Singing isn’t just for Sundays

What is the best advice someone has given you lately? As a working mother of twins, I hear a lot of advice; take walks, make sure you have “me” time, get enough sleep, don’t forget to make time for your husband. While these are all good suggestions, I have found one activity to be the most important re-focuser, mood-booster, and practical tool in the midst of a wild, wild year: singing. 

Scripture tells us again and again to sing; O come let us sing a joyful song to the Lord (Ps 95:1); address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Eph 5:19); But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning (Ps 59:16). God himself sings when he rejoices over us (Zeph 3:17), and as those who are made in his image, who are filled with his very breath of life, we too are made to sing, having our lungs filled with words of praise, supplication, and longing. 

Singing is not just for Sunday mornings, it is a means of discipleship—a way we follow the Lord in our day-to-day lives by choosing to lift our voices in all circumstances to worship. Singing forms us as followers of Jesus, engaging our bodies, helping us process our emotions and experiences, and connecting us to our Heavenly Father who sings over us. Singing is one of the most powerful tools we have, let me show you why.

Singing literally changes our bodies. Singing releases endorphins and oxytocin which make you feel relaxed and happier, lowers stress, and reduces anxiety and loneliness. It also changes your emotional and physical state as musical vibrations move through your body helping you to breathe more deeply and effectively. As the kids might say, singing is a body hack, but as Christians, we know that this is not by accident, it is by design. Our God quite literally hardwired us to be able to change our bodies and emotions through singing—through worship, so we might be comforted when we are in trouble. 

So when the Psalmist says, O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wonderful things (Ps 98:1), he is inviting us to bring our whole bodies into worship. By lifting our voices, we are changed, our breath united to the life-breathed Spirit that God has given us, our bodies engaged in attention to the God who knit us together, knows us, and speaks to us so that we might worship him with our whole beings. 

Singing brings us out of ourselves. I was reading my girls one of their favorite books while they ate dinner. I was exhausted and annoyed at how much of their food was on their laps and the floor. I wasn’t in a great mood. But we came to a page of the book about which I had made up a silly melody and would sing every time I read it. This time I didn’t. I wasn’t in a singing kind of mood. But, of course, they shout, “sing it, Mommy!” Begrudgingly, I sang it; a few lines in a rhyming story about a farm. But I noticed something immediately: it’s hard to stay angry when you are singing. 

In the middle of three conversion stories, Paul and Silas get thrown in prison. They were in stocks, very uncomfortable, and on top of that, wrongly imprisoned. And yet, we read that around midnight, they were praying and singing hymns to God and the other prisoners were listening (Acts 16:25). The saints that went before us turned to singing, but there is more to singing than heritage; singing is an embodied discipline, something we do on the way as we wait and walk with Jesus the reorients us towards his promises and provision. 

When we think of singing as only a joyful response or something we do in congregational worship, we limit the gift God has given us. Paul and Silas show us how to sing and worship in all circumstances, not simply when we feel like it or are supposed to. Just like singing for my daughters changes my disposition to lean towards them in love, singing to the Lord when we are angry, confused or upset reorients our hearts and minds to make space for the Lord in our circumstances. Singing draws us out of our emotions so that we might situate ourselves in God’s story, remembering his promises and anticipating his faithfulness when we can’t see what he is doing. 

Singing is a physical act of defiance that says, I can and choose to worship in any and every circumstance, not just when I feel like it. 

Singing helps us process our emotions. Sometimes when I start singing, I start crying. It seems that singing has a unique way of allowing hidden emotions to surface and helping me bring them to the Lord. We often struggle to put into words how we feel, opting to feel nothing rather than be honest about how we are doing. But ignoring emotions is an attempt to remove ourselves from reality. When we deny our experience and the emotions they produce, we are effectively saying that God has nothing to say or do here. But God does not make us his children to remain emotionally distant from him; He wants us to come to him with our hurts and brokenness, trusting that he will comfort and encourage. Singing is one way we can do that. 

As an embodied spiritual discipline, singing helps us connect our mental, emotional, and spiritual reality to our physical experience. We typically think of singing as a response to joy, but singing in despair, hopelessness, and sorrow has a long and valuable tradition we should remember. It’s no surprise that in the midst of oppression slaves turned to singing; acknowledging their pain and suffering while steadfastly hoping in a just God who was bigger than their circumstances. Likewise, the majority of the Psalter are not songs of joy, they are songs that express confusion, doubt, and lament. The songbook of the covenant people of God gives language to the full human experience— How long O Lord is the anguished refrain we hear again and again. 

Singing is a tool for all of life; the small hopelessness of a child crying at 3 am and the large hopelessness of grief or depression. And singing in spite of how we feel actually changes us, unearths our emotions, engages our bodies, and tunes us to something that is beyond our present moment. This is how God made us—to sing to him, have our hearts softened and comforted, our anger quelled, and our hopes levied as we remember that even in our tough moments, he is with us, he is for us, and he sings over us in return. 

Singing forms us. A few years ago on a retreat with college students, we spent time in small groups encouraging one another. What struck me most was how the students quoted song lyrics to one another more than they quoted scripture as a means of encouragement. While this opens the door to another conversation about why the songs we sing are important, these students spoke the things of God over one another as they had learned through singing.

Songs have a way of sticking with us in a way that other mediums don’t. We connect the melody and rhythm to words that have value and they become part of us, beating in our hearts and springing to mind unexpectedly, giving us language when we don’t know what to say or how to pray. No bride forgets her first dance song, no teen forgets the song that got them through a breakup; music stays inside of our bodies. But even more, songs that give language to our faith have the ability to shape our theology, the very things we think and believe about God and ourselves. As we sing these words, we speak into being the truths that God has spoken over us; we are loved, justified, forgiven, Spirit-filled children of God. Singing about our Good King is a way of testifying to ourselves the news of grace again and again. 

So today, sing. Sing when your children frustrate you, when you are tired or disappointed, when you are delighted by something. But sing. Sing a new song to the Lord today knowing that as you do, he hears you, forms you, lifts your head, and sings over you in return. 

5 Reasons we skip time in the Word (and 5 ways forward)

The Christian life is full of tension. But no concept must be held in tension more tightly than grace and works. The conversation I have more often than any other with other believers is, “YOU NEED TO SPEND TIME IN GOD’S WORD! But remember that you are saved by grace and having quiet time does not earn your salvation. But because God loves you so much, spend time in your Bible and get to know him!” There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, but there is much we can do to get to know him better, to walk in His ways, and be transformed into his likeness. One of these ways is reading the Bible.

I’ve heard many reasons for not reading scripture—I don’t get much from reading the Bible, I don’t have time to read scripture, it’s boring. While these sentiments are common, we cannot let them go unchecked. The Bible is the primary way we get to know God, so if we are going to follow him well, knowing God’s word is critical for our spiritual growth and health. Though everyone has different reasons and difficulties with reading scripture, here are five reasons that I have personally found spending time in God’s word can be challenging, and how to work through them. 

The Bible about God, not you. I always trend towards self-centeredness, so it is no surprise that when I open my Bible, I often want it to be about me. But the Bible is primarily about God, not a tool for my own self-discovery. Something that campus ministry taught me was the importance of other-centeredness. Though I could happily talk about myself in one-on-one meetings with students, I was there for them and to get to know their story. The same goes for our relationship with God. We are his creation and he has made us to know him

The way forward: humility. When you open God’s word, focus on learning more about him, his character, what delights and angers him, and the way he has made us. Ask the Spirit to teach you about who you are in the context of your relationship with the one who made you and knows you. 

Misplaced expectations. What do you expect when you open your Bible? An emotional experience? To hear an audible voice from heaven? That scripture will always speak perfectly to your circumstances? The most important thing I learned from pre-marital counseling was that expectations dictate relationships. We must identify our expectations of reading scripture and then determine if they are biblical expectations. It is not wrong to expect God to show up when you read the Bible, in fact, God promises that he will—that his spirit will give us understanding and insight into his word as we read it. But in order to remove disappointment or frustration from time in the word, we must identify what exactly we expect.

The way forward: expecting the Spirit to do what he promises. The Holy Spirit’s job is to bear witness to who Jesus is by teaching us his words, reminding us of what he did (Jn 14:26), and expanding our hearts to love him more (1 Jn 3:20). He also helps us see our sin, leads us to repentance (Jn 16:7-8), and sanctifies us to make us look more like Jesus (2 Cor 3:8). But what this looks like day to day is really simple things: a verse that comforts us, a story that challenges us, seeing something beautiful in the person of Jesus, a heart that repents of sin. These are the everyday works of God; we need to sharpen our vision to see them.

I haven’t addressed my psychology. If I’m honest, I often operate as if God is a little bit annoyed with me. He wishes I was less sinful, holier, more prayerful—he wants me to get my act together. I know that this is not what God thinks about me, but this lie seeps into how I approach God in my quiet time and changes my posture. I find myself edgy, trying to do more or be better, and quickly walking away from the gospel of grace that the Bible sings over me. If we allow our emotions to tell us what God thinks about us, we will hate spending time with him.

The way forward: believing the truth. Answer this question: what does God think about you? Does he like you? Our emotions are important and powerful, but we cannot give them the privilege of telling us who God is. We must rely on God’s own words for that, and he says that he delights in us (Ps 70:4), adopted us as his children (Gal 4:5), forgiven us (1 Jn 1:19), promises to show us grace every single day (Lam 3:22-23), and does not hold a grudge against us (Ps 103:12). We must choose to measure our emotions against the truth, and believe what God says about us.

I don’t feel like reading scripture. The question of authenticity is primary for our generation. If I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be authentic. But this is a short-sighted way of living life. If I only ever did what I felt like doing, I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to comfort a screaming child, I would probably lose my job because I don’t feel like working very often, and my wallet would be hurting because I don’t always feel like cooking dinner and would rather eat out. The reality is that much of life is comprised of doing things that we don’t always feel like doing, but we do them anyway because they are valuable, good for us, or make us better. If you are a Christian, your life belongs to God and we must do what he asks of us, whether we feel like it or not. 

The way forward: showing up. Showing up before the Lord, reading his word, spending time in prayer even when we don’t feel like it sows the seeds of a big harvest. The biggest lesson I have learned about spending time with God is consistency. I won’t always have an amazing quiet time, but I have come to love my 30 minutes of time before Jesus. Showing up when it’s hard paves the way for enjoyment and delight in God’s word. 

I’m in a hurry. The easiest reason to neglect time in scripture is because I am busy. But the reality is, I will always be busy, and if I wait to prioritize time in scripture for the day I am not busy, I will never start. In spite of busyness, everyone makes time for the things that they love. I love hiking and running and being outdoors and I will get up early, postpone lunch, and do anything I can to get that time outside. We prioritize and pursue the things we value. So the real question is, why don’t you value time in scripture? This is the much bigger question hiding underneath our claims of busyness and it is the question with which we must wrestle. If you find yourself not making space for God, his word, or prayer in your day, you need to ask yourself why.

The way forward: an honest look at your relationship with Jesus. Being honest with yourself and the Lord is essential and there are reasons for why you don’t make time for God in your day. We each need to identify what those reasons are. Maybe you find scripture confusing, or you are afraid that if you read the Bible you will hear things you don’t like. Whatever your reason might be, you need to identify it, bring it before the Lord, and ask him to help you work through it. We must learn to prioritize Christ in our lives because he is much better and more valuable than anything else we might put first.

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. 

(Un)quiet Time

Theology for the pandemic

Almost every morning for the past twelve years has started the same way. Wake up, make coffee, sit down in my designated spot, and spend time reading the Bible and journaling. Maybe it was walking past my Dad every morning on my way to the kitchen and seeing him with his hands folded in his lap and eyes closed in prayer, or the fact that I love rhythm and routine, but having a quiet time in the morning has been a sacred space for me for almost half of my life. 

But in the past few months, this time has been a battleground. Blame the pandemic, the small house, or the two two-year-olds shrieking as they chase one another down the hall, but “time with God” has mostly ended with me feeling angry at my children (or husband for not making them be quieter human beings), frustrated that I wasn’t more focused, and bitter that I couldn’t start the day exactly how I wanted. Ah, the hypocrisy of spending time in God’s word and emerging as an angry and impatient mother.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you should have done without neglecting the others.” -Matthew 23:23 

Jesus condemns the religious leaders of Israel for doing certain religious tasks (tithing fancy spices) but neglecting the most important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Though the things we do certainly matter, when they are devoid of love they are worthless. The Pharisees performed religious tasks thinking that would delight the Lord, but they missed the most important matters of the law. Jesus calls them the weightier matters, which basically means the burdensome matters. It is much easier to tithe than it is to pursue justice or have compassion. But more than that, their reason for performative religion was all about them. They wanted to be seen as people who were righteous and holy, they wanted to justify themselves with their actions.

Just like the Pharisees, I need to examine my spiritual activity. Quiet time should be a place of communing with God, remembering his promises, and being encouraged by his word. Time with God is supposed to train you to act more like him. So if the fruit I bear is selfishness and irritability– not mercy and faithfulness and justice, I must ask myself if this discipline of having quiet time is really about God or about me? Do I come to the word each morning to be in his presence or am I simply trying to justify myself by spiritual productivity? 

The Lord wants to grow us out of me-centered time with him and teach us anew what it means to pursue him, what it means to worship, and what communing with him really looks like.

Put to death the idol of spiritual productivity. Time with God is good and necessary for all believers, but spiritual performances are not something God desires. Awesome quiet times do not make us righteous, and really nice prayers do not justify us before God. So when we treat quiet time as a stamp in our spiritual passport to heaven, we are trying to prove our righteousness through what we are able to do rather than depending on the salvation of Christ. We need to let the idol of spiritual productivity die. Notice, however, that Jesus says the Pharisees should have done these (tithing spices) without neglecting the others (loving people). We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke of prioritizing religious tasks over love of God and neighbor and then pursue a life animated by the gospel in both my pursuit of him and love of our family.

Broaden your scope of what it means to worship. Because quiet time can become a primary place of worship, we can ignore how the Lord might be inviting us into worship throughout the day. Anything we do unto the Lord can be worship. We can worship him through folding the laundry with a cheerful heart, through reading and re-reading our kids favorite book, by listening attentively to a friend, by cooking dinner. God cares about our hearts more than our tasks. So when our heart is desiring to honor and serve the Lord, any task can become a place of worship. When we relegate worship to the confines of our designated God-time, we fail to see the Kingdom of God that breaking in all around us.

The weightier matters of God start with loving those around you. Though I have long seen quiet time as a place of communing with God, it is only part of the puzzle. Communion is relationship language, so perhaps communion with God really looks like sacrificially loving my family. We commune with God by participating in Him. To think that participation with God is something we can achieve in solitude is to disregard the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Communion with God happens by loving and serving other people in addition to growing in devotion to him through scripture and prayer. May our pursuit of Jesus be abundant as we pursue justice, show mercy and live faithfully with others. 

The discipline of remembering

This morning I called my mom for a quick chat and she reminded me that this week was “a bit of an important week…do you remember what happened this week?” Although this kind of conversation is rather typical, I responded that, no, I could not recall the importance of the dates ahead of me, and she proceeded to remind me of two wedding anniversaries, two birthdays and, most importantly, 7/11 day (where you get free Slurpees from 7/11 gas stations). My mother has a steel-trap of a memory; things go in and they never come out. She remembers events with such specific details that sometimes I feel like she must be making it all up. “Anne, do you remember what we were doing 9 years ago today?! We were driving through Utah on our way to Moab! We stopped at that little coffee shop in Grand Junction—oh, you must remember the one!?”

My mom’s remarkable ability has always challenged me to remember. Not in a nostalgic way, but in an informational, you need to know this, kind of way. The kind of remembering that reminds you of your story, where you came from, and events in your life. She has written several accounts of our ancestors immigrating from Norway and Sweden to settle in the mid-west. Her most recent research was dedicated to me, my siblings, and her five grandchildren. Although it is not uncommon to check my email and find the full known story of a Hans or Lars somewhere back in our family tree, reading my daughter’s names in this dedication made this story feel more important, connecting another link in a small, typical family and whispering, you are part of this story. These are your people. This is where you came from. Remember.

Christians have a memory problem. The whole story of Israel can be boiled down to forgetfulness. When we open Exodus we find a people who had forgotten God calling out to a God who had not forgotten them. Much like the cycle of the judges, Israel repeatedly forgets God’s faithfulness and character, and consequently forget who they are. Moses is gone on Mt Sinai for a few days and they forget Yahweh and make a new god. They forgot the plagues, the Red Sea opening before them, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the manna, meat, and water that God provided. They forgot who God was, and because they forgot, they acted like he didn’t exist. Sometimes when I read Exodus it feels ridiculous. How can you forget the pillar of fire that led you each night? Or the mysterious manna that gathered like dew in the desert? How could you forget what God had done? 

But the reality is, we are exactly the same. Remembering is difficult in the midst of our busy days and future plans. But if Christians hope to live faithful, joyful, and Jesus-centered lives, we cannot afford to forget. We must practice the discipline of remembering. Remembering God’s story– for the Christian, our story, is a fundamental Christian practice. Humans are narratival beings. We live in and embody all kinds of stories that shape us, give us meaning, tell us how to live, what to buy, who to associate with–all of our choices and actions demonstrate a story we believe. To be in Christ means you are embodying (or living in) the story of God–  that is what it means to be a Christian. Christians believe that God’s story is true–His account of what humans are for, our purpose, how we are supposed to treat one another, how we use our bodies and our money, how we should speak–all of our actions and choices should align with the story God tells about himself and his people. When we forget God’s story we inevitably start living in another story. These stories rarely reinforce the Biblical narrative, but rather begin to recast where we put our hope and what we look to for identity.

Practicing the discipline of remembering pulls us out of false stories and back into God’s story. The Bible is God’s story for us, so that is the story we must abide in. Scripture is the primary way God ingrains his story into our hearts, minds and actions. If we don’t know the story of God, we cannot live it. The Old Testament is full of reminders about the forgetfulness of God’s people. “But take care, lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut 6:2). “Remember how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness (Deut 9:7). Remember the Sabbath day” (Ex 20:8), “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he has uttered” (1 Chron 16:12). Again and again, remember! We must remember what God has done and who he is. His character is always revealed in his actions, so to remember his actions is to remember who he is. 

When I was pregnant with twins the hardest part was abiding in God’s story, and church was often where God’s story was most difficult to remember. When people found out I was having twins a few things would happen– a wide-eyed look of surprise, then the mental math criss-crossing their faces—I have one toddler and I am barely surviving, how are you going to do it with two?, and finally a closing statement that ranged from “I hope you feel really supported,” to “you must be getting a full-time nanny,” to “I’m so glad you are quitting your job,” (I didn’t, I wasn’t and I wasn’t). One transparent 23-year-old said what most people communicated to me when he exclaimed, “OH NO! I am SO sorry!” 

How people responded to the good news of having two kids at the same time revealed the stories they lived in. You aren’t going to be able to do this. Mothers should stay home. Children are so much work. I am barely surviving. And these stories were coming from God’s people. Where were the reminders of the Christian story that God is sovereign and he gave you twins? That he will sustain you even though this will certainly be difficult? I wasn’t looking for false comfort, I was looking for Biblical comfort–the comfort of firm faith and a loving Father. I wasn’t hearing that story very often. We must be people who remember the story of God and abide in it, not forgetting who we are or abiding in an alternative story. 

When we remember rightly, we are able to hope accurately. The power of remembering is not about nostalgia, it is about the right orientation before our eternal and good God. When our hearts and minds are dwelling in His story, promises, and salvation, we are living in a story of hope. John’s Revelation paints the glorious picture of the new heavens and the new earth. Paul exhorts us to remember the hope we have in heaven and live accordingly. Hope is kind of like future remembering. It is looking at the past, taking account of how God has acted in real time with real people in real circumstances, and applying what we have learned to the future. If we do not know the story and character of God in the past, we cannot envision what he might do in the future. 

Attending a women’s bible study last week, this very question came up. How do we respond to God when it feels like he isn’t here or doesn’t care? Or in other words, what keeps us hopeful when life gets hard? The answer is the story of God. When life is hard, we need the psalms proclaiming the provision of God and accounts of his works. We need the prophets revealing a God who remains faithful. We need the Gospels showing us Jesus who brings life to broken, weary and hopeless people. The story of God is a story that brings life out of death, that sets captives free, that promises (and demonstrates) the authority of the one true God as he acts throughout history. When we feel hopeless, we must practice the discipline of remembering and allow it to recast our vision of what God might do in the future. 

Remembering what God has done, and rightly hoping in what He will do, gives us what we need to abide in Christ today. Today, you and I need to participate with God in his story. Here are three ways we can practice communion with God so that we remember his story.

  1. Read the story every day. One of the easiest ways to abide in God’s story is to read it regularly and allow the words of God to dwell within you, reshaping your hopes, teaching you your history, and revealing more of God’s character. Reading scripture helps give us eyes to see God’s provision and presence because it centers us daily upon Him.
  1. Communion is an act of remembering as a church. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) At this supper, Jesus is inaugurating the new covenant. His body and His blood will be the sacrifice poured out for the atonement of others. Do this in remembrance of me. Jesus is calling all who are in Him to physically and spiritually participate in a meal that will commemorate all that he has done. This humble meal might feel mysterious or mundane, but it points to a greater spiritual reality and reminds us of the work of Jesus.
  1. Rely on the Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit…he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26) One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to bring to remembrance everything Jesus said: the Holy Reminder. Before the Spirit came, Moses tells Israel to wear the laws of God around their necks and to put them on their doorpost so that they wouldn’t forget them (Deut 6). But the prophets promise a new covenant in which God will write his laws on our hearts. The law will no longer be external but will become internal by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we participate in Christ by his Holy Spirit we are given supernatural power to remember the Lord in our days. 

The Spiritual Summer Vacation

The semester winds down, celebrations, endings, farewells, and fatigue sweep us into the early summer days. June always felt like a surprise. The summer had arrived. But the flash flood of the semester left me cleaned out, leaves and branches in my hair, and trying to reorient myself to where I had landed. 

June always felt like a surprise. Surprise! The turning of a season. Surprise! You are another year older. Surprise! You have neglected your spiritual life. Surprise! You don’t actually know how to slow down. 

I worked in college ministry for almost 6 years, and the first few summers were unbelievably challenging. I found myself showing up for our annual staff conference feeling apathetic, undisciplined, and certainly unprepared to lead younger women in their faith. But it turned out that I was rarely the only one. Colleagues struggled too, but students also rarely came back to campus exclaiming about their summer filled with rich community, deepened love of the Word or fuller joy in Christ. No, summers were a desolate place through which students, and I, staggered.

As my second summer approached, I found myself dreading the downtime, the lack of rigorous structure, and the relational solitude, but also knowing I couldn’t continue at the sprinter’s pace of the semester. A classic catch-22. I needed rest. I needed solitude. I needed to take a spiritual inventory. But I was afraid of what and who I would find apart from my identity-giving tasks of preparing Bible studies and having discipleship meetings. The cycle of weeknights out teaching on campus, mornings in the office, and ongoing emotional care was taxing. And yet it gave me tangible meaning. Who was I when I wasn’t doing those things? And for my students, who were they when their google calendars were empty, they moved home to mom and dad and felt their student rhythm screech to a halt. Though I said it regularly to them, we were not so different. 

It wasn’t until the third summer that I got serious about figuring out why I dragged through the off-season. Sure, there were the obvious snares of my identity being too closely-knit to my work, the challenge of actually slowing the train down (objects in motion tend to say in motion, after all), and struggling to know how to practically use my time with so little structure. But those were only the lid to the box. As I started to pray, think, and ask the Lord about why this should be so tough, He answered by helping me see unhealthy habits that land me with my annual June surprise. 

Solitude

Calvin famously began his Institutes with, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Though this might sound like a welcome dive into self-discovery or the spiritual validation that our Enneagram number really is critical information, Calvin is suggesting that to know God, we must know the depravity and desperate state of our fallen nature. We need to know our sinfulness to know God’s righteousness. But the fast pace of the academic calendar invited me to ignore stillness and solitude thinking I could slow down later. It is all too easy to be too busy to come face to face with the reality of our sinfulness. 

Solitude is a faithful friend. It is something Christians must pursue regularly, not just when it is forced on them by a season change. Solitude forced me to watch myself wrestle with sinful patterns that had become so ingrained in my daily rhythm that I stopped questioning them. It was, and is, uncomfortable. It was painful to see myself. And yet, as Calvin reminds us, it is essential for our salvation to see our ugliness so we might see the splendor of Christ, and the staggering gift of grace. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “to 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,” Heb 12:1-2. But how can we run the race God has set for us when we are too busy running our own course? We must be people who actively slow down (stop even) to fix our eyes on Jesus who both created and will complete our faith. When we are still enough to catch a glimpse of the splendor of Christ and our need for him, we find the hope and desire to strip off the extra weight that clings to us. 

Postponing emotional pain 

Each semester brought emotional bumps. From bearing burdens with another sister to being wounded by them myself, knowing and being known will inevitably cause some pain. When I am hurt or upset or sad, I know I have a tendency to postpone my emotions simply because I have other stuff to do; another meeting to attend, another lesson to prepare– I am the queen of compartmentalizing. But this is not wise. Ignoring emotional pain does not make it go away. It buries it and makes it more difficult to dig up and understand when you finally return to it. It is easy to pretend to be ok, it is hard to allow yourself to feel grief, betrayal, loneliness, or anger. 

Rather than letting a few months worth of emotional processing surprise you, commit to creating space to be honest with how you feel, to bring your hurts to the Lord, and to pursue reconciliation quickly. As 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us, God reconciled himself to us so that we would take up the ministry of reconciliation. When we ignore emotional pain, we deny ourselves and our community the gift and practice of reconciliation and choose to harbor anger, resentment, and bitterness. We create a home for disunity. And it will eventually catch up with us. Summers were hard because I found myself trying to unravel a bundle of emotions that seemed indecipherable. I needed to unlearn the habit of compartmentalizing my emotions, and pursue a faith that was presently embodied–a faith that didn’t deny the necessity of communication, honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we are in Christ, we have infinite hope for reconciliation, but we must choose to show up for it. 

Connection 

A few years ago a friend of mine said to me at a coffee date that she really wanted to be my friend–wanted to see me more, talk about difficult things, deepen our love for one another. Maybe that sounds like a strange proposition–friendship in our culture is often nothing more than surface-level shared interest, but friendship should (and can) be so much more. Our relationship did grow. It flourished actually. In the busyness of life I knew she was someone I could call on, be honest with, and who would show up for me. I think about that conversation a lot. Her intentionality in wanting to pursue friendship with me made me want to be a better friend, made me want to check in with her, follow up on how a hard week had been, pray for her—all trappings of genuine Christian friendship. 

One of the most disorienting realities of the summertime was the dramatic fall-off in social and relational connection. Despite what student’s often thought, being in their lives was an incredible blessing to me, not just to them. Hearing about challenges small and large, being in scripture together, talking about theological doubts, laughing about how far they had come–all the makings of friendship wrapped up in a mentoring relationship. What I realized over summer was how much I preached the gospel and the word of God to myself simply by reminding others of who Jesus was. Encouraging them encouraged me. I got to live in the story of the Bible day in and day out. I might be feeling discouraged in my own faith, but I found that caring for others, be interested in their lives, and pointing them to God inevitably deepened my own faith. 

I have heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to friendship. But when you enter a few months of being away from your primary community, that is a time to be intentional, tell them you want to know them over the summer, hear how they are doing and deepen your spiritual friendship even in a season of being apart. Talk to a friend, ask them to pray, ask how they are growing in their faith, ask how they are struggling. Let the word of Christ dwell in your friendships richly. 

Remember who you are and hold fast

Author Paul Tripp coined the phrase “functional atheist” to describe Christians who find themselves living as if God doesn’t exist when something trivial happens. Especially when I am moving quickly and my schedule is full, minor frustrations can turn into day-ruiners. But why? When I am living a “my kingdom come, and my will be done” lifestyle, my identity is primarily defined by either what I do or how I feel, and not by who God says I am. This is dangerous turf. When the busyness stops, I feel down and unproductive, suddenly I am wondering if God even loves me. If He did, why would he let me feel this way? Another dangerous step. When my identity is driven by my performance and emotions, I naturally start to relate to God based on how I feel or perform. 

I need to remember who I am and hold fast to the truth. I love the refrain in Hebrews– let us hold fast to the profession of our faith, for he who promised is faithful (10:23). If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ. You are who He says you are. You are a chosen person, a saint, forgiven, loved, made holy. I once heard a sermon on just the word benediction. It means “a good word.” God speaks a good word over you. But, as I heard almost weekly in college ministry, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel like I am loved or forgiven. What then? We need to actively choose to live in the story of the gospel rather than one that is about me. We might know God loves us, but we need to whisper it to our hearts, we need to massage the love of Christ into our uncertain chests. We need to decenter the story off of us, recenter it on Christ, and choose to agree with what our God says about us.