Valley of the Shadow

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd,
[a]shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside 
[b]still waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the 
[c]paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the [d]valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no 
[e]evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You 
[f]have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
[g]Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will 
[h]dwell in the house of the Lord [i]forever.

Growing up in the Presbyterian and Methodist church, I learned the 23rdPsalm by merely repeating it over and over again during Sunday Services. Everyone knows the passage – even unbelievers can recite it from memory at funerals. We did so at my mother’s Celebration of Life last month. I know the words, but His Spirit is making the Word known to me in the valley of the shadow of death. 

It seems as if everything in my life is dying. I am surrounded by:

The death of my mother.

The death of our church community.

The death of our ministry. 

The death of relationships with family and friends.

The death of our home in North Carolina.

The death of unmet expectations as offers are rejected on homes we’ve bid on in Florida.

In the valley, there are shadows of death. In the shadows, we are surrounded by darkness. In the darkness, our vision is limited. And what we cannot see, we will fear. 

I’ve discovered that when I react to fear, I will either dismiss or deny pain. If I choose to dismiss the pain of death, I will rationalize my feelings by comparing myself to others, thus determining that I shouldn’t be depressed, angry, or disappointed. In that headspace, I belittle my suffering when stacking it against those that, from my perspective, are enduring greater hardships. If I chose to deny the pain of death by pretending it’s not happening, I will suppress my feelings, or try to avoid them altogether. The strain of carrying such a heavy burden will inevitably lead to a collapse- physically or emotionally.

With each passing day, I realize more and more that I cannot go through this valley alone. God has been faithful. He has never left me. He will not forsake me. He is with me, walking me through it. Although there are times I want to, I know that If I try to run, I’ll miss the green pastures and still waters. So, He is making melie down in the grass to receive rest and rejuvenation. He is leading me to stillness; to drink, so that I may be refreshed and restored. 

My friend, I was made- YOU were made for intimacy with the Lord. But let’s be honest. In our busy, distracted, self-important lives, we rarely take the time to pursue Him. Heck, we barely devote any time to genuinely pursuing righteous relationship with others! But isn’t it interesting? When someone dies, our calendar miraculously clears. We’ll take the time to be with friends and family in their grief. We’ll spend the money on airfare. We’ll rent a car. We’ll book a hotel. We’ll take a meal. We’ll sit and talk and laugh and weep with those who weep. Death causes us to see, if only for a moment- the reality of life. It’s in the shadow of death that we ponder- and perhaps ask the hard questions. It’s in the shadow that our ego is revealed. It’s in the shadow that He uses the rod and staff to discipline us. It’s in the shadow that we feel the loving sting of His correction. It’s in the shadow that we feel His comfort and care for us. It’s in the shadow that the things of this world grow strangely dim. It’s in the shadow that we are redeemed. It’s in the shadow that we are restored. It’s in the shadow that we see the Shepherd. It’s in the shadow that we realize that we, like sheep, have all gone astray. It’s in the shadow that we are prepared to face our enemies. It’s in the shadow that we are anointed with the oil of joy. It’s in the shadow that we learn how to dwell in the Father’s house- forever, and ever. 

Amen.

Mourning on Mother’s Day

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
    After all, everyone dies—
    so the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for sadness has a refining influence on us.
A wise person thinks a lot about death,
    while a fool thinks only about having a good time.

I knew this day was coming. I did not dread it, but I assumed it would be filled with sorrow.

I woke before dawn as I often do and made my way through the moving boxes and graduation decorations to the living room.I love to sit in the silence of the early morning with a cup of coffee and stare out the window at the beauty of creation. Today, the birds were extra talkative, so I opened the window to listen to their sunrise songs. I talked to Jesus. And I wept. Again. I told Him how hard this season has been; mourning ANDmoving. His Spirit once again breathed life and comfort as I re-read the wisdom of Solomon: 

“For EVERYTHING there is a season, a time for EVERY activity under heaven….”

I’m not one for the traditions of men on national holidays. I don’t like being told to celebrate someone or something in a certain way. Perhaps there’s still a little bit of that rebellious little girl in me. Or, maybe, it’s the righteous young woman that desires genuine relationship, not religious performance. Yes, I still celebrated my mother on Mother’s Day weekend every year. We didn’t miss being together very often, from what I can remember. But I told her I loved her every month of the year- not just on Mother’s Day, or Christmas or her birthday. I also tried to show it, not just tell it. Especially with homemade gifts. Those were her favorite from her girls and grandkids! Last Christmas, my daughter and I perused Pinterest and meandered through Hobby Lobby to make the perfect gift to express my heart. As she often does, mom wept when she opened the picture of hearts connected between 3 states. My sister settled in VA after her husband retired from the military, and my parents and I have remained in NC since relocating in 1988 when my dad grew weary of the rat race of Southern CA and wanted to return home to family. Next week The Bullard Pack (my family) will close on the home we’ve lived in for over 15 years in Sanford, NC. We’ll move in with my dad until we find- and close on a house in Lakeland, FL. It will be the first time in my life that my parent, sister and I will live apart; in 3 different states. I am sad. But I am also full of joy. I’m excited to follow the Lord’s call to leave our fathers family and follow Him to a new land.

I have become well acquainted with sorrow in this season. It has caused me to think a lot about death. And, it has created a deep, aching desire for MORE. More in my relationship with the Lord. For in the end, He is all that matters. I want to be ready when He comes back. I want to know Him. I want Him to know ME! I want my heart to ache for His return as it aches now for the reunion I will one day have with my mother- and all the saints who have gone before.

I am told that time will ease the intensity of my grief. Perhaps that is so, but I know that time heals nothing. Only One Man can bind up the broken hearted and set the captives free. His name is Jesus. Do you know Him? Do you love Him? Is your heart full of sorrow- longing to see Him face to face? I invite you to spend some time at funerals, my friend. Embrace the sadness of life. Let it refine your soul as you discover the Man in the pages of scripture who will one day, wipe away every tear. In His presence, there is no more death or mourning- just inexpressible JOY as we worship Him for all of eternity.

Cut & Prune

John 15:1-8 (NLT)

15 “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

Recently, we hired a local tree company to prune and cut several trees in our yard that were dead or destroying our dwelling. Along with another homeschool family we watched in amazement as these professionals wielded their chainsaws, bucket lifts,
ropes to cut down 5 towering trees with expert precision.

At the end of the day the sun shone more brightly through the newly opened skyline and the breeze blew more effortlessly through our little plot of city sized land. The sweat also flowed more freely as my big, strong man and our kids chopped firewood to be stored for winter (just so ya know: I did split and stack a few logs!!!).

Prior to John Chapter 15, Jesus had promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to His disciples after shocking them with the news that one of them would betray and another would deny Him. Using imagery, He explained the reasons why trees must be cut and pruned. Jesus declared that those who received His message of salvation would be pruned and purified for eternity. Then He gave a key to the Kingdom of heaven that if used, would be unlocked on earth: remain rootedin Him (receiving love and returning love through obedience) and remain refreshed by His Spirit (life giving power to make disciples). This, He prophesied, would bring the Father great glory!

True disciples have the same promise today.

If we:

  • believe and confess Jesus as Savior,
  • receive the gift of His Spirit,
  • remain in relationship with Him, (bible, prayer, obedience…)
  • remain refreshed by His Spirit, (confess, repent, forgive…)

then we:

  • will produce good fruit, (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control)
  • others will see good fruit,
  • others will taste the goodness of the Lord!

then He (our Father, the gardener) will:

  • cut what betrays Him as Savior, (lust of the eyes, flesh & pride of life) and throw it into the fire.
  • prune what denies Him as Lord, (time, talent & treasure) so that more fruit will grow from the branches that have been refined through suffering.

The 99

Luke 15:1-7 New Living Translation (NLT)

15 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!

So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

Maybe it’s just me, but have you ever read a passage of Scripture over and over again and think, in your arrogance, “yeah, I get it?” Until someone says “many people get confused by it [this parable], but….?” And you are instantly offended?

Just me? Ok.

IMG_2961When I re-read the above passage, the Holy Spirit breathed life onto the page and BOOM, revelation invaded my soul. Humbly, I cried out, “Oh….God…I’m so sorry for leaning on my own understanding….thank you for revealing your truth to me.”

I had always assumed the 99 were already saved, and God abandoned them. I was continually irritated when this message was preached in seeker friendly services (what does that mean, anyway? “Seeker friendly”?!). Pastors would declare, “it’s not about YOU, it’s about the one.” Excuse me? What does THAT mean? Am I not loved by God? Am I to be abandoned in the wilderness when He goes after the one?

No. No. No!

The 99 represented the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. They had no relationship with the Shepherd, even though they belonged to Him. The 99 stayed in the wilderness, instead of following the Shepherd.

Here’s the deal: The Shepherd loves all His sheep. He died for all of them. But, He goes after the one. The one He chose before the foundations of the earth. He leaves the 99 who reject him. He pursues the one. He finds the one. And when the lost sheep humbles himself, the Shepherd picks him up, puts him on His shoulders, and carries him home.

I am the one.

I was part of the 99. I stayed in the wilderness for decades. I was raised in the church. I knew about God. I was involved in religious activity. But I did not know the Shepherd. I was lost. I was a notorious sinner.

Now I am found!

The Lord left the 99 to search for me 19 years ago. ME! He chose ME before the foundations of the earth. He pursued ME. He found ME. And when this stubborn sheep humbled myself before the Great Shepherd, He picked me up, put me on His shoulders and carried me home. There was joy in heaven for ME!

I am the one.

Are you?

(Thank you, @realcoryasbury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xx0d3R2LoU )