And You Will Find Rest For Your Souls

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

Sometimes, the commands of the Bible are counter-intuitive. In Matthew 11, Jesus tells those who are weary from their labors to come to Him. But He continues by telling them to take on a yoke and learn from Him, to find rest for their souls. This doesn’t seem like a restful offer. The image is of an ox or beast of burden being forced to wear a yoke and do more work. How could that be restful? Jesus finishes the image by saying that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. While that may seem better than a heavy yoke, it still implies work, NOT rest.

There is a lot to unpack in these few verses, but here are some thoughts about rest on this Labor Day:

  1. In order to take on Jesus’ yoke, we must be freed from the yoke we already bear– the very one that has left us weary and “heavy laden.” We can’t throw it off ourselves. We must come to Jesus. And we must understand that Jesus offers rest, not laziness, complacence or inactivity.
  2. Jesus refers to “my yoke” and calls for us to “learn from me”– indicating that whatever work we do, He is our partner and teacher. We are not being asked to work alone or under a weight we cannot bear. This is not an image of a single ox pulling heavy weights, but of a team, sharing the load in companionship.
  3. Jesus doesn’t offer us a permanent vacation from work, but “rest for your souls.” Rest from guilt, worry, grief, anger, loneliness, injustice, and more– when we come to Him and lay down our old burdens to take us His new yoke.
  4. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus isn’t calling us away from work; He IS calling us to meaningful and fruitful work– the kind that brings reward and fulfillment. We don’t need a heavy yoke and a hard taskmaster when we are eager and enthusiastic to see the results of our labors. But we DO need periods of rest. I hope that you enjoy a restful day, and a renewed enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead.
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 My dear brothers and sisters, remain strong in the faith. Don’t let anything move you. Always give yourselves completely to the work of the Lord. Because you belong to the Lord, you know that your work is not worthless.

1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIRV)
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Enjoy times of rest and refreshment, knowing that they are a reward for your work. Enjoy times of work, knowing they are not in vain. For while our work here and now can be filled with struggles, stress, and frustration, we know that Jesus came to redeem every aspect of our fallen world– even the work!

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Thank you, Lord, for giving us rest. Rest for our bodies, and rest for our souls. May we find refreshment and renewed strength to stand firm, and to work with enthusiasm, knowing that You not only see what we do, but share in it.

Evidence of Things Not Seen

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.

Hebrews 11:1-2 NKJV via Biblia.com

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11:6 ESV via biblegateway.com
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Prayer is an act of faith. Whether a prayer of confession, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, or a combination of all these types, we pray to an invisible God. We do not see Him, but we acknowledge that He exists, and that He hears us when we pray. We also acknowledge that He forgives sins, is worthy of our adoration and thanksgiving, and that He cares about our needs and desires.

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Faith is defined by the writer of Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There are many who scoff at this type of faith, claiming it is “blind faith.” Because we cannot see God, because we do not hear Him audibly, because we cannot touch Him–they claim that our faith is nothing more than wishful thinking or delusion. But our faith is actually “evidence” of God’s existence– not because we make a claim to believe, but because we act on and live out our belief. One brief prayer whispered in panic is not compelling, but a lifetime of praying and faithfully acting on the belief that God listens and responds–that is evidence that commands attention.

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Sometimes, we become so familiar with the ancient stories of the Bible, that we discount the very real faith shown by the “elders.” Noah didn’t build a rowboat or even a trading ship– he built an Ark to withstand a flood he could not have imagined. Abraham left his home to go to a land God would show him– he had no map, or any way of knowing what awaited him. He lived as a nomad in tents the rest of his life. But what about his life before? He didn’t begin as a nomad and a wanderer. And there was nothing to suggest that he would ever become the patriarch of an entire nation/many nations. The shepherd boy, David, was told that he would someday be king. Yet he put himself in mortal danger several times, and refused to challenge King Saul in order to claim the crown. Daniel was certainly aware of the danger he was in over the course of his service to foreign kings, yet he stood firm in his convictions, when common sense would have had him compromise to keep his position (and his life!).

Faith (and praying in faith) doesn’t always some easily. We are bombarded with images and sounds that suggest that God does NOT exist, or that He does not listen or respond. I have prayed many times for people to be healed of cancer, only to see them die. I have days filled with stress or frustration, when my prayers seem to go unheard. Does this mean that my faith is void, or based on nothing more than a vapor?

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No, because faith is the evidence, not of the things I am seeing or experiencing now, but of things unseen. My perspective is narrow and distorted. I may see my friends’ deaths as the “end.” I may see my temporary trials as impossible obstacles and heavy burdens. I may see my past as a prison, trapping me in the bad choices I have made, or the hurts I have suffered. Faith is the evidence that such things, while they are real, and devastating, are not the entire picture, or the final word. Faith is the evidence that life is worth celebrating, even on the “bad” days. Faith is the evidence that God is bigger than injustice, or disease, or heartbreak, or death.

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Faith isn’t “proof” of God’s existence for those who will not believe. But it is strong and solid evidence for those who are searching. When I pray for someone else’s health, I am not ordering God to do what I want. If He doesn’t answer with immediate or total healing, it is not because I don’t have enough faith or because He just doesn’t listen to me. Buy when I lift others up in prayer, I am acting on the promise that God will listen and act according to His perfect and sovereign character. I have seen miracles of healing; I have also seen miracles in suffering and even death. “Things not seen” often includes things outside of my knowledge or perspective– things that I can only see after I take steps of faith that take me out of my limited vision.

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As I write this post, I’m having one of those “bad” days– frustrating, filled with stress and pain. And not just my own– I’ve had several friends and family members who are dealing with death, disease, job loss, broken family issues, and more. Two of my childhood classmates died within a week of each other earlier this month, while three families in our church are dealing with hospitalizations and a death. And that isn’t even covering the crises in Afghanistan, Haiti, Tennessee, and elsewhere– floods, persecution, earthquakes and hurricanes, upheaval, and more. Those are the things we see. Faith is not blinding ourselves to those realities. It is choosing to believe that there is much more that we do not see–that God is in control, and that He is capable of redeeming and restoring even the mess that surrounds us.

I sat down to write this post, and had to stop–my faith was taking a beating. But I prayed. I listened for that still, small voice that led me to revisit Hebrews 11. I phoned a friend. Small steps of faith, but God is faithful. He gave my faith a booster shot. He can do the same for anyone who comes to Him in faith.

The Sweetest Frame…

I have several friends who are really great at photography– some have made it their profession. One of the hallmarks of a great photograph is “framing.” I’m not talking about choosing a frame for a printed photograph, but choosing natural elements that draw the eye to a focal point. It include perspective, focus, lighting, and even composition– which elements make it into the picture, and which ones are excluded. After all, photos, by their very nature, only show part of the whole reality. Even a panoramic picture cannot show everything at once, and the photographer chooses where s/he wants to place the focus and framing.

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We have a tendency to “frame” our lives in a similar way. We focus on only part of the whole reality of life. We choose to “frame” our present situations, our past memories, and our future hopes– even when they are out of focus! We can do this in both positive and negative ways. At one point in my life, I felt I had found “the perfect job” as a youth services librarian at a local public library. It was pleasant work that made use of my skills, talents, and interests. It included a mixture of social interaction and self-directed projects. I loved the job, my co-workers, our patrons, the work environment–it was a pleasure and an honor to work there.

Library Story Time

But I was viewing my job (and myself in that job) through a frame. There was more happening in the wider picture of my life and development. After more than a dozen years there, things had changed. I still loved the work, and while some co-workers retired or moved, and the staff changed a bit, the work environment was still mostly peaceful and friendly. I still found the job challenging and rewarding, and I had gotten to know people in the community over the years who truly felt like family. But, as my role changed, so did some of the relationships. As new leadership came, so did new directions and new priorities. And I had become “comfortable”– and somewhat complacent as well.

In time, it became clear that my “perfect” job was not only not perfect, but becoming a source of frustration, stress, and unhappiness. And there were other things happening that demanded my focus. I was preparing to become a wife, and move to a new community. My mother’s health was deteriorating, demanding more of my time and energy (though my Mom remains feisty and independent in most matters!). My future husband wanted to open a shop– someone would have to work there, and we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, even part-time. That meant working a second job at the shop while trying to maintain my efforts at the library.

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As the “frame” of my life shifted, I felt confused, even angry, with God. Why would He allow something so good to turn sour? Why did I feel like I was losing myself? Didn’t He want me to be happy and fulfilled? Didn’t He want me to use my talents to help others?

Now, after a few years’ perspective, I can see some of the “rest” of the picture. I had begun to see myself through the lens of my job, and I was depending on that vision, rather than focusing on what God was doing in, around, and through my life. There was nothing “wrong” with my job, per se, but God needed me to be willing to let go and move in new directions.

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I write all this, knowing that there are people going through much more traumatic “shifts” in their lives– the loss of a job, and a change of career is a disappointment, but it is not the same as the loss of a spouse or child; or the sudden loss of a home to fire; or an unexpected diagnosis of cancer or other health issue. But the principle is not so different. God’s ways are eternal. Sometimes, we see the trauma in front of us, or surrounding us, and it becomes a frame for all of our thinking and emotions. But the “picture” is much bigger than just our immediate situation. God calls us to trust Him in all circumstances, knowing that His love for us is not just for this life, but for all eternity. Whatever we (or our loved ones) go through here is but a snapshot– one of millions that God will put together in a Glorious and Perfect collage.

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Moreover, God gives us the privilege of listening to us when we call out to Him. We need not be afraid to ask, “Why this?” or “Why now?” or even “Why me?” But when we ask, we need to be willing to shift our focus, and remember where our Hope is Built– On Christ the Solid Rock. Even the sweetest “frame”– our career, our relationships, our identity, our happiness in this life– cannot compare with His faithfulness and eternal Sovereignty.

Who’s On First?

One of the classic comedy routines of the 20th century was a skit by Abbott and Costello, called “Who’s on First?” It’s all about mistaken identities and confusion, when the roster of players on a baseball team contains unusual names and nicknames that sound “question-able”.

I love baseball, and comedy, but the routine should make us do more than laugh. One of the big problems we face is that we often don’t know “who” is on first (or second, or in left field) in the game of life. We tend to become spectators, and fans, but we don’t always know the names of the players, or what position they play. We watch as players–celebrities, government power brokers, athletes, etc.–come and go on the “roster.”

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And it can filter into our prayers. While we look at the line-up of human “players” around us, we can forget that God is in charge of the outcome of the “game.” God knows exactly “who’s on first,” and who will be there at the bottom of the fourth. He knows who will strike out in the third, who will hit a grand slam in the fifth, and who will drop the ball in the sixth. While we watch the players and bite our nails when the bases are loaded and there is a full count, God already knows the next pitch.

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We may not understand why “Who” is on first, instead of someone else. Sometimes, we see people rise to a position only to abuse their power and oppress others. We may question “Why?” as well as “Who?” Sometimes, we may ask, “How?” “How could God put them in the line-up?” And the only answer I can offer is, “I don’t know.” God’s ways may not make sense to us in the moment. We may never understand the How or Why of our lives or circumstances. But God sees the whole picture, and His ways are not our ways. His understanding is far greater than ours.

Finally, we need to make sure that we are more than just spectators. Watching from the sidelines may seem safer, but we won’t really learn how to pray if we never learn how to “play.” God loves prayer warriors, but He commands us to be “doers of (His) Word.” (James 1:22-25) If we are just listening from the sidelines, we will continue to be confused and frustrated– in our praying and in our living!

We may not always know “Who’s on First.” But we should take comfort in knowing “Who IS First.” No matter who takes their position as shortstop or who is throwing the pitches, God is always sovereign. No matter who seems to be “winning” the game, God has already determined the outcome of the ultimate “World Series.” We can pray with confidence, knowing that, with God as our manager, Christ as the umpire, and the Holy Spirit as coach, we have the winning team!

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Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

Insult to Injury

Have you had “one of those” days lately? Nothing seems to go according to plan, and as the day goes on, it just seems to go from bad to worse. Something (or someone) comes along and adds insult to injury.

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Next week, the Church will be remembering what seemed like the last week in the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. First comes “Palm” Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and crowds of people cheering and waving palm branches–it was as though Jesus was a rock star or a prince of Israel. But just a few short days later, he was arrested, and convicted in a corrupt “trial” by the religious officials. The same crowds who cheered him on were screaming for his death, waving fists instead of palm branches. Pilate, to please the crowd, sentenced an innocent Messiah to one of the most brutal deaths imaginable– public, excruciating, humiliating, torturous crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t just suffer death. He was mocked, insulted, deserted by his friends, lied about and lied to by those he should have been able to trust, stripped naked and whipped, and branded as a criminal as his “fate.” In such a short time, to be so crushed and betrayed, brutalized and humiliated–none of my “bad days” can compare to what Jesus went through. His injuries were horrific; the insults and betrayals were worse. Yet He bore them all. He died in anguish; broken, bruised, beaten, and abandoned.

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And He could have chosen differently. He was perfectly innocent, perfectly authorized to defend Himself, capable of calling all the Hosts of Heaven to testify on His behalf, and perfectly powerful enough to come down off the cross at any time and send all of His accusers and tormenters to oblivion! That Friday wasn’t just “one of those” days. It was not something that took Him by surprise, nor was it something He “deserved.” He chose to go through that day…it was part of His perfect plan. That day. That death. That stunning humiliation and “defeat.”

But Holy Week doesn’t end in insult, injury, defeat, or despair–because God’s ways are perfect, Jesus turned everything to Glory! We will celebrate next Friday– “Good” Friday– because only God can triumph over death, and transform horror into hope, despair into deliverance, and shame into salvation.

Even on “one of those” days, we can find peace and practice praise as we pray to the one who took “one of those” days and turned it into the greatest miracle!

More Than the Watchmen Wait for the Morning…

The author of the 130th Psalm cries out to God for mercy. He pleads for God to hear his voice and be attentive to his cry. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+130&version=NIV

But then, he does three important things: He recounts what he knows of God’s character, he waits, and he hopes.

Sometimes, when I cry out to God, I expect God to reveal Himself to me with an immediate and positive answer. And, occasionally, God does answer prayer with a dramatic and instant result. But most of the time, God answers first with silence. Not because He is cruel or uninterested or too busy to acknowledge my cry. He gives me time to reflect– on His nature, and the nature of my need. And He gives me time to find peace and trust in the middle of the storm.

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I spent much of yesterday crying out– I am frustrated with the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. I am angry at the misinformation and conflicting reports; I don’t know what to believe about staying put or venturing out–is it allowed? Is it safe if I wear a mask? Can I go to the park or beach? When can I re-open my shop? Can I make the payments until it can be re-opened? When can I safely see my family and friends again? Will it be safe to hug them? And I am frustrated with the way I see people treating each other– yelling, screaming, eager to condemn everyone else’s behavior while justifying their own. And I find myself saying and doing the same thing from the relative safety of my computer screen– after all, I can’t yell at anyone to their face if I can’t leave the house, right? But I can let my 300 closest friends know how heartless and selfish they are if they don’t see things my way! They’re KILLING people! They’re betraying family members! They’re living in fear! They have no compassion! And I cannot make them do what I think is right!

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But when I stop the crying and carrying on, and justifying, and finger-pointing; when I stop to remember who God is, and who I am, I remember that God IS attentive. And not just to my frustration, but to everyone’s needs– the person who is living in terror; the person who is suffering pain, grief, agony, and loss; the person who is defiant and uncaring and angry. God is attentive, but He is also overflowing with mercy. If He kept records– if He only looked upon mankind to find evidence of our guilt or to pour out shame and punishment– who could stand? Who would have the authority to tell God how He should direct the universe? Who could say that they were more capable of dispensing life and death, health and sickness, mercy and justice? Would I? It is no little thing to cry out to the God of the universe. And yet, God listens attentively to our every cry. Especially when we cry out to Him for mercy, for wisdom, for peace, and for healing. His answer may not look like what we expect, but He never fails to listen in Love.

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And as I contemplate God’s power, wisdom, compassion, grace, and authority, I can wait. And that doesn’t mean that I sit in a lotus position and stop seeing the pain and chaos and death. Or that I count to ten and hold my breath. Or that I set a timer and think happy thoughts for 20 minutes. No. I wait like a watchman– like a sentry waiting for whatever may happen– alert and ready to do my duty. And I wait like a watchman for the dawn– for the light of day to see clearly; for the end of my watch, when there will be rest.

This season is difficult, but it will end. It will give way to a new dawn– with new challenges! But just as the Psalmist tells Israel, I know I can put my hope in the Lord, for “with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption (v. 7). If I cry out, knowing that God is willing to listen and able to save, but I don’t stand firm in hope, I can still be swept away by the winds of doubt and the current of angst.

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Cry out–then reflect, wait, and hope.

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