Running the Paths of the Lord

Theology for the Pandemic

Like many people, I haven’t set foot in a gym for seven months. I had gotten into the habit of going to the gym rather than running outside largely because pushing a double stroller on a run is miserable. But where Covid has taken away, it has also given. Leaving the blaring TVs and machines at the gym behind, running outdoors has reawakened a love for the Lord that going to the gym had dulled.

At some point in college I stumbled across Psalm 119:32; “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” Running the bluffs in Iowa, this verse became a mantra that would come to mind when my breath got short and legs wore out. 

I run the path of your commands for you have set me free. With a literal path unfolding before my feet, running became a place of worship and prayer, a time to be quiet in the woods, soaking in the beauty of trees and streams and limestone bluffs. Running felt like freedom for me, and the Lord was meeting me on those trails, reminding me of his presence and promises, and becoming a faithful friend as I poured out my heart to him. Two years into raising twins, I was beginning to forget the joy of running and opportunity for intimacy with Christ that time on a trail produced. 

But as I have gotten back into running, these words have challenged me in a new way. A literal translation is, Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran.”   What does a widened or free heart look like? What does it mean to run in the path of God’s commandments? Though running makes me feel free, obeying commandments can often feel like the opposite of freedom. Our culture tells us that to be a free individual, perfectly authentic to your true self, we must cast off any rules that might inhibit us. But on the other hand, most Christians will find themselves at some point thinking that their freedom comes from how good they are or how well they keep the rules. But this verse rings in my ears asking me to consider more deeply the widened heart that God gives and the freedom that God gives his people as they run the path of his commandments.

A Widened Heart 

The concept of a widened or expanded heart occurs in a few other places that help us to understand what it means. Isaiah says that Israel’s hearts will be widened when they see God’s glory revealed and every nation proclaims Yahweh as Lord (Is 60:5). When Solomon became King of Israel he asked God for wisdom and God gave Solomon “wisdom and very great insight and a breadth of understanding (the same language as a widened-heart)” so that he could rule Israel in a godly way (1 Kgs 4:29). Paul says that his heart is wide open because of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him, and he desires that the Lord would widen the hearts of the Corinthian church as well (2 Cor 6:1-13). God opens our hearts so that we can love him more and do his will.

One of my favorite things about running is being outdoors and seeing the splendor of God’s creation: vast skies, mountain vistas, dense woods. Running provides the quickest entry point for me to stand in awe of God’s glory. But running and spending time in prayer while I run also propels me back into my day with a deeper resolve to follow the Lord. I find myself back at home, stretching and thanking the Lord for his goodness and also that he has once again reoriented my heart to desire him and know him. This is what it means to have a widened heart; a heart that God has broadened to love him more and compelled to act in his ways (run in his commandments). But God does not widen our hearts just once, he widens it again and again. This is why the literal translation is whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Our God desires to widen our love for him whenever we need it, sending us out to be people who bear the image of Christ to our nieghbors.

Running with purpose

Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Running in God’s commandments is the response to a widened heart. In 1 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to run with purpose. 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly…But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Cor 9:24-27

Just as a serious athlete trains with the goal of winning their race, Paul argues that Christians must purposely pursue the ways of God. Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commandments (Jn 14:15). With hearts widened to love God, we should run in the way that God says is good. Our running should be disciplined and self-controlled as we take his commands to heart, earnestly desiring to make his ways our ways.

But command-keeping can become a religion in itself. God gives us commandments so that we might know what a holy God is like, and so that we might begin to look like him as we obey his commands. But all too often, we can interpret commands and obedience as the ways that we earn God’s love. Though Paul charges us to run, to not sit back in our faith, but to pursue the things of God with discipline and zeal, our running is always in response to the widened heart that our God has given us. And more than that, we run in response to our running Father.

A Running Father

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. – Luke 15:20

In the story of the prodigal son, after the son has abandoned his father, spent his inheritance, and insulted him in the worst possible way, the son returns home hoping he might become a servant in his father’s house. But rather than shaming his son because of his disobedience, instead of being disappointed by his failures, the father ran. The father of a disobedient, small-hearted son, ran towards his child extending him the grace and forgiveness he did not deserve. In this action, this running father widened his son’s heart; he showed him love and grace. This is the heart of our Heavenly Father. A gracious God who runs towards us so that we might run the path of his commands, hearts free, knowing that we are loved. 

Surviving vs. Beholding

Theology for the Pandemic

If I’m not careful, I can get through a whole day without really looking at my kids. Sure, I see them running down the hall and throwing blueberries at one another, but I can be so busy and preoccupied with whatever else I am doing, that I don’t really see them. I don’t gaze upon them. I don’t enjoy their triumph of climbing the rock wall or notice the deep empathy of one comforting the other. Especially in this season, I can approach motherhood with a survival mindset, just trying to make it through another day.

This same phenomenon happens with God. I can go a whole day, a whole week even, without gazing upon the beauty of Christ, being struck by his majesty or humbled by his power and grace. I can get through another day, doing the things that need to be done but drifting on the surface of a relationship that wants to shake me awake, pull my eyes upward and command my heart’s attention.

In the Bible, this kind of attention is called beholding. “And behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). “Behold, the kindness and the severity of the Lord” (Rom 11:22). “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). 

Behold means to look and learn; to pay close attention to; to gaze upon. God has created us to be beholders, but we often find ourselves keeping our heads down just trying to get through. This past year has caused unique stress and suffering and it might seem like the easiest way to cope is to merely survive until the pandemic is history.

But this bucks against the very fabric of how we are created. We are created to be present in our lives and the lives of others especially when it is painful and uncomfortable. We are created to stand at attention to our God in every season of our lives, so now more than ever we need to learn how to lift our heads and behold.  

Made to behold

When our daughters were first born older mothers kept telling me, “Enjoy every second; it goes so fast.” Though it became so familiar that I barely even registered the advice, after a few months of sleepless nights and spending all day feeding two newborns, this advice started to bother me.

Am I truly supposed to enjoy this? All of this? Not every second of motherhood is enjoyable. Not every second of life is enjoyable. Enjoy was the wrong word, what the mothers were trying to say was, “Behold every second with them, it goes so fast.” Behold. Pay attention, gaze upon the beauty of your child, watch them closely, this season will turn before you know it. 

But we are not simply made to behold our children, we are first and foremost made to behold our God. As the church we should be like older mothers whispering to one another, “Behold the goodness of the Lord this week. Behold his power and his grace. Behold your risen King who loves you. This day, this week, this year will go quickly. Pay attention to what the Lord wants to show you.” Our God reveals himself to us and we must remember that he has made us to see him, gaze upon him, and as we do so, to love him.

Beholding takes discipline  

When was the last time you were surprised or caught off guard by something beautiful? Awe and wonder strike without warning–the way a sunset lights up the clouds, a perfect fall day, a child exuberantly shouting, “I did it, Mama!” Though awe has an element of surprise in its nature, beholding is something we must cultivate, and learning to behold begins with deciding what is important. 

My husband and I clean the house on Thursdays and I love to get a jump-start on the process. I wipe down counters while the girls eat lunch, do dishes while they play in the living room, and even vacuum in spite of knowing their sheer terror of the machine. Calls of “Mama, come look” and “Mama, NOOO” (regarding the vacuum) produce an uncomfortable tension in my mind–what is most important right now? I may want to sit down at 6:30 pm with a clean home and be done for the week, but right now my daughters want my attention, want to show me the chalk drawings they made and how fast they can run. I must choose what I will do: vacuum that floor, or turn my gaze upon them and pay attention. 

Likewise, each day the creator of the universe wants to catch and hold your attention. He wants to draw your eyes to his majesty, his goodness, his mercy, and his grace. Maybe it is less obvious than a child crying out for attention, but all of creation witnesses to the love and greatness of our God. We must train our ears to hear the invitation of the Lord to come and look and train our our eyes to see glimpses of God’s glory in the midst of dailiness. We must learn how to walk away from distractions and behold the everlasting God today. 

The lifter of our heads

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. – Psalm 3:3-5

Our god is the lifter of our heads. We don’t have to live these days in survival mode or just keep our heads down. He lifts our heads, he hears our cries, and he sustains us so that we might behold him. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his glory. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his sovereignty and love. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might gaze upon the beauty of Jesus. 

Daily discipleship

Theology for the Pandemic

Six months ago when the stay at home orders began my social media feeds exploded with two modes of thinking. The first was the kind of person (probably type A personalities) who immediately programmed an indefinite self-improvement plan including exercise, diet, reading one thousand books, and starting a blog. The second was those (probably worn out moms) who declared that they were quitting—a burn my jeans and bra, double-down on sweatpants, take-out, and streaming services because this is just too much to handle right now response. But six months later, both of these tactics feel foolish. Maybe there have been self-improvements, and maybe chasing comfort was a warm place to start, but neither the voracious appetite for self-bettering nor an exhausted denial of reality can be the way of the Christian. No, the way of Christ is daily discipleship. 

The thing that caught my attention about how people respond to unusual circumstances was their desire to speed up growth or to cease altogether. Scripture presents a very different way. Following Christ as a lifestyle, not a fad. Choosing the good, not the easy. Slow growth that does not depend on external circumstances. Trees, not weeds. It is easy to see why this is unattractive. I can barely wait for cookies to fully cook in the oven. I want them now. We as humans want things now. Eugene Peterson said 40 years ago, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” Discipleship is “patient acquisition of virtue,” and “a long apprenticeship” in following Christ. And it is exactly what we see in Psalm 1. 

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind blows away. -Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the one who finds contentment in God’s law and nourishment in being rooted in Him.  Blessed here means happy. Happy is the person who positions themselves quietly abiding in the word and law of God rather than placing their body in the path of sinners, scoffers, or the wicked. This posture is quiet and slow, a humble lifestyle bereft of flashing lights and trendy posts. But all else is worthless. This way of thinking is at the heart of discipleship– it is a blessing to become more like Christ in his holiness, mercy, and righteousness. A slow digestion of the word and law of God that leads to a happy fullness. 

When I first married my husband, who is a pastor, I felt an internal pressure to not be a dull pastor’s wife. Even though most women married to pastors are anything but dull, it was a trope in my mind that should be avoided. I wanted to be a “cool” pastor’s wife (cue the mom in Mean Girls). Silly, I know, but seven years in, I have firmly accepted that coolness is never worth pursuing. Coolness does not last. If I want anything I want to pursue the beauty of Christ. I want to be known for knowing and loving his word. I want to be a holy wife. That is a work of God. And it is the path of discipleship. Trading cool for holy. Delighting in the ways of God rather than the ways of the world.

The second image provides my favorite image of Christian discipleship: a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit, fully alive. This is in contrast to the chaff that is blown away by the wind, dead, dry and gone. Yielding fruit is an image we see throughout scripture, most notably when Jesus speaks about good trees bearing good fruit and being known for what they produce (Luke 6:43-45). People will be known for the fruit they produce. It will either be good fruit — the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, gentleness, goodness), or bad fruit– the fruit that comes from sin and wickedness. The tree planted in the rivers of God will always bear good fruit. 

My favorite trees are usually large trees. Old trees. My parents backyard is lined with ancient cottonwoods that have been there since before I existed. They grow out of the bank of a small irrigation ditch that only flows for a handful of months a year. But they have grown and grown, towering over our yard, providing shade for our swing set and sandbox, a home for owls and branches for our cats to climb. It’s hard to imagine, but one day they were small and meager. But today they are a testament to decades of slow growth, decades of being shaped by their environment and depending upon their water source. 

This is the way of Christian growth. Bearing good fruit that blesses others, remaining connected to the source of life, confident even in the winter months, sure of a new season ahead. Most days seem small, but as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, the way we spend our lives.” 

Friend of God, when you question your growth, if you look at all different than you did last season, only ask yourself if you remain rooted in the word of God. If you do, your discipleship–your becoming like Christ, is happening. Quiet as the tree grows, you will become more like your savior. 

In the Shadow of His Wings

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. -Psalm 91:1-6

My parents’ neighbors have chickens. Over Christmas, my dad, my twin daughters and I would walk up the street, past the ditch, and into their yard to watch the spectacle of hens chasing one another, a rooster crowing out of turn, and my daughters gasping with delight. Like most animals, chickens have a way of protecting their young, and as a mother of two-year old twins, I can relate. 

Have you ever watched someone trying to chase two children who are not quite old enough to listen and obey? It’s a frantic shuttle sprint. Grabbing one ungracefully under the armpits, I take  off in the opposite direction to collect the other staggering toddler from face planting on a hill. I have heard, more often than I like, the words, “Well, you have your hands full!”  Indeed. I am aware. I also need a more effective method of gathering my chicks. 

Mother hens know what they’re doing. They don’t run around, desperately trying to gather their seven babies. They stop, spread their wings, and, if their chicks want to survive, they better run to their mama and take shelter in the shadow of her wings.

Psalm 91 is an invitation to come in close, to run to your Father’s side and hide under his wings. Come, take refuge in the mighty fortress. At His side we will not fear. His faithfulness will be our protection. 

Standing in the middle of God’s redemptive plan, this Psalm holds together the metaphor of God as a mother hen that we see first in the Song of Moses, and later in Jesus’ own words as he weeps over Jerusalem. More broadly, the image of God carrying his people on his wings is seen throughout scripture as a portrait of deliverance. We find such language in Exodus 19, and, although God has delivered Israel from Egypt, they quickly wander away from his outstretched wings. This seems to be woven under the invitation that Psalm 91 offers us. We have to choose to abide, to stay put in God’s presence. Other things will tempt us to take refuge in them. In the face of a pandemic, Information or preparation might seem to promise security, but they often only lead to fear and anxiety as we wonder if our plans will endure. We must choose, daily, to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, to abide in the shadow (Presence) of the Almighty. 

Yet still, we don’t. I wake up, have time in the Word, pray, and by lunchtime I am consumed by the news and wondering if I need more toilet paper. This is our reality. None of us abides perfectly and permanently even when we know we need to. Jesus experienced this in Matthew 23, when he weeps because his people have not come to him. They have not put their trust in him. They have sought their safety elsewhere. And he weeps. 

But the covenant faithfulness of God is not dependent upon us. In Exodus, Israel has already broken the covenant, but God is faithful and gives the law again. In Psalm 91, the author remembers that the same God, who delivered Israel and invites sinful people to be in the presence of the holy God, longs for us to be near him. And Jesus, though he wept over Jerusalem for rejecting him, spread his wings on the cross in order that his people might dwell in his presence forever by the upholding and renewing power of his Spirit. In the shadow of the cross, we find our place of refuge.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)

Fixing our eyes

What have you been looking at lately? Where have your eyes been? For me, my eyes have been fixed on screens more than ever before. This is in part because I left a campus ministry job that involved mostly people time to start a writing and editing job that is mostly done on a laptop. But my eyes have also been on Pinterest and Instagram a lot. On real estate websites browsing homes I cannot afford. Doomscrolling on my phone as my eyes take in bad news, frightening news, anxious news. Maybe the opposite question is just as important. Where have my eyes not been? My children? My husband? The Lord? 

What we look at tells us a lot about our hearts. It shows us what matters to us, what has our attention, and what we think is important. But more than just being revealing, what we look at actually shapes us. The things we consume visually narrate the stories we live in, the things we believe, and the desires of our hearts. When you start to look at scripture through the theme of vision–what you are looking at, where your gaze is fixed, sight vs. blindness, seeing vs believing–the theme appears everywhere. Our eyes can lead us into sin, they reveal the spiritual health of a person, they can be fixed on God, and they can be brought from blindness to sight.

But scripture portrays a dual layer to sight. It can represent a literal dimension– Jesus literally gives sight to the blind, our eyes can literally lead us into sin– but it also represents a spiritual or heart dimension–the eyes of our heart can be opened to see God. When the eyes of our hearts are open, we have eyes to see his kingdom coming today. We see the gospel at work in the world, God’s renewing Spirit sanctifying his saints, his ongoing lordship as the head of the church. When the eyes of our hearts are opened, we see the world through the lens of faith, but what we look at with our physical eyes directly influences how we see the world around us. Both physical and spiritual sight matter, and we must choose with wisdom where we fix our gaze and what we allow to shape our hearts.

Looking at scripture

Spending time in scripture is essential for shaping the Christian’s heart. When I consider how much time I spend on social media, on work, or watching movies, it can be embarrassing to think about how little time I spend with my eyes on the word of God. Humans are narratival beings who are moved, led, taught, and encouraged by stories we hear and believe. Our world is made of stories. Not just books and movies, but also stories about what beauty is, stories about how we are supposed to use our bodies, stories about what dating relationships should look like and how we should eat. Stories construct far more of our daily lives and our meaning than we realize and they also dictate how we respond to the world around us. If I believe the story that money will make me happy, then I will act in ways that align with that narrative. will work and hustle so that I can have a nice home, fancy vacations, beautiful clothing, and ultimately, happiness. As Christians, the story we exist in is God’s story, and if our eyes are not fixed on scripture, where God’s story is revealed to us, they will be fixed on other stories. 

Psalm 119 repeatedly refers to our eyes being on God’s commandments and word.

 “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (119:15). “Open my eyes that I may behold the wondrous things out of your law” (119:18). “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (119:148). 

The psalmist’s eyes look at God’s ways, his wondrous laws, and stay awake looking at his promises. Christians must know the ways of God– his character, what he says, what he does. We must know his law– his commandments, what he says is good and lovely, and what he opposes. And we must know his promises–his covenantal promises of nearness, comfort, grace and provision. Though fixing our eyes on God’s word is not a guarantee that our hearts will be engaged, we must choose to actively meditate, behold and stay awake to God’s word his story of who we are. 

Gazing at Jesus

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. But what does it mean to look to Jesus? These verses tell us that seeing Jesus requires looking back to the cross, looking around at the body of Christ today (our cloud of witnesses), and looking toward the reigning and ruling Jesus seated on the throne. 

Though we do not see Jesus in the flesh today, we need to look to his cross, remember that he is seated on his throne and ruling today, and fix our eyes on Christ by participating in His body. The main place we will see God at work today is in other believers bearing God’s image and being conformed into his likeness. We see Jesus in a friend showing compassion to us, we see him in forgiveness being extended, we see him in lives being transformed by the good news of the gospel. The body of Christ is just that– the arms and hands and feet that are at work bringing God’s kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven. If you want to see God today, you must participate in his body. And as you do, others will see God in you. 

What we look at shapes us. Today, consider your gaze. Fix your eyes on God’s word and look to Jesus, you just might see his kingdom on earth.