My Cup Runneth Over

“Are you the type of person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty?” Amateur psychologists like to ask questions like this, to determine if others are optimists or pessimists. But what happens when you realize your cup or glass is really full to overflowing?!

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Often, we look at our lives and circumstances with a pessimistic attitude. “I’m stuck at home during the pandemic– I can’t be with my friends, I can’t visit the gym, I can’t go to work..” We think of our “full” lives just weeks ago, and we miss all the things we took for granted– even the things we were complaining about before! And we worry and panic about tomorrow, or next week, or later today! But this is not God’s view. All that we are “missing” right now, God knows. He knows what we need, what we want, and what is best for us to have (or not have) during these days. Even if we are suffering from COVID-19, or waiting and praying for a loved one who is isolated and struggling, God knows. He listens for every breath– even the labored ones; He knows all that has come before this moment, and all that will happen in the next. If our glass is truly half-empty, we need only ask, and God will give us wisdom, patience, strength, and whatever He knows we need for the next breath; the next step.

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Sometimes, we carry an overly optimistic mindset–taking pride in our half-full glass, and not allowing God to finish filling it. We sit safe in our houses, confident that we will survive any threat and defeat any enemy, especially a tiny virus. We don’t need God’s help; His abundance of wisdom and grace. We’ve got everything covered with our half-full arrogance. But this is also not God’s view. God doesn’t want to fill our cup so that we can be smug and self-satisfied. God wants to fill us to overflowing, so that we can bless others, and see the incredible riches of His mercy and love! Some people look like they are “half-empty” from the outside– they are poor, or tired, or weak– but they are overflowing with God’s love; gushing with grace, lavish with love, exuding excitement, and overflowing with joy. Meanwhile, the optimist who is smug and self-serving, may seal up her “half-full” glass, refusing to share her hope and joy with others who need it.

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God is never stingy with His riches. Paul reminds us that God’s Grace is sufficient https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+12%3A6-10&version=NIV, that God can meet all our needs out of His abundance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A19&version=NIV, and that God is able to do more than we can possibly imagine https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=KJV; the Apostle James writes that every good and perfect gift is from above https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A17&version=ESV . However, we must be open to accept them, and open to share them with those around us! This is especially true when God’s riches may be hidden by clouds of doubt, worry, and fear.

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So today, I need to see, not whether my cup is half-full or half-empty of energy, or money, or health– I need to see where my cup is overflowing with God’s Grace, His Peace, and His Love!

Thou Anointest My Head With Oil

When I was just over a year old, I became very ill. Several doctors were consulted, but no one seemed to know what was wrong. I was losing weight, growing weaker, lost the strength to walk (something I had just started doing), and losing the will to thrive. I cried and moaned throughout the day, and had trouble falling asleep normally– demanding constant attention and comforting, but not showing any signs of fever or infection.

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Our minister at church anointed my head with oil for healing. Everyone prayed fervently. Mom and Dad took turns staying with me at the hospital, trying to calm my fears and hope that I would get better. Finally, one of the doctors (a third- or fourth-opinion at that point) suggested that I might have a protein deficiency–that my body was not processing proteins correctly, as I had just started eating meat and more complex dairy. He suggested a course of booster shots that lasted well into my fifth year; it was one part nightmare, and three parts miracle– daily, then weekly, monthly, and quarterly trips to get the dozens of booster shots, but I lived, grew, and was able to live a normal life. My childhood was filled with nightmares and many sleepless nights, even after my health began to improve. But I learned to love meat and dairy, trust the doctor and nurses who administered the dreaded shots, and embrace life.

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I tell this story in relation to Psalm 23:5, not to make a plug for anointing as a miracle “cure” or magical ritual. I realize that healing comes in God’s time and will, and that not everyone who prays for (or anoints for) healing receives it in this life. But I DO believe in the power of prayer, and I do believe in the act of anointing. It is not the oil, or the ritual involved that brings about powerful healing, however. It is a representation of God’s power to heal– and it brings with it an awareness of His presence and sovereignty.

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When David talks of anointing, he speaks from multiple layers of experience. As a shepherd, David would pour oil over the heads of his sheep. This served two purposes– it would keep insects from burrowing in and around the eyes, nose, ears, and necks of the sheep, where they could do untold damage, and where sheep could not dislodge them; and it would help them as they grazed among briers and rocks where they might get snagged, cut, or scraped. Oil brought protection and healing.

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But David was also a King. He had been anointed by Samuel to be the next King of Israel as a young man. Even though he had to wait through years of danger, war, and exile, he had been chosen and set aside by God. God had seen him through and raised him to prominence, and He had signaled all that through anointing.

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God is our Good Shepherd. He anoints our heads with oil– for protection, for healing, for service, and for ordination. Our Shepherd cares deeply for our physical and spiritual needs. And He appoints us to His service–He has a purpose and a position for each of us in His kingdom.

In days of confusion and suffering, we can forget to look for the Shepherd’s presence and His provision. We may lose strength, and even the will to thrive. But God can and will strengthen us with “spiritual protein” in His word and through fellowship. He will provide us with “booster shots” of blessings– friends who pray for us and with us; scripture that inspires and convicts; hymns and songs that remind us of His amazing grace and love; moments of prayer and meditation that carry us through the day. God will provide the daily anointing we need– and when we turn our face toward His, we will see eyes of love and feel His gentle hands of grace as He gives us all we need.

For more on Biblical anointing– it uses, meanings, and symbolism, check out these resources:

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/why-is-anointing-oil-important-in-the-bible.html

https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/anointed-definition-anointing-oils.html

https://equipherlife.com/2011/06/23/the-shepherds-oil/

Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.

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And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.

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God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.

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During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.

One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.

God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!

  • Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.

Green Acres

Psalm 23:2a King James Version (KJV)
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

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Many years ago (never mind how many..) there was a television show called “Green Acres.” It was a comedy about a couple from New York City, who moved to a small town in the country. The husband was excited about the move– he was tired of the rat race and bustle of the city; his wife, however, was reluctant to leave all the opportunities– she missed the shops and activity.

Green Acres was one of a group of shows that both celebrated and poked fun at rural life in America in the sixties and early seventies. The shows were very popular among viewers, but were panned by critics, and cancelled by network executives, even at the height of their popularity. https://www.closerweekly.com/posts/cbs-rural-purge-mayberry-rfd-green-acres/

More than fifty years later, you can often see these shows on networks like TV Land. They are still popular among some viewers, who like the nostalgia and the gentle humor. These shows all have happy endings. They don’t involve grotesque murders, lots of foul language, preachy lectures on social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction, or copious amounts of sex, violence, or nudity. They don’t talk about war and gangs, poverty or prejudice, or urban sprawl. They celebrate family, fresh air, hard work, community, truth, justice, kindness, and humility.

What does “Green Acres” (or Andy Griffith or any other old TV show) have to do with Psalm 23 and Pursuing Prayer? Not a lot, but I would like to look at the phrase in verse 2– “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..” Not the same as “Green Acres,” but I think the green pastures of God are viewed by the world in much the same way as “Green Acres;” scorned by a small and vocal group, but quietly cherished by many others.

Our Shepherd causes us to lie down– to find rest and nourishment and refreshing– in green pastures. That doesn’t mean that He won’t lead us through times of bustling stress, struggle, anxious moments, or rugged paths. But He will make us lie down. He will cause us to stop our frantic rushing, and renew our strength in green pasture. He doesn’t offer green pastures as an “escape from reality”, but as a reminder that dealing with reality requires us to see beyond the immediate stresses of the day and listen beyond the distracting noises around us.

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God’s green pastures won’t look like “Green Acres” with old tractors and fresh-mown hay. They may not look like the small town simplicity of Americana. In fact, God’s green pastures may not be places at all, but practices– spending time in Scripture, time in prayer, times in fellowship and encouragement, time in meditation, even time in service to others. You may find green pastures in the heart of a barrio, or in the quiet of a walk in the forest, or in praying as you climb a flight of stair or fold laundry. But you will find spiritual nourishment and renewal in God’s green pastures, wherever they are and whatever they look like. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-23-2.html

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God’s green pastures will have many critics, who will ask that you cancel these practices. They will call them old-fashioned, failed practices– naive, simplistic, even laughable. But as we respond to God who make us lie down in green pastures, others are watching– and taking heart. The critics in our life may be loud and insistent. It may seem like they have the power to “cancel” our rest, and pave over the green pastures to build another fast food restaurant. But there are others silently watching, longing to experience the kind of rest and refreshment they see in us– the kind that cannot come from sophisticated treatises on war or crime, or harsh critics’ disdain, or yet another trip to an upscale shop or fast food restaurant or spa.

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A few years ago, I left a full-time job– a job I loved–to help my husband open up a second-hand store that also sells amateur radio equipment. Most people would look on our store as a failure–it doesn’t make a lot of money; we don’t have hundreds of sales in a week; it hasn’t made us famous or important. But it gives me the opportunity to spend time talking and listening to the customers we do have, many of whom are lonely. It gives David the opportunity to do the same. And it gives me time to pray more, spend more time in God’s word, and write and edit this blog. It has allowed me more flexibility to spend time with my family. And it has reminded me that God is our provider and protector in ways I took for granted when I drew a bigger salary and had a more prominent position. From a worldly perspective, this is a move I would never have chosen. I spend most of my days lonely and unpaid–hardly a recipe for worldly fulfillment. And many days, I actually miss the bustle of deadlines, the drama of staff conflicts, and the extra money in the bank. And some days I am frustrated and ungrateful and restless–God has led me to the green pastures, but I refuse to lie down and receive the rest He wants to give me. And God may choose to make me get up and move through valleys, up hills, or over rocky paths to the next pasture. But for this season, in this pasture, He is teaching me to lie down–to be less busy about my business, and more open to His.

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The world may offer us Times Square; God offers us fresh air. The world may offer us clever ways to spend our time and money– God gives us peace that passes all understanding. God’s “Green Acres” is the place to be–resting where and how our Shepherd leads us.

I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

The Lord is My Shepherd…

The Twenty-third Psalm is one of the most quoted and well-known poems in the Bible. In its short six verses are contained some of the deepest truths and most beautiful images in scripture.

Today, I want to look at just the first five words of the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. Familiarity with these words can rob them of their true power. Imagine if we used a modern-day analogy: The Prime Minister (or King or President) is my life coach, or home health care nurse, or bodyguard. Can you imagine!?

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How often do we gloss over these words and fail to see the amazingly powerful message there. The LORD– Yahweh, the Almighty, Ruler of the Universe– is MY shepherd. He does all the kind of things a shepherd does for his sheep– feeds, leads, protects, and provides. He fights off predators, binds up wounds, and shears off the extra wool that can get us entangled in briers or slow down our progress. He stands with us in the heat and cold, and finds shelter for us from the wind and rain. He does all of this for me, when I can’t; because I can’t. He knows everything about me– my strengths and weaknesses and limitations. He knows everything about what I need– where the best grass and water are and how to get there; how much rest I need before the next stage of our journey; the likelihood that I will wander off and need to be called back to the flock. He knows what dangers lie ahead, and how to deal with them.

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The Lord IS my shepherd– He is always on the job. He hasn’t left me alone in green pastures, or sent someone else to take me through the valleys. He didn’t start out as my shepherd and then decide to quit. He isn’t waiting for me to reach a certain stage or measurement before I qualify to be His sheep.

The Lord is my Shepherd– not my task-master, nor yet my servant. He is both my Lord and my caretaker– my master and my minister. When I pray today, it is not to someone remote and aloof or powerless and malleable– I am bleating in my sheepish voice all my praise, my love, my irrational worries, and my sincerest gratitude, to the eternal and all-powerful shepherd who calls me by name.

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