my limitations and selfishness?  What if the help we give to one another is both the truth that by myself I cannot produce the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control that I think I might but also the hope that those are still possible by the work of Jesus in and through and despite me?

What if God’s declaration was about so much more than my potential loneliness because it is about increasing my dependence on Him, my trust in Him, my knowledge of Him and my love for Him?  What if through both the gifts and gouges I receive from others I become more receptive to and aware of the person of Jesus who has promised always to be with me? 

Alone, in my self-constructed reality, I can so convincingly become my own god, determining easily for myself what is right and wrong in my own eyes.  Alone, it is easy to feel, like the Pharisees did, that I am sufficiently meeting the demands of the Law which are summed up in loving God and loving my neighbor.  The presence of my neighbor and my response to him or her reminds me of God’s presence, dominion and satisfaction of all that the Law requires even as it shows me how inadequate I am apart from His person and work.  It is not good for me to be alone because I need to know how much I need the person and work of Jesus…and how faithfully He meets my need to love others better than I can alone.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:19-25

Marketable Freedom

Spending four years of college in Nashville increased my limited exposure to the music industry.  The idea of marketing preceding songwriting, and that songwriting was rarely the product of the singer performing the song, was a mildly disappointing reality.  The same, of course, is true for authors who are pressured to write what people want to read rather than let their creative juices flow in the style and genre that most reflects their experiences and expertise.  I suppose the same is also true of trying to sell one’s home these days…you are no longer selling your happy family abode to another grateful family, but using smoke and mirrors to become the living space the buyers most hope to call their own.  The idea is to strip the home of all indications of the owner’s personality, hobbies, interests or creative touches so that it is most appealing to a potential buyer who might have totally different affections and preferences.  I’m pretty sure that as mad as it makes me in real estate, it is pretty much exactly what I do all the time hoping to be marketable to this community or that.  “Look at my awesome master bath and very updated kitchen which is really more updated than that other guy down the street and you’ll be much cooler and have a better life with what I have to offer.”  Pick me!  Pick me!  I’m cooler, hipper, more influential and well connected, deeper rooted in the prestigious circle you value, spend my weekends and summers at socially “in” destinations…oh and on it goes.

So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Deut. 5:32

God has to tell me this because all I do is look to the right or to the left.  I mean, what if the people to the left assume what I am doing looks really right winged or what if the folks to the right label me as one of the leftists?  I’m a great house!  I’m a song that should sell millions of copies!  I must convince them that I am a bestselling novel!  So, I will not do “this” because buyers don’t like that so much and I will do “that” (perhaps repaint) because buyers would recognize that as fashionable and trendy.  I just can’t be mistaken for an outdated or undesirable house.  The shackles are tighter and more constricting than I even realize because I am so used to them.

Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.  Prov. 29:25

I am so easily snared by my fear of man.  The need to be favorably viewed and perceived is too controlling in my heart.  This need steals the joy of doing things that are morally neutral simply because the shame of someone else’s disapproval is often louder to me than the freedom and simplicity of living in God’s delight.  For example: “You’re going to have all three children sleeping in one room?”  Oh yeah, that is so weird isn’t it?  Even though it works perfectly for us, I hadn’t realized how substandard it was.  We really should move things around to remedy this abnormality.  Oh the power and control of the fear of man.  What is my hope for freedom from this constant pull to make myself marketable?

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

If wisdom is Jesus and my heart is to be his entirely, consumed with Him, trusting Him, delighting in Him and in His delight, seeking fullness of life from Him alone…how might my fear of man decrease if I knew how short the number of my days actually were?  If I could really grasp the length of time of eternity (good luck) and how much more permanent my “real estate” in His Kingdom is, would I be so concerned with my marketability in this shorter season?  Though the bedroom example is pretty silly even now, how will so many of the other ways I judge people and am judged by people seem in relation to our equality as His bride for eternity?

My need to be perceived as desirable here and now is as strong as my own perception of this moment’s permanence.  I need for you to know that I am an “insider” according to your particular standards to the extent that your particular standards have become more eternal than God’s eternal valuation of both of us.  I can look down on you smugly and arrogantly the more I convince myself that my limited standards are more exhaustive than God’s.

A former classmate of mine was interviewed on NPR about a movie he was in this year as well as about his particular love of blue grass music and the banjo.  He referenced “the preppy high school” he attended with only those words.  To the listening audience, that could be one of thousands of schools in the country.  To the people who attend his high school, it is the most prestigious school in the country and what makes them more important than everyone who didn’t go there.  What I live or die for in a really small context is not all that noteworthy in a larger context.  How much more true will this be of the things that I do or don’t do based on my fear of man rather than God’s eternal perspective?  When His glory is the only one that matters to every living creature, mine or the guy’s next to me genuinely won’t matter.  Is it possible, in this season of limited perspective, to go ahead and enjoy the freedom from fighting for my own glory?  Freedom will come when the glory that already belongs to Him is more satisfying to my heart than the constant grab for my own.

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.  No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.  Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,  for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”  If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.  But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.  I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?  If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?  So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31

Part of the Whole

If I am energized by the interactions with those on a similar trajectory to mine, who are increasingly seeing their daily need for a redeemer and finding a Redeemer who meets that need, I am similarly “shut down” by interactions that not only lack this but are filled with judgmental characterizations, authoritatively expressed opinions and personal preferences.  These interaction are framed by a general point of view that I am at the center of my story and I ought to be at the center of your story as well.  Just this morning I was guilty of this latter role, which is probably part of what left me rattled.  It was more than just my need for my friend to “get me”, though that is always present, but I apparently had a high demand that we share a common world view and theology and application of the two.  When it was clear that we didn’t, or at least weren’t really connecting in the way I needed for us to do, the whole thing left me shaken.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  1 Cor. 3:10-11

I didn’t go into the time together wanting to see Jesus more clearly but wanting my friend to see me more clearly.  When I am not seen clearly, or if I can’t “see” my friend or neighbor or family member clearly, I am shaken because I began building on the wrong foundation for our relationship.  My high need to be aligned in perspective even if different in application replaces a deep abiding trust that Jesus is at work in both of our lives doing what He needs to do for His Kingdom, not what I want done for mine or my rendition of His.  This is very hard.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  1 Cor. 12:4-6

Since childhood, I have wanted everyone around me to “learn” what God is teaching me at a given moment.  If I am having an “Aha!” moment, I assume it would be just as eye opening for the person next to me, but the truth is, it probably won’t be.  It probably won’t be because God is training me, teaching me, shaping me, growing me for one service to His Kingdom and the person next to me for another.  His Kingdom is huge and the redemptive work to be done is extensive.  The same God is at work in all of His people but the works He is doing through them are varied.  My position in relationships, then, shouldn’t be to demand we both be shaped identically for the same exact service but to enter with eyes wide open to learn about what He is doing throughout His Kingdom, throughout His body and through all His varied instruments of grace.

So, there is much work in my own heart still to be done on this front.  Just knowing the error of my approach doesn’t guarantee a healthy engagement in my next relational interaction.  But it is a starting point.  It still leaves the distress of the other person’s demand that I similarly conform to his or her particularly gifting, training and perspective.  And that is just it:  when we discover our paths are quite different, our enthusiasm sparked by totally separate areas of God’s Kingdom, our “training” focusing our eyes toward goals that appear distant from one another, an odd yet condemnation hangs in the air.  It feels as if one of us must be moving in the wrong direction, motivated by the wrong impulses or participating in the wrong mission.  Because, after all, if all of our lifeblood is being devoted to one calling so distinct from the other, what energy or even interest remains for the one not set before us?

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  Romans 12:4-5

What if His justification of me in the person and work of Jesus would free me from needing to be justified by my friends’ enthusiasm for my particular function?  How much better could I love others and be genuinely excited about their varied interests and trajectories if it was the person and work of Jesus being celebrated and focused upon rather than my own?  What if my satisfaction and peace in time with others rested less on sameness and commonality and more on the sure foundation of Jesus as the author and perfecter of faith and the very capable, reliable and effective head of the body?

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  Eph. 4:2-6