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Seen

There’s a lot of reasons to feel unseen these days. We seem to be living somewhere on the spectrum of disconnect. Somewhere between the various stages of quarantine and the defensive fronts we carefully curate through social media, appearance, and perception management. No matter where on the spectrum one might land, there is a tendency towards isolation. Throw motherhood in there and the feeling of being unseen goes up by a factor of 1 million.

As someone who has been working to dismantle my defensive front, I still find myself feeling unseen. Psalm 34 has become an essential way to encourage myself daily. Verse 15 in particular, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.” Every time I feel faded I speak this verse to remind myself that God sees me. Not like a vague awareness sort of seeing, but like full eye contact.

Sometimes I even imagine His line of sight like a beam of light bringing the color back to everything it touches. Until I’m no longer faded, but bright and vivid again. It keeps me going for another day anyway.

The same is true for being heard. His ears are open to me. I’m praying all the time this year, and He is listening to every word. I’m singing alone, but He is tuning in. There are a total of three times that psalm 34 assures me that God hears me (verses 4, 15, 17).

Cinematically speaking, one of my favorite scenes in The Greatest Showman is the debut of the Swedish singer in the New York theatre. Her hair is immaculate, her dress is incredible, she knows how to move with the song and evoke the fullest emotion in the crowd. All the light is on her, all eyes are on her, and she is a smashing success. The camera turns to show the crowd, and you can just make out through the blinding light that they are on their feet and cheering.

Sometimes this Psalm makes me feel like I am that Swedish singer. I may be in semi-derelict athletic wear, with hair that has had no real attention for ten years. I may be alone in the kitchen, singing while I prep dinner. But He is listening, seeing me from His perspective of value and love. And it’s as if there is a mirror reality in which I look as manicured and covered in couture as that singer knowing just how to stand and move, all the light is on me. But this time, if the audience was shown it would show an audience of one. He is clapping and smiling, joy radiating brighter than the show-lights.

There is something about psalm 34 that makes me see the faithfulness of God even in days of lack (vs. 8-9). Even though I’m still waiting for breakthrough I will bless the LORD and worship Him (vs. 1-6, 17). Even though I’m crying out about the same things I cried about last week, He’s not bored, He’s listening all over again (vs. 15, 19-20). Even if I feel surrounded and buffeted on every side. He is surrounding me, closer than any trouble (vs. 7). Even if I feel broken hearted and miserable, the LORD is near and He saves (vs. 18).

It’s all thanks to Jesus. That mirror reality couture dress is actually the righteousness of God, given to me by Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17-21). He bought it for me on Calvary with His blood (Jn. 3:16-17). I know how to move with the song because I am sanctified by the Holy Spirit and His work in my heart (Phil. 2:12-16). I am covered in light because Jesus overcame the world and all its darkness when He rose from the dead on the third day (Jn. 3:20-21, 1 Jn. 1:7-9, 5:1-5).

The reality is, the only reason I’m standing there is because of the work of the Trinity in my life. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are backstage, working hair and makeup, playing the accompaniment in the orchestra pit, paying the bills, working the lights, and all that went into the moment of singing over dinner so He could hear it and be glad.

-Etta Woods

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Wait

As a teenager, growing up in youth group, there was a lot of angst about God’s purpose for your life. It seemed like every message that wasn’t about the evils of sex and drugs was about this. I was left with the impression that if I didn’t figure out what gifts God had given me and how I was supposed to use them within His purpose, my life would be a waste.

There was immense pressure to get it right, but not too many people coming along to speak into those gifts and offer mentorship. So I tried to find the answers for myself. There were many hours and tearful prayers spent trying to figure it out and make sure my life counted for something.

I did not find the answers I was looking for as a teen.  I decided to carry on with life and hoped it counted anyway. I shifted from striving for answers and purpose, to waiting for direction. Still praying, still learning all I could about and from the bible, just doing so in a posture of waiting. I now realize that was the biblical way to handle the question.

In Acts 1 we hear the account of what Jesus did in the days leading up to His ascension. Just before He left He gathered them together and, “He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:4-5 NASV) All the disciples had to do was wait. They came together before God and stayed in that place until the Holy Spirit touched them. They must’ve had so many questions about the future and the gospel. God was going to answer those questions. He was going to do it, and so much more, through His Holy Spirit in them.

The disciples waited.

That’s how they went from being the fumbling disciples we read about in the gospels to the rock star apostles in Acts. The difference was knowing and living out their gifts and purposes in God, yes; but more importantly, the difference was the Holy Spirit. They might’ve been able to figure out some or all of their gifts, they might’ve even been able to sort out a purpose based on what Jesus told them while He was with them. But would they have had peace in that knowledge? Would they have been as effective? I don’t know. In my opinion, probably not.

Because the striving doesn’t end with figuring things out. It continues because the work is being done out of personal strength. It’s like trying to move a God sized rock with human sized strength. That purpose becomes overwhelming, exhausting, and likely impossible. God means to move the God sized rocks in our life of purpose. In reality, the purpose is His, so the rock is His too. We’re invited into what God’s doing. What He’s been doing all along, what He will continue to do until it is accomplished.

I wonder if the waiting is another reminder that it is not by our strength that the purposes of God are worked out, but His strength. It is not our will, but His. Not our power, but His. If we could sort out our gifts and work them into a purpose and carry them out, all without God, then it would be our will and our work. We have to wait because it is His purpose.

Not to mention the fact that God wants to be in relationship with us. If we could go about our purposes without God, we’re less likely to do it with Him, together in relationship. I think it was Corey Russell that said that if God has to choose between your ministry and your heart, He’ll choose your heart every time. In other words, If He has to choose a high functioning ministry that’s humming along, or relationship – He’ll let the ministry peter out and build up the relationship.

Sometimes I look back on all the striving I went through in my youth, trying to prove to God and everyone that I mattered, and think, “What a waste.” Other times I realize I was doing the best I could with what I had. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t understand that I could stop and wait. I learned that lesson much later. When I finally did stop and wait, I waited a lot longer than I thought I would have to at the start. But in all that waiting God rebuilt the places in our relationship that had fallen down during the years of striving. I’m grateful for that time of restoration.

It makes me wonder though. What if we stopped striving? What if we stopped looking for purpose and started waiting? Stayed in that posture until God spoke His words of identity and purpose into our lives, and fill us with His Holy Spirit to enable us to live out those words? What if we taught our youth to wait for the revelation of their gifts and purposes? What if we made a point to wait with them, and walk alongside them as spiritual fathers and mothers; and speak encouragement into the revelation they receive from the Father, like Paul did with Timothy? It seems to me that a lot of grief, individually and as a church, could be spared if we would only start with waiting before the LORD.

So when a new season starts in my life, I will wait. When I need understanding from the LORD, I will wait. As my children grow and mature, I will wait with them. Every time anxiety bubbles up with the impulse to strive my way out of it, I will wait. I will wait before the LORD, and I have confidence that He will meet me in the waiting.

-Etta Woods

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Take Heart

I cannot get out of 2 Corinthians 4. I keep turning to other books and passages, only to come back to 2 Corinthians 4. It’s in my thoughts, it’s in my songs, it’s in devotionals, it is the words resounding over me from the Father above.

2 Corinthians 4 starts and ends with the phrase, “We do not lose heart.” Everything in between is why. The short answer is Jesus. Or more specifically, the knowledge of Jesus. When we give our hearts to Jesus, we are enabled to know Him by the Holy Spirit. This relationship and knowledge frees us from the Law of the Old Testament and from sin. It also promises to free us from death through resurrection power. Before we knew Jesus we were in darkness but then, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6 NIV)

The light of Jesus in our hearts shines out in our lives. The brighter the light, the brighter the shine, until we can’t help but spread the good news of Jesus and share the ministry of the Holy Spirit to others. We may be flawed and broken as people, and it may seem counterintuitive to entrust us with the knowledge of the glory of God. But God isn’t surprised and sees this as a benefit. Paul tells us, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And even though we are as fragile as jars of clay, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:7-9 NIV)

Paul goes onto describe some of the more bleak outcomes of sharing the knowledge of Jesus with others, and the opposition of the enemy. This is when the bit about resurrection comes up, “With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in His presence.” (2 Cor. 4:14 NIV) It’s all for the next person who might be saved and returned to the loving arms of Jesus. The more people reached, the more thanksgiving is poured out into the body of believers, and it all collects into the “Glory of God.”

It is with this in mind that Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18 NIV)

Hardship and trouble may be the facts of today, but Jesus is the Truth and every part of day I use for the sake of Jesus is caught up into His eternal life and will remain untouched by trouble and death. That which I give to Jesus becomes unbreakable, un-steal-able, unlosable, un-kill-able. It is firm in the grasp of the Father.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at when He told His disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV emphasis added) Jesus says this at the last supper after telling the disciples about the persecution and grief they will experience on behalf of their connection to Him. He also promises them the coming of the Holy Spirit and that their grief will be turned to joy. On the other side of their grief is Jesus and being reunited with Him, and therein lies the joy.

Jesus also told the woman with the issue of blood to take heart. She approached him in the crowd when He was on his way to heal the daughter of one of the rulers. She had been ill for 12 years, this illness made her unclean which meant she was isolated from the community. She believed that if she touched the hem of His clothes she would be healed. So she did, Jesus felt her touch, and addressed her. “Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ He said, ‘Your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed from that moment.” (Matt. 9:22 NIV emphasis added)This woman had a lot hardship in her life. Even though it was not on account of Jesus, the joy that is in Jesus was still on the other side of her grief.

The experience of this woman, the disciples, and Paul are all encapsulated in Psalm 31. David is expressing distress and grief when his enemies have risen up to ensnare him. He spends a good bit of time describing his trouble, and reminding himself of who God is, until he finally says,

“Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors; I am a dread to my friends – those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten by them as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life. But I trust in you O, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’” (Ps. 31:9-14 NIV emphasis added)

The rest of the psalm is about how faithful God is, how He silences all lies and is a refuge in trouble. He even says, “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” (Ps. 31:16 NIV) Remember, Paul said the light we have is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus. David didn’t know Jesus, but he knew the character of God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. David closes the psalm out with, “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.” (Ps. 31:24 NIV emphasis added)

All this to say, that is why I cannot get out of 2 Corinthians 4. I look at the first half of 2020, every loss: take heart; every heartbreak: take heart; every lack: take heart; every divide: take heart; every sorrow: take heart.

Take heart.

Take heart.

Take heart.

The word of the LORD resounding over me this year is: take heart.

I know it’s somewhat of an old fashioned turn of phrase. John Calvin gives us another way to look at it. He translated this phrase out of the Hebrew and the Greek as “take courage.” To take courage one generally has to take action. Courage doesn’t necessarily mean having good feeling about the situation at hand, but doing something about it anyways. So for me to take courage means I have to stop wallowing and keep going. Keep doing all the mom stuff, keep studying my bible, worshiping the LORD, doing what I can to share the gospel.

What is seen may be bleak this year, but what is unseen is quite the opposite. So take heart.

-Etta Woods

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Encouragement

The first time I remember hearing the story of Paul’s conversion was in Vacation Bible School. I sat with a sea of school children in the main sanctuary as we watched a clumsy dramatic reproduction put on by high schoolers from the youth group. First Paul, then known as Saul, persecuted and hunted down some Christians to kill on stage right. Then he cheered when Stephen was stoned on stage left. Next he went on a journey up the main isle, meant to represent the road to Damascus. The houselights went out, leaving the dim outside light in the windows as our only light. Until, BAM, the spotlight in the balcony seating came on. We gasped in one collective breath as a voice came over the sound system: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

I had seen enough cartoons to know it was time for a take down. Here was the baddie meeting his just end. But Saul did not meet his just end. Jesus introduced Himself to Saul and told him to wait for further instruction in town. The light left and the voice stopped, leaving Saul alone and blind. Jesus sent Ananias to pray for Saul to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ananias went and prayed for Saul who received healing and the Holy Spirit. After that Paul devoted the rest of his life preaching the gospel of Jesus.

I couldn’t believe it. Paul was the bad guy, the opponent of Jesus and His church. Yet, rather than dissolving on the spot or falling from a great height (like every other bad guy in the movies) Jesus met him, forgave him, and gave him a new name and a purpose for his life. He accepted Paul as His own and brought him into the heart of the church.

The church in Jerusalem couldn’t believe it either. They were afraid of him and thought it was a trick. One man believed him and stood up to vouch for Paul: Barnabas. After that the church in Jerusalem accepted Paul and he became an apostle who preached the gospel with boldness. (The full story can be found in Acts 9)

Barnabas’ name means, “Son of encouragement.” He encouraged Paul’s new faith in Jesus by believing his conversion was real. The two went on to go into missions together. Barnabas encouraged John Mark as well. In Acts chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas are discussing where to go on their next trip. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, who had gone with them before but deserted them part way through the trip. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance, and Paul did not. They ended up getting into a sharp dispute and parted ways.

Barnabas sailed off to Cyprus with John Mark and Paul went to revisit church plants with Silas. Most scholars believe that John Mark is the author of the gospel of Mark. Barnabas gave John Mark a second chance to spend his life furthering the kingdom of God. Not only that, but God saw it fit for him to be one of the authors of the bible.

I wonder if God sees us the way Barnabas saw these “screw ups” in the early church. Not with a, “You’re a throw-away” kind of judgement, but a, “I’ll champion you and give you a second chance, a place in my kingdom, and a purpose in my work.” God sees our whole self, not just the different parts isolated from each other, and sees us with a heart of grace.

It seems like true encouragement comes from a place of grace, whether the encouragement is coming from God or from another person, like Barnabas. There’s been plenty of platitudes thrown around that are meant to be encouraging but end up falling flat and feeling disingenuous. Perhaps because they were taken from a script learned through experience, the script of “What you’re supposed to say.” Rather than coming from a place of grace in the heart. The place that makes words life giving and uplifting.

Barnabas was so good at this with his words and his actions. He’s always been one of my favorite characters in the bible. I hope I can be half as encouraging as him over the course of my life. So I work on learning how to love. Learning how to have grace in my heart and not judgement; which is hard these days, when the general climate is one of judgement and misunderstanding. I’m also trying to learn how to stick by people and do what I can to support them, even if I don’t get anything out of it in return.

The longer I work to be encouraging, the more I realize my efforts can only go so far. I always reach a wall or an emotional glass ceiling, where I can be loving and non-judgmental up to this point, but no further. Whenever I reach this point in relationships or leadership I have to turn to the Holy Spirit. Every time I invite Him over to where my walls are, He shows me a way forward, He fills me with the love of Christ. He helps me to overcome my emotional walls and gives me something that I can turn around and give to someone else.

-Etta Woods

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Intercession

When my husband and I started dating, he used to invite me over to his dorm room. Archie’s roommates were always conveniently busy and not around, the room was clean and the lighting definitely somewhere on the mood-spectrum. He always made green tea and had John Coltrane playing in the background. I told him the tea was great and he told me how cool he thought John Coltrane was as we listened together.

I laugh now because I don’t like green tea and my husband does not like Jazz. Now that we’re married I don’t drink his green tea and I play my jazz when he’s out of the house. Was it dishonest to say we liked what we don’t like during those evenings in the dorm? I don’t think so. We liked each other and we were trying to communicate that message through any open channel we could find.

Archie knew I liked jazz, because I used to carry a disc Walkman with me at all times. There was generally a CD of Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, or some other jazz master loaded in it, ready to play at a moment’s notice. He played that Coltrane album in order to get close to me, so we could build a relationship. He got into what mattered to me in order to create intimacy, to try and see the world the way I did. I was doing the same thing with his tea, because he was a barista and his drink making skills mattered to him.

I tell you this story because I think these little trips out of comfort zones and personal preferences for the sake of relationship apply to our relationship with God. When we read the bible it tells us plainly the things that matter to God, and what brings Him delight. God is unchanging. What mattered to him in biblical times matters to Him still. If we participate in those things it brings us closer to God, it creates intimacy with Him.

One of those things is bringing the lost, those in bondage to sin and desolate with an orphaned spirit, back to Himself and into restoration. Romans chapter 8 is all about this work of the Spirit. Jesus broke the power of sin by coming as a man, fulfilling the Law of Moses, and breaking the power of death by dying on the cross and rising again on the third day. Jesus did what we couldn’t do for ourselves and broke what we couldn’t break in order to bring us into His freedom.

Paul compares living life according to flesh (which is not our actual skin but a representation of letting brokenness or desires or lusts drive decisions) to life according to the Spirit. Life according to the flesh is trying to pay the price for sin on your own without Christ. It’s living in opposition to God. It leads to death of hope and love and your heart. It ultimately leads to death of the body.

Life according to the Spirit leads to submitting to Jesus and letting Him pay the price for sin. It’s living not just in acceptance from God, but as His very son or daughter. Living in the Spirit means receiving the Spirit of adoption and recognizing God as our Father. This union with God through Jesus breaks the bondage of sin and fear off of us and we are able to walk in freedom and peace with Him.

Paul points out that peace does not mean a lack of suffering. There is still suffering in the world and in life, because it is still a fallen world and we are still living in it. Yet we have hope in Christ and the life and redemption we have in Him. Suffering cannot take that away. As we persevere we also have hope from the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is interceding for us. We are not alone in times of trial.

In fact Paul says it is by this intercession that God works out all for good, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28 NKJV)

The Holy Spirit knows what God intended for us when He created us. The Holy Spirit prays for the will of God to come to pass in our lives. God’s will is that we would be brought out of life according to the flesh, which leads to torment of mind and heart, and to death. Brought into life according to the Spirit, which leads to life and union with Him, filled with His love and His peace. The rest of chapter 8 is about the love of God and how nothing and no one can separate us from His love when we are in Christ Jesus.

The main take away I get from Romans 8 is the only thing that can separate me from the love of God is sin. It is in my power to accept sin and brokenness for the rest of my life or to reject sin and accept Jesus and His healing. Accepting Jesus daily means choosing to live according to His teaching and commandments in the gospels. If I choose to ignore them, it sends me back into the wrestle with sin. It’s my choice what I accept and what I reject in my heart. The more I choose Jesus every day, the more He is established in my heart and the wrestle fades.

What then? How do I become closer to God? I think one of the ways is to participate in what matters to Him. What matters to God is His pursuit of us, and one of the ways He pursues us is through intercession. The Holy Spirit is interceding for me, but He’s also interceding for my neighbor and the lady behind me in church and the jerk on the highway who just cut me off, and the retiree sitting at the entrance of the grocery store greeting all the shoppers. I can pray for them too.

I want to get close to the Holy Spirit and do what He is doing. So I try to intercede with Him. He is always giving me His love, and I want to stop what I’m doing for a minute and give some love in return. So I intercede for my city and my church, and my kids’ schools, my grocery stores, and my government. I pray for my pastor and other pastors around the world. I pray for those who are still in bondage whether it be in body or in mind because the Father longs to bring them out of bondage and into His unending love.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Bypass

I spent a few years living in Nashville, and let me tell you, the traffic was bad. I rarely took the regular roads, I always got onto the extensive highway system that went around and throughout the city in order to bypass the traffic on the regular road system. Even to go half a mile up the road, I used the highway. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but in the car it saved me a lot of time. That half mile could easily take a half hour or more depending on the time of day.

I think sometimes I do that with my emotions. I’m confronted with something about myself or someone else that is upsetting, but I’m busy and in too much of a hurry to take time to deal with it properly. So instead I build little bypasses in my heart to get above the upset and keep moving.

The problem is, if I do that more than once, the bypasses get established and I end up using that every day, for every emotion. The longer I live in bypass-mode, the more I forget how to deal with my actual emotions. Maybe even forgetting how to identify and name them.

The un-dealt with emotions turn into a nameless gridlock that threatens to take over the safety of my bypass system. Everything and everyone who stirs this unknown threat becomes a part of the threat and a part of the problem. Triggering new emotions that get pushed off the bypass and down into the gridlock below, making it that much more of a mess.

Perhaps I’m being too abstract. Emotions are not road infrastructure. But I think it’s a good picture for the way emotions get treated sometimes. I spent a long time creating little and big ways to get around feeling upset, a long time living like that, and a long time taking it all apart and going back to feeling what I’m feeling. It’s messy and confusing, so I like to have pictures to keep it straight.

I know I’m not alone in handling upset and strong emotions in unhealthy ways. It’s all over the bible too. Take King Saul in 1 Samuel. He was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel himself. Saul was handsome, well liked, and had the favor of the LORD on his life. Yet, when he was confronted with his own failures he tended to find a bypass around the pain of it.

Shortly after becoming king, Saul goes to war with the Amalekites. God told him, through the prophetic voice of Samuel, to destroy everyone and everything, valuable or not. God didn’t want Saul to take anything tied to the wickedness of the Amalekites back to Israel, His holy people. But Saul disobeyed. He kept King Agag and the best of the livestock and the plunder.

When Samuel came to meet him after the battle was won he asked Saul why he disobeyed the instruction of the LORD. Saul bypassed the shame of his decision by throwing blame on his men, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.” (1 Sam. 15:15 NKJV emphasis added) Rather than own up to his mistake and process the pain and what was behind his actions he blamed. He sort of tried to make them look good by saying they did it for the sake of an offering to God. But he only took credit and said “we” when it came to the actual obedience, so I think he knew what God really wanted, more than a rich offering on the altar.

Samuel tried to call him out on this verbal side step and reminded him of what God had said before the battle, he even pointed out the insecurity that may have been behind Saul’s decisions. “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the LORD anoint you king over Israel? Now the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then, did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the LORD?” (1 Sam. 15:17-19 NKJV) Samuel pointed out that Saul did not think much of himself, but God saw something in him and made him king. That same God gave him a mission, and rather than rise to the identity God was calling him into, he stuck to his insecurity and did what was popular. But it was an act of disobedience, so it was “evil in the sight of the LORD.”

The sacrifice itself was not bad, it was the source of the offering that was an issue. It was the heart behind the offering that was not right. Saul couldn’t own this, it probably hurt his low self-esteem too much. So he stuck to his story, “But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” (1 Sam. 15:21 NKJV) He admitted that the sacrifice should have been destroyed in battle and not in sacrifice, but he still held that it was the men with him who disobeyed God, not him.

Because Saul tried to bypass his pain and justify his actions through blame, instead of just saying, “Yeah, I was feeling insecure so I did what all the other kings around do in battle. I kept the defeated king and the plunder. I was wrong.” So Samuel goes on to tell Saul that God doesn’t delight in burnt offerings, but the heart behind them. That obedience is a better sacrifice than the ritual of sacrifice. He says that rebellion is as bad as witchcraft and stubbornness as bad as idolatry, and because Saul rejected God’s word, He has rejected Saul.

At last Saul breaks, “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Sam. 15:24 NKJV) He asks Samuel to forgive him and get God to pardon him too, but Samuel refuses. They go back and forth a bit over this, until Saul tries to justify himself again and Samuel goes and kills King Agag himself to fulfill the word of the LORD.

From this point on the book of 1 Samuel is about David, the man God chooses to replace Saul as king. God says that David has a heart after His own. After David is anointed in chapter 16, we only see Saul in his relationship to David. Every time we see Saul, he is still stuck in insecurity and an inability to process his feelings. It is always someone else’s fault that he didn’t follow through, or plans fell through. His bypass pattern was set after that day at Gilgal. Saul’s actions escalate in evil and violence until he meets his end in a battle with the Philistines in Chapter 31.

All this to say that emotional bypasses seem like a quick and easy fix for pain and upset, but it’s a dangerous business. The more set a bypass system becomes the more disconnected we become with our actual heart and it’s actual state. The longer we try to avoid the pain the more it threatens the bypass system. Until what we created to serve us starts to rule us; and we begin to serve it, going to further and further lengths to protect the narrative of the bypass system.

The good news is, there is a way to get off the bypass, and reconnect with our hearts. Jesus came to break the power of sin, and take down the strongholds of the enemy, including emotional bypass systems. Since He is Immanuel, God with us, we can be sure that He will walk with us every step of the way.

Every emotion I enter when I leave the bypass system, is felt by me and Jesus. Every moment spent in grieving the hurts of old, every anger and injustice named and expressed, every lie pulling the strings of decisions exposed, He is there. I do this by taking my emotions to Jesus in prayer. Whenever I find an old bypass system, I repent immediately. I don’t want its destructive work in my heart anymore.

I may have spent a good chunk of my life like Saul, but because of Jesus, I don’t have to stay in that pattern. I can turn my heart to Jesus, and allow His word and commandments to reform it into a heart after God’s own heart. I can start like Saul, but I can finish like David.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Food

I have spent the majority of my lockdown time in the kitchen. There’s planning the meals, prepping the kitchen, prepping food, cooking food, serving food, cleaning up food, cleaning up dishes and clothes covered in food, just to start over again. Two to three times a day. It feels like my whole life is about food. That is, when it’s not about laundry and very small claims court (aka, kids fighting).

Since we’ve had to isolate from our support system, it’s just me on kitchen duty. Feeding five hungry people. Six if I include myself. It’s a full time job.

Food is on my mind. Every time food has come up in my bible studies the last week or two it’s caught my attention. There it is again! Food. In my life and in the bible.

The bible actually has a lot to say about food. There are all the Levitical laws surrounding food. The celebration of the Passover in Egypt and again at the opening of the temple with Solomon, and during the revival of practicing the Law with Josiah. The writing on the wall at the end of Daniel happens during a feast. Jesus taught and reached out to the lost over meals, He fed the 5,000 and the 4,000. I could go on, but let’s just say that there are many pivotal moments that happen over and around food.

One of the first sermons I remember about food revolved around Esau trading his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. I was in high school and my pastor loved to do word studies and find that little nugget that unpacked the whole phrase and brought all this meaning to passages I had breezed over on my way to the “good stuff” in the past. This time the phrase was “The red stuff.” Which was the descriptor for the soup.

Esau lost his birthright, which entailed his identity, his inheritance, his future for a bowl of red stuff. He was hungry, and he spent everything he had to fill his hunger. I remember the sermon because in high school I was always hungry, and I found the power of hunger chilling. Emptiness, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, has a driving quality. It can drive us to make irrevocable, life changing decisions.

When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, they had good food. Garlic and leeks are listed amongst the many instances of grumbling in Exodus and Numbers. In their emptiness from slavery they comforted themselves with food, and when they were uncomfortable and uncertain in the wilderness with Moses I wonder if they interpreted that feeling as the same empty feeling they felt in Egypt. They didn’t know how to turn to God to fill their emptiness so they looked back at their old comfort, food, and it became an idol to them. More than once food became a problem and a conflict between God and the Israelites.

Food is still here, offering to bring comfort, to fill emptiness. Food can even bring status through the quality of the food, the quality of life the food had before it became food, the store or restaurant from which it was purchased. It can represent wealth and power, luxury and reward. It can be politicized and leveraged. Food, it seems so mundane, yet so much can hinge on it.

I’m 100% guilty of turning to food rather than God. Comfort eating, stress eating, boredom eating, trying to fill the emptiness that went beyond physical hunger. My husband likes to talk about how I used to “eat the boys under the table” in the dining commons when we were in college. As I mentioned before, I was always hungry in high school. There were many reasons behind this that I won’t bore you with, the point is I had spent years feeling hungry and now I found myself in room with three or four food stations and no limit on how many times you could go back for more. So I often went back for more, I wanted to leave “hungry” behind me and live in “full.”

The problem is, food can’t deliver. The fullness from food doesn’t last. The comfort, stress-relief, and entertainment only last for a moment, an hour tops. Hungry inevitably returns. The driving emptiness keeps driving. God knows this.

In Deuteronomy Moses admonishes the Israelites to remember God after they enter the Promised Land. He reminds them of God’s provision in the wilderness, “Remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart. […] So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna […] that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:2-3 NKJV) Moses goes on to recap other aspects of God’s provision for health and clothing. He describes some of the Promised Land and what makes it a land of plenty.

Moses warns the Israelites a second time to remember the LORD, “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments.” (Deut. 8:10-11 NKJV) Moses then spells out exactly every comfort and prosperity Israel will find in the Promised Land from houses to happiness and full stomachs. He says it will be easy to look around and say it was through their own power and strength that they got all these good things.

So a third time Moses says, “Remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, at it is this day.” (Deut. 8:18 NKJV) Moses knows that it’s easy to fill hunger with food and clothes and houses, and to feel like we filled that hunger ourselves with our own strength. That’s why he keeps warning the Israelites to remember who filled their hunger and who gave them strength.

Only God can fill emptiness and stop the driving need to fill it. The short term fillers fall short, it is only God who fills to full and overflowing. Jehovah Jireh, God who provides. Yes He provides food, but He also provides for the hunger that is often behind the food.

Jesus re-emphasizes the truth of Deuteronomy 8 by quoting it during His temptations in the wilderness. He fasted for 40 days and was hungry, Satan took the opportunity to tempt Jesus and told Him to turn stones into bread. Jesus responded with this quote, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” (Luke 4:4 NKJV) Jesus overcame the idol of food in the wilderness. He remembered the LORD, His Father in heaven. Jesus remembered the source of His strength.

That’s awesome, but what about the actual moment of hunger? How does one live on the word of God in the moment of hunger, in the face of emptiness? Moses said it right there in Deuteronomy, remember the LORD your God. How do you remember something? By putting your attention on the memory of it. How do you eat the bread of God’s word? You pay attention and focus on it.

So when I’m uncertain and hungry for comfort, a few chapters of the gospel of John will do me better than the pretzels in the back of the cupboard. When I’m stressed and hungry for relief, a few psalms will fill better than Starburst candy from the gas station. When emptiness knocks at the door of my soul I can answer it with the fullness of the word of the LORD. I can feel hungry and be full because I remember my Father in heaven, who gives me strength. Then go use that strength to cook dinner. Again.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Upside-down

I heard that sometimes pilots experience sensory disorientation when their aircraft spins out of control. The senses can’t process the information coming in, so the pilot can’t tell the difference between the ground and the sky. Divers sometimes get vertically disoriented in a crisis and they can’t tell which way is up and which way is down. In that moment every decision becomes life or death, diving full throttle into the ground rather than pulling back up into the sky. Or diving further into the depth of the sea rather than returning to the surface.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of the upside-down kingdom. It’s a term referencing the kingdom of God, because so many things are opposite from the kingdoms of the world. Things like, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He who gains the whole world loses his soul while he who loses his life saves it. Love your enemy, turn the other cheek, so on and so forth.

I first heard this term in college. It was the title of one of the books for a religion class. At the time I thought it was clever and it made me feel edgy. As I’ve aged, I’ve grown uncomfortable with it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, something just didn’t sit right about it. Until this last week.

The Almighty God, creator of all that ever was, is, and shall be; why is His kingdom the upside-down one? Doesn’t it make more sense that His kingdom is right-side up? That the world’s kingdoms, created in rebellion to His kingdom, are in fact the upside-down part of this whole deal?

The fact that we call everything that’s been built apart from God right-side up, and everything that is coming from God upside-down, subtly undermines the very thing we say we want as Christians. We say we want the kingdom of God manifested in our time, but we talk about it as if it’s a chore that’s getting in the way of how things really ought to be. Like it’s the branch of our family that’s off and slightly embarrassing, but put up with because it’s family.

I think sometimes we, as people, experience sensory disorientation of the soul. We fall into a tailspin, and struggle to know what is up and what is down. The conditioning we receive growing up in a fallen world instills cues and patterns which in turn inform our decisions. Life and death decisions for our hearts and souls. They are so engrained that we can’t tell that we’re upside-down and walking towards death. Until Jesus comes into our lives and says, “Stop! Turn around and come the opposite way, back towards life.”

The kingdom of God is the right-side up one. It is how creation was meant to be. Living in the kingdom of God means finding life rather than death.

The kingdoms of the world are the upside-down ones. They were created in order to assert dominance and take ownership of creation. It means compromising paths that lead to dysfunction and ultimately destruction. In these autonomous, self-sufficient times, that usually means some form of self-destruction.

In those moments of disorientation we dive when we need to pull up. We go ever deeper into the cold depths of darkness when we need to swim back to the surface. We are uncomfortable with the countercultural commands and ways of Jesus, so we call Him upside-down and sin right-side up.

What can be done? Well, pilots have dials and controls that tell them where the ground is, and they’re trained to trust their instruments regardless of their instincts or perceptions. Divers can look at their bubbles. Bubbles always go up and can be trusted to lead the way back to safety.

Where can we turn in times of disorientation? The bible, Jesus. His commands are the dials that tell us to pull up when everything in us is telling us to dive down. His ways are the bubbles we can follow back to life.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Love

I grew up going to a mega-church. Five thousand people every week. We sat on the left side gallery, halfway up. Before I got glasses my pastor was a reassuring beige blur in a blue suit, sharing strong biblical teaching. Sometimes he expressed how much he loved us, his church, and it made me wonder what he meant. I knew he didn’t know me, he never seemed to recognize me when I said hi, even though I had waited in line to be prayed over by him at revival meetings. So how could he say he loved me when he didn’t even know me?

I have heard many other pastors express love for all who are listening in church buildings and online. Which is even more perplexing, how could they love someone they have never even laid eyes on, let alone know? Yet there it is, and somehow I feel like they mean it.

I myself have felt love towards people I have never met. There have been a few occasions where I felt lead to intercede for someone I saw, or heard of, but never met. As I spent time praying, a love grew for them. It was alarming at first, but I realized after a while it was something that wasn’t coming from me and my selfish tendencies when it comes to love. It was Jesus’ love for them growing in the soil of my heart.

Jesus let me in on something He was doing in their life, and as I co-labored in prayer He allowed me to get a glimpse of His perspective for them. Which of course is a perspective of love. There are many church leaders who I have seen speak, or read their books, and I feel the brotherly love John tells us about in his letters. A love that can only be explained by Jesus.

At the end of 1 John 4 it says, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21 NIV)  There is a link between the love we have for/from God and our ability to love others. Seeing who we love seems to have no connection to whether we love or not. Perhaps it is because God is infinite and the love we experience in Him is also without limit.

Earlier in chapter 4, John introduces the ties between love, abiding in God, and the fact that we have not seen God, “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know what we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (1 John 4:12-13 NKJV) John basically points out that no one has seen God, but we can see His evidence in our lives through how we love each other. He lives in us by the Holy Spirit, and when we are filled with His Spirit we are filled with His love and it shows. Not a wimpy love, but a perfect love.

I actually wrote a post about this perfect love back in 2018, called Perfection. So if you want to get into some fun Greek word study, I recommend the read.

John reiterates this abiding love as evidence a verse or two later, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God is in him.” (1 John 4:15 NKJV) This is after John explains that God sent His Son, Jesus, to be our Savior, and when we affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, “God abides in him, and he in God.” It is through Jesus that the love of God is revealed, and it is through Jesus that the love of God is received.

It is also through Jesus that we are able to carry out the command to love one another. In 1 John 5 we see, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” (1 John 5:1-2 NIV) When we believe in Jesus we become a son or daughter of God. A love for our Father in heaven is born in us, but there is also a love for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that is born in us. When we love God, we love His children as well.

The way I see it, Christian brotherly love is really just the Holy Spirit recognizing Himself in others and expressing Trinitarian love for Himself that spills over onto the person as well. Since I am filled with His Spirit, I feel this love and join in His expression. Perhaps this is what those pastors are experiencing as well when they tell those listening, “I love you.” It may be the Holy Spirit in them seeing Himself in all those listening and in that recognition we are swept up into that same Trinitarian love.

I can picture the Holy Spirit looking out at the people of God and saying to Himself, “I see Me in you, and I see you and that you are one of my beloved children. I love you and I love me and I love that we are united together through Me, the Holy Spirit.”

Paul references this same union in Ephesians. First he sets the scene, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from who the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.” There is a family that originates from God the Father and Jesus, and the way into this family is Jesus. Paul builds out this idea further, “That Christ may dwell in your hears through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints […] the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14-19 NKJV) The mark of the family of God is love, a love that is discovered and experienced together.

Later in Ephesians 4 we see how the love of God leads to unity. “Walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love. Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1-3 NKJV) He describes what real Christ-like love looks like, and that this love creates unity with the Holy Spirit and each other. The evidence of this bond is peace.

Paul goes onto describe this unity a little more, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:4-6 NKJV) God has unity with Himself, He is one. Through Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit we are baptized into that unity, bound to God and one another with the love of God.

So it is by the love of God and the unity of the Spirit that my childhood pastor could look out at a congregation of 5,000, most of whom he did not know personally, and say, “I love you,” and mean it. It is how pastors with online presence can look into a camera, not even the faces of the thousands listening, and say, “I love you,” and mean it. It is how I can intercede for my brothers and sisters in Christ that I don’t know personally and pray with love in my heart.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Life-preserver

A month or so back I wrote a post about the tech guys who put church content out on the internet. Now more than ever that internet content, and live streams, and the like are so important. Many pastors are taking their church’s content a step further and putting out daily devotionals as podcasts or on YouTube,  or live videos on Instagram. Little nuggets of scripture, or an encouraging word to remind us who Jesus is and who we are in Jesus.

The work of these pastors and their tech teams, the extra work for the extra content, these are lifelines.

By the end of last week I was drowning under the emotional strain of managing my stress as well as the stress of my children. They need me to be present now more than ever. The housework has doubled, the kitchen work has tripled, we’re back to homeschooling, and my husband’s work has more than doubled making all that extra online content for our church. So I’m just trying to manage it all, and I wasn’t doing very well by Friday.

I decided to put as much Jesus into myself as possible, while still trying to manage. For me this is anything audio that I can listen to while doing all my other mom-things. Bible in One Year (Thank you HTB!) is standard. I read/listen to that bible app every day. But I caught up on the Lectio 365 app, just soaking in the prayer time. I found daily devotionals from two different churches I follow off and on up on podcast and YouTube. I listened to a live video from another pastor on Instagram while I made dinner. I finished out the night with a bible study shared by another group of church leaders.

By the end of the day my inner moorings were reinforced. My spirits were lifted. My eyes were on Jesus and not the waves. I didn’t feel like everything was fixed, and the next day was still hard, but I wasn’t drowning anymore.

Today I read several posts and articles about parenting during the pandemic. It was bleak, and I could sympathize with all of it. But I also realized that I am doing better than I thought I was doing. Somehow all the lies about failure and personal scarcity were unmasked. I could feel the firm foundation of Jesus beneath me and my emotions.

I’m so thankful for that footing, and I’m so thankful for all the pastors out there throwing out all these life-preservers into the storm. I’m so grateful for the tech teams, and all the platforms in place that get these life-preservers out to us online. I know how much work goes into every one of these lifelines, because I’m watching my husband participate in the effort.

So for any tech person reading this, for any pastor or worship pastor, going above and beyond to get these life-preservers out, thank you. Your work matters. It’s making a difference. May the Lord bless you tenfold for every ounce of strength you have put into these live streams, videos, and podcasts.

Thank you.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Humble

My husband and I have a coffee date in our living room every Sunday afternoon (pandemic or no pandemic). We talk about how the morning went, since he leads worship for our church, and we talk about the week behind as well as the week ahead. With everything being shut down and spending most of our time together we haven’t had as much to discuss. Yesterday we ended up talking about how all our friends, who are also worship leaders, have taken to watching each other’s livestreams that are left up online. It’s the first time they’ve gotten to see each other’s work, and it’s sparked a lot of conversation.

I am not a worship leader, nor do I have any role at church besides kid-management and making sure no one gets left behind. But I have enjoyed the ability to watch other church’s livestreams as well. I follow several church’s podcasts, and have done so for years.  A podcast is a different experience though, it’s just the sermon and nothing else, maybe the closing prayer at most. Sometimes the speaker will reference something that happened in the announcements or the worship and you can hear the congregation laugh, but the humor is lost with me since I have no context.

With a livestream, you get the whole picture, the full context of every subtle jest. Even having the worship fills out the context. I believe the Holy Spirit speaks just as much through the music as He does through the message from the pastor. A lot of prayer and preparation goes into both, and I love getting the full message that the Spirit has for those He knows will be listening.

With this new livestream culture I’ve even been able to tune into churches that previously had no online presence. One of my cousins is a pastor in a small town in the Swedish speaking part of Finland, and I have been able to tune into his message for the last three weeks. I know very little Swedish indeed, so I only understand every tenth word or so. Thankfully, my cousin has included a recap in English in each post.

This week I was listening, enjoying the experience of coming before the Lord together, even though we’re a world apart. When something my cousin said struck home. He was clarifying that salvation in Jesus does not mean that every earthly problem goes away. Sometimes the gospel gets oversimplified in its delivery and communicates this false understanding. He said something along the lines of we think, “I’m a mess, but now that I have Jesus I have it completely together.” When the truth is, “I’m a mess and now that I have Jesus, I’m still a mess. But He is committed to help me sort it out.”

I realized two things. 1) I am guilty of oversimplifying the good news of the gospel and implying that Jesus magically makes the mess go away. I try to emphasize the positive influence of Jesus in my life even though I know there is still plenty of mess inside. 2) My cousin was describing humility.

Humility is a concept I have wrestled with regularly. It lies somewhere between the extreme of pride: Nothing is wrong with me; and false humility: There’s nothing good about me. The required reading of Johnny Tremain in middle school was enough to scare me off the pride end of the spectrum, so I have tended towards the false side of things. (For those of you who have not read Johnny Tremain, he is a silversmith apprentice whose arrogance results in an accident that permanently cripples his own hand.)

Humility is important. Over and over again the bible urges us to be humble because God opposes the proud and lifts the humble. Proverbs 3:34, “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.” (NIV) In the words of Jesus, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12 NKJV) Or there’s Peter’s take on it, “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:5-8 NKJV)

In Peter’s description we see there is a connection between pride and contentious strife, and that this contention can be disarmed with humility and consideration for each other. There is also a connection between pride and worry, which invites God’s resistance. But if you stop, humble yourself, and cast your cares on God it invites His grace. Lastly, there is a connection between all of this behavior and the enemy prowling around, waiting for an opportunity for destruction. Pride, which grows contention, disrespect, and worry in us, allows a foothold for the devil to devour our life.

James devotes an entire chapter to this same subject, chapter 4. Right in the middle of the chapter he uses the same quote as Peter, “He [the Holy Spirit] gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hears, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4:6-10 NKJV)

In the verses leading up to this passage James is describing contentious strife from large scale, war; to small scale, lust. He points out that the full scale is a result of selfish desires that are at war within us. A war that is made worse by pride, and resolved by humbling yourself before God.

Here’s what I mean. James calls the people who have warring desires inside themselves “Adulterers and adulteresses.” That seems harsh at face value, but he goes on to point out that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” We can’t service a war of desire and God, the more we try to do both the more we become defensive, and pride plays a big part in that defense.

I think James calls for repentance from the sin of our hands and our minds because the war of desire ends up creating so much pain and shame that a double-mind is set up with a false-self that serves as a protective front from the pain and from the discovery of the pain. Yet, often pride rises up to protect the protective false front, and this can go on until there is a layering effect. In then end true identity is lost, one might say devoured, to this cycle of self-protection and pride.

It makes me wonder if James is not attacking laughter and joy, in the next verse, but rather false-laughter and false-joy that result from the double-minded activity of a false-self. I believe his call to mourn is a call to healing honesty. It’s as if he’s saying, “That pain and shame you’ve been hiding? It’s time to cry about it. It hurts to stop being double-minded? It’s time to grieve the pain you’ve compounded onto the original pain. Come before the Father just as you are and mourn. Take heart, He is drawing near to you and you will not mourn alone.”

I’m reminded of a quote I read last week, “Humility is agreeing with God about who you are.” It was in the caption of a posted verse on Instagram, 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under Gods mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.” (NIV) So humility is not about who we’re not, but who we are. And the act of humbling myself before the Lord is about letting go of a self-defensive double mind and having one mind. If that means coming to terms with the pain and shame in my life, then it’s time to mourn. Not only that, but it is safe to mourn. The redemption I have in Jesus creates a safe environment in which to reveal the soft underbelly of my character without fear of being devoured by the devil. It is because of Jesus that I can be humble and say, “I was a mess, and I’m still a mess. But now I have Jesus in my life and He is committed to helping me sort it out.” God will lift my true identity out of layers of false self, because I let go of the strings of pride that held it all together.

There’s a freedom in humility, and agreeing with God about who I am. Freed from the exhausting work of defense mechanisms and maintaining the front of a false-self. Freedom from the war of desires inside, rather living in the peace of God that comes when I align my desires under His will. There is also a freedom to serve God, and His purpose. All that time and energy I used to put towards the maintenance of sin is freed up to use for obedience to the teachings of Jesus. I can serve God and His purpose as myself, and that is enough.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Pressure

I woke up this morning feeling the weight of these distressing times. It is all anyone can seem to think about or talk about, or even joke about. It is almost as if the fact that the pandemic is global removes all permission to put my attention on anything else. Even though my stay-at-home-mom routine is not altered all that much by the shelter in place order, the routine of my inner-person is greatly altered, shrunk down to this one thing: pandemic. Even my devotional times and sources are focused on the pandemic.

God is bigger, but my attention is not. Perhaps that’s something God is using this trial to reveal in me. Perhaps He is showing me that my attention needs to be bigger than a 3×6 inch screen. I’ve used my phone as a window to the world outside of my house for years, without noticing how much I was changing to fit my window. It might be time to notice.

The old worship song Trading My Sorrows was a staple during my time in youth group and chapel at school. Besides empowering a generation of bass players while they got their start; and somehow convincing thousands of grown men and women to sing “Yes Lord” repeatedly as a worship chorus; it was an early seed of scripture in my heart.

The bridge of this classic church song is a slightly shortened version of a verse from 2 Corinthians, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:8 NIV) Adolescence was not an easy chapter in my life, so I clung to this bridge, this scripture, through it all.

In fact, this verse has been my anchor once again since the beginning of the year. My family has been buffeted with loss and setback well before the world shut down. So, it’s really turning into a theme here. Yet every time I feel the weight of loss and the worry of setback I find myself turning once again to this verse, I am pressed but not crushed; struck down but not destroyed. Not abandoned. Not in despair.

God is with me. God is with you.

It is by His power that I am not crushed or destroyed. It is through His unfailing love and presence that I am not abandoned or in despair. Paul confirms this in the verses preceding verse 8, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Cor. 4:6-7 NKJV) God, the creator of light and life, the originator of all hope, He is the one who gave us Jesus.

Even though we are as fragile as clay on the outside, it is by His power in us that we are able to persevere through every trial. Even though every emotional up and down cycle throughout the day tells me, “You’re weak, you can’t do this!” It is God and His power at work in me that enables me to respond to my emotions, “You may be weak, but it is not by my power but His. You can do this, and it will be for the glory of God.” God fills us with His Holy Spirit when we ask Him, and we are filled with a treasure that is greater than any earthly treasure with us and in us.

In Romans Paul tells us that it is by His Spirit that we are able to truly acknowledge who He is and who we are in Him at the same time, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba Father.’” (Romans 8:15 NKJV) I believe the “knowledge of the glory of God” is the knowledge of recognition. By His spirit I recognize Jesus and the meaning of what He did through His life, death, and resurrection; I recognize God as my eternal Father who has taken me in out of the cold loneliness of an orphan heart and into adoption; which then enables me to recognize myself without any twisting lenses for the first time, maybe ever.

The Holy Spirit gives me new eyes that are open with recognition and I can see God at work in every trial. I can see that I am pressed, but I can also see that I am not crushed, and down the whole list. I can experience the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. But I can distinguish it too, and in the distinguishing I have hope.

So I am going to embrace this season of stretching for my attention. I’m praying every day, “Father, fill me with Your Holy Spirit more and more.” I want my ability to see God in everything to grow. I will wait on the Lord in worship and prayer until my attention is expanded enough to see around the pandemic and into the face of Jesus.

-Etta Woods

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Wear

I have an outfit of clothes that I call my love-outfit. My main love language is gifts, and this outfit is made up of clothing that was a gift. They were given to me on days that weren’t particularly special in themselves, they were just days that I happened to need some love.

My husband got me the pants and t-shirt when we were out of town at a conference and the venue was FREEZING, so my summer clothes weren’t cutting it. I had been shivering all day, and he got me new clothes for the evening session. The socks are from a care package a close friend dropped off the day after my dad died.

So whenever I’m having a week when I feel low, or I know the day ahead is going to be difficult, I wear my love-outfit. A tactile reminder of the love I have from my closest people. I am literally wrapped in their love. This last week was a challenging one, and I for sure got my love-outfit out.

It got me thinking about a conversation I had with a writer friend a couple weeks back, before the world shut down. He was talking about the cultural phenomenon of cosplay. People dress up like their favorite sci-fi or fantasy character and go to Comicon, or act out bits from the movies and books with other cosplay friends. These people are putting on a character, full of traits and belief systems. They can quote long passages from the stories. They are living out these stories as much as they can in their actual life.

People seem to desire to be pulled into something larger than themselves, even if it is just a story. I love a good sci-fi read, don’t get me wrong, but I leave it in the books. However, I do have a book that I have half memorized at least to the point of paraphrase. I do have a belief system I try to live out, a character I try to emulate, and that is the story and character of Jesus.

When I meditate on His Word, or I choose His way over my own, even remembering the lengths He went to in acquiring salvation for me, these all help to wrap my mind and heart in His love. The grace and security I have in Jesus are my love-outfit from Him that I can put on my life every day.

I think this is what Peter is getting at in his first epistle, “Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:13-16 RSV)

Keep your thought life in check, keep your hope anchored in Jesus. Let go of the old habits that undermine the new life and freedom you have in Christ. Peter quotes Leviticus at the end of this passage. The phrase, “Be holy, for I am holy” happens a few times throughout the book of Leviticus (Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7). Which is a book that is all about old habits that should be left behind in Egypt and new habits that should replace them.

Now, in the new covenant we have in Jesus, we are not under the Levitical Law (Paul is pretty clear about this in the book of Romans). Nicky Gumbel says to read the book of Leviticus with the lens of Jesus, and I agree with him on that point. There is, however, something to be gained from this idea of leaving old undermining habits behind to make room for new habits that reinforce the life and redemption I have in Jesus.

So in these difficult days of self-quarantine and social distancing, I find myself taking stock once again of my habits. I want to face every day, with every potential new challenge in it, firmly grounded in the grace and hope I have from Jesus. In fact, the first part of chapter one talks about going through trials, but holding onto the knowledge of salvation in Jesus:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-9 RSV)

I know that was a long quote, but it is too good to cut short. It is a list of the treasure within our faith. A treasure that cannot be taken away by trial, but improved when we keep our minds and our hearts on Jesus. A treasure that is a sure thing, untouched by Covid-19, or any other sickness.

Jesus was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit, and He brings that same resurrection power to my life. So that whatever today looks like, no matter how bad it looks, it is not the last word on me or my life. I have given my life to Jesus, so He has the last word. He is good and loves me with an everlasting love, so I know the words He has spoken over my life are good.

-Etta Woods

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Phinehas

In the face of pandemic I’ve turned to meditating on scripture and intercession more than before. How can I pray for the people I love, the industries I know are vulnerable to situations such as these? How can I pray for my leaders and for the Church, who are on the frontlines? I’ve looked back to where in scripture the people of God were faced with a plague of some sort, and what wisdom is there to find. The bible story where a plague among the people of God and Godly action meet is the story of Phinehas.

His story is told in Numbers 25, with a bit of a recap in Psalm 106. Phinehas is the grandson of Aaron, a third generation priest from the priestly tribe of Levi. So, well versed in spiritual leadership. During Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, some of the men began to marry Moabite women and participate in their worship of Baal of Peor. God told the Israelites not to marry the daughters of the nations in and around the Promised Land, nations that included Moab, because He knew the idol worship would come with the marriage. (Numbers 25:1-3)

Enough people got involved in this behavior to bring guilt on the whole nation. “So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.” (Numbers 25:3 NKJV) God was angry at the idol worship, and the damage it brought into the hearts of His people. Turning to Baal of Peor meant turning away from God; turning to corruption and away from wholeness; turning to bondage and away from freedom.

Perhaps the men marrying Moabite women were bored of wilderness and holiness lessons. Perhaps they were hurting from the wilderness experience and just wanted to escape to the seeming security of the established Moab. Whatever the case, they brought sin and judgement from that sin into the community of Israel.

Judgement came in the form of capital punishment for the leaders of those in idolatry, and a plague of men turning on each other. Those who didn’t join themselves to Baal began to kill those who did join themselves to Baal. One guy decides to throw his new wife under the bus and surrendered her at the door of the tabernacle, maybe hoping to be spared for willingly giving her up. It is at this point we are introduced to Phinehas. (Numbers 25:4-6)

“Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the preist, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand,” he took down the man and his wife with the javelin, “So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:7-8 NKJV) When Phinehas saw this man bring his idolatry and disobedience right up to the front door of tabernacle, the precursor to the temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Ark of Covenant and the presence of God, he rose up in action. Phinehas removed the sin from before the presence of the LORD, and the plague was stopped.

The recap in Psalm 106 does a good job of boiling this story from Numbers into a concentrate of what’s important about it:

“They joined themselves also to Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices made to the dead. Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds, and the plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped. And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore.” (Ps. 106:28-31 NKJV)

The people turned their hearts from the living God to dead idols and it brought death to them. But, we have a hero, a man of faith “stood up and intervened.” Death was stopped and life returned. What matters here is the state of our hearts, and whether we, the people of God, are willing to stand up and intervene on behalf of those around us.

I think it is interesting that we are faced with a plague of sorts during Lent. These weeks leading up to Easter are meant for fasting and reflection on the state of our hearts and communities so that the Holy Spirit might reveal sin lurking in the corners and under the surface of our perception. It is a time of repentance and preparation so we can be ready to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation it brings us with pure hearts and clean hands (as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 24).

The problem Israel had during the time of Phinehas was a problem of idol worship. The people needed to recognize their sin and repent. They needed to turn away from Baal and the distraction of Moab so they could turn back to God and back to His purpose and focus. They needed to remember who they were and who God is. In other words, they needed Lent.

We have Lent, we have Jesus, but do we have Phinehas-types? I find myself asking, how can I be a Phinehas during this time of uncertainty and isolation? How can I rise up in righteous action? Who can I stand up for? Granted, I’m sure a javelin won’t be involved, but there are other ways to honor the LORD. Jesus taught us a lot about how to live and act in righteousness. Most of it involved love, truth, compassion, and a consideration for others. These are all things that my family and community need right now.

-Etta Woods

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Armor

There used to be a coffee shop in my town that had a bookshelf with used books for sale. A quarter for paperback and fifty cents for hardcover, all proceeds went to a charity. Over the years the bookshelf grew as more and more people donated and traded. There were classics, adventure novels, spy novels, unfortunate “love” stories with inappropriate covers, even the odd self-help book.

I loved the whole affair. I loved to read the titles and see what people in town were reading. I loved the fact that I could spend a dollar collecting books, read them for the week and take them back if I wasn’t that impressed. All without any guilt over spending ten dollars, or more, per book, since they were only a quarter. If I liked the book I could keep it. When I needed to clean out my books to make room for new books, I knew where I was taking them.

Right around this time I started experimenting with non-academic writing. Short stories, descriptions of my hometown, and various types of fiction. I grew up reading old books, and had no idea what was considered best-seller material in the present. So I spent a summer reading best-seller novels from the charity bookshelf at my coffee shop.

One of those best-sellers was The Nanny Diaries by, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. It is about a nanny working on the upper east side of Manhattan. There is a part where the main character’s grandma gives her a designer blazer and some accessories. She called it armor, to wear as protection while amongst the super-rich.

It was the first time I had heard of using something other than armor as armor. Over the years I started to recognize other things could be used as armor, ways of protecting that which feels vulnerable in life. Sometimes it is humor, sometimes it is clothes, like in The Nanny Diaries. Even behavior patterns can be used as a way to shield something inside from other people.

At first, I thought, “That’s a good idea. I don’t want others to know where I’m vulnerable. I don’t want them to know what hurts.” So I joined in with finding some figurative armor of my own, making myself hard and smooth, impervious to the others I feared so much.

The problem is my armor didn’t stay as armor outside of myself. It got to my heart and started to make my heart hard and smooth too, impervious to the people I loved and to God. Keeping that armor up became my identity, until I couldn’t distinguish between myself and the armor. I was the armor, and the armor was me. Who needed that weak, hurting person I left behind anyway?

God did. He made that person on purpose. My husband did, he fell in love with that person. My subsequent children did, God gave them to that person, not to the armor. It was somewhere between the second and third baby that I realized being the armor was a problem, and I needed to remember how to be me.

It took a long time to find the distinguishing line between armor, and me. Even once I recognized what was armor, I couldn’t seem to take it off. I felt like Eustace, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis), who couldn’t get his dragon skin off. Eustace had to let Aslan, a character representing Jesus, take it off.

So I prayed and asked the real Jesus to take my armor off for me, because I tried and I couldn’t do it. It started with someone important to me dying. At the time I felt God saying to me that He was going to use this loss to pierce my heart. God knew He had to crack that smooth hard surface in order to begin taking it off.

Piece by piece God broke my heart in prayer or worship times in order to save my heart from the armor I had melded to it. Behaviors, ways of speaking, ways of thinking, even certain ways of dressing, it all had to be named false and removed.

God, in His grace, didn’t stop at the armor. He brought up the original wounds and lies I took in as a child and a teenager. The things that made me feel like I needed that armor in the first place. He went right to the heart of my heart and said, “Will you invite me into even this? Will you allow me to speak healing and restoration into this?” To which I had to answer, “Yes.” Even though it hurt in the moment to share those memories and messages with God in prayer.

Near the beginning of this journey of removing false armor, my small group at church went through Pricilla Shirer’s study, The Armor of God. As the name implies it is about Ephesians 6, when Paul lists out the armor of God. She goes verse by verse, thoroughly unpacking the meaning and application of each piece of armor. It is a wonderful study that I would recommend to anyone.

Over the course of the study God reminded me how I used to pray these verses over myself every day in college. That I used to run to Him when I needed armor in times of vulnerability. That the armor of God is life-giving because it is from Him, the life-giver. Unlike the armor I had fashioned for myself. That armor was stunting my life, stunting my ability to grow in my character.

In the end there was an afternoon when I thought about who I wished I was, and who I thought I was. God had removed just enough armor for my perspective to shift. Suddenly I was able to see that I already was who I wished I was. That was the person God created, the person my husband married, the mother my children needed. I realized who I thought I was, was really just the armor I put on. It wasn’t me at all. I was overjoyed and thankful.

That day I let go, and let God. I let go of the false identity of the armor. I embraced my true identity, the one lost so many years ago to hurt and insecurity. The one Jesus restored through His death and resurrection. I felt resurrected too. Like I had a second chance to be who God needed me to be where He placed me, in the time of history He placed me.

Sometimes it is still tempting to go back to the old armor, its familiarity and predictability. But I work to remember what came along with it: utter loneliness, disconnect, and insatiable boredom. In every new time of vulnerability and discomfort I run to Jesus. I hold onto His Word. I look at everything around me that is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and I use it to sing a new song unto the Lord. One that affirms His unchanging character, to remind myself He is familiar and His character is predictable, and He is with me. And that is enough to get me through the battle at hand.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Quiet

I studied philosophy in college. In one of the early, more overview type classes, I ran across this quote by Blaise Pascal, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I remember the quote shocked me a bit. For one, I had a romantic idealization of the past that involved a lot of sitting quietly to think and mine the depths of thought and reality with one’s mind. How else could all those philosophers and authors have the time to write so much and with such force as to change the course of history so many times? Yet here was one of those philosophers from the mid-17th century diagnosing the repercussions of our rebellion against Sabbath.

I am just as guilty as the next for having multiple screens and stimulus going at a time. I weathered the hurricane that was my final semester of college, on top of testing out of a semester on the side in order to graduate on time, by having multiple screens and books and music going for two months solid. I’m not saying it was my best work that term, but I managed to work it out enough to pass.

I’ve often wondered if I return to the over stimulus of multiple screens etc. because I’m afraid to realize and admit how tired I am. Or if it is indeed the reason Pascal pointed out so long ago, a fear of being quiet. I’m inclined to say it is a mixture of both.

For some reason it is shameful to be tired in America. It’s all get up and go, do it all, and hustle. Whether you’re an executive in a large company, an entertainer, in ministry, or staying home to raise the kids. The drive to be more and do more and never show the cracks from the cost of it has permeated into everything.

When I stopped to think about it, computers used to be people. It was a job title for someone who did the math before we had machines to do the math. Which meant human error used to be planned for and budgeted in for each quarter.

Machine-computers were created to be like the people-computers and do the math. The machines could do it perfectly every time, which was meant to make life easier for people. Instead it has slowly created the expectation for people to be like computers. To work without error, to never become tired, to hold all the knowledge in our heads and pull it out at a moment’s notice, to do everything faster and better than before.

The problem is people are not computers. Error happens, and since it isn’t budgeted in anymore, every error becomes a source of shame and failure. Fatigue inevitably happens, and since it too is no longer budgeted for, it builds up to breakdown. Which causes more shame and feelings of failure.

I used to get mad at God for going slow in everything I prayed about. I railed against His insistence on rest. Didn’t He know the pressure I was under? Didn’t He know time was a-wasting?

Now I realize that God does know, more than I do. He knows I am human, and He treats me like a human. He regularly reminds me that I am a human and not a computer. So I am trying to learn His pace and apply it to my life because in God’s slowness He is teaching me the proper pace for people, and it is a good deal slower than the frenetic pace of cultural expectations.

God is still budgeting for my humanity in His relationship with me. Another name for that allowance is Sabbath. Every time I recognize the Sabbath I recognize that I am a person, not a computer, or God, just a person. That is what God meant me to be and that is what I need to embrace in order to escape the pressure that is killing me bit by bit. I need to stop rebelling against the grace God gives me through Sabbath and accept it.

I’m not saying the shame culture silently throws at me won’t burn when I stop to have Sabbath. But the burn doesn’t last and Jesus is my everlasting salve. So I am going to practice being a person and not a computer. I am going to allow error and tiredness when they come, and I am going to make space for rest in Jesus.

-Etta Woods

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Grasshoppers

Last April I wrote about locusts in the bible and a sort of spiritual locusts that function in our lives today in a post entitled Frenzy. However, I missed something in that post: the grasshoppers.

In nature, locusts start out as grasshoppers. The non-threatening loners of the garden seem like a far cry from the plague-potential within them. Even in the biblical narrative, grasshoppers don’t have a big part to play compared to the locusts. Though the grasshopper’s part is small it does show up at a key part in the bible.

In the book of Numbers Israel sends out twelve spies to assess the situation in Canaan, the Promised Land. When they return they bring some of the produce of the land to show that it is indeed a good and plentiful land. That is where their unity ends. When it comes to the people and the likelihood of success in battle Joshua and Caleb put their trust in the LORD and His ability to deliver them from their enemies. The other ten say, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. […] The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, so we were in their sight.” (Num. 13:31-33 NKJV emphasis added)

As a result of this bad report the Israelites decided not to go up and take the Promised Land. Because they rejected themselves, and God, and His blessing, they spend 40 years wandering the wilderness while that generation died out. It is a chilling example of wasted potential, lost opportunity, and self-defeat winning long before any other defeat or hope had any chance. They gave themselves a false identity rather than accepting the identity God was trying to give them and it brought loss into their lives.

The external defeat from locusts is devastating. The internal defeat from grasshoppers is equally devastating.

I love the book of Joel. Nearly the whole of it is underlined in my bible, many colors, many notes in the margins, I love it. It is about loss, repentance, and restoration. I can’t talk about locusts or grasshoppers without bringing in Joel, since it’s one of the main themes of the book. One of my favorite verses in this book is, “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locusts has eaten…” (Joel 2:25 NKJV) He goes onto list out the three other types of locusts, but I think you get the idea. I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.

Why is it years and not crops though? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say crops? Or years’ worth of crops? The whole passage around this verse is about agriculture and crops failing or thriving. Yet God promises to restore the years that were lost. The prophet specifically addresses the issue of locusts in his book, with no mention of grasshoppers at all. But I wonder if there is a link to the grasshoppers of Numbers.

I read all of my commentaries, dictionaries, and surveys on Numbers and Joel looking for this link. There is none that I could find. In fact, when I looked up grasshoppers in my bible dictionary, it referenced me back to the locusts. In this arena of biblical studies, grasshoppers represent such smallness that they are hardly worth a mention. No wonder that was the metaphor of choice for the insecure Israelite spies.

Still, God sees the small and uses the insignificant. I can’t help but wonder if He was promising restoration that stretched back to the beginning of Israel as a nation. They lost 40 years to grasshoppers in their souls, who knows how many years to the locusts referenced by Joel. Some scholars aren’t even sure there were any locusts at all, they think it might’ve been a metaphor for invading armies. If that is the case, there was over 70 years lost to invading armies and exile.

If we include the spiritual locusts from my last post on this subject there are many years lost to some of us as believers today. Who knows what years will be lost in the future to inner stress-locusts and self-defeat-grasshoppers.

That’s a lot of years. Nevertheless, God speaks over the defeat of His people and says, “I have the final victory over every defeat. I have the final word over your identity and your life. If you come to Me in repentance, I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” In my mind’s ear I hear Him add, “And the years the grasshoppers have stolen.”

God is bigger than all the loss and defeat in the life of His people, which includes me. There was a time when I too looked at God’s promises for my life and I told Him I was a grasshopper in my own eye as well as the eyes of others. There have been times when I have been driven into frenzy and destructive patterns and spiritual locusts filled my heart and mind. Yet He is able to restore and redeem time lost to the locusts and grasshoppers in my life and in my heart, in fact He promises it.

-Etta Woods

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Opportunity

When I was growing up there was a bookshelf in every room of the house. Literature, multiple encyclopedia sets, history books and biographies, old text books, my dad’s law books, and children’s books galore. My favorite ones were the old book with the painted canvas bindings. Once I moved past picture books and early readers, it seemed like the best books at home or the library were these old ones with the old fashioned binding.

One night I was perusing the titles of my parent’s books in the living room with a flashlight and I came upon an irresistible title pressed into light blue canvas. I thought, this is a winning combo. A great title and an old cover, it has to be good. The book was The Chance of a Lifetime by Grace Livingston Hill. I had never heard of her before, but I thought the winning combo was worth the risk.

At the time I was in my early teens, and aching for an opportunity to prove myself to the world. I thought if I could just have one chance to show what I’m made of, that’s all I thought I needed. Since no chance had come along, a story about a chance was very appealing indeed.

I have to admit, though the book was fine, it did not live up to the thrill of its title. I learned not all old books are necessarily great masterpieces. In other words I learned the lesson every lifelong reader eventually has to learn: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

In our fame obsessed culture, it seems like everyone, to some degree, is searching for that chance, that opportunity to be somebody. Even if we don’t end up famous, there is enough resources available to attain the micro-fame of being the best in town, or church, or our friend group. The best baker, the best cook, the best soloist in the choir, the best house on the block, etc. Something that makes it all worth it, to mean something to someone else.

It can be very difficult to reconcile this cultural dynamic with the repeated supplication of the bible to live humble lives. According to Strong’s, the word Humble and its various conjugations occurs 72 times in the bible. These fall into roughly 4 categories: 1) Warning, usually something along the lines of “humble yourself or God will humble you.” 2) Chastise, something like, “You didn’t humble yourself so this happened.” 3) Praise, or, “You did humble yourself so God will give you grace and restoration.” Lastly, 4) Plea, generally found in the Psalms. It sounds something like, “Don’t forget the humble and the promises you gave to them.”

Granted that is a major generalization of the topic of humility. It is a rich storyline throughout the entire bible. I could probably write a whole book about it, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to have done so. But for the purposes of this blog, a summary will suffice.

When you look at pop culture, being humble might as well mean the same as being a pushover. Humility means being a suck-up. And humiliation is something to be avoided at all costs. In all these scenarios being humble is not a good thing.

Yet, when you look at our general overview of being humble in the bible, it is a good thing. More than that, an excellent thing. In the bible being humble means inviting God in. To humble yourself before God is to put yourself into a direct route that leads to His salvation and restoration. Humility opens the door to the blessings and promises of God, to having His ear and His eye on you, to fellowship with Him.

Ok, that all sounds well and good, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to reconcile with the push of self-promotion and dominance when we’re out in the world. It looks like a battle of wills that “caving” in “humility” won’t help much.

What about that hunger for opportunity? What if that’s the key to framing this battle of wills into something winnable?

Here’s what I mean. Last December I was listening to a sermon on podcast and there was a line that shook me to the core. The pastor had just quoted Philippians 2, “Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:5-8 NIV) He went onto point out that Jesus didn’t even consider being equal with God as something He should hold in Himself. But rather, He laid it down. Here was the line that floored me, “He had the opportunity to be equal and turned it down.”

Paul is saying to the Philippians, “If Jesus, who by the way, is God, didn’t try to be equal with God, then you shouldn’t either. Jesus was humble, obedient, even to a gruesome end, and that is our example.” It seems like if anyone was justified in trying to be God, it’s God; even in the form of a man, that is Jesus. But that’s the thing isn’t it? Part of why Jesus came as a man, a human, was to teach us how to be human. How to order our lives so we thrive in who we were created to be. (Paul doesn’t leave us in the lurch of a gruesome end. He does go on to talk about the hope of the resurrection, so the example we have in Christ ends in hope, not despair.)

We were not created to be God, but to be human. Adam and Eve’s big mistake was trying to be like God and gaining the knowledge of good and evil through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 3) Paul points that out in Romans, he’s talking about how we are justified by the blood of Jesus and reconciled to God through His death and His life, even while we were still His enemy. Then Paul says this,

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned […] death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. […] Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:12, 14-15, 18. I recommend reading the entire passage, there are so many more layers to what Paul is teaching about Jesus’ death that are worth going back to see.)

Basically Paul is saying that Adam had a choice to stay humble and in right relationship with God, or break the one commandment he had out of pride and invite brokenness into his life and the rest of life to come. Paul is also saying that Jesus was a second Adam, a second chance to make the right choice that leads to reconciliation with God and healing from all that brokenness. One could say it was The chance of a lifetime. The ultimate chance. One that altered all lifetimes.

That’s the opportunity we all have isn’t it? We all have the opportunity to grasp at equality with God (we can never attain it but we sure can grasp) or we can humble ourselves and lay it down like Jesus did. Do I need to be somebody? Or do I need to be myself, in right order with my creator, reconciled to Him through the redemptive act of Christ?

It seems to me that the choice before me is not opportunity or humility. The opportunity is humility. Jesus is the example. The choice is mine to let this opportunity pass or to take it and alter the course of my life forever.

-Etta Woods

 

The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. James Strong, LL.D., S.T.D. 1990 Thomas Nelson Publishers. Nashville, TN. Pages 518-519.

Church Of The City New York podcast. Season 17, episode 3. Emmanuel: Us – Jon Tyson.

Blogs

Obedience

I think about obedience a lot. As a mom, obedience or disobedience play a big part in my day to day conversations with the kids. There is a corner inside me that cringes every time I call an action disobedient or obedient. So I find myself approaching it indirectly by talking about listening skills. Good listening vs not listening.

After all, obedient has a very negative connotation. Whether it harkens back to the dysfunctional side of the 1950’s or to the darker 50 Shades of Gray territory, obedient is not seen as a good thing most of the time. It’s feels oppressive, maybe even abusive in some situations. Obedience is something we just try to avoid… while still trying to achieve it at home, or school programing, or corporate America.

All the confusion and discomfort surrounding the word obey creates a problem in us when we read about obeying Jesus’ commands and teachings. Does the fact that He tells us to obey Him make Him a holy tyrant? Is Jesus trustworthy if He’s saying obey? Or, is this one big misunderstanding of what it means to obey?

I’m leaning towards the latter. Really, obedience is only a problem when the one exercising authority is not worthy of that authority. When the person in authority approaches instruction with care and the best interest of the other, obedience is a good thing because it means taking good direction that leads to a good end. When you think about it in this light, we don’t have a problem with obedience, we have a problem with authority.

Here’s what I mean. What is obedience, in its essence? I would argue that it is agreement, or agreeing through action. Someone gives instructions, the one listening says in their thought processes, “I agree with that, I’m going to do that.” Then their actions communicate the agreement determined in their mind. If they disagree with the instruction, the thought processes follow suite and a lack of action communicates that disagreement.

So, when we don’t agree with the one in authority, or even the idea of authority, we don’t obey and we don’t like obedience. Jesus gets caught up into all this internal baggage and we do our best to change what Jesus said so He isn’t really included in all that nasty authority/obedience business. We change the parts of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable. Or rather, we change the truth that makes the established lies in our hearts and minds uncomfortable. Then we go along thinking we know Jesus and follow Jesus, when in reality we don’t.

Isn’t that what Jesus was getting at in John 14:1? “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” If I really love someone, then I know them and love them for who they are. If I know Jesus, I know He has authority, when I give my life to Him, I put myself under His authority. Since I know Him, I know He is good and His authority is good and worth obedience.

Jesus even has a parable that gives an example of what the outcomes are of obeying good authority vs disobeying it. “He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock.” Compare to the other man, “a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. The ruin of the house was great.” (Luke 6:48-49 NKJV)

What made the difference between these two men? Jesus spells it out pretty clearly, “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like:” (Luke 6:46-47 NKJV) That’s when Jesus tells us about the man with his house built on the rock. The man who built his house on dirt is, “He who heard and did nothing.” (Lk. 6:49)

One man did the hard work of obedience, notice he had to dig down through all the dirt to reach the rock on which to build. The other avoided obedience, avoided the work of agreement-action. He left the dirt in place and did what seemed right to him, only to be met with great ruin. Also notice, the flood was inevitable. It wasn’t if, it was when.

Jesus, in His good and loving authority has given us commands that require action and effort, but the reward is that we are able to stand firm in the inevitable storms of life. Obedience is work and blessing when Jesus is the one we are obeying.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Tech

The apostle Paul, larger than life on paper, and in the immaterial realm of idea and concept he is colossal. In real life he was an academic drop out, an itinerant tradesman, faithfully serving the Lord through missions. Every new town he went to started with a trip to the synagogue and to the marketplace to ensure that Jews and Gentiles alike had the chance to hear the gospel of Jesus.

I have sometimes wondered what missions would look life if Paul were to set out today. There are still synagogues, and in some places there is a physical marketplace. But for the most part those are not the center of culture, and going there would not be a sure fire way to reach everyone with the gospel. Where does everyone go every day, where the message of Jesus might be heard by a passerby?

My husband and I once had a rather lengthy debate about this very question a few years back. The conclusion we reached was that today’s marketplace equivalent is the internet. People go online every day so see and be seen, one can order everything needed from groceries to clothes, just like the ancient marketplace. Which is why we launched this website, to put our extra time and talents to work for the message of Jesus.

This idea of the internet being the marketplace of today is also why I think the tech team is vital in today’s Church. These men and women not only work to make Sunday morning go smoothly in our church buildings, but they also run livestreams, convert recordings to podcasts, or edit footage for YouTube. Getting the message of Jesus out in our iterations of the synagogues and marketplaces of the world.

God has used worship songs and sermons on YouTube and podcast powerfully in my life and my walk of faith. I literally would not be the person I am today without the work God did in me through the work of people I don’t even know. Just because they were willing to work as a team to develop a message and then to put it out into the greater marketplace of the internet for me to find in my living room in my little house in my small town.

There are a couple of churches I follow and listen to every week. Sometimes it takes all week for the new sermon to come out online, and I wonder if the tech person is having a hard week. I often find myself praying for this unknown person, doing unglamorous work. I wonder if they know how important their work really is. So I often pray for God to send them encouragement.

I love tech guys (side note: in the Midwest, where I’m from, “guys” is representative of both genders.) I love their faithfulness, and their role in spreading the good news of Jesus. Most churches have a small tech team, that is usually made up of volunteers, but they come every week and do their techy thing. I love it. They know what all the knobs on the soundboard do, they know how to work the projectors, where all the hidden mic jacks are on the stage. So many useful practical things that I find a complete mystery. Tech guys make it all work together to get the sermon out. It’s wonderful.

So let me just say thank you to the tech guys. You’re making the way straight for the gospel to reach the people. You’re saving lives for Jesus through the work you’re doing on your church computers. Thank you for running the slides for worship, and knowing how to time it just right. Thank you for checking the mics and sound mix extra early before everyone gets there. Thank you for running cameras, then editing the footage (sometimes even integrating the sermon slides into the video) so that it can be uploaded for others to see and hear. You guys are champs.

The world is so connected and global these days, it takes more than one guy standing on a stage talking. We still need that guy, but we need more than just that guy. We need the body of Christ working together with everyone’s strengths and gifts to create a movement within our time.

-Etta Woods

 

Photo credit: my friend, and tech guy, Andy Galicki

Blogs

Nebo

Before the holidays, my small group from church was having a discussion about the end of Moses’ life. Especially his trip up mount Nebo where he got to see (but not enter) the Promised Land before he died. Many of the ladies thought it was harsh that God wouldn’t let Moses finish what he started. After all God was the one who called him to this adventure in the first place, and Moses had been through a lot fulfilling that call.

There was a time when I whole-heartedly agreed with the sentiments of my friends. How could God take away the satisfaction of completion over some water? Because, of course, the reason Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land is because of what happened a couple books earlier at the waters of Meribah. The people were grumbling again for water. Moses went to God for provision, and God gave him instructions that would bring water out of a rock in the desert.

God providing water miraculously from a rock had happened before, near the beginning of their time in the wilderness 40 some years back. That time God told Moses to strike the rock, and water came, enough for everyone (Ex. 17:6). This time, at Meribah, God told Moses to speak to the rock.

Moses was angry about the grumbling of the people. Grumbling that had started before they even left Egypt. Grumbling that was passed down to the next generation. Grumbling that had filled half his life and plagued his leadership.

God knew that Moses was angry. So He changed the instructions for getting water in a dry place. God removed the possibility for Moses to take any credit for the miracle of water from a rock. God wanted the power to be His and the credit as well. Moses went with his emotions and struck the rock, on top of which he verbally took the credit as he did so.

Moses took the power of God to be his own when he took the credit for the water. He validated himself as a leader, I think, in order to quell the grumbling of the people. Listen to what they said to Moses, “If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.” (Numbers 20:4-5 NKJV) Not only do these people that Moses has devoted his life to leading told him they wish they were dead, they told him it was his fault.

Mind you, the generation speaking at this point was born in the wilderness and had never seen Egypt. Yet here they are accusing Moses of forcing their parents, and thereby themselves, to leave Egypt. They call Egypt good, when in reality it had been evil. And the path God has them on leading to the Promised Land they called evil, when it was for their good. To top it all off they point out that the wilderness is not what they were promised from childhood.

I’d imagine these people grew up hearing their parents talk about Egypt with nostalgic longing. The food, the houses, the staying in one place. How time must have eased the memory of the pain. Many times throughout the wilderness narrative the first generation that walked out of Egypt themselves wished they had never left and talked about returning. Their children were listening, and they only heard half the story. I doubt anyone wanted to relive the horror stories of slavery in order to tell the whole story to them.

So here is a new generation, who has only known the wilderness, verbally longing for an evil that has been painted as good in their perception. They know their people are from somewhere that had a measure of comfort, and they know there is a place they are going that is promised to have a bounty of comfort and blessing yet they never seem to arrive. So they accuse Moses of being a bad leader who doesn’t know how to find the promised blessing.

I wonder if they knew their parents had the chance to enter the Promised Land and turned it down? Families have a tendency to sweep uncomfortable details under the rug. Who knows really, but Moses was angered by these words. After he received instruction from God, Moses went with Aaron before the people and said some words of his own, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” At which point he struck the rock twice and brought forth the water.

Fourteen words. Two sentences spoken in a moment of anger, and Moses was banned from entering the Promised Land. But think about what was said with these words, “Must we bring water…” not God, we. The anger allowed a very dangerous seed to be planted in Moses’ heart. The same seed that brought about the Fall in the Garden of Eden, that started the whole mess in the first place: trying to be like God.

Moses was called friend of God. He spoke to God face to face. (Ex. 33:11) Yet there is an echo of the words in the Garden, “In the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” (Gen. 3:5 NKJV) Moses struck the rock when he was told to speak to it. The glory was meant to be God’s, because the power is God’s, and He is able to bear both.

Moses was not able to bear either the power or the glory. After all, when Moses asked to see God’s glory he was told that the sight would kill him. God had to shield Moses with His hand against a cleft rock face as He passed by so Moses could catch a glimpse of His goodness after the glory had passed. Moses could only just bear the afterglow of God’s glory and only because God was there to protect him. (Ex. 33:12-23) He was not like God, but he tried to be at the waters of Meribah.

After the spectacle of the water, God spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Num. 20:12 NKJV) If Moses found it hard to give God the glory over water, how hard might it be to do so over entering the Promised Land? If Moses needed to validate himself before the people of Israel over water, how much greater might the temptation be to use the Promised Land to validate himself?

(Side note: why was Aaron included in this judgement? He was there when Moses got the instructions and he did not stop Moses from diverging from them.)

It wasn’t until I saw the seed at the heart of the conflict that I realized it was not harsh of God to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land. It was a mercy.

The corruptive potential of the seed of trying to be like God in Moses’ heart was very great indeed. I think God was sparing Moses, His friend, from that corruption. God did not allow that seed to grow into full fruition in Moses, turning him into a foe. So God, in His kindness, gave Moses the assurance of Joshua’s leadership and allowed Moses to see the Promised Land from the top of mount Nebo before taking Him from this life while Moses was still His friend. (Deuteronomy 34)

The issue was not the water, or the rod, or the rock, or even the fruit in the Garden. The issue was with the heart. God looks at the heart in all of us, and it is for that reason that we say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Only God can be God. Only God can bear the weight of His glory. His name alone is hallowed above every other name, including our names. It is imperative for the state of our hearts that we keep it that way.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Lean

I have dealt with back problems just about all my life. Sometimes the only way to relieve the tension is to lean on something. So I have gotten into the habit of leaning in some way or another, usually without thinking about it. On more than one occasion I leaned against an island or a big chair only to feel it start to give way under the pressure of my weight. It looked solid, like something that could ease the tension, but in fact it was unstable. Which in turn made me unstable and I had to catch myself.

The embarrassment and discomfort of stumbling in the way I have just described is short term. It leaves no lasting damage. What happens when we lean our lives against beliefs that turn out to be unstable? What happens when we find out the truths underpinning every decision is really a lie? Sometimes it means a breakdown, sometimes only a stumble, but a lot of the time we stop and ask God, “Why?”

Ezekiel 13 describes this very situation, life decisions built on false promises, and paints the picture of a wall that is built and reinforced with un-tempered mortar between and around the stones. Which means the stuff holding it all together is the wrong mix and unstable. At some point the mortar, which looks fine during peaceful weather, will show its true lack of quality and give way in the face of a real trial. One strong wind, one strong flood, one additional pressure from new weight, and it’s over. The wall comes down.

Ezekiel compares this picture to the false prophets in Jerusalem just before its fall to Babylon. They prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying peace was coming. When the LORD said no such thing to them. He was sending word to His true prophets that trouble was coming. Therefore the Israelites did not deal with their sin and built their lives for peace instead of adversity. They took the stones of their beliefs about themselves and their lives and built them up with the un-tempered lies of peace. So when the floods and winds of Babylon came along they fell.

What’s interesting about this passage in Ezekiel is that God claims to be the one who sent this destructive force to Israel. At first glance it sounds like God is angry and intent on harm towards His people. “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I will cause a stormy wind to break forth in My fury; and there shall be a flooding rain in My anger, and great hailstones in fury to consume it.’” (Ez. 13:13 NKJV)

However, the next verse gives us a clue to where God’s anger is actually directed towards and it’s not His people. “So I will break down the wall you have plastered with un-tempered mortar, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be uncovered; it will fall, and you shall be consumed in the midst of it. Then you shall know what I am the LORD.” (Ez. 13:14 NKJV) God is angry with the lies Israel has used to build itself up apart from God.

I think God knew the reality of how unstable a life built on lies truly is, and rather than wait for trouble to come and destroy His people He pushed first. God used enough force to reveal the lies and enough gentleness to keep Israel from being utterly destroyed. God wanted to take the proverbial wall back to its foundation (aka Himself) and rebuild that wall with truth and stability so Israel could go on.

It reminds me of the scene in the classic movie The Philadelphia Story where Katharine Hepburn is discovered in the back garden with Jimmy Stewart in compromising circumstances. At which point Hephurn’s fiancé and ex-husband show up. The ex-husband is played by Carey Grant, and is on friendly terms with Stewart. So when he sees how scandalized the fiancé is he jumps in and punches Stewart right on the chin. The fiancé is flummoxed, to which Carey Grant replies, “I have the right as a husband until tomorrow.” The fiancé leaves. When Stewart protests to Grant about the punch, Grant points out that a punch from him rid them of the fiancé and he hit softer than the fiancé would have done.

God gives the false prophets one more word before chapter 13 ends, “Because with lies you have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and you have strengthened the hands of the wicked, so that he does not turn from his wicked way to save his life. Therefore you shall no longer envision futility nor practice divination; for I will deliver My people out of your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ez. 13:22-23 NKJV) The false prophets may have had their day, but that day is over. The day of lies is over, and a new day, the day of the LORD and His truth, has dawned.

I can’t help but feel like this last word to the false prophets also points to the future salvation of Jesus. Those who are sad and down-hearted will find comfort. The hands of the wicked will be weakened in order for them to realize the state of their hearts so that they might turn from their wicked ways. Their lives will be saved through repentance. The source of deliverance is the LORD, and the revelation of the LORD.

Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is the ultimate revelation of God that allows us to know His heart, His motives, and His purposes. Not only for us individually but as a whole too. It is through Jesus that we are delivered from the sin that destroys us on the inside as well as sinful forces that try to destroy us from the outside. Jesus delivers us from the lies that get built into our lives, choice-making habits, and internal narratives. With the lies removed we can see Jesus clearly and we can rebuild our lives on the Rock with the truth of His Word.

In Jesus we have something to lean our lives on and He will not give way under its weight. If we invite Him into every part of our lives He gets integrated into it. Until we’re not just leaning on Him, He is inextricably apart of every element that makes up our lives through the power of His Holy Spirit.

-Etta Woods

 

The Philadelphia Story. George Cukor (Director). MGM Studios. 1940.

Blogs

Idol

I recently spent an inordinate amount of time sick in bed. At first I watched a period drama to pass the time. As the episodes unfolded something about the heart of the story made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the grand finale where everyone said what they really meant about all the drama that I was able to put my finger on what was so unsettling. The entire show was one long production of worship to love, true love even.

Apart from the fact that the show was an act of worship to a lesser god, the “true love” wasn’t even true. This couple spent years being destructive to themselves, each other, their children, and every other person in their lives all in the name of true love. True love is not destructive. If the “love” is toxic let’s just be honest and call it for what it is rather than justify the ugly with beautiful words.

I couldn’t help wonder how many women and girls had watched this show and bought the message about what love looks like, inviting the same destructive powers into their lives in the name of love. It’s too heartbreaking. I soon retreated away from drama programing and into the safety of history and home restoration.

My pastor gave a sermon a couple weeks back on Solomon. He pointed out how many wives Solomon had, and how these foreign wives influenced him to include the worship of their gods along with the worship of the one true God at the temple. (1 Kings 11) Some of the idols my pastor listed was Ashtoreth, a deity representing love and fertility, worshiped through sex trafficking; and Molech (also known as Chemosh), a deity, representing a protective father, ironically worshiped through child sacrifice.

What struck me about the sermon and the list of idols was the fact that these idols are still around and still worshipped. We just call it all by different names. My bible dictionary said that Ashtoreth is just the Middle Eastern name for Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love. The worship of Ashtoreth is still going strong, with sex trafficking thriving as a billion dollar industry and basic destructive sexual practices suggested and encouraged by every song and show. We don’t call it Ashtoreth, we just call it love.

Molech is still around too. We don’t have burning altars with which to sacrifice our children, but we are still sacrifcing babies. We just call it abortion, and we still do it for the sake of protection. The setting may be different, but the rite is the same. The name might be different but the false god is the same. The destructive influence is still at work in culture and still in conflict with God for our hearts.

Pastors love to talk about Mammon (the god representing the love of money) and how people still worship the pursuit of material wealth and money. We don’t call money Mammon anymore, but we recognize the danger is still there. What about the rest? Shouldn’t we be naming these false gods and shedding light on their 21st century names in order to warn people off from being ensnared by them?

The gospel of Jesus is just as important today as it was when Peter preached it. The damage from idol worship is still rampant and the good news still needs to be proclaimed. We still need to be vigilant for what is influencing our lives, as Christ followers, so that we might be a light on a lampstand shining the hope that is Jesus into the darkness.

-Etta Woods

 

The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Merrill F. Unger, R.K. Harrison, Editor. 1988. Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Pages 484-487.

Blogs

Will

There’s something about 3 in the morning when one’s guard is down. The “ought to be’s” and “ought to do’s” are asleep with the rest of life. God is awake though, and when I wake up and pray at 3 am, He’s there waiting. It is so easy to meet with God when my guard is down and the pressures of life are asleep. I’m just me and God’s just Him. No agenda. Even if all I do is sit in silence, something happens. It’s nearly imperceptible, but there nonetheless.

Before my will has solidified in the sunlight of day, it is a soft thing. When I sit with the Father, tender and available, my will turns towards His will. As the sun rises and my will sets for the day that turn remains within its shape.

The next day is lived a little bit more for God and a little bit less for me. I see my town a little bit more the way Jesus sees it. My prayers seem to align with the ongoing intercession of the Holy Spirit that much more, and I become the echo of His Word. A reflection of His kindness.

By no means do I wake up every day at 3 to pray. But the times that I have done so linger in my memory. An impression that continues to influence me long after it was made. The way a smell triggers your olfactory to recall vividly where you were, or who you were when first you encountered that smell. It’s as if no time has passed.

The bend in my will towards God is still there, as if no time has passed. The change in my vision remains. The focus of my prayers still harkens to that original Word. Every 3 am I spend with my Father becomes something that is present. Even if it happened last year or five years ago, it is now. Because He is now, ever present.

The more 3 am I spend with God the more my life fills with His presence, His ever present now. Something funny happens to the will when it is immersed in the now of God. Yesterday and tomorrow don’t weigh so heavily on me and my decisions. They’re there, but their pull loosens. My will is less influenced by the external pressures of the culture I live in, and joyfully given to the Father.

It is in this moment of unity between my will and His will that the words “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” make sense. In that unity those words go on to make change in me and everything around me.

Perhaps it was in a moment of unity like this that Esther was able to say, “If I perish, I perish. I will enter the court of the king.” Before going on to fulfill the purposes of God for deliverance (The full story can be found in the book of Esther). And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were able to say, “Our God will deliver us, even if we perish.” Before giving God an opportunity to show His glory to Nebuchadnezzer (The full story can be found in Daniel 3).

When my will is united to the will of God it becomes a door through which the kingdom of God can come down and become real here on earth. Our unity transcends the impossibility of a simultaneous now and not yet into the paradox that it is happening for the kingdom of God. It is, because He is.

I think this is why Jesus emphasized the unity of the church in John 17, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” (John 17:20-22 NKJV) Jesus has just spent 14 verses praying for the disciples, and here extends His prayer to the people who will populate the future Church. His prayer is that the Church will have unity with each other just as Jesus was is unity with the Father. Somehow in that Christ-like unity within the Church draws it up into the greater unity between Jesus and the Father.

It seems to me if my unity with God creates a portal for the kingdom of God to be real here right now. Then the joint unity of the Church with God would create a quantum rift, opening up the world as we know it to transformation on a global scale. Maybe to the point of the paradox of right now and not yet breaking down to just right now.

When I look at the importance of unity, and the role my will has to play in this unity, I can see the passage from Revelation about the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as something possible, something real.

“Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Rev. 21:2-5 NKJV)

Every sermon I have ever heard on this passage has told me that the bride of Christ is the Church. Wouldn’t that bride need to be whole and one, at unity with itself, in order to be ready to receive Jesus as the bridegroom? Isn’t it in this very union between the Church and Jesus that all sorrow is ended and all things made new? I’m no expert, so my opinion is a humble one, but this makes sense to me. The language here echoes the language of John 17. There is something deeply important about the unity between us and God as well as us and each other, and I believe the position of our will within that unity has a lot to do with the integrity of that unity.

So it is with this position of my will in mind that I say, like Esther, if I perish before the throne of the king, I perish. Yet I will live in the kingdom of the King of kings. If I succeed and bring restoration and freedom, I do so not by my strength but by His. The kingdom of God is not yet, the world is still a fallen one, but it is now because my will is functioning in unity with His will. At 3 am, the paradox is possible. In the morning, as I echo that possibility with my life it becomes real.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

No Condemnation

I have to admit, I have not been able to stop thinking about last week’s post. The logical implications just keep going for the idea that God knew about the cross from day one of creation. I’d love to take a minute and explore one of those lines of thought. Namely, how this effects condemnation.

Here’s what I mean.

I grew up in the church, and I always knew that once I was saved I was free of condemnation. Yet I always felt there was secret condemnation, unspoken but there just the same. As if the condemnation of ruining everything through my sin and making Jesus die to fix it was my real face and Jesus was just a mask.

So when I read Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:1 NKJV) I translated that to mean “There’s no condemnation from God as long as you’re wearing your Jesus-mask, and don’t walk bare-faced with all your mess showing.” Even though that is not at all what Paul is saying in Romans 8.

I couldn’t get past the original sin and the fall of creation. It rested on my conscience like a curse, condemning everything that was me underneath everything that was Jesus. I saw Jesus as the bigger person who was doomed to forgive me every day, and He’s God so He’s strong enough to carry that burden.

However, when I look at the situation in light of last week’s main point, there is no secret condemnation. If Jesus knew from that first breath of creation what He was getting into then He knew my face for what it was. Jesus knew I’d try to craft a mask, and He committed to freeing me from that mask right then.

There is no condemnation in Christ because He is not the one condemning me. In fact He is the one who made it possible to be free from the condemnation of the Law in the Old Testament, and the condemnation of sin after the fall. Which is what Paul was saying in Romans 8.

In other words, there is no Jesus-mask, there is only the mask I made out of shame, whatever I call the mask. There is Jesus who already knows what’s beneath the mask and He is not condemning my face. He’s condemning the mask and breaking it off with His redemption and salvation so that I can walk bare-faced apart from shame.

If Jesus accepted me, future mess and all, even before He created me then there really is no condemnation in Christ. No open condemnation or secret condemnation. There is only His enduring love that went through creation, the various stages of revealing Himself, came to earth to die and rise again the third day, kept my family line alive, until at last I was born. At which point Jesus offered His Word, His salvation, and said, “Here, I love you. I’ve loved you all along.”

-Etta Woods

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Immanuel

Christmas is here, which inevitably turns my thoughts more and more to Immanuel. God with us. It is one of my favorite characteristics of God. That He came, He is here, and He’ll never leave me nor forsake me. Immanuel.

Today I was on one such train of thought and I was marveling at the magnitude of the moment of the Nativity. The moment of Immanuel. The whole entire bible was leading up to this point. The whole entire history of Israel led to this point. The trajectory arch of people’s lives pointed to this moment. Many of the Psalms point to the moment. The prophets foretold this moment. Some people’s names pointed to Jesus, and them just living with their name spoken daily proclaimed the coming Savior.

Jesus is referenced in Genesis after the fall when the curse is laid upon the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel.” (Gen. 3:15 NKJV) So I know that Jesus signed up for the Nativity and the cross as soon as sin entered the world. But then a question arose in my mind: what about the omniscience of God? Did He know sin was guaranteed even before it happened?

In the past I looked at creation and the fall as everything was perfect until people made a mistake and ruined it for God and everyone. Like no one saw it coming, including God. As if Adam and Eve took bad council, ate the fruit and God was like, “Geeze! I thought you could handle one rule. Now I gotta figure something else out. Jesus, Holy Spirit, I have an idea, it’s not pretty. Jesus, you’ve got the short end of the stick.”

Now I’m starting to think it wasn’t like that at all. God is all knowing. He was all knowing, even before He created the heavens and the earth. Which would imply that God knew the inevitability of the fall. Before He spoke a word of creation He must’ve known that Mankind would take that fateful bite. Which means part of going forward with creation meant factoring in the necessity of the cross. Committing to it from the point of “Let there be light.”

If that is the case, God knew what creation was going to cost Him from the very first breath and He did it anyway.

The beauty of the earth and the diversity of every continent was worth it. The brilliance of the stars and physics in outer space was worth it. Adam and Eve and every person to follow was worth it. Music, ingenuity, color, food, the full spectrum of experience was all worth it. In fact, the full spectrum of experience might not have been possible without the fall and brokenness.

I’m not saying God intended brokenness to be part of His creation. I’m saying He probably could see it and came up with contingency plans to redeem the brokenness. So nothing would be lost and full potential could be reached despite the introduction of brokenness.

God desired us, flaws and all. Even before the flaws were there. Jesus wanted us, cost and all. Even before the cost was needed. The Holy Spirit wanted to fellowship with us. Even though it meant being present, then separating, and waiting millennia to come back.

I can see it now: The Trinity vision casting for creation and realizing what would happen. “Dear, dear, dear. That is a nasty streak in the plans. There doesn’t seem to be a way around it.” But then They look at each other and smile, “Let’s do it anyway. It’ll be grand.”

Paul talks about Jesus enduring the cross for the joy set before Him. I wonder If Jesus had that joy in His sight from the first sound of His voice over the emptiness that would soon be what we call home and us. The joy of Immanuel.

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Confidence

When my family moved across the state for my Dad’s new job I was only 10 years old. Everything about my life changed. Everyone I knew, besides my immediate family, was far away. In the middle of the upheaval, my mom gave me a book to read called Hinds Feet in High Places (By Hannah Hurnard). The main character is Much-Afraid. She meets the Good Shepherd and goes on a journey up the mountain. She meets Sorrow and Suffering who become her travel companions. Along the way she over comes fear, difficult circumstances, and loneliness. Until She Meets the King at the top of the Mountain, the High Places. Where she receives a new name: Grace and Glory.

At the time I did not understand half the allegorical story. But I took comfort in the fact that even though Much-Afraid was sad and scared Jesus made it all right in the end. Sometime later I was reading through the book of Habakkuk and found a passage that harkened back to that old allegory from my childhood. “God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like hinds’ feet, he makes me tread upon my high places.” (Hab. 3:19 RSV) It is the very last verse of the book. Up until this point Habakkuk is about the violence and wrong that the prophet sees during his life. He talks about choices and consequences with God. Wrapping up with a poem about the wrath of God and the sorrow it evokes. It’s pretty heavy.

I remember reading that final verse as a teen and thinking of hidden mountain top meadows, free of struggle and full of peace. I associated Psalm 23, its green pastures and still waters, with this unhindered deer leaping from good to good. I was sorely disappointed when that was not what I experienced in my walk of faith.

Last year, my science loving son and I watched yet another nature documentary with a segment on the ibex. It’s a type of goat found in north-east Africa and Eurasia. Ibex live high in the mountains far away from predators. They have a problem though, there is not enough water in the mountain tops so they have to climb down to reach fresh water sources and grazing. The thing is, the mountains they live in tend to be more sheer-cliff type of mountains, then gently sloping type.

The ibex can balance on what seems like a half inch of a ledge. Not only balance, but leap from half inch to half inch. Until they nonchalantly reach the bottom for cocktail hour. Only to finish and leap their way back up the sheer cliffs to the safety of their high places.

I’ve even seen videos of these creatures scaling the cobbled and slick surface of an old dam to drink from water seeping out of cracks. Look up the ibex. You won’t regret it.

The ibex got me thinking about Habakkuk. Mountain tops are barren. Sheer cliff living is terrifying and uncertain. Much like the sorrow and loss of Habakkuk, or the journey of Much-Afraid. It was never about meadows or still waters. It was about the feet.

What I mean is this: God wasn’t promising to change the terrain of my journey. He doesn’t seem to have any intention to change my life to suit my comfort zone and preferences. God was promising to give me hinds feet that can handle the terrain I’m traveling. God has every intention to change me, or rather, transform me.

If I find myself living in times such as Habakkuk, full of sorrow and consequences, maybe even consequences of the actions of someone else, God will give me  feet and agility like the ibex. So even though life has turned into sheer cliffs with half inch ledges, I can leap and thrive in the midst of it to find springs of living water and safety from my enemies.

-Etta Woods

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Hospitality

It’s Thanksgiving in America this Thursday. Many of us will be cleaning and cooking up a storm in preparation of friends and family gathering to celebrate. Some will be driving for hours just to get to the gathering, others will sit with their cat and eat take out at home. In our own way we will practice hospitality this week. Whether it’s the traditional sense or the philosophical sense of the word.

I believe it is equally hospitable to be the one opening the door of home to another as it is being the other who is walking in. It is hospitable to show up and bring some life to the party, and maybe a bottle of wine. It is also hospitable to the person who is grappling with stress, anxiety, and triggers to stay out of the crowds and limelight of the drama that is family during the holidays. To stay somewhere safe with someone safe and continue to care for a mending inner-life.

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to look like the Norman Rockwell paintings or the popular Hallmark movies. As long as there’s love, grace, and gratitude it’ll be a good day. Hospitality will be achieved.

All this holiday preparation has got me thinking, how might I make this Thanksgiving hospitable to God? I know I’ll do my usual devotional in the morning, I’ll pray over the day as I make the morning pastries for everyone to munch on while the real meal is being made. I’ll pray over the dinner when we’re all sat around a moderately beautiful spread. But is that really hospitable to Him? Is my house a place where God feels welcome and like He might come and find a place to rest?

I was reading through some of the Psalms last week and was moved by this passage from Psalm 132, “Let us go into His tabernacle; let us worship at His footstool. Arise O LORD, to Your resting place, You and the ark of your strength. Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let Your saints shout for joy.” (Ps. 132:7-9 NKJV) First we enter His presence, then we worship, and in that presence and worship God arrives to a place of rest. As the LORD rests with us in this shared presence and the transformation that happens while we worship whole-heartedly, we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus and shout for joy. Right in the middle there, it says that God finds a place to rest.

I wrote about the temple in a post last year (Temple), and how we’re meant to be the living temple where the Holy Spirt can dwell. But I never considered the dynamic of the Holy Spirit finding rest with me. Admittedly, I’ve spent more time thinking about the rest I get out of my time with God.

I recently heard a talk given by the pastor of Upperroom Church in Dallas, TX, Michael Miller. He talked about rest in the context of the creation story and Sabbath. God didn’t rest until the work was finished. Man lived with God in the Sabbath, they did stuff from a place of completeness. That is, until the Sabbath was broken by sin. A new work began, the work of redemption. That work was finished on the cross and we entered a new time of Sabbath with Jesus. We can operate from a new place of completeness. Pastor Miller talked about how when the gospel really takes hold in our hearts and we can “Do from the Done.”

The rest is in the wholeness found in redemption. The rest is meant to be rest from strife, and to live life out of the peace of Christ. This rest goes both ways. When we are transformed by the redemption of Christ, not only do we find rest, but the Spirit finds rest. His work is finished and He can rest from it.

When I allow Jesus to work His resurrection power through every part of my heart and life, when I find that peace that passes all understanding, I find rest. My little part of the temple can be a place hospitable to the Holy Spirit where He can find rest as well.

Just like we saw in Psalm 132, something happens during worship. I believe it’s the work of salvation in me. The work of the Holy Spirit happens in His presence, in worship, every day. It has been my experience that healing can be found in worship. The many pieces of my broken heart quietly clicking back into place during worship.

So I keep going back to His presence. I keep praising Him regardless of what the day looks like. I want to be hospitable to the Holy Spirit, to find rest, but also to give rest to Him by allowing Him to finish His work.

-Etta Woods

 

“Rest Series Part One – Michael Miller” UPPERROOM Youtube Channel. 2018.

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Next

The gospel of Mark is one of those books with which I have a complicated relationship. On the one hand it’s about Jesus, and contains some of my favorite passages. On the other hand it can be a stressful read. The transition words between the scenes create a frenetic pace with no good resting place. So as you read through the gospel you find yourself drawn into a ride similar to that of the bus on the movie Speed. The story feels as though it is going faster and faster with an ever escalating sense of dread.

It’s as if you meet Jesus, and just as you’re getting to know Him, you realize He’s running to the cross. All the love that’s grown inside for Jesus makes you want to yell, “No, look out! It’s a trap!” Suddenly, you become aware of the fact that you have begun to run with Him and you find yourself yelling again, “What am I doing? I know how this ends!” But you can’t stop because if you do you know you’ll lose Jesus and He’s the best thing that ever happened. So you keep running until He’s dead, raised, ascended, and gone. It’s over.

After sitting and reflecting on the experience you know it’s not over, you have to keep running. Only this time, you don’t know how it ends because your life isn’t explicitly in the bible. The pace of the gospel of Mark bleeds into your own until it’s all then-and, then-and, suddenly, immediately. It becomes an attitude of next-now for everything.

Where’s the rest? Isn’t this the same Jesus who said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11:30 NKJV) How can we reconcile this with the running Jesus? Or with the driving sense of next?

I mean, the gospel of John makes the life of Jesus a journey with a resounding message of love. In John there’s time to grow, time to change and accept the love of Christ. This message definitely jives with the word on rest from Matthew. After reading the gospel of John I just want to forget Mark ever happened and linger at the feet of Jesus forever.

So I set out to replicate the sojourning pace of John in my life. I have time, I can rest. Next will happen when it happens. Except the urgency of Mark whispers in the back of my mind. My pace quickens little by little until I’m running again, driven by next-now.

More often than not I feel like I’m living a gospel of John faith with a gospel of Mark pace. The American in me can’t put down the hustle, can’t turn away from the grind. Until I ask myself, why was Jesus running?

I don’t think He was running just to run and be the best. He was running to the cross because of what was on the other side of the cross: us.

Look at what Jesus says right before His invitation to rest in Matthew, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one whom the Son wills to reveal to Him.” (Matt. 11:27 NKJV) Jesus reveals us to the Father. I believe it is through the death and resurrection and our redemption by His blood that He is able to reveal us.

Jesus ran to death on a cross so He could pluck us from the grip of death and bring us back to the Father. That we might be reconciled to Him and brought back into union with His love, just as it was in the garden of Eden before the separation of sin. “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2 NKJV)

Jesus ran to us, and we’re meant to be running too. Not running out of driven-ness, but like Jesus, towards someone. We’re running to Jesus, and we’re throwing off the weight of sin so we can get there faster. What happens when we get there, when we reach Jesus? We find ourselves reunited with the Father through Jesus, and in that unity we find rest.

Let’s look at that passage from Matthew again, in a different translation, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with Me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt. 11:28-30 MSG)

The unspoken message of next-now I picked up from Mark wasn’t really from Mark. It was from religion. The urgent hustle isn’t from Mark. It is from the culture I live in. I just read those into every suddenly I found in Mark. When I look at Jesus I can let those go. Next-now and hustle are ill-fitting and heavy, and Jesus is yelling over to me as we run, “Let go, you don’t need those anymore.”

Mark may be very different in tone from the other gospels, but it’s only showing another side of Jesus. John shows walking, Mark shows running, they’re both right. While it may have looked like Jesus was walking with His feet, His heart was running with an undivided purpose and unwavering determination towards the joy of finding the lost and taking them home.

-Etta Woods

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Excuse

When I was growing up, tardiness was a big deal at school. I always felt bad for the kids whose parents were generally running behind, because those kids were taking the flack at school for something they had little control over. When you’re 13, you’re at the mercy of your mother’s timing. If one of these poor souls had a note to offer the secretary they were saved. “Please excuse my son…” These few simple words were a powerful shield from administrative wrath. An excuse became a saving grace.

The problem with an excuse as grace is this: the longer you hold onto an excuse the less grace it offers and the more toxic it becomes. In order to maintain the excuse one must conform to the parameters of the excuse. These parameters dictate how to behave, what can be done or is out of reach.

In her book Mindset, Dr. Dweck calls these constraining parameters a fixed mindset. A person believes they are who they are, they have the skills and qualities they have, and none of this can grow or change. Excuses play a big role in the self-preservation of a fixed mindset.

Often the excuse-shields build up on top of each other until they form a wall, or a fortress even. This internal wall, which was meant to keep threats out, end up trapping the person in. It leaves them unable to move forward in their lives and careers.

The excuse-dictators were revealed in Moses’ life when he encountered God in the wilderness. God appears to Moses as a burning bush. Moses draws near to get a closer look and receives a call to advocate release for Israel before Pharaoh. Moses quickly gives his first excuse, something along the lines of being a nobody. God responds by eliminating the excuse by giving Moses validation and says “I’ll go with you and you can use My somebody-ness.” (Ex. 3:1-12)

I imagine that Moses was somewhat dismayed by the loss of his excuse. So he offers a better one. Moses tells God that His people probably won’t go with him since he doesn’t know God’s name. Again, God eliminates the excuse and tells Moses His name “I AM WHO I AM.” (Aka Jehovah, aka Yaweh, depending on your transliteration) God also tells Moses what to do to back up the revelation of His name. Just to be thorough God also tells Moses what to say to Pharaoh. (Ex. 3:13-22)

Moses tries the next excuse, “Yeah, but what if Your support and Your name and this speech You’ve given me isn’t enough and they still don’t believe me?” God graciously doesn’t get caught up in being told He isn’t enough, and opts for eliminating this excuse too. He gives Moses three miracles that he can perform on command. They even practice them there at the bush so Moses knows how to handle them when the moment comes. (Ex. 4:1-9)

Now you’d think Moses would be embarrassed by now and humbly accept the call, the support, the name, the speech, and the three miracles. But he doesn’t. Moses just moves onto the next excuse, “I’m not great at delivering speeches, or talking at all really.” This time God shows some irritation while reminding Moses who created mouths, tongues, and speech itself. He then promises to be with Moses’ mouth specifically and teach him how to speak! (Ex. 4:10-12)

At this point Moses gives up on all personal pride and dignity by flat out begging God to send someone else. We’re told that God was angered by this, but He still has grace for Moses. God tells Moses that He already has his brother Aaron coming to meet him. Aaron is a Levite and great at public speaking and will be able to help Moses bear the burden of this calling. Finally, Moses agrees to go. (Ex. 4:13-18)

All this to say that God is an excuse eliminator. There wasn’t an excuse Moses offered that God didn’t have a way to solve. He still does this today. The last time I offered God a myriad of excuses He spent the next year setting things into place in such a way that every one of my excuses were eliminated. I looked at how much my life had changed and said to myself, “This is a Moses moment. I better go ahead and do that thing God wanted.”

God wants to liberate us from these little excuse-dicatorships in our lives. He wants to be on the throne of our hearts. Once He’s there, He sets us free to become more than we thought possible. God’s call might feel overwhelming and upsetting, and we may offer up our excuses. But remember who gave the call, whose name we carry. Remember that God is bigger than all the excuses and He will remove them if your offer them to Him. But you know what? Let Him, He’s better protection than excuse anyway.

-Etta Woods

 

Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. 2016. Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

*This book was a game changer for me and I highly recommend the read. Dr. Dweck doesn’t just talk about fixed mindset, she also expounds on what she calls a growth mindset. She talks about both types of mindsets in a variety of settings. The research is thorough and so revealing of how much the way we think really matters.

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Abandoned

My pastor preached on the battle of Jericho this last Sunday. He talked about the evil practices of the people living in the city. Their child sacrifices to Molek, and temple prostitution for Baal, among other things. God used the Israelites to put an end to all that evil in the city of Jericho (Joshua 1-6).

My husband and I got into a conversation about this later. Archie pointed out how God probably wanted to use the first generation out of Egypt to overthrow Jericho on their way into the Promised Land, just like He ended up doing with the second generation. Which meant, when the first generation refused to enter the Promised Land it not only put Israel’s blessing on hold for forty years, it also put God’s plan for justice in Jericho on hold. There was another forty years of deplorable sacrificial acts, children lost, and hearts turned to stone from abuse.

This got me thinking about the Church today. What are we avoiding, or refusing that is putting blessing and justice on hold? We, as Christ followers, are meant to be filled with the Holy Spirit (blessing) and by His power, bring healing and deliverance to those with whom we share the gospel (justice). The bible is pretty clear about this (this theme can be found in nearly every Pauline epistle, and the books written by James and Peter).

Yet that is not the church experience I grew up in. A lot of the time we’re fumbling with how being filled with the Holy Spirit and moving in His power looks today. For the apostles in Acts it seems perfectly natural for them to move in His power and spread the gospel. But how does that translate to the water cooler and school pick up? Frankly, it seems really scary to invite the Holy Spirit into such mundane and even keel sorts of settings. So we don’t.

From the many conversations and reading I’ve done over the years I get the overall sense that there is a large number of Christians, at least in America, that hear the message of the New Testament and how we’re meant to spread the gospel with the Holy Spirit; quietly say, “No thank you,” and carry on with their mortgages and football.

I’m not saying it’s everyone. But it’s there. The fear that causes hesitation and withdrawal is there.

Here’s the problem. Like the disobedience of the Israelites delayed the justice brought to the evil practices of Jericho, our disobedience can delay the plans of the Lord in the lives of others we were meant to reach, plant the seed, impact, deliver, mentor, whatever the case may be. God has a plan for us, and that plan involves helping others, spreading the good news through our words and our life-example. But when we retreat out of fear we abandon those people. The people Jesus wishes to reach and love through us.

I heard a preacher once say he thought Abram became Abraham because he was the first person to say yes to God’s call. There could have been many calls and many “no thank you’s” before Abram said yes and started the journey to Abraham.

How many times were we called and our “No thank you” left someone struggling for another year? Or perhaps someone else’s “No thank you” left us struggling for another year? There’s no way of knowing for sure really. God works in His own way, in His own timing and He will accomplish what He starts (Isaiah 55:8-11).

All I’m saying is, I don’t want to allow fear to dictate my actions. Or tell me when it’s ok to act in obedience or when I should retreat. Fear is a cold, abandoning master, and I don’t want it as my master. I’d rather risk bringing the Holy Spirit to the water cooler and the school pick up. I’d rather be on fire for God and moving in His power, even when it feels out of control. Because the truth is, it’s not out of control, it’s just out of my control. I’d rather be like Caleb and say to the fearful parts of me, “Let us go up at once […] for we are well able to overcome it.”(Num. 13:30 NKJV) The NIV says, “We can certainly do it.”

We should stop being afraid of the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives and our churches. Because it is by the power of the Holy Spirit in us that we can look at everything God is asking us to do through the bible and prayer and say “I have more assurance than Caleb. I have Jesus, I am filled with the Holy Spirit. I can certainly do it.”

-Etta Woods

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Costume

What is the allure of hidden identity stories? They’ve been around forever and they’re still just as appealing. Stories like Twelfth Night, The Prince and The Pauper, and Parent Trap; where the main characters pretend to be someone else until they work everything out in their favor when they finally reveal their true identity and say, “Ha! It was me all along!”

Is it the fact that often we feel like we need to be someone else to get what we want in life? Or is it the shame answer, “If they knew who I really was inside, they would never love me or support me.” The success of the hidden identity story might appeal to either of those insecurities. Really, these two perspectives are two sides of the same coin, “If they knew who I really was I would never succeed so I need to be someone else to get the life I want.”

The question is, what makes the “real side” of you the real side?

When I was in college “wounds” was a big buzz word. Everyone was discovering their wounds and naming them. The problem was, once the wounds were named rather than letting them go everyone took them on as their identity. “I was abused so that’s who I am, the abused one.” “I was ignored, so that’s who I am, not worth acknowledgement.” “I was not popular so that’s who I am, the loser.” Not only did these wounds become an identity, it informed how these people could live in the future, “I could never try this or that. Remember? I’m the loser!” so on and so forth.

It bummed me out. Why did these things that hurt and made us angry inside have to determine the rest of our lives? I reacted by refusing to name my “wounds.” Of course I have wounds, everyone has things that hurt and make them angry inside. But I thought if I didn’t name them they wouldn’t define me.  However, I didn’t account for the power of suggestion. Once it was suggested that the hurt and the anger was the “real you,” part of me always worried it was true. I hedged my bets and hid that all away, just in case.

This is where the good news of the gospel comes in. Jesus comes into the story with the redemption of His death and resurrection to break sin off of those who accept His grace. The wounds everyone used to talk about are just the outcome of sin in the world. The hurt and the anger are byproducts of sin. I’ve argued in a past post that hurt could potentially be a synonym for sin. Jesus confronts the sin/hurt in our lives and says that’s not meant to be here and washes it away.

Sin wasn’t there in us in the beginning. The “real side” of hurt and anger inside wasn’t there. Which means, it isn’t the real side at all. When Jesus overcame sin and the world through the Christ-act (death and resurrection) He restored our identity to what He always meant it to be. He named all the false bits and “real sides” for what they were: sin and the effects of sin, and said it is finished.

We don’t have to allow the hurt and anger inside to define us or inform our future anymore. With Jesus, if we allow Him to do so, He gives us a new identity and a new lens with which to define the days ahead. The loser can have a rich life full of people and love. The invisible wall flower can move into the center of color and light. The abused one can live in confidence and dignity, worthy of love that is more real than the word itself.

For me, there was the person I always wanted to be and the person I thought was the “real side” of me. The two were at complete odds with each other and I felt lost between the two. But when I allowed Jesus into the conflict His light revealed which was sin and which was me. I was delighted to discover the person I always wanted to be was really just me. The sin, the hurt and anger that resulted from that sin and the sin of others was not the “real side” of me at all, it was just a lie.

Let me clarify one thing. Wounds are a part of us, don’t get me wrong. They really happened and really hurt. What I’m trying to point out is the liberating fact that they don’t have to define us. The wounds don’t have to be who we are and who we will be. There’s healing in Jesus. Maybe the healing happens in an instant, maybe over time, but it is there. We can have wounds in our history and still be who God meant us to be all along.

I know this hasn’t been a particularly biblical laden post. But I’d like to close it out with some of the things the bible has to say about those who are in Christ:

I am redeemed (Romans 3:22-24, Galatians 3:10-14)

I am adopted as a daughter or son of God (Ephesians 1:3-6)

I am righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21)

I am renewed (Romans 12:2)

I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)

I am a light in the darkness (Matthew 5:14-16)

I am gifted (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

I am seen (Psalm 34:15)

I am heard (Psalm 34:4,15)

I am loved (1 John 4:10)

 

-Etta Woods

 

*For those who may be interested. Podcasts by Ron Walborn on Church Of The City New York were incredibly helpful in sorting out the hurt and anger inside of me. As well as Rob Reimer’s book, Soul Care.

Blogs

Belong

One of my favorite phrases in the bible is “I will be your God and you will be My people.” It is littered throughout the Old Testament and creates the feeling of cadence throughout the many books. To the point that the Old Testament starts to look like one long love poem between God and His people.

The first time we see this sentiment is in Genesis chapter 17, “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you […] I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:7-8 NASV emphasis added) Notice though, it is only half the phrase. God is in the process of establishing a people through His covenant with Abraham. They aren’t a people yet, but they have a God who wants them and has a plan for them.

The next time we see this phrase is in Exodus chapter 6, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with and outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Ex. 6:6-7 NIV emphasis added) Again it isn’t exactly the same wording. This time God has a people, but they’ve lost their identity because of slavery. God is in the act of taking them back, out of bondage and into His care and restoration. They are a people now, but they are lost and no longer know who they are. Yet, they have a God who wants them, is coming for them, and will heal their identity.

Finally, our exact phrase shows up in Leviticus, “For I will look on you favorably and make your fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. […] I will set my tabernacle among you and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Lev. 26:9, 11-12 NKJV emphasis added) At this point Israel has been delivered out of the hands of Pharaoh. They have spent some time with God in the wilderness. They are in the process of receiving their new identity as the people of God. Israel knows God and they know who they are. With that knowledge comes a purpose: To be the people of God and live out the revelation of God’s character to the world. Israel is a people, they have God, and they are in relationship together, they belong.

The problem is Israel keeps forgetting who they are and who God is. They fall into a cycle of revival, righteousness, distraction, rebellion, idolatry. At which point God does something to get their attention and the cycle starts over again. It seems like each generation has to discover God and their identity in Him for themselves. Some embraced that discovery and some didn’t. Either way, God doesn’t give up on His people. He sends the prophets to remind them who they are and invite them to return to Him.

Our little phrase of belonging can be found in Zechariah (8:8), Ezekiel (11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:23, 27), and Jeremiah (7:23, 11:4, 30:22, 31:1, 33, 32:38). These messages came around or during times of upheaval. Especially in the case of Jeremiah, who prophesied during Israel’s fall to Babylon. Each time God harkens back to Israel’s time of deliverance and union with Him in the wilderness through our phrase. Essentially, God is quoting Himself to His people in order to jog their memory so they might remember who they are and whose they are.

You might be thinking, “What’s the deal? Why can’t Israel be God’s people and explore what else the world has to offer? Diversify and all that?” Here’s the problem: the sin of idolatry is a block between God and His people. It is literally the first commandment Israel got on Mount Siani. By committing the sin of idolatry, Israel erected a wall between themselves and God. They shut out their own God. Israel excluded themselves from their own belonging.

God wasn’t about to let that wall stay. He wasn’t about to let Israel exclude themselves from Him forever. So God enacted His plan for deliverance, the ultimate Deliverance that is Jesus. Not only that, but He sent His Spirit to dwell in His people as a living reminder of who they are and where their belonging is found.

In His second letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the words of the prophets to remind the Corinthians of the gospel he taught them, and their identity in Christ. He warns them not to mix in the religions of the pagan gods around them. “And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’” (2 Cor. 6:16 NKJV) Paul is quoting Ezekiel 37:26-27, trying to get the Corinthians to remember who they are and whose they are.

But Paul doesn’t end it there, he takes it a step further, “Therefore ‘ Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:17-18 NKJV) Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11 and 2 Samuel 7:14 and takes the message of “You are My people” to “You are My sons and daughters.”

Through Abraham and his covenant with God, Israel were the people of God. Through Jesus, and abiding in Him, we (as Christ followers) are the children of God. We can revise our phrase, “I will be your God and you will be My people,” to “I will be your Father, and you will be my children.” Not only do we find belonging, but a personal belonging. This is the end goal.

Revelation 21 describes the new heaven and new earth after sin and Satan have been banished from the earth forever. “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3 NKJV) The ultimate expression of what we first read about in Leviticus comes to full fruition in the new heaven and earth. The living God dwelling with His people in full peace and restoration. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4 NKJV)

God goes onto talk about the trustworthiness of His words. He declares Himself the Beginning and the End and offers the waters of life to whoever thirsts. Finally, God affirms Paul’s revision to His mantra of belonging, “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7 NKJV)

God wants us to be His people, His children. He is our God and He made a way for us to be with Him. Jesus is waiting for us to accept Him and in Him find our true belonging.

I love that. The reassurance of belonging. It exists, and its mine. When I am a child of God, I belong. Forever.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Numb

It seems like every sci-fi show or movie has an android, or robot, or some sort of A.I. character like that. When they’re one of the good guys they’re very calm and collected, and monotone. Even while carrying out amazing feats of strength it’s like, “Oh this 1 ton piece of machinery? No problem, I’ll get that out of the way in a jiffy.” If the robot is relaxed, everyone can relax. But once that robot starts to emote at all you know, oh, something is about to go down! The bad A.I. is always like out of control emotional. Something about a computer being all over the place with their voice and their face is so alarming.

Yet when it’s the people it’s opposite. The emotive dynamic person is the hero, the one everyone is drawn to and trusts. Even the “tough guy” character has to show at least a smirk here and there to let you know they’re one of the good guys. Bruce Willis is the king of the tough guy smirk. There’s something about it that just lets you know, it will all work out in the end.

Again, there’s a flip side to human characters in film. Once they start going flat with their emotions and voice dynamic you know, things are about to get hairy. Somehow a resting face, or expressionless face, and even-tone dialogue sends chills up the spine and foreboding in the heart. Why is that? Why is a crazy android and calm person so unsettling? Why is a calm android and emotional person so reassuring?

My theory is the fact that one is un-natural and one is natural. Computers are metal and plastic, not emotional. People are flesh and blood, not cold and mechanical. It’s natural for a calculating synthetic entity to be collected, they have all the numbers sorted, all the ducks in a line. It’s natural for people to show feeling and warmth because it’s just showing the soul underneath the skin. If the calculator stops adding up properly, or the soul goes dark, there’s a problem.

They didn’t have androids in biblical times, but there was people. A dark soul was just as troubling then as it is now. In Psalm 115 the psalmist starts describing the idols of the other nations and how they have no senses or feeling, “But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats.” (Ps. 115:4-7 NIV) The idols were made to look like people with features and bodies, these idols gave a false sense of presence. The truth was those idols had no sight, no understanding of the prayers being offered to them, no response to give in return. The idols were just metal, silver and gold.

The chilling bit of the psalm comes next, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Ps. 115:8 NIV) The people from the others nations, and the Israelites who fell into idolatry with these idols ended up having eyes that could not see, ears that could not hear, mouths that could not answer. They were numb. In short, a cold heart and a dark soul.

The psalmist goes onto to offer some hope, “O house of Israel, trust in the LORD- He is their help and shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD- He is their help and shield. You who fear Him, trust in the LORD- He is their help and shield.” (Ps. 115:9-11 NIV) He’s basically saying, if you’re the people of God, trust Him to protect you. If you’re the ministers of God, trust Him, He’s trustworthy. If you’ve given your life to God, trust Him, He is your shield.

If you are anything like me you read this and thought, “Wait, what does God being my shield have to do with numbness, or the lack of numbness?” I think it’s because of how we as people naturally react to disappointment. When someone lets us down we start to have reservations, when it happens chronically we stop trusting them. The more important that person is to us, the more we are apt to shut down more and more with each disappointment.

Now apply that tendency to a relationship with an idol. Someone offers their life and soul to whatever idol and whatever the worship of it promised. But this idol has no feeling, no life, so it inevitably does not come through for the person offering their life to it. The promise is empty the outcome is disappointment on a soul level. As is the shut-down, which subsequently leads to a hard heart and a person with no feeling – numb.

Therefore, a living and trustworthy God is good news. Our God hears us when we call out to Him, He sees what’s going on in our lives. If we make a point to listen, He answers us. When we trust the LORD He comes through for us. Every time we see His work in our lives it brings us back to life. A stark contrast to the disappointment and shut-down of idolatry.

In Ezekiel the LORD gives a promise to bring new life to His people. Chapter 36 describes the coming judgement on Israel for their long standing, generational idolatry. Half way through He switches from judgement to redemption. God promises to free His people from the idols and promises, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 36:26 NKJV) The rest of the chapter God talks about all the blessing and healing that deliverance will bring to His people.

God knows that we shut down when we’re let down. He know the idols will fail us and we will become hard hearted because of it. He isn’t fazed, He has a plan. A plan for redemption through Jesus. We can give our hearts and our lives to Jesus, whatever our hearts and lives look like. When we put our trust in Him, Jesus will be our help and our shield. He will fill us with His Holy Spirit that will show us where the idols are in our lives and free us from them. The LORD will put a new heart of flesh in place of a heart of stone.

When we worship God, and give our hearts to Jesus, we become more like Him. We become more alive and regain feeling. The numbness fades and warmth returns.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Hidden Pocket

My favorite grocery store where I do most of my weekly shopping is currently closed for renovations. My kids are committed to this store’s off brand foods. Which means I have been schlepping two towns over to go to the next nearest store branch. Depending on traffic, the whole endeavor takes anywhere from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. This is for something that used to take forty-five minutes…

This last weekend I started to complain about how long the renovation is taking and how much time I wasted the last several weeks. But in the few quiet minutes before I got out of bed the day I planned to do my shopping, I was chastened. In that space between asleep and awake I heard the Lord whisper to my spirit, “I set up this time to be alone with you. Can’t you just be with me? Can’t you recognize what I’ve done just to be with you?” I had spent the last day complaining about the gift God was trying to give me, instead of receiving it.

Here again, I found myself swept up into an invitation to be in the presence of Jesus. When I look back over the times of hardship or frustration in my life there has always been these hidden pockets of time with an invitation to fill them with Jesus. Sometimes I caught it and accepted the invitation, sometimes I missed it and filled it with my favorite vice (TV).

I know my example of the inconvenience of grocery store locations is rather trivial. But that’s the generosity of God. He is in the trivial “hardship” as much as He is in the life-changing hardship. He is Immanuel, God with us, whether we take the time to see the evidence of that with-ness or not.

When I was in Israel we had this bus driver that insisted we sing “This Is the Day” every morning as we set off for the day’s adventure. The first day my group sat in awkward silence while the leaders sang halfheartedly (I mean, it was a trip for high school students, and what self-respecting high schooler is going to sing Sunday school kid songs?) the bus driver went on to goad us with his broken English about how every day was a gift from God and the goodness of God could be found in every day. So we should sing and acknowledge today and the gift it is.

The speech, combined with his terrifying driving practices, were enough to get the whole bus singing. By the end of the week we all waited for the first off-tone note to ring out from the raspy voice of the driver and we all glorified God with full gusto.

The main line of the song is actually from Psalm 118, “This is the day the LORD has made; and we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24 NKJV) However, the cheery tune and simple message of the Sunday school song doesn’t exactly translate the full story of this verse.

The Psalmist spent the first 20 verses of the psalm describes being surrounded on every side by enemies, all the while holding onto the promises of God and His salvation. The basic rhythm is like, “Thank you LORD for your character and your promises. Here is my crappy circumstance. But I will rejoice in your character and your promises. Because You are God, I will live and not die.” Then there are some prophetic references to Jesus, and right in the middle of those is our Sunday school line.

So whether today looks like a disaster, or is going along swimmingly, it is the day the LORD has made. Since He made the day, and He is with us, there is likely a hidden pocket or two somewhere in there where we are invited to be present with Him. A time to remember the LORD’s character, or His promises, or just to be. God is good, the space and time He makes for us to be with Him is good. Even if that good looks like the “bad” of traffic.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Silence

For the last couple of weeks every time I sat down to write I found myself presented with an invitation to silence. To lay down the busy thoughts, the mom-engine, the never ending list in my head. To lay it all down for a time of silence in the presence of the LORD.

Usually it seems like silence is the enemy. An empty, faceless enemy that threatens to swallow us up into our own vulnerabilities lying just beneath the surface. It is so easy to keep silence at bay with our many devices that hold endless supply of music, news, social media, and the like. We are able to spend years in an unending stream of visual and aural noise, leaving all our vulnerability unexamined and tucked away like unwanted mail.

Silence isn’t empty when it’s in the presence of Jesus, nor threatening. The silence may be uncomfortable, but the threatening edge is softened by His grace. The presence of Jesus fills the silence we allow Him like it fills the throne room of heaven. Our field of vision expands until we can see Him in every part of our lives, in every memory and every dream.

I actually love the middle of the night because it is the only time my house is quiet and I am able to find this blessed silence. Sometimes I talk to God, sometimes I don’t. Either way I find a balm for my daily weariness within the silence.

It was unusual to find it during the day. In fact it took me several days to recognize it. The blessed silence in daylight goes deeper than ears and senses. It is in the heart and the depths of the soul. Once I did indeed recognize that blessed silence and embrace it during the day I was able to experience the blessing mingled into the whirl of the day, no longer sequestered to the lonely night.

This idea of quiet is all throughout the historical books and the prophets of the Old Testament. Often quiet is paired with rest. For example, in Isaiah 14 there is a description of the fall of Babylon and the end of its oppressive reign. When it is finished and Babylon is brought down it says, “The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing.” (Is. 14:7 NKJV) It goes onto describe everyone’s joy, the joy of the land, and the joy of hell for receiving such a wicked place. Admittedly a bit grim near the end there, but I think the point is made that peace and redemption carry quiet and rest in their wake.

Another description of the redemption of Israel is found in Zephaniah, “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak. The LORD your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:16-17 NKJV emphasis added) The rest of the chapter talks about how God is going to gather His people back to Him, deal with their oppressors, and restore their reputation.

When the people of God are once again His people, living in holiness in His midst, the people regain their identity. With that restoration, that realignment, they are able to find the peace they lost when they gave their hearts over to idolatry. In His presence quiet can be found, and in the quiet there is rest.

The same is true for me. I can give my heart over to the idol of noise and pretend its rest. Or, I can submit myself to His presence, give my heart to Him. In return, He will give me His peace, His quiet. In other words, I will find the rest that can only be found in the blessed silence of His presence.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Isolation

In the middle of an essay discussing the philosophy of Edmund Burke, I found a philosophical truth that rings true in our walk of faith too. The author of the essay, Gertrude Himmelfarb, was expounding on Burke’s dislike of the metaphysical philosophers of his day. He thought metaphysics “represented the ‘Principle of Evil.’” Because there was danger in the abstraction. He thought they “falsified reality by reducing it to such an incorporeal, pure, unmixed state.” To put it in the words of Burke himself, “I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”

Beneath the old fashioned phrasing and complicated sentence structure, these authors are trying to communicate something that is both beguiling and unstable whether it is the late 1700s, the early 1950s, or now: isolation.

On the one hand there is something attractive about the idea of the hidden truth that might lay at the heart of an idea, an emotion, a political theory, if it is only isolated from the corrupting influences of that which surrounds the ideas etc. If we could only get to the essence of something then we could understand it without confusion and know the truth.

The problem is, everything is influenced by something, everyone is influence by someone, and every reaction in our emotions is influenced by past experiences that our hearts remember and apply to the present. How can you know the meaning of a quote without a bit of context? Or a society without some of its history? How can we understand the people we love without knowing a bit about their family or place of origin?

Ironically in search of the essence, insight and understanding are lost until the “hidden truth” is just whatever we want it to be. Our minds infer a meaning that suits us onto the “naked abstraction.” There’s no art without mixing the colors and there’s no understanding of truth without interrelation and context.

That’s why Burke thought it was so dangerous. Any cause could be blown out of proportion and create imbalance in government. Potentially leaving one people group vulnerable in favor of another, all in the name of metaphysical essence.

It can be just as dangerous in theological studies and biblical studies. We can take one aspect of God or the Christian faith and make that aspect the defining point of a theology. We can remove all context and connection until this one aspect stands alone, perhaps above, all other aspects. When, in all likelihood, that aspect wasn’t meant to be above all others. It had a purpose when it was in context, once isolated it can’t perform what it was meant to do, therefore losing its purpose.

For example, I grew up in a pentacostal church. One of the teachers in my youth group taught on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This person emphasized the gift of tongues, ultimately saying if you didn’t speak in tongues that meant you were not filled with the Holy Spirit. Saying that this one spiritual gift was the only way of knowing you had the Holy Spirit with you isolated it from and above the other spiritual gifts. It became the “essence” of spiritual gifts.

At the time I was mortified, because I did not speak in tongues. Up until that point I was sure I was filled with the Holy Spirit, that I knew Him. Here I was at a charismatic church with my ties to the Holy Spirit, the superstar of charismatic tradition, in question.

I don’t know if the actual doctrines of the pentacostal denomination say that about the gift of tongues or not. I never had the heart to look it up. But that is what my old youth group teacher taught and it cast doubt onto my relationship with God for years. The isolation of the gift of tongues was a destructive force in my young life.

The bible says something totally different about the gift of tongues. Paul says it is the lowest of the spiritual gifts. It’s meant to help you pray when you don’t know what to pray and for edification for you, or if there is a translation, for others (1 Corinthians 14). The absolute best teaching I have ever heard on this subject was given by Bill Cahusac, a pastor at Emmaus Rd church. It can be found on the Emmaus Rd website in past teachings, sermon series “(Super)natural.”

It was this practice of isolation that lead to heresy cropping up in early churches and church writing. I haven’t studied the Ante-Nicene Fathers (theologians from the time before the Nicene Creed) very closely, but what I have read, they spent most of their time combating heresy and trying the keep the gospel of Jesus true to His word.

We still see this vulnerability today with popular theologies like the “prosperity gospel” or the blending of religions in Universalism (also known as Pluralism). Both these theologies would call themselves Christian, yet when closely inspected many things are out of order. The disorder changes the overall message, until it’s not really the same thing.

Let’s take the prosperity gospel, the isolation of prosperity elevates the blessing promises of the Old Testament above all else until God’s only living to make His people rich. Which is not what the bible teaches, it is not what those promises meant. Those promises were attached to a relationship with the living God. They were a part of the outpouring of love from God to His people when they turned their hearts to Him and lived their lives in such a way that allowed Him to get close to them. The promise of blessing and prosperity was connected to many things that all worked together to reveal the nature of God.

Without context, those promises lose their message. They become empty promises that give us empty hope. The point of those passages in the Old Testament was God. The blessing was God in our lives. Prosperity was a byproduct, peripheral to the main event. If prosperity is pushed to the center through isolation, that means God is pushed to the side and made peripheral, which is a problem. If God is the point, prosperity gospel misses the point.

All I’m saying is, be careful of the temptation to isolate verses from the rest of the chapter, or the chapter from the rest of the book, or the book from the rest of the bible. It all relates to each other. Keep a doctrine within the context of the whole theology. Find a church, pursue God with others. Find relational context with other followers of Jesus. We are, after all, the people of God.

-Etta Woods

 

Victorian Minds. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Random House of Canada Limited. New York, USA; Toronto, Canada. 1952. Page 16.

Blogs

Baal

I was reading Psalm 106 the other day. It describes some of the Exodus story and the back and forth nature of Israel’s relationship with God as a way to showcase the faithfulness of God. I had to stop about half way through and re-read this one section because I felt like it was saying something more than just the story of Israel and God. There was something there for our lives now as followers of Jesus.

“Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe His promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the LORD. So He swore to them with uplifted hand that He would make then fall in the desert, make their descendants fall among the nations and scatter them throughout the lands. They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods; they provoked the LORD to anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among them. But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.” (Psalm 106 24-31 NIV)

Let’s break it down. First Israel despised the pleasant land. This is in reference to when Israel decided not to take the Promised Land in fear of the Canaanites (Numbers 13-14). They allowed overwhelming circumstances to sway them away from what God had for them. So that generation lost the second half of their promise and blessing, which was given to the next generation instead.

How much do we do this too? The challenges and heartache that come along in life and in the walk of faith end up persuading us to reject the promises and callings of God. When we get to the border of our Promise Land we say, “This is not what I was expecting. It’s harder than I thought it would be. If this is the blessing of God, no thank you.” We end up despising that which was meant for us and it is instead passed on to someone else.

Second, Israel did not believe His promise. God promised to go with them against the Canaanites, He promised this land of blessing was good. But they did not believe Him. I mean, despising a promise and disbelieving a promise kind of go hand in hand. It is really hard to spurn something and believe it is good at the same time.

I think the only way of holding those two things in your heart at once is to put conditions on the promise. Like, “Oh, I hate what’s going on here. But I’ve made a list of addendums to your promise. If you make these changes I’ll still believe you.” The problem is that isn’t really believing in the word of God. That’s trying to control the promise of God, trying to be equal with Him. Which never works. We are the creation and He is the creator. He makes the promise and we believe or we don’t believe. Those are the options, and all the stuff in the middle is usually some kind of sin when you get to the heart of it.

Third, Israel grumbled in their tents. Once they reached this state of disillusionment over the promise and started questioning whether they could really trust God, they started to complain. Not in the open, not before the LORD, in their tents. The place where they were in charge and felt comfortable. There was little risk of losing face or looking ungrateful in front of others in their temporary homes. So they let it all out. What was in their hearts came out before the small sympathetic audiences of family and close friends.

The rot of doubt grew and spread like mold in the dark of the tents. Complaining reinforced the doubt and quickened the spread of that doubt among the people. How true is that still today? Complaining strengthens doubt every time, and if two or more are complaining together in agreement it makes that doubt like steel in our hearts. Hard to bend or break, creating a structure of interpretation that throws the shadow of doubt on everything else in our faith and our life.

Fourth, Israel did not obey the LORD. Once doubt had taken hold through despising the promise, disbelieving the promise, and grumbling in secret, they trusted their own judgement rather than God’s word. This lead to disobedience. They did not go up into the Promised Land and take ownership of it. Instead they stayed in the perceived “safety” of the wilderness. They chose the trouble they knew rather than the trouble they didn’t know.

I get it. When I have allowed doubt to take root in my heart, and stop trusting the promise of God in one area it is excruciatingly difficult to trust Him in other areas and other promises. When the doubt is yelling in my ear to stop when God says, “Go,” in that moment I don’t want to obey God. At that point there’s a choice to go anyway, even with the pain of carrying the fear and doubt. Or to stop and live in disobedience and live with the consequences like the Israelites did.

The Israelites who doubted and grumbled did have a consequence. They fell in the desert. They died in the wilderness of doubt and petty control. They spent their days just outside of the blessing God had for them, homeless and discontent. Israel allowed fear and doubt to be their god rather than letting God be God and going forward in trust. Despite their perceptions and feeling about the situation at hand.

The problem is, sin that takes root in the heart inevitably leads to more sin. Fear and doubt make for terrible gods. So Israel went looking for a better option. They found the Baal of Peor and decided to try their luck with that god. They let the various cultures they encountered in the wilderness influence them. It didn’t stop with Baal. The Psalm says, “They ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods.” Israel started trying everything to find the security and fulfillment they lost when they rebelled against God.

I can’t help feeling like we do the same thing when we stall out in our faith. Though many have tried, you can’t just stay in one place, one moment, forever. Life moves on and we are carried along with it. So even though we said we were going to stop, we don’t. We just move in a different direction. When we stay when God says, “Go,” we end up getting swept up in the current of culture and caught up in sacrifices to the lifeless Baal of work, or the Baal of status, even the Baal of child-rearing.

As a mom, I can testify that a woman can completely lose herself in MOM and everything that goes into raising kids with all the school and cooking and behavioral theories, etc. However, child-rearing isn’t everything and at some point they grow up and leave. What’s left in the women who gave herself to the Baal of child-rearing when the children are gone?

A whisper inviting us back to the Father. Jesus has paid the price for redemption from sin. If we accept the invitation of that whisper Jesus speaks to the Baals in our lives and says, “They’re not yours anymore, they belong to Me.” We can stop making sacrifices to those Baals and remember the promises of God. We can return to the shore of the Jordan, the river of decision, and cross over into obedience. We can face our giants with God and receive the land of promise and find all the blessing God has for us there.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Stone

Have you ever had an outfit, a coat, or a pair of shoes that made you feel like you were more than you are? As soon as it’s on you feel the power surge into your emotions and boost your confidence by 10. With it on you can achieve the unbeatable beat, the ungettable get, win over any crowd, reach any goal. I mean, we have the “power suit,” the “power tie,” I’ve even read that a Chanel suit is as good as a suit of armor in New York.

Even finding that magic article of clothing at the mall or boutique makes you feel like you’re a part of something special. Especially if you go during a major sale. You’re more likely to score that exceptional something during the high fete of Black Friday or Tax Free Weekend. For some, the curation and display of clothing becomes a lifestyle. A worldview even.

Between the spring and fall fashion weeks, the shopping “holidays,” and the “book” of all books (aka: magazines) – Vogue, one could legitimately create a calendar with rhythm and punctuation along with daily reading. There is a value system and philosophy attached to the world of fashion that all those who produce, promote, and wear have in common. Here are all the building blocks with which to build the foundation of a life, an identity.

I’m not saying clothing is bad or shopping is wicked. I’m merely pointing out how easy it is to take something useful and turn it into something sacred. To build an altar to it in our hearts that become like the sacred stones Israel put up in worship to other gods. Which grieved the LORD.

The prophet Micah described a day of judgement that would bring an end to this idolatry, “‘In that day,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will destroy your horses from among you and demolish your chariots. I will destroy the cities of your land and tear down your strongholds. I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells. I will destroy your carved images and your sacred stones from among you; you will no longer bow down to the work of your hands.” (Micah 5:10-13 NIV) He is talking about more than just horses and walls. God (through Micah) is talking about the things that make men feel powerful, in control, and safe.

Chariots in biblical times was the ultimate military power. I don’t know much about military endeavors so I don’t know what the equivalent would be today. My best guess is, it’s like having a fleet of the ultimate jets or maybe the ultimate drones.

Cities were and are a source of wealth and pride. A means of displaying the prevailing culture of the land to others. A way of gathering the best there is to offer in one place.

Witchcraft was like having a hand in the unseen in life, the powers that move beneath the surface. Sort of like having a back room full of hackers and algorithm coders moving the unseen current of the internet. Influencing others and moving them like chess pieces.

But what about the sacred stones? What’s the harm of having a bit of granite sitting there to bring a bit of reassurance in the midst of the craziness of life? Apart from splitting loyalty, I think it’s the lie of it.

The sacred stones in our lives promise security and fullness, much like the example I described earlier. But the truth is a life built on the sacred stone of fashion asks you to trade in your identity for the one you’re told to have to be “in.” It leaves you poorer (likely in debt) and just plain used as fuel for the machine of it all. If other sacred stones were examined closer I believe they would leave you much the same.

The things meant to lift us up from underneath end up over us as a source of pressure and breakdown. How much are the lies we carry about ourselves a result of sacred stones in our lives or in our families? How much of our prayers revolve around the symptoms of a sacred stone?

Micah starts chapter five by prophesying about Jesus. Before God promises to eradicate sin from the land He promises the hope of Jesus. I think in some ways this order of promises is like a metaphor for the order of redemption.

First sin must be conquered. Done, Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. Then sin must be dealt with individually. To make room for Jesus and redemption in your heart, the sacred stones etc. must be cleared out. The things we eat, drink, and make must be taken out of the sacred classifications and put back into the useful ones. Once the sacred stones come down and broken down into mundane rocks we can allow Jesus to enter the sacred space in our heart. With that admission He brings redemption, restoration, and healing.

The lies of the sacred stones lose their power over us and we’re set free from them. I’m reminded of a lyric from a song put out by UPPERROOM, “So let my love song cause those lies to fall like stone around you. There they go now, don’t you know my love is all around.” It’s a song sung from the perspective of the Father about how much He loves us and His desire to remove weight of the hurt that resulted from sin.

The love of God, shown through Jesus, ministered to us by the Holy Spirit, is the power that is above the power of things and places in our lives. The sacred stones God is removing from my life probably look different than the ones He is addressing in your life. The symptoms might look similar. The solution is the same for them all: the love of the Father and our acceptance of that love.

So the next time it feels like God is removing the things I rely on I’m going to stop and examine them to see if they are really sacred stones. I’m going to try and work with God, lean on Him more, and invite Him further in to those spaces effected. I don’t want to rely on the false security of a sacred stone, and I don’t want to have something standing between me and God. I want His true security and the way clear for me to be united with Jesus.

-Etta Woods

 

“The Father’s Song (Spontaneous) – UPPERROOM” UPPERROOM channel on Youtube. 2018.

Blogs

Open Door

I’ve heard it said that in the end your Christian walk is you and God and “Yes.” Which I take to mean saying yes to Jesus’ commands, even the unpopular ones. Yes to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Yes to making your life a living sacrifice and using everything God has given you for His purpose. Sometimes the journey of “yes” is exciting, terrifying, miserable, and wonderful. It runs the full gambit.

It seems some blame God, and saying yes to Him, for the rough waters that come along in life. I’ve even blamed Him a time or two. It’s easy to assume that the yes-journey will be smooth sailing; and if it’s not, to say that life apart from “yes” would be smooth sailing. But really, rough waters come whether you’re Holy Spirit directed or self-directed. Life is inevitably a mix of smooth sailing and rough. At least with God the whole lot has a purpose and gets caught up into the great redemption story of Jesus.

It makes me think of that passage in Revelation, “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8 NKJV) This is near the beginning of Jesus’ letter to the church in Philadelphia. This church. Though small in strength still managed to keep the word of God and remain steadfast to His name. Which leads me to believe that results like that takes more than mere strength.

What’s the secret ingredient? It doesn’t say directly in this passage, but I have a theory of my own. I think the church of Philadelphia used what strength they had and added to it resolve. When we resolve in our hearts to follow through it is easier to actually follow through. When it’s easy or hard we just find a way through and persevere because the decision is already made.

I think this is why a daily quiet time, perhaps in the morning, is so key to a walk of faith. In that quiet time we are able to hear God’s whisper. We are able to realign our hearts with His. To remember our decision to say “Yes”. When its daily it keeps that decision fresh in our minds and in our hearts. It only strengthens our resolve so that whatever strength we have, whatever talent we have, it can be put towards our yes.

How amazing to plod on with resolve and meet, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.” (Rev. 3:7) Jesus has the key of David and we have the key of “Yes” and when they work together Jesus opens a door and we don’t waste time and energy trying to shut it again. Rather, we go through the open door and fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. Until we overcome and become pillars in the temple of God with the name of God written on us like the church of Philadelphia. (Rev. 3:12)

I would rather struggle through the yes-journey and come to the end as an overcomer than struggle with the consequences of “no” and the emptiness that seeps in at the seams of quitting. I’d rather fight for something than nothing. I’d rather struggle with the abundance of God than the scarcity of selfish living.

So I’m learning to rest when times of rest come, work diligently through the drudgery, and push through when times are hard. But like the times I help my four year old push open a door when it’s too heavy for him. I find when I’m pushing through, the Father is right behind me pushing on the same door with me until that door opens and becomes a door that cannot be shut.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Refuge

There is a popular theme in children’s movies of going to the circus or carnival during the conflict of the story. It’s as if to say, “Everything’s wrong in your young life, so go to the carnival. There you will find joy in the lights, music, and sugar. In that joy you will find refuge from your real life.” Sometimes they do find a solution with a song and a dance, but more often than not they find more trouble. Trouble that is darker than what they were running from.

Isn’t that true in life? Life hurts, and it can be difficult to process the hurts that come along so we run to the carnival. Whether that carnival takes the shape of a party scene, dating scene, shopping, eating, music, TV, the infinite possibilities of online, even obsessive self-improvement. We all have our own “carnival” that we run to when the sun sets in our life. At first it feels like we found the song and dance that made everything better. Inevitably time reveals the dark influences laced within our carnival.

At first we think it would be better to be lost in a frenzy of noise and sensation. Is it really better to be lost though? Then you’re just lost. I think that is one of the reasons God is found in the quiet. Silence can be uncomfortable after prolonged exposure to clamor. Once past that discomfort, the Holy Spirit can show us the way home.

“My soul, wait for God silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and me refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times you people; pour out your hearts before Him; God is a refuge for us.” (Ps. 62:5-8 NKJV)

Here is the door out of the false refuge of the “carnival” and into the true refuge of God. To quiet our souls and stay there unmoved until the Holy Spirit reveals the salvation we have in God. Until we see His glory and find that He is the rock we’re standing on. Because God is trustworthy we can trust Him with what’s in our hearts and we can pour it out before Him. “My refuge is in God.”

Why hide in a crowd when we can stand alone in plain view of our loving Father in Heaven? He who will take our hand and walk with us through the night until the sun again rises in our lives.

Sometimes I read passages like this one in Psalm 62 and insert my own wish on what it means to find refuge in God. I find myself reading that and thinking: Refuge in the Almighty God = All trouble disappears. But that’s not what it means to take refuge.

When has the act of taking refuge from weather ever made it stop raining? Or finding refuge in an inn ever made the night day again the moment the door closed? A refuge is somewhere to go until the storm has passed, until the dawn has come. It is means of going through these tricky bits of life while remaining intact.

According to Merriman-Webster refuge means, “Shelter or protection from danger or distress; a place that provides shelter or protection; something to which someone has recourse in difficulty.” Nowhere does it say “Refuge = trouble disappears.” God created refuge and He generally isn’t going to change what a refuge is for our convenience. He offers to be our refuge, not the ultimate escape-maker.

Sometimes I wonder if my wishing refuge meant something else actually causes me to reject the true refuge God offers me. Like God finds me standing in the rain and offers shelter. Only for me to say, “No thanks, I’m waiting for a rain-stopper. He’ll be here any minute.” God shrugs and stands there, The Refuge. While I stand beside him in the rain, waiting for something He never promised.

I’m not saying we can’t pray about the hard or painful things in life. I’m saying it’s a bummer to miss what He’s already promised, and offers even now, just because it’s not what we’re praying for. We can take refuge in God and pray for the rain to stop. In the meantime, isn’t it better to be dry than to be standing in the rain?

Even with life swirling around and plans going awry, we can find the blessed silence and in the quiet find refuge. We can meet with God and remember His great love before re-entering the swirl. We can leave the carnivals of life and the extra trouble they often bring behind as we press on hand in hand with God, our rock, our salvation, our refuge.

-Etta Woods

 

Merriman-Webster Dictionary Online

Blogs

Acceptance

One of my guilty pleasures is to scroll through the YouTube home page and tell it which videos I’m not interested in. I love telling the internet that it’s offering of conspiracy theories, health scares, and nonsense involving food is never going to happen. Sometimes there is inches worth of little bars saying, “Video removed.” I asked myself the other day why that is so satisfying, it is such a waste of time. Perhaps I am more susceptible to the spirit of rejection in our culture than I previously thought.

There always seems to be more thumbs down than thumbs up on the social media I come across. Trolls are no longer the stuff of fairy tales, and in real life they’re disguised much better. It seems like there are entire websites whose sole purpose is to allow people to air their complaints. The phrase, “Everyone’s a critic” has really come into its own in the 21st century.

We have so many platforms with which to reject each other. Boy are we taking the chance to do so and to do it with relish, creativity even. If Screwtape and Wormwood were real they would be going on holiday, we’re doing such a good job of tearing each other down and casting doubt on goodness. Let alone the goodness of God. (Screwtape and Wormwood are characters in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.)

Yet into the midst of this Jesus stands up and says, “I accept you.” God joins Him and says, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” The Holy Spirit whispers in our ears, “I am with you.”

Some time ago I found a talk Pete Greig did involving the baptism and testing of Jesus. After setting up the fact that Jesus’ identity was grounded in love and acceptance from the Father, Greig turned the perspective. The words of acceptance spoken over Jesus, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” are now spoken over us (Lk. 3:22 NKJV). At the time I was just about scandalized, those words from God belonged to Jesus, not me. At the same time, I was desperately hungry for them to be mine too. For that acceptance to apply to me.

I took some time to digest this message and came to the conclusion that Greig was right to turn the perspective. If I am in Christ and His righteousness applies to me, His acceptance also applies to me. Paul eludes to this a few times throughout the epistles. I find the two clearest examples to be in Romans 3:21-26, and 2 Corinthians 5:12-21.

In Romans Paul basically says that God revealed His righteousness in a new way. Before it was the law (or the Old Testament) but now in Christ we see righteousness “apart from the law.” The law only confirms the truth of the new revelation we find in Jesus. Paul goes on to say that, “Even the new righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” (Rom. 3:22 NKJV) I take this to mean that when you come to believe in Jesus you take on the mantle of this living revelation. Jesus’ righteousness is now your righteousness and your life is now a revelation to those around you. Paul describes grace and redemption and brings it back to this living revelation, its purpose being, “to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness.” (Rom. 3:26 NKJV emphasis added) Our life, now, is the continuation of the revelation of Christ and His righteousness that He is waiting to give to any who believe.

The text in 2 Corinthians echoes the message in Romans. Paul lays the ground work for salvation and redemption but it doesn’t stop there. Now our lives are lived for Jesus and His purpose of spreading salvation to others. Whatever life we were living up to the point of our salvation is over and we are made new in Christ, “therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV) Then Paul elaborates on reconciliation; how we are reconciled to God and how God desires to reconcile the rest of the world too. Paul says that our role is to be “ambassadors for Christ” and that representation of Christ through our life is like “God […] pleading through us.” Paul wraps it up by reaffirming the righteousness we have in Jesus by saying, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21 NKJV) In other words, when we are in Christ, we have His righteousness as our own.

Why would God go to all that trouble to give me righteousness, new life, and new purpose; but withhold His acceptance? No, when I unite my life to the resurrected life of Jesus all the blessings of the Father’s love is poured into my life, including acceptance. Including the words, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”

If we are to emulate Christ, then we should incorporate the discipline of acceptance. Why am I calling it a discipline? I think rejection is so pervasive in our culture it will be something uncomfortable to practice, perhaps feeling unnatural. Yet we must work at in order to overcome the formation from culture as we are re-formed into the likeness of Christ.

Our ability to give acceptance to others, be it their work or they themselves, is like an atrophied muscle. Meanwhile the “court of public opinion” and various apps and social media have made our rejection muscle strong. We must reverse that in ourselves and strengthen the acceptance muscle and let the rejection one shrink at least to a healthy proportion.

I believe that looks like giving words of encouragement to each other in person and online. Or showing the love of Christ whether you agree with the other person’s politics, philosophy, lifestyle, etc. or not. If persuasion is necessary, let kindness and generosity be our tools of influence. They are far more effective than words have ever been. As ambassadors of Christ living out the new revelation of righteousness in the present, we too must stand in this tide of rejection and join Jesus in saying, “I accept you.”

-Etta Woods

 

“Pioneer Leaders Conference 2015 – Pete Greig.” Pioneer Network YouTube channel. 2015.

Sculpture in picture by Louise Bourgeois

Blogs

Names

Shakespeare once asked through Juliet, “What’s in a name?” The bible answers, “A lot.” You can pray in the name of, baptize in the name of, preach in the name of, speak in the name of, call on the name of, and be free in the name of… We have songs about the name of Jesus, liturgies involving the name of Jesus, sometimes alone in the middle of the night all that’s left to say is His name, “Jesus.” It is, after all, the name above any other name.

What matters is whose name you’re using in all that name of stuff. Paul warns the church not to get caught up in celebrity pastor mania, “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. […] For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be of no effect.” (1 Cor. 1:12-17) There is no name that replaces or supersedes the name of Jesus and we should claim no other name than His. Gifted speakers though there have been, are, and will be; they are still servants to Christ, mere messengers.

It’s kind of all right there in the Great Commission, the last words Jesus spoke to the disciples as he ascended into heaven at the end of Matthew, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mtt. 28:18-20 NKJV) Jesus is the great redeemer who won the authority over the earth back from the enemy. Jesus was given authority over all heaven. It is in His name and the names of the other members of the Trinity that we are baptized. It is in His name and under His authority that we go and spread the gospel and make disciples. Our validation, our calling, and the power to carry out that calling all come from Jesus and His name.

A stunning example of the power in Jesus’ name is found in Acts 16. While Paul and Silas were in Philippi doing their missionary thing, they acquired an unlikely herald. On their wd. A girl “possessed with a spirit of divination” started to follow them around calling out, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” Paul didn’t like this. Luke doesn’t tell us why Paul wasn’t happy, just that Paul was, “greatly annoyed.” Whatever the reason, Paul finally has had enough and turns to face the girl and says to the spirit in her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Luke tells us that the spirit came out “that very hour.” (Acts 16:16-18)

What’s amazing to me about this story is that Paul wasn’t even speaking from a place of ministry in his heart. He was annoyed, and he acted on his feelings. Yet the spirit still came out of the girl! She was freed in Jesus’ name whether or not Paul was at his finest or his grumpiest. The authority belongs to Jesus. We just wield that authority as His agents, and despite our imperfections God carries out His will through His name.ay t

Jesus gives power, or rather, lends power, through the use of His name. Sometimes power can be removed by using a name. When we name a fear or lie, especially when we do it in the presence of Jesus, that fear or lie loses its power over us. Jesus’ name defeats their names. His power defeats their power in our life.

We have an active part to play in the power struggle over our lives. By using the names of what is happening in our hearts we can take the power from the bad and give it to Christ who will replace the hurt with His healing. Jesus replaces the old names with His name and we are new in Him.

The thing is, we have to be the one to call on the name of the Lord. We have to name the enemy agents in our lives. We participate in the power struggle by inviting Jesus into the fray within us. We then must allow the Holy Spirit to fill the gaps left by the enemy agents so there’s no longer any room for them within us.

Like Paul, we can turn and face what’s inside and call it out in the name of Jesus Christ. And like that girl we too can be freed in Jesus’ name. That all is exciting and liberating, but we should be careful not to get caught up into the heady drama of this liberating power in our lives. We need to remember the why behind the liberation and the power Jesus brings to help us overcome the demons in our lives.

The reason Jesus went to the cross, made atonement for our sins, won all authority, gave His disciples His name so they could use His authority so they could reach us: To give us new life and bring us back into relationship with Him.

Some of the disciples made the error of getting caught up in the power of the Name of Jesus and forgetting why they carried the power in the first place. At the beginning of chapter 10 in the gospel of Luke, Jesus sends out 70 of His followers to spread the gospel. He gives them some instructions and off they went. Upon their return they were filled with joy and told Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” Jesus replies by reminding them that He was there when Satan first fell from heaven. He then reminds them that He gave them the authority they used to subjugate the demons, and goes over some of the power that comes with that authority. But He doesn’t stop there, in the middle of his speech there is the equivalent of a big fat BUT… at which point he points out that they altogether missed the point of what they had. “Neverthelesss, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Lk. 10:1-20 NKJV) *

It’s almost as if Jesus said, “Satan is out of heaven, the demons are out of heaven, you may be out of heaven at the moment and here with Satan and the demons and all their distractions. BUT your names are in heaven. One day you will join your names and Me there, while Satan and his crew will not.” When we accept Jesus as our savior our names are written in heaven too. Our names now hold a promise for life with Jesus, and no amount of success or struggle here in ministry or non-ministry work should distract us from the joy we have in that promise.

So let’s remember the power of Jesus’ name when struggle rises in our lives or in our hearts. I always tell my kids that Jesus’ name is their super power and they can speak it over their lives to scare fear away. They do pray like this. On more than one occasion I have suddenly heard a young voice cry out, “In the name of Jesus!” and I know fear is being vanquished somewhere in our little home.

And let’s remember the promise hidden in our own names. The promise that says we are redeemed, reclaimed, loved for eternity, and home in Christ. Because our names are written in heaven for all to know we are His.

-Etta Woods

 

Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare. Act 2, Scene 2.

*I gleaned some of my insights into this bible story from Jon Tyson’s book The Burden is Light. So if you want to go further into the meaning of this passage, and so much more, I highly recommend this read!

The Burden Is Light, Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success. Jon Tyson. 2018. Multnomah, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Pages 41-45.

Blogs

Answers

Early into my teen years I remember wondering why friendship in real life didn’t look like friendship in my books. I remember asking myself why I couldn’t find a faithful friend who was on my side when it came down to it. Maybe that’s just middle school. Then again, maybe it’s a sign that something has gone awry in culture at large.

It’s so easy to quit. Dislike. Unfollow. Unfriend. Sometimes it is healthy to stop, sometimes it’s just quitting. There’s a line somewhere in there designating the difference. Sometimes that line is hard to see. I think I stumbled upon something to help shed some light on it in the Psalms.

Near the end of Psalm 85 it says, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Ps. 85:10 NIV) We long for faithfulness, the answer of where to find it is love. When I look back over my life the things that I have stuck to and hung onto, even to the point of fierceness, are the things and people I love most. It’s a short list, I’m sorry to say, but at least there is a list at all.

So our faithfulness problem is closely linked to a love problem. With so much drama, brokenness, and casual attitudes towards love in our culture it’s no wonder that we don’t know how to love. Or a better way of putting it might be, we don’t know how to express love properly. As Michael W. Smith wisely sung in the early 90’s, “Love isn’t love until you give it away.”

One of those ways to give love away is to be faithful. I’m talking more than just sex. I’m talking offering a listening ear, and then keeping those confidences. Or building up with encouragement rather than tearing down with criticism. Sticking up for someone in the face of personal attack, even if it means losing face yourself in the court of public opinion. Like, “I have your back bro!”

It’s a matter of doing what’s right for the other person you love despite the cost, however big or small. And doing the right thing because you love them, as well as it being the right thing to do. The love is what brings the follow through. It’s easy to see the right thing to do, the discomfort that may come along with that right thing, and back out in order to avoid the discomfort. In my experience, avoiding discomfort as a rule in life tends to lead to a loveless life.

What about the second half of that verse? “Righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Who else wants more peace in their life? I certainly do. Again, here is the answer: righteousness. Or as Nicky Gumbel puts it in his Bible in One Year app, “right-relationship.”

Think about it, when there is a falling out in any relationship, be it familial, romantic, or friendly, it creates a dissonance inside. The more discord in multiple relationships, the more dissonance inside until there is little to no peace. It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is that the falling out happened either. Regardless of who caused what, when there is a break or misunderstanding in a relationship it hurts.

So if we want a little more peace in our hearts, it might be a good idea to find some closure with some of those relationships that have fallen out. Obviously, there are some abusive situations that probably can’t be resolved with the other person, but Jesus is willing to listen and bring healing to those places of hurt. Or perhaps the person involved passed away, again you can’t go and resolve things with them. Jesus is still waiting, still listening, still ready to bring restoration.

Most of all, the relationship that needs to be made right, and kept right, is our relationship with Jesus. Sometimes it’s just time to clean out the closets of our hearts and lay it all out at His feet. It’s time to tell him the things we’re ashamed of, or the injustice we’ve suffered, or the things that we go to instead of Him for comfort and life even if they’re embarrassing or stupid.

Sometimes we just have to stand there before Jesus without costumes and masks and say, “Here is the whole wretched state of affairs.” And He can look at us and say, “Whew, I’m glad we got that out of the way. It doesn’t change the way I feel, I still love you. Let’s go for a walk together and talk some more.”

When we stop trying to be someone else to avoid the discomfort of facing God as just ourselves it opens the door to things being made right between us and God. It allows Him into the things that we struggle with so He can help us bring that strife to a resolve. It allows Him to help us remove the things that come between us so that we can be together again in right-relationship. Jesus wants us to find peace in Him.

So the next time I find myself asking, “Why can’t I find a faithful friend?” I’m going to ask myself if I’m being faithful and showing love to my friends and family (because isn’t it cool when you can be friends with your family?). When I feel I need to find peace I’m going to see if I have right-relationships with those in my life. Most of all I’m going to check my spirit and make sure there’s nothing standing between me and Jesus so I can maintain my right-relationship with Him and live in His peace.

-Etta Woods

 

Change Your World. Song title: “Give It Away.” Artist: Michael W. Smith. Year released: 1992. Label: Geffen Records.

Blogs

Hope

Have you ever noticed how much the book of Job is about hope? I know it has a bit of a reputation for being gloomy and depressing. I mean, the guy starts out on top of the world, living the dream, only to be tested and lose everything. The rest of the book is a group of men debating this turn of events. Somewhat akin to the classic Henry Fonda film Twelve Angry Men.

I love the book of Job though. In fact, it is one of the first books of the bible that I truly fell in love with. Just about the whole thing is Technicolor underlined in my first bible. Job was well acquainted with grief, and when grief struck my life he was my companion.

The book of Job is about testing and going through the refiner’s fire. But it is also about processing the loss and very real consequences of that testing. As Job processes his grief he gets into a debate about holiness and sin with his friends. In and amongst this debate they try to work out the viability of hope in the wake of grief and loss. Isn’t that a question we would all like to have answered? How can we find hope in the midst of calamity?

In chapter 4 we find Job sitting down with his friends. He’s lost his house, his children, his wealth, his wife left him, and now he’s just lost his health. One of the friends, Eliphaz, comments on the irony of Job’s predicament. Job used to help those in need, but he was still above them and retained his personal comfort. Now that need has touched his life and he is no longer above the needy, he is one of them. Eliphaz starts to question whether Job was as blameless as he thought, and asks whether he should put his hope in such shoddy holiness. (Job 4:1-11)

Eliphaz goes on in chapter 5 to say that only shady people trust themselves, and Job’s former hope should’ve been a clue to the doom that had now fallen. But he adds in the reassurance that God rescues the poor and disenfranchised, and they can hope in His justice. Implying that Job’s recent change in social status gives him the guarantee that at some point in the future God will avenge the injustice he would surely experience in days to come. (Job 5:8-15)

Job tries to defend himself in chapter 6. He says something along the lines of, “I thought I had led a righteous and holy life. If that righteousness isn’t enough, what hope is there?” Job starts to mourn his loss of joy, his inability to even enjoy food. He talks about how he used to be a source of life to others, now people came and he had nothing left to give. (Job 6)

It’s no surprise when Job starts to talk about how there is no comfort, only suffering in chapter 7. He basically says, “I’m miserable, my life is slipping through my hands. I’ve lost my hope.” He goes on to talk about feeling abandoned by God, like he lost God’s love. So Job cries out for forgiveness from God for whatever mystery sin he committed. (Job 7)

At this point another friend decides to chime in. In chapter 8 Bildad says how Job’s loss of hope only proves he was never righteous, because only the hypocrites and Godless lose hope. He tells Job to repent and get back into God’s good graces. Then he can enjoy the favor and restoration of God again. (Job 8)

Job responds to this by wishing he had a way to talk to God face to face, or someone who could be a go-between. He feels that if he could only make his case, God would see that he never wavered in his righteousness. Job feels he doesn’t need to repent, he just needs to make God see reason. (Job 9-10)

Zophar adds his two cents and basically says he’s with Bildad on this. Job did something wrong, and all this talk of making a case before God only makes Job look more guilty. Zophar tells Job to repent if he wants his hope restored. If Job returns to God in repentance, the wicked will be left behind in hopelessness while Job is safe within the favor of God. (Job 11:13-20)

Job launches into a desperate defense against the words of his friends that lasts for three chapters. Right near the end He says that a tree stump has hope for growing back if it is near water, but he has no hope of recovering. He accuses his friends of being nothing but discouraging and washing away what little hope he had when they sat down with him. (Job 14:7-19)

Eliphaz doesn’t like this and calls Job a fool, among other things, in chapter 15. But Job holds his ground in chapter 16, saying his friends are “miserable comforters,” who only added grief to grief. He did nothing to deserve the loss he experienced, he can’t explain it, but he did nothing wrong. (Job 15-16, quoted 16:2)

After this exchange Job decides he will only find comfort in death, if his life is over then the pain and confusion are over. He tells his friends that his life is over and he is ready to die. Job says if he has hope it can’t be found because it’s not there. He says his only hope is waiting in death. (Job 17:11-16)

Bildad (likely still smarting from being called a “miserable comforter” etc.) reiterates that only wicked people are punished by God, not righteous people. He goes on to describe the wicked and what they experience at the hand of God. Bildad says it’s someone who loses his home, his wealth, his children, and all security (aka everything Job just experienced). On top of which, the wicked doesn’t know the difference between wickedness and righteousness because he doesn’t know God. (Job 18)

Job is crushed. He tells his friends that their words break him down even further. Job says that if his life before loss was sin, like they were telling him to make themselves feel better, then God misled him. He again expresses his feelings of being forsaken by God and says that God left and took all his hope with Him. (Job 19:1-10)

This sparks a three chapter debate about wickedness, wicked people, and whether Job is wicked. Then Job switches the topic to God and His righteousness, so they debate righteousness and whether people are able to be righteous at all for another four chapters. At the end of which, Job spends five chapters defending himself with great detail and fine reasoning. (Job 20-31)

Job mentions hope twice in the midst of this spectacular speech. The first time he says that if he agreed with his friends’ accusations of wickedness he would make himself a liar and therefore make himself into what they are speaking into his life. Instead he agrees with the earlier statement that God wipes away the hope of the hypocrite, but only after establishing that he isn’t one. (Job 27:1-8)

The second time is near the end of the speech. Job essentially says, “If I had put my hope in money, worshiped false gods, celebrated the downfall of others, or turned away from the needy and vulnerable, I would understand Gods silence towards me.” Job ends the speech by saying he wishes he could break the silence himself and defend his life before God. (Job 31:16-37)

After six more chapters of debate about whether Job is innocent, God’s justice, righteousness verses self-righteousness, and God’s goodness. God shows up (whew!). God spends four chapters revealing his majesty and omnipotence. In the middle of this revelation, Job realizes he does need to repent, not from wickedness but from pride. After God finishes speaking Job repents of his pride and finds restoration in his relationship with God after which God restores everything Job lost, but greater than before. (Job 38-42)

I know that was a bit of a long haul, but what a picture. Job lost his hope because he was listening to lies and curses from those around him rather than listening to God. He clung to his right-ness, he was right and everyone else was wrong, including God because He wasn’t recognizing Job’s right-ness. There isn’t any hope in pride and being right. There’s only offensive and defensive in the game of Right-ness. Job was right but there was no comfort in that knowledge.

So when loss comes we need to remember the lesson Job learned and stop using what right-ness we possess as our shield against grief. It is a poor shield. Rather we should cling to God, His love and kindness. We should remain in Christ so that His righteousness might be our shield. Let’s kick pride out of our hearts and make room for God, His restoration, and His hope.

-Etta Woods

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Trust

According to my Strong’s concordance, trust is mentioned 131 times in the bible. 104 times in the Old Testament, 50 of those in the book of Psalms alone. Sometimes the trust described is not trustworthy. Like trusting in power other than God to be your salvation. When Hezekiah was king of Judah he had a deal with Egypt that ensured aid from their army and chariots in the event of military conflict.

The LORD rebukes Judah’s trust in Pharaoh and his chariots, “‘Woe to the rebellious children,’ says the LORD, ‘Who take counsel, but not of Me, and who devise plans, but not of My Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who walk to go down to Egypt, and have not asked My advice, to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore the strength of Pharaoh shall be your shame, and trust in the shadow of Egypt shall be you r humiliation.’” (Is. 30:1-3 NKJV) Judah put their trust in Egypt and themselves above their trust in God. So they counseled with themselves and other world powers to sort out their problems rather than turning to God for direction. The irony being that they turned to the very country that used to enslave them to find salvation.

Don’t we do that too? God delivers us from sin but we keep turning back to it when things get hard. We put the old comforts and habits above God in our trust. God knows that the sin that used to enslave us won’t save us. The sin will likely only enslave us again. Out of love, God warns Judah and us, “Don’t go back! I know it looks like the best option but it’s a trap. Come to Me instead. I was your salvation before and I will be again.”

Judah’s trust in Egypt did bring them shame. In 2 Kings we hear an account of the King of Assyria sending a messenger to Judah to herald their impending doom. This messenger mocks their reliance on Egypt saying that, “You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh King of Egypt to all who trust in him.” (2 Kings 18:21 NKJV) After the threat of attack was delivered, Hezekiah humbled himself before the LORD with prayer and fasting. God saved him from calamity. (2 Kings 19) The story is confirmed by the Prophet Isaiah in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah recounts this encounter and mockery word for word, king Hezekiah’s response, and God’s deliverance in his book as well (Is. 36-37)

In these moments when we are tempted to lean on the old staffs that look trustworthy we need to remember who God is, “We will rejoice in your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners! May the LORD fulfill all your petitions. Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving strength of His right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:5-7 NKJV) When trouble comes we can say “I am the LORD’s.” We can take our troubles to Him and He will save, He will answer, He will send strength. Instead of turning to the old “stablizers” we can remember who God is and put our trust in He who is trustworthy above all other.

I think this is why Psalms has the most mention of trust. It is a book full of struggle and remembrance and praise. God made a promise to be faithful and to send His salvation to His people. All throughout the Psalms and, indeed, the Old Testament, God is reminding His people: remember who I am, remember My promises, I won’t let you down. God doesn’t let them down either. Because after the Old Testament comes the New, and in the New Testament Jesus is revealed. The ultimate salvation for us all.

So I join with Isaiah in declaring, “Behold God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song” (Is. 12:2 NKJV)

-Etta Woods

 

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. James Strong. Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody, MA, USA. Page 1079.

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Confession

I committed this blog to the Lord. I committed to write something every week that He could use to reach someone somewhere, however He would use it. I don’t know His side of the story, but I know my side, and my side is an exercise in faithfulness.

I don’t have an observation to share this week. I, like many, struggle with anxiety. I don’t talk about it, I just work to overcome it every day. Well, anxiety has had a strangle hold on me these last weeks and I am strangled of all ideas and insights. I don’t want to let this stop my attempt at faithfulness to the commitment I made to God with this blog.

Anxiety is not my king. Jesus is my King. Even if all I have to offer is a confession to a bramble of anxiety in my heart, I know He can do more with my humble offering than any groundbreaking, well researched, polished and perfect paper offered out of my own strength. And by making this offering, anxiety is robbed of the last word over my life and defeated. At least for today.

The Apostle Paul confessed to a thorn in his flesh to the Corinthians. God is using that confession to impact His people even still. So I stand with Paul and affirm in my life that which the Lord spoke over Paul all those years ago:

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9 NKJV)

-Etta Woods

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Attention

There is a quote I heard on a podcast a few weeks back that has been following me like a shadow since I heard it: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” (Mary Oliver) The quote was used in a discussion about worship. The point was made that attention given to something or someone can become a form of worship. It’s got me thinking about where I’m putting my attention, whether there is somewhere I should stop giving attention or maybe start giving attention? Where is all my attention going? Everywhere.

I can’t seem to give my attention to one thing, it always seems to be split ten ways. I’m doing three things and thinking about five other things. I’m managing four ongoing conversations with my kids. The Mom Engine never powers down so whatever else I’m trying to do gets sucked up into the Engine and caught up into everything else. My attention is all over the place, no one thing or one person ever seems to get all of my attention.

I can’t decide whether that is a good thing or not. Probably not. Aren’t we so conditioned to have split attention? Several windows open on the computer screen, several tabs on the web browser, the TV on, the radio playing, the phone with its endless notifications and ringtones grabbing and keeping attention for embarrassing amounts of time. In college I couldn’t research or write a paper in silence, something else had to be on in the background. Now it’s the age of the earbud, something is always on in the background.

My theory is this: we don’t like to give our full attention to anything because it is uncomfortable, vulnerable even, to do so. If attention is the beginning of devotion, then withholding full attention keeps me from devotion and the risk of heartbreak. Full attention is all the senses, all awareness, your whole being. Just like its risky to put all your monetary assets in one place, it seems risky to put all your mental and emotional assets in one place. We’re taught to diversify, and boy do we do it well.

The problem is, people are not money. We were not meant to be split up like commodities and split up for safety. We were meant to be one person interacting with one God and other people who were themselves one person. I talked about this in a past blog Integrity, so I don’t want to rehash the whole thing. I’m just saying even if we’re living a life of integrity, there is a loophole – attention. Actions, words, lifestyle can all be going in one direction; but attention can be all over the place all along the way. Devotion weakened and limping all along the way too.

Meanwhile God is asking for our attention. “Hear O Israel; the LORD our God the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4-5 NKJV) The LORD is one, and we too should be one before Him. Our whole heart, soul and strength should be pointing towards Him. Our senses, awareness, our whole being should be present in His presence. Our full attention on Him.

It may take practice to recondition ourselves out of split attention. It could even turn into a journey of revelation and renewal taken with God to unlearn and relearn how to give Him full attention that takes longer than a few tries. I am nowhere near giving God all of my attention, but I’m working on it. It’s uncomfortable, but I’m learning to live in discomfort in order to break through to something better.

God is good, all the time, and at the other side of the discomfort of change is the LORD, waiting with more of Himself to give. When my attention is united as one before Him I will have more of myself to give Him in return. I just have to turn off the TV and the radio and put down my phone and my books. I have to stop singing long enough to hear His song calling my heart to His.

-Etta Woods

 

The podcast referenced: This Cultural Moment: This Cultural Moment live at Wildfires in the UK

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The Chair

Some of my favorite pastors to listen to on Podcast or Youtube have talked about the idea of having a chair where you meet with Jesus. The chair where you sit in the wee hours of the morning and pray with your bible. Somewhere that is made sacred by these times and creates a safe place to be vulnerable with God. This idea resonates with me, I have had many chairs over my lifetime. Where all I had to do was sit in it and I was in His presence, surrounded by the comfort of His embrace. I hadn’t thought much of this quality of my prayer chairs until one of these pastors pointed it out. Oddly enough, having it pointed out created a point of contention: I can pray anywhere. I don’t have to go to my chair to meet with God.

For me this small rebellion played out in the space of about two yards, whether I spent my quiet time with Jesus in the seat near my chair or in my chair. I’d wake up to pray with a list of excuses for not sitting in my chair, but later in the day I’d sit in my chair for the moment of comfort that couldn’t be found in the neutral seat. In my spirit I knew the difference between the neutral seat and my chair, but my mind wouldn’t yield.

God is consistent in His character and His movements. We can see this in the bible and probably in our own lives if we take the time to reflect. For example, in the bible you can read the story about God meeting Moses on Mount Horeb. This is the burning bush moment where God tells Moses to take off his sandals because it is holy ground. Moses receives his calling and goes to free Israel from captivity in Egypt (Ex. 3:1-4:17).

Later you read about God meeting His people at Mount Siani after they leave Egypt. This is where they receive the Ten Commandments and other instructions on how to live in freedom now that they were out of slavery (Ex. 19:1-24:18). It is another holy place. Or is it? In fact they are the same mountain, the same holy ground, the chosen chair.

Later still we read the thrilling account of the prophet Elijah. He’s the one who confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and called down the fire of God to light his burnt offering. After this triumph Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, sent Elijah a death threat. Elijah fled to the wilderness. He walked for forty days and forty nights, where he ended up at Mount Horeb. A man of God went to meet with his God at a known sacred place of meeting. God indeed met Elijah there, not in the wind or the fire, but in the whisper. (1 Kings 18:1-19:12)

What’s the deal with chosen places of meeting? What makes Mount Siani sacred and the mountain down the way mere rock? Why can I feel the arms of the Spirit’s presence in my prayer chair but not in the neutral seat two yards away from my chair?

I think it is on account of two things. First of all, God doesn’t play hard to get. He wants to be found. God made it public knowledge that Mount Siani/Horeb was sacred, and if you wanted to find Him, He would be there waiting. Always.

Second of all, it gives us the opportunity to submit and let go of everything that might get in the way of meeting with God. Moses, who grew up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, was now alone and far from any false grandeur or pride. Elijah spent forty days and forty nights walking in the wilderness. He too was now alone and far from the glory of his triumph. They came to God not as Pharaoh’s grandson, or the prophet that shamed and defeated the prophets of Baal. They came humbly as themselves. Not in strength but in weakness. Not going to tell God what He needed to do, but going to listen to what God had to say.

It’s the same with my chair. God has made His mark, blessed a patch of my house as sacred. He wants to be found by me, and I know where to find Him. Praying in my chair also gives me the chance to submit to God. To meet Him on His ground rather than insisting He meets me on my ground at the neutral seat. In one place I am trying to dominate the relationship and take control. In the other I am humbling myself and acknowledging that I can’t control God and shouldn’t try to do so. Not to mention, domination is not love, nor is control love; and if I bring either to my relationship with God I am no longer offering Him a loving relationship but a toxic one. I don’t think my toxicity will ruin God, like it would in a relationship between people. But I think it might grieve Him.

So I work to quell the rebellion in my heart against praying in my chair. Because I don’t want to give God grief. When I go to have my quiet time I know where to go to meet God. I don’t have to search in vain for where God will be waiting, I know where He is waiting and I can go right to Him. I should be praising God and singing hallelujah that I have a prayer chair and He is there waiting. Always.

-Etta Woods

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Confidence

Once I was heckled by a guy buying lotto tickets at the liquor store next to the coffee shop I was leaving. He was mad that I looked well-groomed and drove a car from a posh manufacture. In this man’s perception I was a “high roller” confident, rich, and worst of all entitled. There were many other accusations of a more vulgar nature that followed. Apart from being upset and leaving as quickly as possible, I thought it was ironic. In reality I was wildly insecure, had very little money, and entitled to nothing. The trench coat I was wearing was purchased for a dollar from a mission store and had a hole in the sleeve. My purse was a Gucci replica from the Chinese market in town. My car was 4th hand and working on two out of six cylinders. In fact, it died shortly after the incident. I went to that coffee shop largely on account of their inexpensive tea and unpopular location, which meant I would run into no one who knew me. I was anything but a “high roller” but this man’s perception of me caused him to lash out.

Isn’t perception always dangerous like that? Especially perceived confidence. Someone in leadership who everyone perceives as confident and follows, even though that person may have no leadership skills. Someone who through perceived confidence becomes a cultural influencer, though they may have no moral compass. Someone who ends up with a microphone, and has nothing life-giving to say, or empty of all substance, yet there they stand running their mouth. They were perceived to have confidence and that perception assigned value and depth that maybe wasn’t there.

What is behind perceived confidence? Something must be there, or else people wouldn’t have noticed in the first place. Honestly, this is my opinion, but I think all it takes to look confident is some nice clothes, a full smile, and a sizable helping of arrogance. Just add attention from others and you’ve got yourself some perceived confidence.

Why arrogance? When in a state of arrogance you feel like you know the answer, how to do what needs to be done, be the person everyone wants in their life. Someone who has the answers has no weakness to worry about. Someone who knows what needs to be done has no uncertainty. Someone who is the person everyone wants to be around could never be lonely. In short, the opposite of small and insecure. Or, a false sense of confidence.

But what happens when all the bravado fails you? A question comes, to which you don’t know the answer? You’re assigned something you don’t know anything about? Your friends stop calling? Suddenly perceived confidence cannot get you out of the humiliating truth that you’re just a man or woman with shortcomings and vulnerabilities.

Without arrogance the whole thing is deflated and you’re left standing there looking terrified or dumbfounded. No dress can cover that. No amount of dental prowess framed with the latest color in lipstick can make up for the emptiness of silence.

Where can you go when perceived confidence is not enough? Where can you go to find true confidence? The only answer there is to last you through your lifetime is: Jesus.

There is a phrase about pride and humility that shows up three times in scripture, which makes it significant. Every time we see it, another layer of meaning is revealed. The phrase is: He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.

The first time we see it is in Proverbs. Solomon is warning not to envy oppressors because God is silent towards the perverse but keeps the righteous in His secret counsel. This is when he says, “The curse of the LORD is on the house of the wicked, but He blesses the home of the just. Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble. The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the legacy of fools.” (Prov. 3:33-35 NKJV) The NIV says, “He mocks proud mockers, but gives grace to the humble.” Solomon is telling us that when we humble ourselves before the LORD and counsel with Him in the secret, quiet place we will find blessing, grace, wisdom, and an inheritance of His glory. All contrasted by the life of the oppressive and perverse: becoming an abomination to God and therefore separated from Him, curses, scorn (or resistance), and shame. (Prov. 3:31-35)

The next time we see it is in James. We learn that living with sin rather than dealing with it creates conflict with the Holy Spirit within us, as well as others in our community. James confronts fighting with others in church and points out that all those fights are a result of various sins rooted in the hearts of people. So James encourages his church to deal with their sin in order to restore peace within the community and within the individuals. (Jam. 4:1-4)  Then he says, “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (Jam. 4:5-7 NKJV)

The way to deal with sin is to humble yourself before the LORD, submit to Him, and find grace. In other words, because of Christ and the outpouring the Spirit, you do not have to stay in sin and all the curses that come with sin that Proverbs lists out. You can submit your life to God and the redemption of Christ and enter His grace. Therefore leaving the curse and entering His blessing.

Last of all we find our phrase in 1 Peter. Peter talks about church life and what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, “Likewise younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothes with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him for He cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:5-7 NKJV)

This expands what James taught us. Now being humble before the LORD means submitting to God as well as your fathers and mothers in Christ and brothers and sisters in Christ. Share your life together and you have the benefit of the strengths and wisdom you find in your elders and peers. In turn you may have strength or bit of wisdom to share with another during their time of need. God likes to work and move through us.

Here’s the thing about my story at the beginning. I read vogue, I knew I looked the part of a high roller to some extent. I was trying very hard to infuse my insecurity with some shred of confidence. Even if I looked the part, it didn’t solve the problem. Looking the part only procrastinated the need to deal with the problem and prolonged conflict in my life. I was still insecure, and none of the perceived confidence or attention (good and bad) from that perception solved my problem or healed the insecurity in my heart.

Rather I should have taken James’ advice. I should have put away my $1 trench coat, and the replica purse and just been myself. Instead of hiding in public, I should have gotten alone with God and submitted my insecurity to Him. Better yet, found someone to confide in. However painful it might’ve been to share it. I could have found the grace of God and been comforted. Which would’ve been better than feeling even more insecure after what happened outside the coffee shop.

What makes the whole thing truly ironic, is chasing after perceived confidence as means of running away from humbling yourself before God only leads to being humbled. What does resistance do if not humble you? James is saying, you can either choose to humble yourself and find comfort. Or, you can go on being proud, meet resistance that will humble you. After which, there is no comfort from the resistance in your life. Usually there’s just a lingering sense of humiliation.

Now I am older and though I sometimes dress the part when going into a setting that makes me feel insecure, I go to God first and talk about it before going. I like going out but now I try to do so with the intention to meet people rather than avoiding them. I still like nice clothes and pretty bags. I drive a mom car and it makes me happy to have something where the whole family fits. I’m not a high roller, or a perceived high roller. I’m just a daughter of the Father, and the confidence I have from that is enough for me.

-Etta Woods