Remain: God, Our Refuge

Many summers ago, Larry and I took our three sons to Colorado. To a one bedroom cabin with no internet. No cable TV. And one tiny table built for two. Needless to say we spent lots of time outdoors–which was the point of the trip.

One afternoon, however, we planned for a day “in.” Eager to have a few moments to ourselves, Larry and I set the boys up with a game and headed up the hill across the street. Wine glasses in hand and the neighbor’s dog in tow, we hiked the low peak–excitedly anticipating the view and the quiet. 

But the scene that lay before us was unexpected. Instead of white fluffy clouds casting peaceful shadows on the valley below, black storm clouds raged toward us, throwing bolts of lightning our way. Thunder rumbled, and the smell rain enveloped us. So, we turned. And ran. 

The comedy of it did not escape us as we raced that storm down the mini-mountain we’d just climbed. Our laughs were stifled only by our gasps for breath as we did our best not to fall or spill our wine. The tiny cabin in sight, we kept our eyes on the prize–shelter from the storm.

The minute we hit the porch, the raindrops turned into a gulley-washing downpour. We’d made it! Safe from nature’s fury, we pulled up the two chairs and drank what was left of our wine as we watched the storm from inside the cozy cabin.

A grainy, but legit pic of our cabin in the mountains. Del Norte, Colorado

Refuge

As we continue our exploration of what it looks like to remain in God, we get to look again at Psalm 91:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91:1-2, NIV, emphasis mine

Last week we learned that to turn to the Lord Most High as our shelter is to find the place where we are most known and loved. This week we’ll dig into what it means for God to be our refuge. 

Originally prepared as a liturgy to be used upon entering and departing the Temple, Psalm 91 invites worshipers of every era into the protective covering of God (Harper’s). The Hebrew word for ‘refuge,’ machaseh, can be used literally to mean a shelter from rain and storms–much like a cabin in the mountains. But in verse two of Psalm 91, God is described as the refuge for His people. As our dwelling place, God becomes our safe zone, shielding us from the storms that brew and blow throughout our lifetimes.

To make sure the hearers of God’s Word are getting the picture, the psalmist reiterates this truth in verse nine. Keep in mind that Moses could have been the first to say these words:

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

Psalm 91:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine

The one (Moses) who personally knew Yahweh as his safe place, invites us to remain in God, to take shelter in God. Verse ten states that when we do make the Most High our refuge, no evil or plague will come upon us. If we don’t take the entire Psalm–its meaning and context–into consideration, we could read these verses and infer that if we say the “magic words” then we’ll go through life without any suffering or tragedy. But that is not the promise here.

Truth

Psalm 91’s verses are intended as encouragement in our faith journeys. Their words are not superstitious phrases that create a bubble in a broken world, but they are promises that come with expectations: that we personally connect with our Father. When we do, He offers to be our shield from all things evil. Even when illness or tragedy or loss become our reality, God remains the place in whom we find comfort and safety and fortitude. We do not go it alone. His Word promises over and over that He will never leave or forsake us (ie: Isaiah 41:10) and that He will always be our strength (ie: Habakkuk 3:19). 

But, more than anything, these verses–the entirety of Psalm 91–become promises of spiritual defense. Just like the wings across the Ark of the Covenant symbolize protectiveness (Exodus 25:17-22), these words and phrases serve to remind us that when we step into God’s presence, we come under His spiritual covering and care. 

Because, friends, we need a refuge from the evil in our world.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Jesus walked this earth healing and teaching–and casting out demons. He trained His followers to do the same and taught them to pray for deliverance from evil (Matthew 6:13). He spoke a prayer over His followers that God would not take us out of the world but protect us from the evil one (John 17:15). Peter reminds all believers that our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And James, Jesus’ brother, coaches us to resist the enemy so he will flee from us (James 4:7).

Paul gives us the best instruction of all when it comes to standing firm in the face of spiritual forces that want to do us harm. Pray! Put on the armor of God. Then pray some more. (Ephesians 6:10-20).

So. Coming under the shelter of God is absolutely seeking cover from the storms of life, but it’s so much more. Seeking God as our refuge means coming under the protection of our Almighty God, who with a word casts out demons, slays giants, and keeps evil at bay. In Christ, we are hidden and kept safe from the evil that desires to taint and twist our faith.

With all these promises of refuge in God, we have nothing to fear. All we have to do is step into it. Grab hold of it. Make it our own.

Hope

As I researched for this post, I scoured the New Testament for verses that communicate similar messages of Jesus as a refuge. And the craziest thing kept happening–every time I found a verse containing a word that described Jesus as the safe place, the Greek word translated as hope. I was looking for refuge, and God kept giving me hope. Oh, that God. 😉

A thrift store find–and perfect timing!

Then this verse popped up: 

“So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us.”

Hebrews 6:18, NLT

There they are–in black and white–refuge and hope in one verse. We flee to Jesus for refuge, which empowers us to hold onto hope, come-what-may.

God’s promises to us–corporately and individually–can always be relied upon. However, one thing God never guarantees is an easy, pain-free life. Quite the opposite, actually–He prepares us for trial and tragedy, pain and persecution. Numerous times throughout Scripture, God encourages us to take heart, press on, and look to Him for strength–because life is hard. In fact, Peter says we should not be surprised when fiery ordeals waylay us because they hit everyone, including Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-13). 

But, God promises to be with us in all of it–just as He was for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they, quite literally, walked through fire for Him (Daniel 3:16-28). In the same way He sheltered them bodily, He will always be our refuge spiritually–and very often, physically, as well. 

And there’s our hope!

No matter how tempted we are to give up and give in, we can hope. “Our hope can be revived by a reminder that hope in God will never be disappointed” (Birge, 1505)–because God is our refuge. He never fails. He never disappoints. He’s always ready to be our shelter–a place to come in from out of the rain.

Whatever mountains you face. Whatever storms rage around you. Whatever fires you anticipate, God beckons you to run toward Him–like racing into a cabin to escape a summer squall. 

God wants to be our refuge. He wants us to want Him, so the invitation to make Him our dwelling place is an open one. There are no enchanting words to recite–only hearts to open to our Father. The closer we get to Him, the more we trust Him. And the more we trust Him, the safer we feel and the longer we want to remain in His presence.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • It would probably do us all good to reread Psalm 91 this week–this time to see how its words become promises of spiritual safety. Journal your thoughts about how Jesus is our refuge and hope. I’d LOVE to hear what you come up with.
  • Our Dwell Playlist continues to invite me into God’s presence–to dwell there with Him, to remain under the shelter of His wings. I’m praying that each of us practices the idea of drawing near to God and finds that, as we do, He not only draws near to us but anchors us in His love and shelters us from the storms. What peace and hope abide in that holy space.
  • I mentioned two books that are actual tomes that have become my constant companions as I research passages in Scripture each week:
    • The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary* edited by Gary M. Birge and Andrew E. Hill. I got to hear Dr. Birge teach a few years ago, and I was impressed enough to purchase his commentary. And I am so glad I did!
    • Harper’s Bible Commentary* edited by James L. Mays. I received this from my parents for Christmas in 1996 (I love inscriptions!). I’d asked for it because I knew I’d need it for seminary. Just wow. That was so long ago–before we had internet search engines at our fingertips. 🙂
  • If you haven’t had a chance yet to follow me on my new Instagram account, @shelleylinnjohnson, I’d love it if you would.  “Meta” has deleted both my Facebook and Instagram accounts 😦 so I’m literally staring over. I remember Beth Moore teaching about the differences between ‘inconveniences’ and ‘tragedies.’ I keep telling myself, “This is not a tragedy.” And, I’m happy to say I’m believing it and moving forward.

Featured Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash
*denotes affiliate links

Remain: Dwelling in the Secret Place

My brother is a true-blue outdoorsman. When he fishes, he’s all in–wearing shorts with lots of pockets for all the tools of the trade, toting huge tackle boxes full of hooks and lures that sparkle in the sun. When he hunts, he’s no different–getting up long before the sun to sit in cold duck blinds, sporting the essential camouflage clothing. We tease him when he walks in the door after a hunt, “We can’t see you!” And he’ll good-naturedly retort, “That’s the whole point.” Because camouflage keeps the hunter hidden.

Hidden. A meaning I hadn’t expected to find on this exploration of what it means to remain with God. Yet something mysteriously wonderful happens when we make our home in Christ: He becomes our secret place.

Taking Shelter

I’ve been anticipating this part of our journey together since I chose dwell as my word of the year and Psalm 91:1-2 as my Word for the year. 

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91:1-2, NIV, emphasis mine

Too many times life doesn’t play out as it should in our broken world, but God’s original intent for all His children was for them to have homes, to be part of healthy families. We can look to the Hebrew people and see this divine design for family, where the oldest man is called on to lead, provide, and protect his family. 

To our American minds, the patriarchal society sounds unfair. Our sensibilities scream that all people should have the opportunity to support and lead themselves. However, one of my favorite authors, Dr. Sandra Richter, helps me understand that by imposing our way of life onto the ancient, tribal ways of God’s people, we skew their reality for ours. The truth is God meets His people wherever they are–be it in the harsh era of tyrants and pagans or in the twenty-first century days of (relative) wealth and comfort. God steps into the real place of the Hebrew people and gives them a template for living–a design meant to keep the most vulnerable (the women and children) of that day safe and secure.

With that view and understanding, we can read and relate to what the Psalmist states about our reality with God. Just as the Hebrew women and children find shelter in their homes, the bet’ab, we can do the same in our God. When we dwell with Him, He becomes our shelter.

A Secret Place

Definitions vary for cether, the Hebrew word for ‘shelter’, but one translation is ‘secret place.’ As a child, I loved finding secret places tucked into the corners of my church. While my parents served in various capacities, I had free reign and sought secluded spaces–but not for safety. For fun! When I remained out of sight of others in a place that seemed intended just for me, I felt special. Unique. Like I had the best of mysteries to myself.

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

When we picture ourselves stepping into the secret place with our Father, we can imagine it as a specially designed dwelling–a place of peace for our world-weary souls. A place to remain with our Father because cether, in this context, is a spiritual state–that of our souls in relationship to God (gotquestions.org).

But getting to that shelter takes intentionality. We live in constant bombardment of voices, images, and busy schedules. Distractions beg for our attention while God quietly beckons us into His presence. Like Elijah at the mouth of the cave, we must listen for His whisper then step into this secret place with Him (1 Kings 19:12-13). 

In my childhood excursions through the shadows of our church building, the best moments were shared ones–when I could invite someone to explore with me, to share the joy of secret discovery. I’m coming to understand that I would not have asked just anyone to join me–it had to be someone I trusted.

Friends, stepping into God’s secret place–where we are most known–takes courage and trust.

Our Trustworthy God

So, to be able to fully and continually immerse ourselves in the presence of God, we must be building our trust in Him. We have to know who He truly is. We need to dispel any false ideas we have of Him while building the truth of who He is in our hearts and minds. The two best ways to know God’s character are to read His Word and watch how Jesus lived.

Today, let’s start with looking for clues to God’s character in His Word: 

Whoever dwells in the shelter of Elyon
    will rest in the shadow of Shaddai.
I will say of Jehovah, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my Elohim, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91:1-2, NIV but with Hebrew name additions

Knowing God as Elyon anchors us in His most high nature. 
Knowing God as Shaddai empowers us because He is the Almighty
Knowing God as Jehovah assures us that God is who He says He is. 
Knowing God as Elohim points us to God’s divine nature and secures His position as the God of gods. 

It’s one thing to know something about God in our heads–”yup, He’s the God of all gods”–and another thing altogether to live as though we believe it’s true. For instance, I know that God is sovereign yet on a daily basis I come face-to-face with my tendency to want to reign on my own throne, making all my own decisions without looking to the One who’s meant to be in charge.

My inability to put God on the throne consistently hints at my lack of trust. Somewhere in my soul I think I can do it. So, in this season of life I’m coming to God more frequently in postures of surrender and confession, asking Him to teach me to know His goodness so I can trust Him with every aspect of my life. 

Photo by Dylan Taylor on Unsplash

Because when we can trust God, we’ll enter His presence more often, more honestly. We will open our hearts and souls to Him, giving Him space and permission to lead us through our shadowy and broken places. To bring healing. Wholeness. Peace. Joy. Love. And a host of other spiritual fruit.

Hidden in God

So, this dwelling with God, this entering His secret place is meant to be holy and wholly good. There’s an incredible word-picture created in the use of the word cether–especially in Psalm 91. I had no idea that the Hebrew language is pictographic until researching for this series. When we see the breakdown for cether in Hebrew, the picture presented is breathtaking.

‘Secret place’ in Hebrew is סָתַר – the letters pronounced as ‘samech + tav + resh.’  The samech is from ‘the thorn,’ meaning grab, hate, or protect. The tav is from ‘the two crossed sticks,’ referring to a mark, sign, signal, or monument. The resh is from ‘the head of a man,’ meaning first, top, beginning, or man.

When we put all this together, “the thorns (samech) surround the marked (tav) man (resh). Now instead of being visible to those who would slay him, he [the Psalm 91 man] is hidden, camouflaged behind a hedge of protection–just as thorn bushes were used to create a hedge of protection around the flock of sheep at night to protect them from predators” (Christine Miller at alittleperspective.com).

When we’re hidden in God, we’re brought inside His presence, which becomes a safe place, hidden from anything that would distract or harm, from prying eyes, from enemies. Oh. My. 

Friends, this is exactly the image we’re to picture in our mind’s eye when we read this New Testament passage:

“Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Colossians 3:1-3, NIV

We are marked men and women (Romans 2:28-29). Our lives are hidden with Christ in God! Jesus is the ultimate secret place–that set-apart space where we meet with God, are known by Him, and become like Him. Jesus, the One who wore a crown of thorns, becomes our hedge of thorns, surrounding and shrouding us so that we can meet with Him anytime. No matter where we are. Or how we feel. Or who is looking. When we settle into this dwelling place of God, we find the safest of all spaces to open our deepest selves to the One who loves us most. 

Jesus is our camouflage. We are hidden in Him–and that’s the point!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • I urge you to read all of Psalm 91 this week to see how its words depict the type of hiddenness inferred by the Hebrew word, cether. Perhaps you’ll see more clearly what Christine Miller has found to be true about the hedge of thorns: “This is why pestilence, war, and enemies pass by the Psalm 91 man. They cannot see him and are turned back from him by the wall of thorns. The man is covered and sheltered and hidden from view.” Journal your responses evoked by the unfolding of what it looks like to meet with God in the secret place.
  • I’ve added a song to our Dwell Playlist! Quite by accident–in searching the words “the secret place”–I came across a song by that title. Once again, I’m enraptured by the truths of lyrics that capture the soul and heart of what we’re learning here:

We are satisfied here with You, here with You
Chains will hit the floor, broken lives restored
We couldn’t ask for more here with You, here with You
I’m running to the secret place
Where You are, where You are
–Phil Wickham

  • If you haven’t had a chance yet to follow me on my new Instagram account, @shelleylinnjohnson, I’d love it if you would. 🙂 Building an author’s platform feels daunting, especially with starting over. I keep releasing it to the Sovereign God of gods, and my hope and trust in Him grow more everyday.

Featured photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

Remain: God, Our Dwelling Place

Standing on the street in front of our newly purchased lot, my husband and I babbled all the ideas and hopes for our first house. Brick type. Paint color. Carpet thickness. Weeks passed as we watched the slab poured and frame go up. Then walls and a roof. But it was stepping into the finished product when it finally hit me–this is our home! It’s where we’ll live and love and grow our family. It’s a house, sure. But, more importantly, it’s a place of belonging. 

This memory has helped me grasp what it means, then, to understand God as our dwelling place. To see Him as a shelter in which we can step out of the rain is accurate, but He’s so much more. God as our dwelling place infers home, warmth, and love. It’s a place to go to be seen, known, and loved. 

Just as Larry and I stepped across the threshold of our new house, intent on making it a home, God invites us to enter His presence in the same way. Because it’s a place of mutual intimacy. 

Getting Twisted

I suspect that using the word ‘intimacy’ might trigger all sorts of crazy images and reactions. Much like ‘love,’ the word ‘intimate’ has been twisted by our culture. These words have become sexualized, so our brains and emotions leap to a place that feels wrong when associated with God. Yet God desires a relationship with each of us. It will serve us well to do some untwisting. 

First, let’s detangle the meaning of ‘love.’ The Greeks had it right, giving multiple words to identify each facet of love. They appreciated the love of good friends (philia) even over that of romantic love (eros). The love of a parent (storge) had its own delineation, as did the pure, unconditional love of God (agape). With that loss of distinction in our society today, we lose the understanding of the kind of love God beckons us into.

Second, let’s untie the knots of ‘intimacy.’ These days the word ‘intimate’ has become a euphemism for sex–much in the same way Bible translations use the word ‘knew’ in place of saying a husband had intercourse with his wife (ie: Genesis 4:1, KJV). At some point in the Church, our sensibilities have led us to avoid the words ‘sex’ and ‘intimacy.’ Yet, God uses marriage to describe His relationship with His people throughout Scripture (Isaiah 54:5-8; Ezekiel 16:8-14; Jeremiah 3:20; Hosea 1:1-3; Ephesians 5:25-33; Revelation 19:7-9, etc), calling Himself the groom and Israel the bride. Denouncing Israel’s betrayal as adultery. All His language infers intimacy. 

Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash

The twisting comes when we–even subconsciously–try to make God like man. God doesn’t prey upon His children with illicit desires. What He longs for is a closeness of mutual trust and love–just as He imagined marriage would be. As we unravel the kinks in our way of understanding and responding to the word ‘intimacy,’ we can step into grace to see God’s pureness, His goodness, His holiness. Nothing yucky or evil or untoward can exist in His presence (James 1:13; 1 John 1:5). So when He calls us to Him as our dwelling place, we can trust it is a space of safety and security but also one of intimacy.  

Getting It Straight

The first use of this idea of God as a dwelling place for His people is in Deuteronomy 33, where Moses offers blessings for the tribes as they prepare to step into the promised land:

“There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
    who rides through the heavens to your help,
    through the skies in his majesty.
The eternal God is your dwelling place,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Deuteronomy 33:26-27, ESV

This is the only occurrence of the Hebrew word meonah, defined as ‘habitation,’ where it is used figuratively of God as a dwelling place. Instead of meaning a literal place where animals (ie: a den) or people (ie: a house) live, Moses refers to God as the place we go to in order to feel at home. 

As if to emphasize this picture of God as our dwelling place, Moses calls Israel by the name ‘Jeshurun’ (v.26), a poetic name of endearment used four times for Israel in the Old Testament. The Greek Septuagint translates ‘Jeshurun’ as beloved one, using a form of the word agape to connote what kind of dwelling God is–holy, pure, and unconditional in His love (gotquestions.org). Moses and Greek translators don’t want future readers (us!) to miss the love of the Father, who longs for us to remain in Him.

Another Hebrew word, maon, identifies God as our dwelling place: 

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.

Psalm 90:1, NIV

This Psalm, also known as a prayer of Moses, employs maon to infer God, figuratively, as the abode of His people. Moses’ description of God as a dwelling place not only hints at His eternal nature but His function in our lives–He is the One we go to every day. He’s our home!

Running Toward Home

Perhaps my favorite image in all of the New Testament is that of the father running toward his prodigal son as he returns home after squandering everything he’d been given (Luke 15:11-32). The patriarchal society in which the story happens would have said disown the son. The son’s demand for his inheritance from his living father is the highest of insults. His reckless living further labels him as unworthy and unforgivable. 

Yet the father, who’d been watching for his son, goes against the grain of culture to forgive and embrace his once lost son. His love-generated dash to meet his son reflects the unconditional love of our Father. 

by Wayne Pascall

As I consider this story through the lens of God as a dwelling place, it occurs to me that the reason the son would return to his father in the first place is because of this idea of ‘home.’ Everything in the father’s actions–from granting the premature inheritance to throwing the lavish welcome home party–reflects God. Our Father gives us space to make our own choices, even when He knows the train wreck we’re causing in our lives. And, the minute we realize our mistakes and turn back to Him (a true repentance posture), God runs to meet us with arms outstretched, thrilled to have us restored to Him.

Seeing God as our dwelling place helps us run toward home any time we’ve been away. We know His forgiveness and love await us. 

Staying Home

And, once we’re there–in our Dwelling Place–we can cultivate a closeness with God so that we’ll want to stay home everyday.

I acknowledge that after our pandemic-induced ‘sheltering in place,’ we may not like the idea of staying home. But, let’s remember this is figurative language. 😉 Let’s keep in mind the picture of God as the father who runs to hug his child. Let’s cling to the truth that God desires a close relationship with us.

Then, as the oft-prodigal children we tend to be, we can look forward to a love-filled homecoming–in a place we want to remain. Yes, in our forever home with Jesus as our dwelling place (Revelation 21:3), but also in the here and now.

I feel like this describes exactly what I’ve been discovering about God in the last two years. 

Journaling my way through the early weeks of 2020, I began to recognize my exhaustion and near burnout. I started to see how I’d been running so hard after the things of God that I’d failed to actually be with God. And my heart broke. I’d read about God’s true rest, and I longed for it. But even more, I just desired God Himself.

This burning in my soul, this yearning to be in God’s presence, began a journey I suspect I’ll be walking the rest of my days here on earth. I also suspect I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the beauty of God’s peace-filled dwelling place. But, here’s what I know.

  • God waits for us to enter His presence. His Word is full of encouragement to seek Him, to know Him, to be still with Him. These are not demands packed with promises of punishment. These are heartfelt invitations to enter into a holy intimacy with our Creator.
  • God desires us to remain in His presence. Appearances at church and apathetic attempts at reading the Bible aren’t what He’s after. He’s created a home in which we’re invited to stay. We don’t just pack a bag for the weekend, but we move in. This is our permanent address. This is the place of holy remaining.

There’s so much more to discover and say and do and hope for as we dig into this idea of remaining with God. So we’ll continue this conversation in the coming weeks.

For now, know that working out our faith requires us to trust that we can go to God for anything, anytime–no matter what’s happening in our world, no matter the state of our hearts, no matter how long it’s been since we left home. God awaits our return. He longs for our presence. He desires intimacy with the child He deeply loves. 

So, let’s step through the threshold and make our Father our dwelling place.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • Our Dwell Playlist includes a song by Shane & Shane: “Psalm 84” (aka: “I’m Home”). Hear how beautifully (and simply) they put this idea of God as our dwelling place into words:

When I stand in Your presence, I am free
When I sit at Your table
I am right where I belong
In the doorway of my Father’s house, I’m home
Wherever I go, I’m home
‘Cause You’re here, in my soul

  • I mentioned journaling each day for months in 2020 and how all that “putting to words” helped me identify the state of my weary, dry soul. It also helped purge my pride and my tendency to supplant God with busyness. I invite you to do some writing and explore your soul’s status as well as what God might be calling you to. I’ll assume it has something to do with remaining in Him. 😉 So, this week, use words and/or images to do some detective work. Journal freely–no grammar rules, no right or wrong way to put things down onto paper. Ask the Spirit to help you sit still and focus on Him. Ask the Father to welcome you into His loving embrace so you can feel His holy love pour into you. Then respond.
  • So. Just over a month ago my Facebook and Instagram were disabled for illicit content. (Kinda ironic considering my content in this post–ha.) But, I’d been hacked. Then disabled. I suppose it’s possible that someday I might have my accounts restored, but I’m tired of waiting. So, here’s my new Instagram account: @shelleylinnjohnson. Hope to see you there! Someday soon I’ll create an author’s page on Facebook, but this is a start. XOXO

Featured photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Remain: Dwelling with God

If I nodded toward a park bench, breathless from our long walk, and said, “let us tarry here a while,” what would you do?

a. Push onward
b. Pout, reluctantly handing me your terry-cloth towel
c. Pop-a-squat and sit a spell 

It’s my hope that you would have taken a break with me–because to tarry is to stay. Maybe longer than intended, thus delaying a departure or arrival. It often infers the idea of remaining in a place.

And, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space for a few weeks. While we at once return to this idea of what it looks like to dwell, as it relates to our faith, we will also plow deeper furrows, planting ourselves firmly in God’s presence. 

Remain with God

Our previous series focused on one facet of what it means to dwell with God–to inhabit–and we looked at a physical way of dwelling–like in tents or with Jesus as He walked the earth. Now we’re ready to shift into the spiritual, which best translates the idea of dwelling as remaining. We’ll look at what that meant for the Israelites and compare it to how it plays out in our faith journey with Jesus. This week focuses more on what it means to remain in God’s presence while the rest of the series will look at how that works.

Remaining absolutely means dwell–as in, we intentionally step into the space where God exists, that holy place opened to us through Jesus’ death. This is relationship. It’s togetherness. It’s God’s desire and hope:

“My eyes will be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me.”

Psalm 101:6a, NIV

But, remain can also imply staying for a long time, which is what Hannah promises as she brings her miracle baby, Samuel, to dwell with God in the temple (1 Samuel 1:22). She doesn’t mean for a week or even a summer. She’s talking about his entire life. Samuel remains with God in the physical and spiritual sense of the word.

When Jesus leaves His throne in heaven to dwell among us (John 1:14), it’s not a quick weekend away. Rather, He tarries here for a long while–because His remaining on earth has purpose. Everything on His holy to-do list comes from God, which is why He tells us that He does nothing by Himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19). And the only way to accomplish God’s work is to stay in God’s presence. In full-blown Jesus style, He both remains with us and remains with God. To do this consistently, Jesus gets away by Himself to pray with His Father again and again (Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35; you get the idea).

Jesus, God-in-flesh, feels the feelings, faces the temptations, and fights everything we do. Yet, instead of relying on Himself to get the job done, He develops a rhythm that puts Himself in God’s presence–not once a week, not just when He needs help, but daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute. Jesus models for us this life of remaining with God.    

Staying Safe

There’s a beauty and depth to the old languages, specifically Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), because their words contain such strong imagery and multiple nuances. Yashab is Hebrew for dwell, but its facets of meaning vary. We hit on a few of the uses in our first series and see the word employed in the Old Testament verses above. It can, in its various forms, be both the tent and the action of tent-dwelling. It can mean both sit and stay, as well as, abide and endure. 

But, sometimes it’s the subtle suggestions of meaning that capture our spiritual imaginations–like when ‘remaining in God’s presence’ hints at the idea of the safety we find in Him. Micah, the prophet, has a beautiful way of describing this kind of safety, as experienced in the last days:

Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Micah 4:4, NIV

Micah’s prophecy describes all this sitting as happening on the “mountain of the Lord,” aka: Jerusalem (v.1, 2). The Hebrew word for ‘sitting’ is yashab (surprise!), implying God’s people will be safe forever because they will remain in God’s presence constantly.

Photo by Moritz Knöringer on Unsplash

This end-times vision is reflected in Revelation:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’”

Revelation 21:3, NIV 

The literal translation of the Greek here knocks my socks off: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will tabernacle with them.” In other words, when we’ve all slid into our resurrected bodies and moved into our eternal homes, we will literally remain in God’s presence forever and ever. Safe and sound. Sitting and staying a very long while. 

Enduring Stubbornness

But, perhaps what I love most about the idea of remaining with God is its persistence, its stubborn unwillingness to leave God’s presence no matter what lies are thrown at us or what storms bluster about us. 

I think of the flowers that grab hold of the soil when the spring winds rage, refusing to relent. I picture a two-year-old who globs onto a toy, locked on, never to let go. 

Friends, as much as we can trust in God’s perpetual presence, we also need to make sure that we are positioning ourselves in this holy space. And when we do, we can stubbornly fight to keep what we have. It’s why Paul repeatedly exhorts us to ‘stand firm’ (Ephesians 6:11, 13, 14). The spiritual battle rages every moment of every day, so God offers Himself as the steady One we can remain in.

Case in point–the Isrealites receive a message as they lament their exile. Nothing in them wants to remain in Babylon–a foreign land full of idols, mockers, and harsh servitude. A land absent of the one thing they miss the most: the presence of God. God’s word to them through the prophet Jeremiah is one of enduring hope:

“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.”

Jeremiah 29:5, NLT

“Jeremiah sent a letter here to Babylon, predicting that our captivity will be a long one. He said, ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.’”

Jeremiah 29:28, NLT

First, this message is repeated, so it’s important. Second, in both cases, the Hebrew for ‘stay’ is yashab, again! Then, in the second rendering lies the phrase, “our captivity will be a long one.” God prepares His people for a long season of perseverance. He calls them to tarry on, embracing and enduring the hardships of exile.

Yet, this appeal for a steadfast sojourn is not without hope. Between the two demands to ‘stay’ lies the famous “I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future and a hope” verse (v.11). God’s promise-laden words command endurance but with the reminder He has not abandoned them. They don’t have to struggle on their own. Rather, they are to stay. With. Him. Remain in faith, with hope. 

Jesus wants us to have the same kind of stubborn resilience. On the night of His betrayal and arrest, He asks His dearest friends to “remain here and keep watch with Me” (Matthew 26:38, NASB). This is no simple “sit here on this bench with me so we can rest” moment. This is an appeal for righteous remaining. A staying that requires a holding-tight. A dwelling that perseveres despite sleepiness or confusion or fear. Friends, our Savior calls us to the same. 

Life on earth batters and cajoles us into letting go of our Anchor. But our remaining in God is a tenacious tarrying that brings peace and promises hope. When we sit with Him, we are safe. And the miracle of staying with Him is finding the strength to hold on and stand firm. 

As we follow Jesus’ lead and get alone with our Father, our remaining in Him centers us and gives clarity. And, it’s only when we’re with Him that we can know Him, really know His character and His love, His forgiveness and His heart. So, when we wrap each finger around that space of His presence, we root ourselves in Him. We stay put with staying power.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • Many thanks for meeting me here for this second series on what it means to dwell with God! If you missed part or all of the first series on dwell, called “Inhabit,” you can find them on my blog page or start here with the first one.
  • If you’re new here, I always create a Spotify playlist to correspond with each series. Here’s our Dwell Playlist. If you’re back for Round Two, this is the same playlist from earlier in the year. I included songs for each series in our dwell theme. I’ve loved getting back into the playlist–the earlier songs remind me of what we learned in “Inhabit,” and the later songs get me excited for what’s to come. The right songs really help me step into and remain in God’s presence. I hope you experience the same!
  • If you haven’t journaled in a while, now’s a great time to begin (again). A journal topic this week could be this idea of remaining in God. Brainstorm a list of what that means to you and how that might look practically for you. I’d love to hear from you–I do not have this all figured out! So, I love to think of these posts as bouncing off places to help each of us see, hear, and think creatively about God so that we can know Him better–and draw closer to Him. The more we share, the more we all benefit. Blessings!

Featured photo by

Kingdom Living Now: Imperishable and Immovable

CHRIST IS RISEN!

Oh, that we could celebrate together in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection! Today is the defining day of our faith–the day Jesus stands victorious. The day He steps out of a tomb, awake and alive. The day He begins making His resurrected self known to the people who love Him best.

All that He said would happen has taken place–betrayal, arrest, beatings, death, burial, and three days in the tomb. Now, Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and King lives! And, He’s ready to do more Kingdom work.

When Jesus began His ministry, He brought the Kingdom of God to earth. He, the walking Tabernacle, lived among us and modeled for us this “already” component of kingdom life. But, there’s also a “not yet” element to His kingdom–the one we inherit upon death. For more details on this, we leap ahead into the New Testament and ask Paul to give the details. Take your time. Take it in:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  

1 Corinthians 15:50-58, NRSV

Glowing Bodies

Paul says our bodies, as they are, cannot inherit the not-yet-kingdom. We’re simply too broken, too imperfect. To illustrate this idea of how our bodies and eternity interact, let’s look back at the time Adam and Eve sinned.

“At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.”

Genesis 3:7, NLT

An old belief, going back to the fourth century, states that the bodies Adam and Eve had before sin were not like the ones we have now; rather, they glowed with the glory of God. In other words, they “wore” garments of light, reflecting their perfection and oneness with God. But the light disappeared the instant they chose to go against God (christianity.stackexchange). This idea may be foreign to us today, but the bodily brilliance of Adam and Eve’s pre-fall bodies resembles other moments of holy-glowing humans like Moses (Exodus 34:35) and Jesus (Matthew 17:2). Then there are the prophecies that say the righteous will shine like the sun and stars (Matthew 13:43; Daniel 12:3). 

This Garden glory-glow theory says that the light goes out because these first humans lose their righteousness, their right standing with God. As a result, shame enters and humans no longer get to live with God. For our purposes, I think it’s good to consider this bodily transformation that occurred in the beginning because the reverse happens in the end.

And Jesus demonstrates this change for us. 

Photo by Manuel Rheinschmidt on Unsplash

Resurrected Bodies

If you imagine the resurrected Jesus as a vaporous ghost, flying through walls like Casper–as I once did–you would be incorrect. I’ll never forget that light-bulb-moment as I read these words, spoken by Jesus after His resurrection:

“Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

Luke 24:39, NKJV

Resurrected Jesus is not a spirit. He’s flesh and blood. He walks and talks (Luke 24:13–30), breathes and eats (Acts 10:40-41), and can be touched (John 20:27). Yes, His body is new, different, and unique from our earthly bodies–mysteriously appearing in locked rooms (John 20:19), while suddenly disappearing from others (Luke 24:31). But, it’s a body. 

The New Testament gives us further distinctions about this resurrection transformation so that we get an idea of what our bodies will be like after we die and come alive in Christ. John tells us in his letter that “we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, NIV). We will be like Him. Our resurrected bodies will look and function just as His. Made new. Made whole. A glorified, fleshy body that will never fade or fail. 

And it’s in these resurrected, holy bodies that we will live out eternity. In our place of inheritance, our bodies will have become as imperishable as God’s Kingdom.

Not-So-Dead Bodies. 

Back to 1 Corinthians 15. After explaining this imperishable body quality, Paul’s address turns locker-room-victory-speech more quoted than anything Knute Rockne ever said: 

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 
“Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?” (v.54-55)

Sorry, Paul, but I’d always thought you were quoting David here. But it turns out that Paul takes a little of Isaiah (25:8) and a paraphrase of Hosea (13:14) to mold this beauty of an anthem. Poets and songwriters have had a field day with its victorious cry because it’s THE game-changing, life-transforming triumph of all time. 

Jesus. Defeats. Death.

The grave couldn’t contain Him. Death couldn’t hold Him. Satan thought he’d finally won, but death went down. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of His Sonship, His authority and power and glory. And we get to be part of it all. 

“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!!” (v.57)

devotableapp.com

Heavenly Bodies

Of course, there’s more to this story of our resurrected, imperishable selves. The prophets hint at it. Jesus spoke a little of it, but as John said, we just don’t know much about it (1 John 3:2). Though in his later revelation, we do get a little view of life in our eternal inheritance. It’s bright with light (Rev. 21:23). It flows with life-giving water (Rev. 22:1). It’s packed with plenty of fruit (Rev. 22:2). We’ll never thirst or hunger. There’s no more death. No more mourning or crying or pain (Rev. 21:4). It’s heavenly!

Eden is restored. Once again humanity gets to live in the physical presence of our Creator and Savior. And, something tells me we’ll be glowing.

Victorious Bodies

Our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount prepares us for kingdom life now, but it all stems from this place of victory. What looks like defeat on Good Friday turns into a beautiful fulfillment of the whole of Scripture on Sunday. Messiah conquers sin and death, once and for all, for every person of every nation!

So, for us to live in defeat–be it the defeat of fear or bad habits, of grief or poor choices–is to miss the power and purpose of the Resurrection. Today is the day we celebrate the greatest victory on record, and its power flows like the River of Life. From heaven’s throne room to earth today, its holy waters cascade down to bring us life–healed life, whole life, holy life. And, friends, this is how we can step out into the world as it is and live for God’s kingdom now. No matter what we feel or face, no matter what work Jesus calls us to, His death and resurrection are enough to help us press on and overcome (Romans 8:37). 

“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

1 Corinthians 15:58

Amen–let it be so!

  • I would so love to hear how this Lenten journey has impacted your life, your faith. Your comments encourage others!
  • Our LENTEN PRACTICE for this week: Feast on the Word by picking up the habit of reading Scripture every single day – not for study but for soaking, that practice of allowing the Word to seep into your very being, transforming you from the inside-out. One way to do this is by reading smaller passages, which is the goal of Reading the Gospels in a Year at Read-Scripture.com. We’re in Matthew, so it’s a great time to jump in. 
  • I added one more song to our  Spotify Playlist. The “Death, where is your sting” lyrics demanded to be sung some more. Sing along with Shane & Shane, “O Praise the Name,” as LOUD AS YOU CAN.
  • This Lent series on the Sermon on the Mount is a collaboration with New Covenant UMC, so if you’d like to watch their sermons, you can check out their Facebook page each week at any time. Or you can catch the sermons live at either 8:30am or 11:00am on Sundays on their website.
  • We’ll pick up next week on a second series on Dwell. I can’t wait to enter into a season of dwelling, of abiding in Christ with you.

Featured photo from Godisreal.today.

Kingdom Living Now: Inseparable and Intentional

Hauling buckets of water and scooping mounds of sand, we worked hard to build a masterpiece. Our sandcastle had towers and bridges–even a moat that we could never keep filled. In all our efforts, however, we failed to notice that the tide edged closer by the minute. Till the one big wave came crashing in, leveling our castle. As the wave pulled back, the beach left no record of our endeavor. The sand had given way to the water’s power, leaving nothing behind but a blank slate.

Sand isn’t very strong on its own. Its tiny particles ebb and flow with the tide’s rise and fall, with each wave’s crash, all of which makes for a great beach, but it’s not so great as a foundation. And that is Jesus’ point in His conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount.

Only Two Options

Americans love options–small, medium, or large. Sweet, unsweet, or half-and-half. Online, in-store, or curbside. But in Jesus’ kingdom there are only two options: His way or the world’s. The narrow gate or wide. True prophets and disciples or false. To illustrate this dichotomous truth, Jesus shares a parable of two men, one wise and one foolish. His point, in the end, is that each of us has only two options about how to live in this world. We’ll either be wise. Or we’ll be foolish. There is no in-between or hidden third way. There certainly aren’t multiple paths that lead to the Kingdom of God. Only one. So we either choose it, or we don’t. 

This parable explains that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24), and that “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” (Matthew 7:26). Two ways of hearing and doing. Two responses. Two results. 

On the Sand

One way to respond to the Word we hear is to choose to do nothing with it. I can’t help but think of Judas Iscariot. Here’s a man who walks and talks with Jesus for three years, who hears all the words of Jesus firsthand, but fails to do anything with them. Instead, he clings to his ideas and follows through with his agenda. His choice leads to death–Jesus’ and his own.

James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his letter that hearers of the Word–those who do not do what it says–let God’s truth go in one ear and out the other. By being hearers and not doers, they fail to know God fully (James 1:22-24). He ties together forever this idea of hearing and doing all that Jesus says, yet we resist. Something in us desires a different path.

Jesus addresses this flaw in our nature in Revelation:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Revelation 3:15-16

Perhaps we avoid being ‘hot’ for Jesus because it takes effort or we think we don’t need Him. But we also don’t want to live ‘cold’ for Him because we know better. We’ve heard His teachings and to a certain degree believe they’re true. So, we try to hover between them–that lukewarm place that Jesus so despises. He says CHOOSE–you’re either for me or against me (Matthew 12:30). In our attempts to avoid making a choice, we actually make one. To remain lukewarm is to choose to build our house on a foundation of sand. 

Let’s illustrate this twenty-first century style. There’s a church-goer who calls herself a Jesus follower. She attends worship a time or two a month and joins the weekly Bible study every semester. Most weeks her homework is done, and she enjoys being with her friends–they’re warm and friendly and pray really well. She signs-up to cook meals for the women who have babies or surgeries and volunteers to answer phones at the church when there’s a need. She’s content, happy with her ordered life. Then one day she gets devastating news–the kind that pulls the rug right out from under you. Her life becomes a storm with wind and rain pounding her at every turn. As the storm barrels onward, the foundation she’s stood on washes away, leaving her swimming in the wild waves. As she treads water, gasping for breath, she realizes with a shock that her comfortable life had been void of God. It had been a lot of doing the busyness of life, but there had been no knowing of God, no truth soaked into her bones, no solid rock beneath her feet.

Friends, this sermon Jesus preaches is meant to wake us up to the lukewarm lives we tend to lead. From the outside looking in, many in the church appear the part, but their hearts lack the warmth of Jesus’ sanctifying love and truth and grace. They hear His words but never actually get around to doing them. Their foundation ends up being built on their own strength and smarts, which is a foundation that washes away with the first big wave.

Photo by Todd Turner on Unsplash

On the Rock

However, the opposite is true, too. Another woman chooses the narrow gate. She attends the same church and Bible study; she even volunteers for meals and in the church office, but her motive is pure–not for her glory but for the good of others. Every word spoken by her preacher soaks her mind with truth, and she lives it out. All the lessons from her time studying with other women are put into practice, allowing her pride to be turned to humility and her fear to be covered by Christ’s love. She is being transformed, and as such, His love flows out of her and onto everyone she meets. As she talks with Jesus throughout each day, the closeness she feels with Him intensifies and grows so that she begins praying with others, hoping they will find Jesus’ saving power, just as she has. The day arrives when her world comes crashing down around her, so she falls to her knees and cries to her Lord for help. She deeply laments all her losses yet calls to Jesus to carry her through the storm. And her foundation remains firm because she’s been building it on Jesus all along. Her faith remains intact, and with Jesus’s help she rides out the storm, beaten and bruised, but not defeated.

The wise way of building a holy life with Jesus is to hear His words and do them–His words and our actions inseparable.  

With Jesus

To live in the Kingdom now, we must live close to Jesus in our ordinary lives (Smith, 214). This living life close to Jesus embodies an abiding nature. The second woman in our example learned that putting Jesus’ words into action looks like drawing near to Him, to enter into His presence every day with the sole purpose of being with Him–no agenda, no worrying her prayers, no desire other than sitting at His feet. Yes, ask and seek and knock–but mostly, be

Jesus describes this way of living close to Him as being grafted like a vine into His branch (John 15). The branch of a grapevine stands sturdy and strong, roots anchored up to twenty feet in the soil. Picturing Jesus as the stalwart branch helps us see our need for Him–He feeds us, sustains us, holds us up when the winds blow, and fills us with life-giving water when life gets dry. 

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

As His vines, we surrender to His strength, allowing His love to flow through us and give us life. We submit to His pruning shears as they cut off the dead parts or even those stems that sap us of energy and life–because He knows what is best for us. Because we abide in Him, we trust Him. Even when the storms hit, we know He remains with us and in us and for us, and that truth carries us through in faith and with hope.

Passion Week

This is the week called Passion because it is so full of suffering, the Latin definition for ‘passion.’ Throughout this Lenten Season, we’ve been faithful to keep our eyes focused on our Savior, but this week is meant to take us deeper. We are to lean into the hard things–the heartache of betrayal and desertion, the pain of floggings, the humiliation of mockery, and the agony of crucifixion.

We can choose to draw closer to Jesus this week. Or not. 
We can choose to allow His pain to affect our hearts. Or not.
We can choose to enter into His suffering on our behalf. Or not.

Friends, this is a great week for us to examine the state of our relationship with the One who is the Way, the one and only Way. As we contemplate all He has done for us, we can choose to be hearers and doers of His Word. We can build our lives on the Rock–that Cornerstone the builders rejected–so that we’ll always have firm footing on this journey of life.

Living for the Kingdom of God now is an intentional mindset where we constantly choose to live for and abide in Jesus. But this abiding life requires help, the kind that can only come from the Helper, the Holy Spirit–in whom and through whom we have all we need to build this firm foundation in Christ, including the ability to embrace Him everyday. 

Two options. Let’s be wise.

  • Did you have any revelations last week as you feasted on Jesus’ call to quit judging others? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Jesus’ truth has been showing me how quickly I can shift from grace to blame, from good-heartedness to hard-hearted words–even if they’re in my mind. Lord Jesus, help us!
  • Our LENTEN PRACTICE for this week: Fast what distracts. This week choose one thing in your life that keeps you from spending time in God’s presence – sleeping in, 24/7 news watching, social media scrolling, shopping, or whatever else distracts you from the better business of building a foundation on the rock of Jesus. Notice what happens when this distraction is removed – how do your heart and mind react? How can you continue to keep your focus on Christ?
  • Classics, like the hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock,” and modern worship songs, like “Build My Life,” capture the truth of Jesus’ concluding parable of the Sermon on the Mount beautifully. Enjoy them on our  Spotify Playlist!
  • This Lent series on the Sermon on the Mount is a collaboration with New Covenant UMC, so if you’d like to watch their sermons, you can check out their Facebook page each week at any time. Or you can catch the sermons live at either 8:30am or 11:00am on Sundays on their website.

Featured photo by Heather McKean on Unsplash
*I still pull from James Bryan Smith’s book, Good and Beautiful Life, which is a fruit of Dallas Willard’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount.

Kingdom Living Now: Inhabit

King Jesus stands on the mountain for quite some time, preaching words meant to shape His listeners so they’ll be equipped to inhabit the kingdom He’s prepared for them. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks words that differentiate true kingdom dwellers from those who are not:

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.”

Matthew 7:21, NLT

In other words, claiming to be a Christian or saying Jesus’ name aloud does not get someone in the Kingdom. Repeating Creeds, making professions of faith, and attending church every Sunday do not make people citizens and children of the King. When someone says, “Lord, Lord,” they might imply they’ve followed all the rules or have done loads of good works, yet none of these are proof of a dwelling in the “inward kingdom of heaven” (Wesley, 400). 

Nope. All our saying and doing and appearing will never be enough to enter the narrow gate (v.13). Instead, we must move from religion to a relationship, from lip-service to living out the law of Jesus’ holy and perfect love (Wesley, 402). 

But, let’s not be discouraged by these truths. Rather, let’s embody them so we can live like we belong to the Kingdom of God by:

  • Embracing the true faith Jesus describes in the Fifth Chapter–the inward religion John Wesley calls “those dispositions of soul which constitute real Christianity” (333). Like those the Beatitudes describe, such as poverty of spirit and a hunger for righteousness. 
  • Engaging in the practices of giving, praying, and fasting with right motive and holy love from the Sixth Chapter so that we keep our focus and treasures in heaven, never worrying about our needs here on earth.
  • Adhering to the warnings and exhortations Jesus gives us now in the Seventh so we can avoid the “hindrances to holiness” and enter into God’s Kingdom full of assurance that we are His and He is ours (Wesley, 333). 

Judging Others

While scrolling social media or flipping through news channels, it doesn’t take long to hear the sounds of judgment. Judgmental words and voices pummel our eyes, ears, and hearts everyday–whether they come from people we know or not. The minute we have an opinion, we launch viciously at those with a different view. When we think we’re right, we sling hatred and animosity at the ones we deem wrong.

I have witnessed and felt this firsthand as an Astros fan. The cruelty that has ensued since their cheating scandal (of which I do not approve, yet have forgiven) has been painful. The scorn of others has gone on for years with no grace in sight. And I’m reminded just how easy it is to judge others. 

It just is.

Jesus knows this about us. It’s much simpler to put the focus on someone else’s sin to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s easy to pile onto others the criticisms we have of them without taking the time to notice our own shortcomings. Maybe, sometimes, we even lay into someone with the hope of fixing them. But unless we come alongside them and help, our words become weapons because they deconstruct hearts and minds and lives. 

But Jesus wants us to get in the business of reconstruction. The idea is to deal with our own messiness first, then if we have some wisdom to offer, we speak up AND stand in solidarity with them (Smith, 187).

Photo by Zoe on Unsplash

Keeping It Golden

To live for God’s Kingdom now means doing life like our holy Jesus. Scripture shows us how, and the Holy Spirit makes it possible. So, in this chapter Jesus makes us aware of hindrances to a life of holiness. Hindrances like judging others and failing to ask God for help as we strive in our own strength. Hindrances like self-sufficiency, which keeps us from going to God for the wisdom and strength we need. But there is another way. John Wesley elaborates on the keys to holiness that Jesus gives us:

“Ask, that you may thoroughly experience and perfectly practice the whole of that religion which our Lord has here so beautifully described.”

“Seek, in the way he hath ordained, in searching the Scriptures, in hearing his word, in meditating thereon, in fasting, in partaking of the Supper of the Lord, and surely you shall find.”

“Knock; continue in prayer, and in every other way of the Lord. Be not weary or faint in your mind. Press on to the mark. …And the door of mercy, of holiness, of heaven shall be opened unto you.”

Wesley, 348-349

Friends, when hindrances to holiness are removed, we can live with “charity towards all” (Wesley, 350). We’ll see people as Jesus does and desire to live by that golden rule of treating others as we want to be treated (v.12). And as we do, our love for people deepens. Our relationships strengthen. Our hope in Jesus grows. Our purpose turns to passion, and we bring Christ’s holiness into the world. 

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Living Aware and Alert

Few people choose the narrow way that Jesus calls us to walk–maybe because it comes with costs and demands obedience. But the blessings that come with this holy way of living far outweigh the costs, namely the blessings of Christ’s presence and all it promises. Like rest. And joy. And peace.

Even when we make our way to this narrow gate, the wiles of the world can pull us off course. But, the gate always stands open to us. It’s never too late to push through the crowd and make our way back to the road that not only leads to eternity but offers Jesus’ presence to us now.

As we journey through our time here on earth, endeavoring to walk the narrow path, Jesus warns of false prophets–those who try to look the part of a holy leader, who teach with fervor and come with an “appearance of love” yet are none of these things (Wesley, 381). The Holy One tells us the way to discern true teachers from false: look for their fruit (v.16). 

I’ve struggled with this notion of “fruit” because so many leaders in today’s churches have fallen so hard these past few years. By all counts, their ministries looked fruitful. But, as I’ve read John Wesley’s discourses on the subject, he’s helped me zoom out a bit and discover what kind of fruit to look for. Rather than merely focusing on huge congregations, beautiful campuses, and fat budgets, we need to look at hearts and lives.

Having served alongside two great leaders of a church in Oklahoma for lots of years, I can say leaders are human. They won’t get everything right all the time. And any judgment besides one of grace and holy love is not helpful. Rather, we need to get to know our leaders and pastors and love them. Not grovel. Not sneer. But build relationships with them–”as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).

In the end, we need to be wise about what voices we listen to. Because if they aren’t truly following Jesus, we shouldn’t be following them. 

Inhabit the Kingdom

This brings us back to where we began–to those who say they know Jesus but don’t (v.21). When we pull all the threads of Jesus’ message in this portion of His sermon together, we realize that this last warning is less about us hunting down all the fake believers and more about making sure we don’t fall in that category ourselves. Remember that log in our own eyes (v.5)? 

So much has been woven across this chapter–all to the end of equipping us for life in God’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t want us milling around with the hordes on the wide path, just waiting for eternity to happen to us. Instead, He desires us to go higher than that, deeper in His love and ways–for a better life full of freedom and peace, love and joy. For the good of others and for the benefit of His kingdom. Friends, Jesus has created a tapestry full of stark contrasts, latent with warnings and directives because He is ready for us to inhabit His kingdom–now!

  • Is there a log in your eye? Or a conviction in your spirit pointing out how you’re not living by the Golden Rule (v. 12)? Share below what the Spirit is speaking to you about this life in the kingdom we’re meant to be living now.
  • Our LENTEN PRACTICE for this week: Feast on the Word by reading Matthew 7:1-6 every day. This lesson about not judging others is a timely lesson for us. These days everything has the potential to divide us from each other – from masks to worship music styles, from politics to people’s driving skills, from sport teams to spiritual practices, from denominational differences to discipleship definitions. You name it, we can choose sides on it. But that’s not the way of Jesus. So, as you read this particular passage each day, allow its truths to reveal ways in which you set yourself against another person/group, then invite its convictions to bring you to confession. Jesus is the center of us all, so may He be the One who unites us by His Spirit and grace.
  • I added another song to our Spotify Playlist because I found a great song that captures the truth of ASK, SEEK, KNOCK. I hope the power of it builds your faith and moves you to look to God for more spiritual wisdom, more physical help, and more holy interaction. The song is “Pour Your Spirit Out” by Thrive Worship.
  • This Lent series on the Sermon on the Mount is a collaboration with New Covenant UMC, so if you’d like to watch their sermons, you can check out their Facebook page each week at any time. Or you can catch the sermons live at either 8:30am or 11:00am on Sundays on their website.
  • I so appreciate having Seedbed’s book Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount, based on John Wesley’s sermons on these three chapters in Matthew. (My page references to Wesley are from the digital book). I also continue to pull from James Bryan Smith’s book, Good and Beautiful Life–James discipled under Dallas Willard of Divine Conspiracy fame.

Featured Photo by Dylan Freedom on Unsplash

Kingdom Living Now: Intimacy and Interaction

We flip the page to Chapter Six of Matthew’s Gospel, recalling that we’re still in Jesus’ great sermon. Staying grounded in our context helps us remember that Jesus is laying a foundation for our faith by teaching us what kingdom living looks like now.

Holy Practices

This part of the sermon hits on three important practices for all followers of Jesus: giving, praying, and fasting (v.1-18). For each, He offers an example of how not to do these practices, which helps us understand that these spiritual disciplines are not meant for show or for the applause of people. Rather, our financial gifts,  prayers, and fasts are meant to be done in secret so that the only approval we seek is the One who calls us to them. 

Jesus also calls us to secrecy because it’s in those quiet, secluded places with Him that we are most likely to surrender our desires for control and selfish motives to Him. When we give, pray, and fast, Jesus knows the state of our hearts. And if we do any of these for any other reason than to honor and glorify Him, then we are no different than the self-righteous Pharisees.

I recognize the temptation to do these for my own glory. As one who desires words of affirmation, it’s easy to slip into people pleasing instead of God pleasing. Jesus’ words here are not to become another form of legalism–like never pray out loud or fast with a group–but ways to keep our motives in check. Getting alone with God so we can pour out all our insecurities, fears, and temptations is a means of getting right with God. In other words, these practices, when done for the right reasons, become avenues that lead us into intimacy with our Savior. 

Holy Treasures

Next, Jesus warns us about treasures (v.19-24). As citizens of God’s kingdom who still live in the world, believers face financial and temporal temptations. Jesus knows the pull of possessions. He knows that whatever we value, that’s where our attention will go. It’s what we’ll want to do and look at and become.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Jesus drives home the point with a metaphor about ‘masters’ that is meant to shock us. The idea that we’ll be a slave to whatever we treasure most grabs our attention because we don’t like the idea of being mastered by anyone or anything. Yet, how easily we succumb to money’s allure. How quickly we give way to the world’s trappings. How imperceptibly our resolve for Jesus fades as our attention shifts from Him and onto the object, person, or value that has captured our hearts.

The warning has no exclusions. Every single human–rich or poor, man or woman, pastor or church member–can stumble into the pit of serving a master other than the King. It’s why the leaders we’ve put on a pedestal have fallen so hard and credit card debt is so high. It’s why parents make kids the center of the universe and people in the pews see themselves as an audience. Our focus misses the mark. Because we’ve not made Jesus our one and only master, we scrape our knees as we tumble from our high places or struggle to get free because we’ve entangled ourselves with the sins of pride and greed and lust…

The solution is simple. We make Jesus our singular treasure and Master. He is the Way to keep us anchored to His kingdom, which enables us to live in the world while not getting pulled away by it.

Holy Faith

Not only am I a people pleaser, but I’m also a worrier. As such, it’s easy to take Jesus’ teachings so personally that I feel worse about myself after reading this chapter. But, Jesus’ goal here isn’t to make us feel guilty. Rather, He is trying to warn us about all the snares of the world and our tendencies toward self-focus. So, as we read the list of all the “do not worries” in the final passage of Chapter Six (v.25-34), it helps us to remember Jesus’ heart–He wants us to succeed in living for His kingdom now.

Perhaps I’m a little slow to connect the dots, but only in the last few years have I understood that dread, worry, and anxiety all fall under fear’s umbrella. Once I grasped this, I began to feel the truth of it in my body–because fear has a way of causing physical issues. Like headaches or heartburn. Like knotted shoulders or sleepless nights. 

In this passage, Jesus addresses worry. Coming right out of His warnings about our focus on treasures, He exhorts us not to worry about the things we’ll need while living here on earth. In fact, if we make Jesus our focus and Master, then our trust should be in Him for all our needs. Hear how The Message words this:

“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body.”

Matthew 6:25, MSG

I think for many in the Kingdom, this comes as a relief. Jesus provides!

For the rest of us, it’s a conviction. We spend way too much energy worrying about where we’ll eat and what we’ll wear–such distractions from kingdom living.

Those in the world who do not yet belong to the Kingdom fret and fume and fuss over food and clothing (v.32). There are so many things to worry about every single day that the only way to get through the days without succumbing to all the fear is looking to Jesus.

Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash

In fact, some have called verse 33 the thesis statement of the entire Sermon on the Mount:

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”

Matthew 6:33, NLT

Jesus may have used food and clothes as examples, but in this statement He tells us we have no need to worry at all because we have Him. When we look to Him first and most, when we live like kingdom dwellers, He meets our needs. Maybe not in the way or the time we think best, but He always delivers on His promises.

Friends, we’re meant to have a holy faith in the One we call King. He’s told us point blank–when we seek Him, we’ll have all we need. Even when we mourn or are persecuted…

Intimacy and Interaction

Like any well-organized sermon, this one builds upon itself. Practices like prayer help us interact with Jesus, and they give us strength to bear up under our daily troubles. They arm and anchor us against the temptations that threaten to pull us under the world’s ways (Matthew Henry Commentary). The more we interact with and look to Jesus, the deeper our intimacy and trust will be, so we just don’t need to worry.

Trust me. I know it’s a lot easier said than done. But I have discovered that when I live seeking Jesus first and as rightly as possible, I worry a whole lot less. Jesus’ words help us navigate the world we live in. That’s why Angela Thomas says, “When I don’t know what to do, I lean into Matthew 6:33 and ask myself, ‘How can I seek the kingdom in this moment? How can I pursue righteousness?’” (Thomas, 85).* 

King Jesus calls us to a narrow way of living in this kingdom of His. But He doesn’t leave us on our own, to fend for ourselves. He’s given us solid teachings that equip us and the Holy Spirit to empower us for kingdom living now. So, don’t worry! Be happy (aka: blessed)!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • What new revelations did you have as you feasted on the salt and light passage from Matthew 5:13-16? I invite you to comment below so that we can grow with and learn from each other. I’ve heard from a few of you, so don’t be shy to share!
  • Our LENTEN PRACTICE for this week: Fast some food. The lesson this week on fasting (Matthew 6:16-18) comes from the Pharisee’s practice of fasting food and drink as a result of being so focused on God and their own spiritual condition. These days, most Christians practice abstaining from food as a way to center hearts and mind and bodies on Christ. At least one day this week, skip a meal, and when you would normally sit down to eat, turn your mind to Jesus. Pray, journal, take a walk while listening to praise music, sit silently in His presence, or whatever helps you best focus on Him.
  • Sandra McCracken’s song “Lay My Worry Down” is a great song to sing along with–its catchy tune and lyrics that pull from our “do not worry” passages. So good. And, it’s on our Spotify Playlist!
  • This Lent series on the Sermon on the Mount is a collaboration with New Covenant UMC, so if you’d like to watch their sermons, you can check out their Facebook page each week at any time. Or you can catch the sermons live at either 8:30am or 11:00am on Sundays on their website.

Featured Photo by Jasmin Ne on Unsplash
*from Angela Thomas’ study Living Your Life as a Beautiful Offering

Kingdom Living Now: Inclusion

The Beatitudes not only give us a glimpse of what life looks like inside the Kingdom of God, but they also flip the world’s values upside-down. As Rev. Jay Smith says, the Beatitudes are a “radical reordering of our values.” That reordering helps us live rightly, but all this right living isn’t in an attempt to get into the kingdom. It’s how we live because we’re already in it!

Inhabitants of the Kingdom of God don’t hoard; they don’t live from scarcity but from abundance. Kingdom dwellers share the love and mercy they’ve been given–all the while, extending invitations for others to be included. To help us understand what that invitation looks like, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light.

Be Salty
First Jesus exhorts us to be like salt:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Matthew 5:13, NRSV

Salt has history–going back as far as 6050 BC when civilizations bartered with salt and offered it as part of their religious sacrifices. Even Old Testament passages capture the way God made ‘salt covenants’ with His priests (Numbers 18:19) and how priests used salt in sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13 and Ezekiel 43:23). Salt remained so highly valued that even by the first century (AD), the Romans often paid their soldiers with salt. Fun fact: this is where we get the term “salary.”

Salt has purpose–purifying and preserving, namely from decay. It has been used in tanning, dying, bleaching, and in making pottery and soap. And, of course, it adds flavor to food.

Salt has effects–particularly in bodies and soil. Too much salt in our bodies, and we retain water that makes our hearts work harder under the strain of higher blood volume. Too little salt in our bodies, and our fluid levels get out of balance, causing our blood pressure to drop. Similarly, plants suffer when soil is too salty but starve when there’s no salt.

So, as we look at this single verse, it’s easy to wonder if “salt of the earth” refers to salt in the soil. There is, after all, saline matter that fertilizes soil, making it ready for growth. In that sense, when we’re called to be the salt of the earth, we’re meant to sow into people’s hearts the truth and love of Jesus, enriching the world–like compost.

The very next phrase, however, makes reference to salt as a condiment, adding flavor to all it touches. In this way, salt makes food taste better. And the way we live our lives can do the same for the world. When we live with kindness and joy, mercy and humility, we bring out the fuller flavor of God and His ways. 

Photo by Luwadlin Bosman on Unsplash

It’s curious that in our current culture, nonbelievers assume a Christian’s life is bland. Boring. Maybe because for too long we’ve lived our lives as a demonstration of rules and limitations. When, in reality, life with Jesus–when lived in freedom and fullness of grace–is actually the richest, tastiest life possible on this planet. 

Just putting that into words is so convicting. How many times have I failed to live an appetizing life for Jesus? Rather than modeling a flavorful faith and a radical love for others, I’ve held back out of fear of offending someone. How many times have I not entered conversations, bursting with joy about Jesus, and instead withdrawn to the shadows out of a fear of being different? 

To be the salt in the earth we must first drink deeply from Jesus’ well. Filled with Him, we’ll better live out of His perfect love. Engaging with people with that love as we drive our cars or wait in lines exudes a unique flavor in our society. Praying with someone who is broken helps them taste and see the Lord is good. Speaking with a genuine smile of kindness to all who serve us–at restaurants, grocery stores, and dry cleaners–sprinkles that salt of Jesus all over the people we encounter. 

One of the sources I frequent in my writing is Strong’s Concordance. It compiles all the words in the Bible–their meanings and uses. In this particular sentence, the Greek word for salt in both instances is hálas, and it means salt. No surprise there, but Strong’s included this  figurative definition, as well: “God preserving and seasoning a believer as they grow, i.e. in loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, strength and in all their relationships.” 

I love that imagery of God preserving us–maintaining us in the state of holiness that is found only through Jesus. He keeps us from spoiling ourselves with sin because of Jesus’ sacrifice. God also seasons us, folding into us all the flavors of Himself, making Himself a tantalizing treat so that we’ll hunger for Him. And through us, others will also want more of Him because they’ve gotten a taste of Him by knowing us.

Shine Bright
In the next breath, Jesus tells us we need to shine bright for Him:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

Light is powerful. In the beginning, God speaks a word, and light appears and pushes darkness back. As a child, I could open my bedroom door at night, and the light from the living room would pierce inward, overtaking the darkness. Never once did I open that door and darkness push outward. Light always swallows the shadows and the depths of darkness.

So when Jesus tells us that we are light, He wants us to go into the world as His beacons–vessels that carry what’s in us into cities and streets and homes and churches, so they can have His light, too. But,

  • When I talk myself out of calling a friend that I know is hurting because I don’t know what to say, I’m hiding Jesus’ light under the bushel.
  • When I choose not to listen to the Spirit’s nudging to give a hug or say a prayer because I’m worried about looking silly, I’m hiding Jesus’ light under the bushel.
  • When I stay in the house because I’m way too comfortable with my slower lifestyle and quiet practices rather than inviting a lonely neighbor for a walk, I’m hiding Jesus’ light under the bushel.

All we say, all we do is meant to be a reflection of the One we love and live for. We’re meant to let our little lights shine–however that looks. And it will look differently for each of us.

Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash

Chris Tomlin came out with an album right after our move to Texas–in the middle of the pandemic insanity when we were all stir crazy in our solitary states. I had that album on replay because it offered a lifeline to joy and hope. But one song, “Be the Moon,” grabbed my heart more than all the others.

“I wanna be the moon, up among the stars. 
Fly around the world, lighting up the dark. 
I’m nothing without the Son’s amazing grace on everything I do. 
If You’re shining on me, I’m shining right back for You.”

These lyrics give Jesus’ call to be the light another metaphor. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun onto the parts of the planet stuck in the darkness of night, we are meant to reflect the light of the Son onto all the people on the planet who don’t yet know His saving power.

Inclusion
When we live in the Kingdom of God, God is always near–we’re never alone and never need to be afraid (Smith, 77). Every citizen of the Kingdom plays for the same team, so there’s no competing or calling fouls. There’s only gobs of grace. Inside our inheritance, God is with us, protecting us and fighting for us (Smith, 76).*

But, for the people who aren’t part of the Kingdom, they’re feeling alone and scared. They’re on their own. No one stands up for them or lets them know they are unconditionally loved.

Friend, this is why after painting the beautiful picture of what kingdom living looks like, King Jesus tells us–His heirs–to share what we’ve been given. Because His is a kingdom of inclusion. All are welcome at His table, so we better start getting those invitations delivered! 

Be salty. And shine bright!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bitsandpieces2-e1638392575282.png
  • How did your week go, fasting from one thing that you end up desiring more than God? Comment your experiences because it helps you get honest and encourages the rest of us. 🙂
    • I’m no morning person, so sleep ends up being one thing I want more than God–especially when the alarm goes off. This week I’ve been getting up earlier to have more time with God. Thursday was especially moving and meaningful, so I wonder why I have such a hard time doing that more consistently. A friend of mine would tell me that it’s the universal battle between flesh and spirit. And I know she’s right. Here’s to more spirit for all of us!
  • Our LENTEN PRACTICE for this week: Feast on the Word by reading Matthew 5:13-16 each day. This is a passage we’ve heard for years at New Covenant, “be the salt and the light.” Reading something this familiar makes it hard to receive a fresh hearing, an inspired revelation because we think we already know all there is to know about the passage. Instead, ruminate on the words, allowing the truths to move in and out of your heart and mind. Perhaps reading it in a paraphrase version like The Message will help you hear Jesus’ teaching in a new way. Pay attention to how the Spirit speaks as your heart opens to His voice.
  • I’ve added “Be the Moon” to our Spotify Playlist. It comes right after Jami Smith’s “Salt and Light.” Both songs are so upbeat and life-giving! I hope they make you smile this week.
  • This Lent series on the Sermon on the Mount is a collaboration with New Covenant UMC, so if you’d like to watch their sermons, you can check out their Facebook page each week at any time. Or you can catch the sermons live at either 8:30am or 11:00am on Sundays on their website.

Featured Photo by Adam Gong on Unsplash
*I pulled a few ideas from James Bryan Smith in his book, Good and Beautiful Life.

Five Minute Friday — Easy

It’s so easy to look out the window at the red-headed House Finches fight for a place to eat at our feeder when I’m meant to be studying for my next project.

It’s so easy to watch the wind blow through our naked oak tree, hopeful for the buds to break out in green, when I’m supposed to be writing about ways to live in the world.

It’s so easy to take pictures of the purple flowers blooming on our porch rather than tackling the growing stack of dishes in my sink.

It’s so easy to meet a friend for a two-hour walk in the sunny park up the road instead of shopping for the groceries that seem to fly out of my pantry.

Spring makes it easy not to get anything done.

***This post is a free-write response to the Five Minute Friday prompt: easy.***