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Be Still

Early morning prayer.

I love it.

I wrestle with it.

Most of my kids are morning people, which means getting up for early morning prayer before them, is getting up while it is still night. It basically means being a night owl on the front end of the day rather than the tail end, and I’m not sure that is what the Lord meant when He said you are the head and not the tail. Then again, He is a both-and kind of person. So who knows?

Getting to that prayer time is sublime though. Those first few moments, when that blessed silence sinks in like warmth from a fire on a cold day. Sometimes I can’t seem to move on from this peaceful silence and it ends up being the whole prayer time. I love it so much.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a mother and most of my day is loud. My ears haven’t stopped ringing since we had three and beyond. Perhaps it’s because the world has grown so loud in its unrest, it is nearly deafening. Either way, silence is more precious to me than it ever has been before.

The words from Psalm 46 resound acutely in my spirit. The whole thing is about war and upheaval. Yet in the midst of the storm there is God, a faithful refuge, sustaining strength, ever-present. David tells us how to find Him and tap into those blessings: Be still. (Psalm 46:10)

Stop long enough to touch the peace emanating from the Prince of Peace. Enter into His environment of stillness and meet with Him. Know Him. Experience Him in the blessed silence, and allow the knowledge of God to fill your heart with peace. Abide in Christ through the Holy Spirit in stillness, and find refuge and strength. Find peace that passes all understanding.

The peace Jesus gives us is beyond understanding because it is in the midst of the storms. Storms disrupt, flood, upheave, and even destroy. If we are in a storm, the effects of that storm should be evident in us, yet here we stand in peace, filled with the stillness of one who knows God.

We become like the disciples on the boat with Jesus in the midst of the storm in Mark chapter 4. Jesus just wrapped up a teaching tour of Capernaum and Galilee and decided to take the red eye boat over to the Decapolis on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are working the sails and making sure the boat stays on track, while Jesus goes down below for some rest. A large windstorm arises over the lake when they are in the middle.

There is no getting out of this one, the only option is to go through it. Now the disciples are working double and struggling to keep the boat afloat. But it’s still taking on water. This storm is beyond their strength and skill.

So they go below to where Jesus is. They leave the outside environment of the storm and enter into His place of rest. They stop striving against the storm, and stand still around Jesus to ask Him for help, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38 NKJV)

That’s when Jesus moves, “He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ and the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:49 NKJV) In Greek, the word Jesus used for “be still” is πεφιμωσο, from the root word φιμοω. Which means silence, but in a forceful way. Like to make silent and keep shut through a muzzle or bridle. It’s silence that implies subservience.

 The Prince of Peace spoke peace, and the storm was brought to subservience to Him and became silent. The wind dwindled into rest. The sea became still at the revelation of the knowledge of God through the word of God spoken by Jesus.

 The peace that surpasses understanding, became a reality for the disciples. They learned the lesson of Psalm 46: be still and know that I am God. That same peace becomes a reality for me when I am in the blessed silence of early morning prayer.

 But really I find I can access that peace during any prayer in which I take a moment to stop, come into surrender, and allow Holy Spirit to speak the word peace. When He does the storms in me to come into subservience to His word and are made to be silent in His presence. Perhaps the storms outside of me still rage, like the wars in Psalm 46, but now I am still and I know God is greater.

I think it was John Mark Comer who said we as the church need to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. I believe this state of non-anxiety is achieved through this sort of peace. The peace that is spoken by Holy Spirit over our hearts. The peace that brings chaos into submission until it is silent. The blessed silence we can enter every time we pray, even in the early morning.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Reel

Sometimes reading the bible feels like scrolling through God’s camera roll. A great deal of the pictures are of Jesus, and He’s wearing different outfits or standing in different settings. A lot of them are like selfies, nearly the same picture but for slight changes in angle and lighting. I can imagine Jesus scrolling through as well, and liking what each one reveals about Him, so He shared them all in His book.

One of my recent favorites of these series of holy selfies, if you will, is a description in Song of Solomon and Revelation. They share a lot of the same language and have a similarity in tone. In keeping with my metaphor, they look like the same picture except in one Jesus is looking at the camera because He is looking at us, and in one He is looking ahead because He is looking at the joy set before Him in the final works of salvation and redemption.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 NKJV:

 “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave; its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.”

You might be saying to yourself, hang on, this is talking about love, not Jesus. In one sense, that is true. It is the Shulamite describing the love she has experienced with her Beloved. In another sense, the whole book is about Jesus’ love, pursuit of, and relationship with the church. In which case, it is the Bride of Christ looking at Him and describing His love. To describe the love of Jesus is to describe His heart, and to describe His heart is to describe Him.

At face value, this sounds pretty violent. The key words are: death, cruel, fire, vehement; it’s unquenchable, un-killable. It cost everything and yet was despised. I mean, vehement actually means passion that is strong and violent. How is this love? How does this show a picture of Jesus?

If the church is the Bride of Christ, then sin and death are villainous kidnappers who stole her away from Jesus. In Hosea we have a description of what the redeemer of Israel will do to their oppressors. Or we could read it as a prophetic picture of what Jesus will do to death: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction! Pity is hidden from My eyes.” (Hos. 13:14 NKJV)

Christ the redeemer is as strong as, and stronger than death. He will destroy death without pity. Jesus knew what it would take to redeem us along with Israel. It would take the cross. His love is as strong as death, even death on a cross. His love is stronger, because on the third day, He rose again in resurrection power. His jealousy for His people sparked a fiery zeal that death would call cruel, and the grave would call violent.

So yeah, I would say that Song of Solomon’s description of love is a description of the strong love of Christ that caused Him to pay the ultimate price, to give all of His wealth for us, even when some despise Him.

Revelation 1:13-16 NKJV:

 “One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to His feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in the furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters. He had in His hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.”

In Revelation, John hears Jesus speak to him, and he turns to see Jesus. But it’s not the Jesus he knew when they spent three and a half years in ministry together. This was the resurrected Jesus preparing to deal the final death blow to Death. To plague it unto destruction, just like He promised in Hosea.

Again, this description includes fire. It’s in His eyes, it’s polished His boots, and the expression of His face is shining like the sun. Which, by the way, is a flaming ball of fire that has the gravitational pull strong enough to hold 8 planets in orbit. The vehement flame that caused Jesus to look at us and say, I’m going to pay it all in Song of Solomon 8, has now consumed Him and transformed Him into the Lion and the Lamb who is worthy to finish the job.

The many waters that tried to quench love in Song of Solomon 8 is now the sound of His voice. Jesus speaks and it is unquenchable. His word is un-killable, it will not return to Him void. When He speaks a word of rebuke, His enemy is vanquished by the two-edged sword of His word.

Jesus is looking ahead to the final battle that is about to begin, as described in the book of Revelation. He is looking ahead to the final fulfillment of every promise His people have carried and prayed into over millennia. He’s looking at us, the Bride of Christ, reunited with Him, The Beloved, and it has created an expression that is like the sun.

When I look at this picture of Jesus, I feel the gravitational pull of that expression, it pulls me ever closer to His love and His heart. I feel the heat of His fiery love fill me and transform me like silver in the refiner’s fire. The fire of Jesus’ love sparks a fire in me, a zeal for Him. Until I too, with the Shulamite, say to my Beloved: Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal upon your arm.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Cake

Cake is on the brain. I’m in the thick of birthday season for my family, which means baking a lot of cake. It takes all 13 years of acquired experience and skill to pull off the different flavors, designs, dietary restrictions, and dreams of the half grown people in my life. Every year I feel like I have to learn more and up my game a little in order to pull it off again.

I love it though. The challenge. The hunt for that recipe or technique that pulls it all together. I watch all the baking shows, and reels. I read the blogs and cookbooks. Just to find that pearl of cake wisdom. There are virtuosos of cake who know what I need to know, and they’re willing to show me if I’ll just look.

Some people are taking it to another level. These bakers are like getting all Michelangelo with their cake and fondant. They make these wonderfully intricate sculptures, only to cut into it and show you that it’s cake. Then laugh and take a bite.

I’ve seen more than a few that are just everyday objects. Nothing spectacular at face value, except that something special is hidden in the banality. Those are the ones that get me. Your eyes are telling you it’s one thing, but their knife tells you it’s another thing altogether.

Sometimes I think church can be like that too. There are theologians and teachers who are absolute wordsmiths. They create beautiful ideas with their words, making it so easy for your mind’s eye follow their line of thought. It constructs an understanding that tells you one thing until the two edged sword that divides between soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Heb. 4:12), reveals the heart of it to be something else entirely.

There’s one I’ve been mulling over for some time. It doesn’t even start in the church. It starts in culture.

At the moment, I would say the prevailing philosophy being worked out in culture is Humanism. It’s all like, “Look at us, aren’t we great?” There’s an unspoken expectation for us to curate something more than a reputation: an image.

That image becomes a brand that we can offer to each other in exchange for belonging. Wear the right clothes, drive the right car, read the right books, have the right guilty pleasures that make you accessible, on and on and on. Whether that “brand” offers anything of value to the world or not, you better have it and it better be on point.

It seems to me that the accepted idea of success these days looks more like acquiring the worship of others, than adding value, or having integrity, or raising up the next generation to have stability and strength of character. We have traded the hard work it takes to develop any of the things I just listed and traded it for a “get rich quick” scheme of personal branding.

This didn’t happen overnight. The seeds were sown for this present day culture during my childhood, it is merely coming to fruition now. I remember adults around me responding to these seeds by creating a parallel church culture and pushing it really hard as the only virtuous alternative. The underlying message was, “Save your children from secular humanism through church.”

The sad thing is it didn’t save us from Humanism. Humanism is still a part of our lives because it is a part of the culture we live in, whether we like or not. To top it all off, Humanism made its way into the church, it just got rebranded.

Humanism in the church looks different than cultural humanism, it looks like religiosity. I mean religion that has more to do with programs and right-ness. A Christian brand was created to offset the many personal brands. As long as you subscribe to that Christian brand and maintain it in your persona, you are in.

I fell into religiosity for a season and have two problems with it. First of all, it caused me to lose sight of Jesus. The actual Jesus, the man sitting at the right hand of God interceding for all to be saved through Him. I forgot just how much He loved me, the real me, underneath the brand. I lost track of His mercy and grace. I spent all my time making sure I was the right Christian version of me.

Which leads me to my second qualm, I carried it all in my own strength. It was all about me, what I could do to earn my place. I learned to think about how to leverage my gifts to make Jesus look better within the religious brand. The question became, how could I make myself look better while making Jesus look cool too?

It was incredibly lonely and exhausting. All of it. Instead of seeking Jesus in the secret place and reflecting God’s glory back to Him through my life, I tried to re-package what little glory I had and tried to make that enough glory for the both of us. Even though Jesus never asked me to do that.

One day Holy Spirit came with His two edged sword and cut me right to the heart. He revealed what was underneath the sweet exterior I had created around myself. It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t cake.

Over the next 6 years or so, Holy Spirit walked me through the dismantling of Humanism from culture out of my heart. Then He did the same with religiosity. I cried, and repented a lot. I sent more than one apology to people in my life. It was humbling, and freeing. Because, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor. 3:17 NKJV) Once I was free from all that philosophical bondage, it was just me. The actual me sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him and loving Him. Like I did when I first believed in Him.

Now I don’t spend any time on any kind of brand, personal or otherwise. I try to live a life faithful to my family and my Beloved, Jesus. All the glory I need is His glory reflecting off my unveiled face as I spend my life beholding Him. The only image I want to transform into is His.

“But we all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor. 3:18 NKJV)

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Turnaround

The internet liberated music from cassette tapes and CDs. With all these online radio type platforms, like Spotify, not only can you amass your current favorites, but also all the old favorites. The lost favorites, from that CD that got fried in the backseat of your car senior year of high school, or that tape that got eaten by your tape deck in 6th grade. Even as far back as that old vinyl your dad listened to all the time (that you secretly loved) until the record player broke. All the music of your life is there in one place, accessible at any time. Add social media to that, and people sharing what’s playing on their air pods, it’s a whole new world.

I’ve been pretty hooked on a jazz album called “The Turnaround” the last year or so. Someone shared it, I checked it out, and that was it for me. It’s not the only thing I listen to, but it is the one I keep going back to again and again. In moments of alone time in the van, the odd hour spent sewing, or moments of prayer, it’s on. Some people like to pray to quiet contemplative music like William Augusto, I like to pray to jazz. What can I say?

God took it to the next level. About 4 months into this Turnaround marathon, a friend shared a prophetic word online, entitled: The Turnaround. It caught my attention, as you may expect, and got me thinking. My current favorite jazz might have more significance than the music.

What is a turnaround really? Fundamentally, its change. A change in direction, in finance, in health, in overall quality of life. Things were going one way, now there’s been a turnaround and they are going the other way. Usually it means a change for the better.

There are times when God does bring a turnaround into our lives. After pruning and growing anew, there’s fruitfulness. The season of loss has turned to a season of abundance. Those who sow in tears will reap with joy (Psalm 126:5). It is such an encouragement to hold onto that prophetic promise of God’s turnaround.

There’s more to the turnaround than the promise though. It is also a posture. Whether its figurative or literal, one of the heart or of the body, it’s a posture.

I recently went through a study on Revelation 1-3, and right at the start of chapter 1, John turned:

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I head behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,’ and, ‘What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’ Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw.” (Revelation 1:10-12 NKJV emphasis added)

Jesus spoke to John, but John had to turn around to see the full revelation that Jesus wanted to give him. John’s turnaround opened up revelation that is still giving revelation to believers today! Jesus gave John a promise of revelation in His greeting, “Write what you see.” But John’s change in posture triggered the fulfillment of that promise, “Having turned I saw.”

The turnaround for John was a prophetic promise and a prophetic response. The same was true for Moses. He was shepherding along in the wilderness when the burning bush caught his eye. At which point he turned to see it more clearly (Exodus 3:1-6). That turnaround brought him into his calling as deliverer, and it changed not only his life but the historic trajectory of Egypt, Israel, and even Canaan. It created a change that would ultimately lead to Jesus, our hope and salvation. The turnaround for Moses triggered a turnaround for Israel, and out of Israel came a turnaround that is available to all past, present, and future.

Our turnaround isn’t automatic. The gospel is an invitation, a promise that is fulfilled when we change our posture, when we turn to see the Man holding out that invitation to us. In 1 Peter, the apostle writes, “For he who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and His ears are open to their prayers.” (1 Pet. 3:10-12 NKJV emphasis added) He’s talking about repentance, the sort of repentance that changes our speech and habits, and the way we interact with others. He’s describing a posture of turnaround that is in response to Jesus.

Peter wasn’t the first person to say this, in fact he’s quoting David from Psalm 34 (verses 12-15). Repentance has always been a posture that opens people’s lives up to the promises of God to be fulfilled in those lives. It is a theme all throughout the history books of the bible, the poetic books, for sure the prophets, the gospels, and the epistles. It is all throughout the entire scripture.

I can just picture God burning in all His holiness and realness, and us walking along. Sometimes the light from His burning catches our eye and we turn aside to behold Him in all His glory. Other times He calls out to us, “Behold, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, live what you see.” So we turn, and having turned we see, and having seen we change.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Dandelions

I like flowers.

In fact, I love flowers. For my 18th birthday my dad bought enough cut and potted flowers to line the route from my bed to the breakfast bar in our house, so when I woke up there they were. An absolute assortment of beauty to mark my first steps into adulthood. I could go on, but I’ll save you the sonnet.

My kids are aware of how much I love flowers, and they regularly shower me with bouquets of weeds and little flowers that grow in the grass. They are usually little bunches of clover or violets, but the most popular choice is a bright yellow dandelion.

Growing up, the adults around me who worked a garden or kept their lawn perfectly manicured hated dandelions with a passion. Once they took hold, they spread like brilliant yellow wildfire, spoiling all perfection. On more than one occasion I spent the afternoon digging these out of the yard.

My youngest told me he loves these yellow flowers. He says it’s because they bloom over and over again, so there’s always new ones to pick. Dandelions are indeed a generous flower that gives in quiet abundance day in day out, year after year.

While some may feel enraged by these flowers, I get a thrill. I’m talking delight, and smiles that are real. This spring the island of grass in a road round-about was absolutely full, right to the edge of the curb, with dandelions. It was a joy to see every day on my way to school pick up. It felt like a bouquet from God just for me.  

It got me thinking about the generosity of God.

Thanks to movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “Bruce Almighty,” I think we get a skewed understanding of God. Like He’s only plagues and power. All cinematic heresy aside, He’s more than raw power, He’s also a gentle whisper. He is the God who sees us. The Lord saw Elijah despairing in the desert and sent ravens and angels to care for his needs and strengthen him (1 Kings 17:1-7, 19:1-10). He saw Hagar and Ishmael dying of thirst in the wilderness, and sent an angel to show her a well (Gen. 21:1-21).

When I read through the bible, I see God working in His people’s lives through humble every day kinds of things. Like the miracle of the oil and the flour. During the drought, Elijah stayed with a widow. She had enough oil and flour to make one more meal, and that was it. No more money, no more supplies, famine in the land. That was the end for her and her son. But God lead Elijah to her house, and as long as he stayed there, the oil and the flour did not run out. It was a miracle, and it was simple at the same time (1 Kings 17:8-16).

This went on for several years. Bread made of olive oil and flour. Day in. Day out. They lived through the drought until God sent rain to Israel. It reminds me of the manna the Israelites had in the wilderness before they came into the Promised Land. There was no food in the wilderness, not that they could farm when they were always moving about. So God sent miraculous food, called manna, which covered the ground instead of dew every morning. Again, it was miraculous, but it was also the simplest food, and this went on for decades (Ex. 16, with mentions throughout Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua).

I feel like sometimes when we ask for miracles we expect filet mignon and caviar. Because with that skewed understanding we think, “Hello, God is all powerful and flashy as heck. If He’s going to break into the natural, why not do it in luxury?” However, I don’t remember reading anything about the widow’s oil being infused with black truffles after a year to prove they still had the favor of God on their lives. I don’t recall there being one word about the manna showing up garnished with macarons to bring some color and sweetness to the experience.

Or there’s the Israelite’s clothes. When they were in the wilderness their clothing and shoes did not wear out. They were walking around in those robes and sandals for 40 years (Deut. 29:5). Like, those were probably handed down from one generation to the next, they held up so well. This was for sure a miracle. I can’t seem to get a t-shirt to last longer than a year, sometimes not even that. Yet the provision was still basic, even in the midst of the miraculous. It’s not like God saw holes in their clothes and left new clothes at their tent entrance, like an Amazon delivery, to give some variety to the Israelite’s lives. He could’ve, because He is omnipotent, but He didn’t.

More often than not, God’s generosity and provision are more like the dandelions in my back yard than some lavish English garden. They’re found in the everyday things, the basic elements of life. It’s not showy, or entertaining. The Lord’s gifts are better than that, they’re faithful. You can count on them every day. His gives provision in such a way that needs are met without creating new problems. Daily bread was better than daily macarons, because it nourished the people and didn’t create the eventual health problems caused by a diet consisting solely of cookies.

It’s easy to resent the dandelions in our lives when we live in a world that says life is only good when it’s full of orchids. It’s so easy to write off the seemingly small answers to our big prayers, and say they don’t really count. I’d go so far as to say it’s hard to recognize the faithfulness of God, as we’re swimming in a culture of faithless and unreliable. When we don’t know what faithful generosity looks like, we tend to say, “Someone needs to mow those dandelions.”

The faithful generosity of God will probably look different for each of us in our various situations. But as for me, I pray every day for the Lord to help me properly see the gifts and provisions He has sent. To help me have a heart of gratitude for the stability within His simple faithfulness. This summer it has started with seeing a dandelion and saying, “Thank you.”

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Sheltered

What does it mean to live a sheltered life? It’s a question I’ve often pondered. As a young person I was accused of being a sheltered person, as if it were this great offense. As a mother I worry that I shelter my kids too much. What is a sheltered life, and is it a bad thing or a good thing? Maybe it just is what it is.

I’ve been reading through The Business of Heaven by C.S. Lewis. Lewis is talking about how you don’t know the strength of something until you go against that strength and find out. He then transitions into talking about temptation. He says Christ came against temptation fully, knew exactly the full strength of temptation and overcame it. On the other hand, someone who gives in to temptation over and over knows very little about temptation because that person has never stood against it. It is at this point that Lewis says the following, “They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.” That is, the person is sheltered from the struggle with temptation.

Here is a totally new way of thinking about the sheltered life. My background causes me to assume someone who gives into every temptation has lived the opposite of a sheltered life, because that someone has been exposed to every vice. Yet Lewis argues they are the one who is sheltered and the person who resisted temptation is living a full life because they have known the struggle.

According to Lewis I never lived a sheltered life, because I have always struggled and wrestled with life at every phase. He has turned the whole question upside down. Which is the true meaning of sheltered? Shelter from vice, or shelter from struggle? Perhaps this is a Hebrew moment and the answer is, “Both.” We are both sheltered from each other’s heart ache, whether it is the ache that comes from the consequences of vice or the ache that comes from struggle.

Jacob experienced both aches, which perhaps makes him the least sheltered out of all the patriarchs of Israel. As a young man Jacob was the Deceiver, who stole the birthright and the blessing of Isaac from his twin brother Esau. He ran away when Esau threatened to kill him and ended up working for his uncle Laban. While he was there he brokered many deals that sounded like good news for Laban, but were in fact good news for himself because he knew a thing or two about genetics and how to manipulate the flocks to breed the sort that were under his claim. Jacob tried to find loopholes in tradition to allow him to marry Rachel the second daughter of Laban before Leah, the first daughter. But Laban didn’t fall for that one. Jacob always found a way to get what he wanted at whatever cost to those around him. He always gave into the temptation to manipulate and suffered consequences from those actions. There was a lot of heartache.

When things started to sour between Jacob and Laban, Jacob ran away from his problems and returned home to see if his old problems had dissipated. On the way back to Canaan, he hears word that his brother Esau heard of his return and was on his way to meet Jacob. Jacob is worried, he might not be able to get out of this one, so he tries some of his old tricks by sending his servants, his wealth, his wives and children before him to flatter Esau and incite mercy. Once everything and everyone is sent on ahead Jacob is alone in the wilderness.

It is in this wilderness, this midnight hour in Jacob’s life that he meet’s a stranger and they wrestle. Some say the man is an angel of the Lord, some say it is a pre-incarnation of Jesus, others are altogether vague about how this person is connected to God. Either way, the stranger is considered to be some facsimile of the Lord. So Jacob wrestles with the Lord through the night and almost wins. The sun is about to rise and the man realizes Jacob might win so he touches Jacobs hip and the hip came out of the socket. Jacob kept wrestling, so the man asked Jacob to let him go. Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The man asks Jacob his name and says this, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” They stop wrestling, Jacob tries to find out who the man is, but gets no answer. He decides he saw God and is content that the encounter didn’t kill him on the spot. Jacob never fully heals from his injury and he is indeed called Israel from that point on. (Genesis 25:20-32:30, quoted: Gen. 32:26,28 NKJV)

The point is Jacob knew giving in to temptation, and he knew wrestling. He wrestled with more than just temptation, he wrestled with God. I think in the end he learned that the better ache to live with is the ache from struggle, and the better shelter is shelter from vice. From that point on he lived with the ache in his hip from the literal struggle and he moved forward under a new name and a new blessing, a blessing from his heavenly Father and that blessing was his shelter.

With this example we can make an intentional decision about our lives. We can decide which ache we want to live with and which shelter we want to live beneath. I used to struggle out of blind obedience, but now I struggle with assurance. I feel blessed to have lived a sheltered life under the blessing of my heavenly Father, and I ache from the struggle with sin and darkness but I know in Christ I have prevailed and I will prevail.

Which shelter will you choose? That of giving in or that of the blessing of the Father? Which ache will you live with? That of consequence or that of the struggle? Will you come under a new name in Christ, and His blessing? Will you prevail as Israel prevailed? It’s not too late to change shelter. Jacob was not a young man when he wrestled with God, he had two wives, two female servants (unofficial wives) and 12 sons when he encountered God in the midnight wilderness. It’s not too late to choose the blessing and struggle that leads to life rather than the shelter of non-struggle that ultimately leads to emptiness.

-Etta Woods

The Beloved Works of C.S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, The Business of Heaven. C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace & Company. Inspirational Press, a division of BBS Publishing Corporation. 252 W. 38th St, New York, NY, 10018. 1984. Page 338.

Quotation originally found in:

Mere Christianity. C. S. Lewis. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 866 Third Avenue, New York, NY, 10022. 1952. Page 125.

Blogs

Debt

Our kids are getting old enough to watch some of the movies my husband and I grew up watching. So every couple months we’ll pull out a classic from the 80’s and 90’s, like “Surf Ninjas” or “Parent Trap.” Recently we watched “The Princess Bride.” Amongst all the one-liners, adventure, and plot twists, there is a torture scene. Only instead of the usual array of knives and whatnot, the hero is hooked up to a machine with hoses and suction cups. This machine sucks out years from his life. He ends up losing something like 50 years, just to protect his true love. He sacrificed his future for his right-now.

Watching this as an adult, it made me think of credit cards. Only instead of sucking time through hoses and suction cups, they suck out the time it’ll take to earn the money that will need to be paid in the future. The greater the debt, the further into the future the proverbial credit-machine sucks, in order to pay for a right-now cost.

The problem, of course, is that debt can so easily get out of hand and grow until it overshadows life. It can be so hard to get ahead once it’s there. One could even be in a season of financial increase, but it doesn’t feel like it because all the increase is going down that hose, into the past. It can be so hard just to get to zero, when one is under debt.

A while back I was sitting in a women’s bible study, watching the video that went with the study. The teacher was talking about Romans 3:9-10, talking about how we are all under sin. “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no not one.’” (Romans 3:9-10 NKJV)

It got me thinking how much sin can be like debt in its effects on our lives. The consequences of sin just keep adding up and weighing down until it’s hard to get ahead of it. It starts to sabotage our future, and suck the hope out of life. It can take an increase and flip it into the negative in a flash, and grow to overshadow everything.

That’s why Jesus is such good news. He bought our sin-debt with His blood on the cross. He broke its power over all who believe in Him when He rose again on the third day. So that He can look at each of us and say, “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has made you well.”

The debt is cancelled, paid in full by Jesus. Only, He takes it a step further. He doesn’t just spiritually bring us back to zero, He fills the account to full. He doesn’t just remove sin from over our lives, He lifts us up into the light. The light of His love through His Spirit.

In John 16, Jesus tells the disciples that He is going to send Holy Spirit, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. […] When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:7, 13 NKJV) Holy Spirit fills us, and walks with us and teaches us the true meaning of grace and love.

Romans 8 really fleshes out what life with Holy Spirit is like, “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. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:1-2 NKJV) Paul sets the stage here: If you are in Christ, then your debt is paid. You’re free. You’re no longer under sin, but now in Christ. On top of which, you have the Spirit and He’s walking with you.

Paul goes on to further compare life lived according to the whims of sin (flesh) or one lived according to the Spirit in our actions, thoughts, and relationships. One brings death, and one brings life; and if we happen to fall back into death, the Spirit is waiting with a fresh touch of life for us.

It doesn’t stop there, Holy Spirit also tells our spirits that we are children of God. Then He teaches us how to call God Father. “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.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Rom. 8:15-16 NKJV) Paul explains that our adoption into God’s family means we get the same inheritance as His Son because we become joint heirs. Heirs in suffering, and heirs in glory.

After talking about what this means for creation, Paul gets back on the subject of Holy Spirit and what that means for hope. We have hope in Jesus, and the future restoration of the created world and our physical bodies when Jesus returns. But until then it can be hard to hold onto that hope. So Holy Spirit teaches us how to hold on through prayer, “Likewise the Spirit also helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom. 8:26 NKJV)

Not only does Holy Spirit teach us how to pray while we wait and hope, He picks up where we leave off in prayer. He takes our hearts and our tears, our groans and our silences; and He turns it into intercession. He tells us everything’s going to work out for good, just keep loving God. Keep living out His call on our lives. Every messy, exhilarating, mundane, beautiful day lived according to the Spirit changes us and prepares us for every promise that will be fulfilled, every blessing poured out, even unto glory.

Romans 8 ends with the end of living this way. Holy Spirit, and everything He reveals is pointing us to something. Or rather, to Someone. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which in in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39 NKJV)

It’s all for love.

Paying our debts of sin, and taking us out from under it: done because Abba loves us.

Filling the emptiness inside of us with Holy Spirit: done because Abba loves us, and wants us to know it.

Growing us up into maturity in Christ: done because Abba loves us, and when we know it we want others to know it too.

The LORD loves us with an everlasting love. A love that desires that none should perish. This love will not be stopped by sin, or cut off by death, or exhausted by time, or wearied by the world. His love conquers sin, takes the keys of death, and overcomes the world. All so He can look us in the eye and say, “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”

-Etta Woods

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Strength

I used to think that verse about not by strength nor by might but by the strength of the Lord, was like a promissory note: If you ever find you don’t quite have enough to get the job done, God’s waiting in the wings with some strength on reserve. Now I know that is not the case. It’s not even what the verse really says!

The text actually reads, “So he answered and said to me: This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6 NKJV) The word for “might” here is “Chayil,” which implies the sort of might that comes from having an awesome army, or from substantial wealth. So when you read “might” in this verse, picture Alexander the Great teaming up with the Renaissance Medici family in order to accomplish the purpose of the LORD. Like, if anyone could move the course of humankind, it’s them. Because they did change the world in their lifetimes. Yet, even their level of wealth and power won’t be what brings about the desires of the Father on earth. It will be His very own Spirit.   

At the same time, Zerubbabel was at the heart of what God was doing in Israel after they returned from exile in Babylon. So how was he supposed to rebuild the temple, but not in his own strength? Why did God say this to Zerubbabel through the prophet Zechariah in the first place?

I think it’s because our natural inclination is to work for the Lord out of our own strength. In my experience, living out my “Yes” to Jesus’ call on my life in my strength ends up warping the fruit of that work. I short-change Jesus’ input and cut off the influence of Holy Spirit in my work. My strength shrinks the production from an entire orchard to one tree, my tree. My might puts a limit on Jesus’ redemption and becomes what I can replicate as my own redemption.

In fact, I wore myself out trying to work out the call of Jesus on my life. I made a mess of things. Like Zerubbabel, who was worn out after only laying the foundation of the temple, I came to my end right at the start. But that’s when grace kicked in.

The Father knew I was going to try it my way first. He knew I was going to wear out long before the thing was finished. So He waited until I came to my end and in surrender said, “I can’t actually do what You asked me to do!” That’s when He moved and the nature of the work changed from my might to His strength.

Where I stopped, the Lord started. When I stood still, the work really began. And I think that’s the secret: the job doesn’t actually start until my strength is spent. Only then can God start His work in and through my life. God does His work with the strength of His Spirit through my yielded heart.

I think it was Bob Jones who said God takes a really fine pastor and spends 20 years wearing him down before He can use him. Perhaps that is because a really fine pastor has a lot of personal resources to go through before he can truly surrender the work to the Spirit of the LORD. I wasn’t able to properly see or understand the truth of the strength of God until my strength was gone and out of the way.

Zechariah went on in his prophecy, “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of, ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech. 4:7 NKJV) A mountain levels into a plain when one stands before it at the beckoning of Holy Spirit. Walls of hewn stone are secured by a capstone when the words whispered by Holy Spirit are spoken by a tongue surrendered to the LORD.

A yielded heart releases the richness of Holy Spirit into everything it produces. It moves the heart of God so deeply, He sends His angelic armies to bring about a shift in the spiritual unseen that ultimately changes the natural that is seen. We don’t see the spiritual warfare around the mountain in front of us, we just yield and see it level before us. We don’t see who lifts the capstone into its place when we speak, “Grace, Grace to it!” We just yield and speak His word, because Holy Spirit told us to speak it. The word of the LORD does not return to Him void, but accomplishes what He pleases, and it all falls into place.

Why? So we know it wasn’t us, it was Him.

The LORD of hosts sent Jesus to walk with us and hold our hand. “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands shall also finish it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.” (Zech. 4:9 NKJV) It’s as if the winds of the Spirit blow and we bow in surrender as response to those winds, like the branches of a tree in a strong wind. The world cannot see the winds of the Spirit, but it can see the evidence of it in us, and our posture testifies that it’s God.

When I read this passage now, I like to imagine the picture: God the Father tells Jesus to speak, Jesus speaks the word, and Holy Spirit completes the word to confirm it. Along the way He turns to us, with a glint in His eye and says, “Wanna come?”

-Etta Woods

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Vain

I’ll never forget the exact shade of dinge my brother’s socks were the day my grandmother reamed him out when she heard him say “holy cow.” I was so ashamed and distraught during this episode I couldn’t look at their faces, so I stared at his sock-covered feet the entire time. The lecture involved a short lesson on swearing, euphemisms, Hinduism, and the Ten Commandments. Needless to say I did not utter that phrase until my adult years, and I still carry a lingering reluctance to speak it.

Ah the third commandment. It has sparked a lot of division in youth groups everywhere. Is “geeze” short for “Jesus,” and does that count as taking the Lord’s name in vain? I’ve even heard it argued that the phrase, “oh my word” is really a violation of the third commandment because Jesus is the Word of God and therefore one of His names that should not be used in vain.

I dropped out of this argument a long time ago, because I am not gifted with verbal argumentation. I have rather arbitrarily landed on the side of “euphemisms don’t count.” Being Midwestern, I have a plethora of euphemistic phraseology worked into the very fiber of my being to draw from at any given moment of tension.

Honestly, I think God is so much bigger than these petty arguments that have nothing to do with the heart. God is more real than swearing and our traditional understanding of what swearing is. He is deeper than our understanding of language itself. So there must be more to the third commandment than “geeze.”

When I think of a name, I think of a person attached to that name. Be it fictional, someone I know of, or someone I know. A name is very rarely just a name, which I think was the general idea behind Shakespeare’s bit about roses and their name in Romeo and Juliet. So, the name of God is inextricable from His personhood, His character, His heart, and all the rest.

In my understanding, to take the Lord’s name in vain is to speak wrongly about who He is, or to talk about Him in a manner of apathetic emptiness. To shrink God into someone He never was, and then convince others the shrunken version is the truth about God. It’s to use God’s name in such a way that all of His power, and glory, and love is reduced to vain nothingness.

What’s really a shame is not, “holy cow” but telling people that God is a slot machine: say the right words in the right order at the right time and, Jackpot! Even worse, people believing it. When all along, God is a living, breathing God who doesn’t interact with us formulaically; He interacts with us relationally. Our prayers should be based on relational history with Him and His word, the scripture.

Sometimes I find myself wondering about John 14, and how this idea of misunderstanding the use of God’s name works in our prayers. It is the last supper and Jesus is telling the disciples all His final thoughts before going to the cross. One of those thoughts was on prayer, “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14 NKJV)

I couldn’t tell you how many times in my childhood I followed up a prayer with, “I said this prayer in Your name Jesus. Now you have to do it, or else You lied.”  These weren’t holy prayers, they were little selfish prayers about candy and clothes. Which I’m sure the Lord found very entertaining. But how much does this surface level, formulaic understanding of these verses bleed into adulthood prayers? Ones about cars, and status, and yes, the inescapable subject of clothes.

I wonder if praying these selfish prayers in the name of Jesus is a form of taking His name in vain. Because Jesus didn’t give this comment as a formula for how to use Him to get what we want. He gave this teaching in the context of relationship. I think He meant His name to be used in prayer as a seal over the words from our spirts to His when we speak to Him in prayer.

Chapter 14 starts with Jesus telling us about God’s house and how there’s room for us there. Then He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NKJV) The teaching about praying in Jesus’ name is sandwiched between a teaching on Jesus’ one-ness with the Father (a.k.a. God), and a promise that He would send the Holy Spirit. Essentially explaining that because Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again He made Himself a way to the Father.

In other words, if we unite ourselves to Jesus we can again have a relationship with the Father through Him with the help of Holy Spirit. So when you pray from that place of Trinitarian relationship and seal it with the name of Jesus, it will be done.

Sorta makes the selfish prayers look lame, one might even say vain.

-Etta Woods

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Ask

I found an open workbook for school on the table today. One answer had been filled in and the rest abandoned. I went and found the son to whom the workbook belongs, and asked him, “Hey, what’s up with this unfinished page?” He sheepishly replied, “I didn’t know what to do.” We walked back to the table and finished the page together so I could show him how to find his way through this sort of problem next time.

I wondered why he didn’t ask for help. He must have got off to a good start with the first question, gaining a bit of momentum, only to have his heart sink as he read through the rest of the questions – each one more perplexing than the last. I wondered how long he struggled to figure it out, only to come to the conclusion that this particular challenge was too much for him. He could have come to me as soon as he hit the first setback in his lesson, and I would have helped him gladly.

The whole thing reminded me of something my husband said to me last month. He was talking about the end of Mark 4, where Jesus and the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in the night and get caught in a storm so bad the boat starts to take on water. Jesus is asleep in the boat and they wake Him up when they’re afraid they might die. Jesus wakes and speaks to the wind and the waves until all is calm. Once the danger has passed, Jesus asks the disciples why they were afraid and had little faith. (Mark 4:35-40)

Archie pointed out that the situation was dire, and anyone would have been afraid in it. So why didn’t the disciples ask for help sooner? Why did they wait until they were seemingly at the point of death? It’s almost as if Jesus was asking the disciples why they chose to struggle against the storm in fear when all along they could have had the faith to ask for help. They chose to try in their own strength and it was only when that strength was spent that they went to Jesus.

I found this to be a very humbling thought. I am exceedingly guilty of trying to do everything in my own strength. The tendency is to wait until I’ve been overwhelmed for a while and everything’s a mess to go to Jesus. Ever since this conversation with Archie I have tried to think of the disciples, and ask Jesus to help at the first sign of a storm.

After all, doesn’t Solomon praise the Shulamite for leaning on her Beloved in Song of Solomon? (S.of S. 8:5) Doesn’t Solomon also admonish his son to, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Prov. 3:5-6 NKJV emphasis added) Not only that, but Paul tells us to rejoice in our weakness because the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9 NKJV)

The evidence in the scripture seems to say that there is no shame in asking for help from Jesus. In fact, it seems to be the preferred response in believers to the storms of life. So why wait ‘til I’m spent and ragged in my soul? Why hide my vulnerability from the Man who sits at the right hand of God praying for me (Hebrews 7:25)? Why not have the faith to ask, and believe that He is listening, and know that He will answer me one way or another?

Faith can be a funny thing sometimes. One summer we lived in a house without a basement, and the storms were particularly bad that spring. I was so worried one would develop into a tornado and we would have no basement to shelter in during such a storm. I could see the storms coming from miles away at my kitchen window. So I found myself praying at the first sign of those periwinkle blue storm clouds on the horizon.

I had the faith to pray against those storms. I prayed them down from tornado watch, to severe, to regular old thunderstorm, to a benign drizzle. That tornado siren did not go off once, apart from the monthly test. I had no need of a basement, I had the God of all creation hearing my prayer and working it out on my behalf. In fact, we ended up having a bit of a drought that summer. Everyone’s lawn fried in the sun until they were all a nice kaki color.

Yet, sometimes it’s easy to hesitate when it comes to life’s circumstances. I have to ask myself, why would God listen to me praying about the weather, but not my children? Why would He sustain us in safety through tornado season, but not make a way where there seemed no way in finances? Why did I find myself expecting a stone, when I asked for bread?

I find myself joining with the man who came to Jesus on behalf of his ill child, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23) It was so kind for the gospel writer to include that prayer. To show that we can have belief and ask for it to grow. That it’s ok to pray for more belief.

This prayer shows that it’s ok to lean on Jesus while the faith to lean on Him grows. Until one day something shifts, and I find I’m still leaning on Jesus, except now it’s not an anxious leaning. Now it is a restful leaning. Resting in His love and acceptance. Resting in the knowledge that Jesus wants me there, leaning on Him. He wants me to ask about the storms in my life and the lives of those around me. He wants to pray together.

He wants me to wake him up to calm the storm.

-Etta Woods

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Word

I feel like Isaiah 55:8-9 is in the air like pollen this summer. Every time I turn around, there it is. In my bible study, on social media, in conversation, or in the sermon streamed in on my phone:

“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NKJV)

Whenever I meditate on this verse I find myself in awe of the magnitude of God. He is omnipresent, omniscient, and all powerful. God sees what I see and more, in fact He sees the whole picture. The whole of time, as well as my little part in it. God is the alpha and the omega in our story, but in His own story He is without beginning or end – eternal.

Of course the ways of the LORD are not our ways. Of course His thoughts are not our thoughts. He is so much more than our perspective and experience. He is functioning on a higher level.

Somehow there is a depth to the height of God’s thoughts. Psalm 92 tells us, “O LORD, how great are Your works! Your thoughts are deep.” (Ps. 92:5 NKJV) There is a quantum quality to God, as high as one might go in thought He is higher. Equally, as deep as one might dive into the fathoms of thought, He is deeper.

God is vast. Sometimes that makes Him feel distant to me. How could I ever rise up to meet Him in His vast infinity?

God is vast, yes. He is also gracious. In His grace He tells us that though His ways and thoughts are higher than ours there is a part of Him that comes down to us. “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, […] so shall My word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:10-11 NKJV) The word of the Father comes out from the vastness of God and lands here in our reality. His words are not empty words, but intentional and full of purpose. They are potent words that change things and prosper the desires of God.

The apostle John called Jesus the Word in the beginning of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 NKJV) Like Isaiah, John asserts that the Word comes down to be here where we are, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NKJV) God’s ways and thoughts may be in heaven, but His Word is with us.

It’s not a dormant, inactive Word. It is a Word that is working and furthering something, something that pleases God. A little later in John’s gospel, Jesus is in an upper room in Jerusalem. He is having the last supper with His disciples. While Jesus is praying, He tells us what this desire is, “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave to Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24 NKJV emphasis added) Jesus wants us to be with Him.

One could argue that the disciples were with Jesus in that moment. They were having a meal with each other, sharing food and laughter. Which is why Jesus qualified His request. He wants His people to be with Him where He is when He is in His glory. The glory that was His from before the beginning of time and creation.

Jesus goes on in His prayer, “O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:25-26 NKJV emphasis added) Jesus was the Word God sent down to earth, and He knew it.

He came to declare the name of God to the world, to live that declaration even to the point of death on a cross. That declaration didn’t end in death, but life, because He rose again on the third day and the declaration of the name of God lived once again. It lives still, because Jesus ascended to heaven about 40 days later and He is sat down at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 12:2). Not only alive, but working still because Jesus is interceding for us that all might be saved and brought to where He is that His desire might be fulfilled (Romans 8:27).

Why? Why all of this?

For love.

Jesus loves us so much He wants us to have the love of the Father fill our hearts and our understanding. His desire cannot be truly fulfilled without it. If we were to go to where Jesus is and behold His glory without being filled with the experience of the love of God the Father, that glory would have no context.

It’d be like looking at the Mona Lisa without her smile. Like looking at the mist coming off the Niagara Falls, but having our back to the falls themselves. Like reading Pride and Prejudice with all references and mention of Mr. Darcy cut out. The glory of these things are in their relationship to each other, and it is the same with Jesus and the Father.

Even though Jesus is not physically here with us since His ascension, His declaration of the love of the Father continues to prosper through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John 16 He was sending the Holy Spirit to be our helper. He reveals the sin that hinders us from receiving the love of the Father. He helps us to break its power in our hearts so we are again able to open our hearts to His love. Not only that but to trust that love and the One giving it. So that one day when we are indeed where Jesus is, beholding Him in His full glory, we will know Him and say, “Oh, it’s you!”

-Etta Woods

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Relationship

I am guilty of being the person who hears corrective teaching and elbowing the loved one sitting next to me. Like, “Did you hear that? Because that is for you.” Or reading portions in scripture that are calling out some behavior and making a list of all the people who I think have that problem too. Of course, I would do the Christian thing and turn that list into a prayer list, and pray for God to do something about it. I was like this because that was the church culture I grew up in.  A judgy culture. Judgement in the heart that was justified by re-labeling it as “Love,” or “Concern.”

In the last few years God has gently pointed out that I am not the judge, He is. He further pointed out that I needed that elbow every bit as much as the next member of my family. I experienced the love of Jesus through every humbling epiphany, and His love showed me that my judgy-love was not love at all, but something more like contempt.

So now every time I feel that old urge to judge people around me when I read my bible, I stop and do a heart check. More often than not, the Holy Spirit is there whispering, “I’m talking to you, about you, in order to save you.” So I work it out with Jesus from there, before going back and praying for other people. Because once I’ve worked out my own stuff I am free to pray for them out of the love I received from Jesus in that area.

I read through the book of Revelation recently. Chapters 2 and 3 are words of correction and affirmation for 7 churches. I could see the current Church in all of those ancient churches, and I could hear the Holy Spirit whispering again about my own heart.

In that moment I realized something about God: He practices what He preaches.

In His lovingkindness, the Lord takes a moment to show me what’s come between us. The sin that is damaging me and damaging our relationship. He comes to me to see if we can’t work it out – just like Jesus teaches us to do in the gospels. God doesn’t ask me to do anything He isn’t willing to do Himself!

In Matthew 18, Jesus preaches and tells parables. In between parables He says, “Moreover if a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” (Matt. 18:15 NKJV) In other words, if somebody wrongs you, go and talk to that person and see if you can work it out.  

This bit is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one, and the parable of the unforgiving servant. That’s the one where a master forgives the astronomical debt of his servant. The servant turns around and leans harshly on a fellow servant over a small debt. When the master finds out he rebukes the servant for not showing the grace he was shown and throws him into debtor’s prison. (Matthew 18:10-14, 21-35)

I can’t help but notice that both parables are about lost-ness. The sheep is lost because he wandered away. His relationship with the shepherd is broken when he drifts too far. In fact, his relationship with the flock is broken by his distance as well. The shepherd restores their relationship by going to find the sheep. When he restores the sheep to the flock, his relationship with the group is restored. The shepherd rejoices when he finds his sheep.

In contrast, the servant experiences a break down in relationship with the master because of his debt. The master restores their relationship by forgiving the debt. The servant rejoins the group of servants, and there is a breakdown in those relationships too over debt. But instead of carrying the restoration he experienced with the master into those relationships, his actions with the servant in debt to him grieve the whole group. When they go to the master for help, the servant is sent away, and then he is really lost.

The shepherd and the master practice the lesson of Matthew 18:15-20. They go to the person separated from them through sin. Be it a sin of drifting or intentional sin. The sheep yields to grace and is restored from lost-ness. The servant resists grace and becomes more lost.

If the master is symbolic for God in this story, then the servants are symbolic for believers. God showed us compassion by coming to us over our sin and offering forgiveness. We must do the same. It’s not always a simple process, which Jesus acknowledges when he gives plan B and plan C in case of failure in plan A:

“But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” (Matt. 18:16 NKJV) Aka plan B.

“And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:17 NKJV) Aka plan C.

This whole scenario is between believers. When (not if) conflict arises among the group, we are to take the compassion we are shown by God and show it to each other. We can learn from the cautionary tale of the unforgiving servant and forgive. Even when it becomes complicated, we are to steward our hearts and forgive.

To me the parable of the lost sheep is looking at this whole thing from God’s perspective. We get to see what He does when sin comes between Him and His people. The parable of the unforgiving servant is from our perspective, and shows how not to respond.

Here’s what I mean, let’s say the two parables are merged and the sheep can talk and rationalize like the animals in Narnia. One sheep separates from the Shepherd and the flock. The Shepherd leaves to find the sheep. When he does, he forgives the sheep and takes him back to the others. The forgiven sheep goes the sheep that was supposed to be his grazing buddy so they didn’t get lost. He yells at the buddy instead of offering forgiveness. The other sheep are horrified and tell the Shepherd what happened. The Shepherd confronts the forgiven sheep and asks him how he couldn’t forgive his grazing buddy like he, the Shepherd, had forgiven him for wandering away? The sheep remains obstinate over the situation and leaves on purpose this time and never returns.

The unforgiving lost sheep seems utterly ridiculous. But I believe that’s what Jesus is trying to show with these parables and the lesson in between them. God forgave you believers who were lost. Here’s how you should treat each other. If someone insists on rejecting the grace of God by withholding grace for others, let them go.

God comes to each of us, whispering, “I’m talking to you, about you, for your sake.” And finds us when we’re lost. We too must take the time to talk to our brothers and sisters in Christ with grace and compassion so that none should be lost.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Ruach

As you may know there has been fresh conflict in Israel the last few weeks. I have been praying for the peace of Jerusalem and all the people caught up in what’s happening. All these people that God loves so much. How He must grieve for every lost life and every broken heart.

It’s got me thinking again of what I wrote in January (Nation). The fact that Israel is a nation but it is also a living revelation of God. The source of Jesus, the Son of David (Matt. 1, 20:29-34; Lk. 20:41-44). I am praying for the people when I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but I am also praying for the revelation of God.

How do you pray for something so colossal?

Then it dawned on me: Paul gives us a prayer for revelation in Ephesians 1.

“Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Crist, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe.” (Eph. 1:15-19 NKJV emphasis added)

Paul told the Ephesian church how he was praying for them. In fact the prayer I quoted here goes on for several more verses. He was thanking God for them and asking God to give them a spirit of revelation, so they could know God and have hope in Him. The way to pray for revelation is to ask for the Holy Spirit to share the knowledge He has with us.

There is a time in the bible that God tells a prophet to pray for the nation of Israel by asking for the Spirit to fill them. Ezekiel 37, God takes Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones. Where God has him prophesy over the bones until they come together and regenerate into bodies, then they are filled with breathe and life. Even when they are alive they are still dry and hopeless in their hearts, so God has Ezekiel prophesy one more time that they would be filled with His Spirit and live in His acceptance.

The word used for “breathe” in Ez. 37 is “ruach.” It means breathe, wind, spirit, or animus. So Ezekiel spends a chapter speaking the word ruach over the whole house of Israel. First over their bodies – ruach – they are filled with breathe. Then over their spirits – ruach – their hope is restored. Finally God promises to bring them back to their land and fill them with His Spirit – Ruach – their purpose as revelation is restored.

If you read this as revitalizing the revelation, it only happens through the Ruach of God. It seems to me that Ezekiel is praying for the Spirit of revelation to fill the revelation until it is restored to the uttermost. Part of that restoration process is the restoration of their hope.

Paul’s prayer for the church of Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit of revelation involved hope as well, the hope is Jesus. So when praying for the Spirit of revelation over the nation, the hope they need is the same: it’s Jesus, Yeshua (Hebrew version of Jesus’ name). Restoration to the uttermost doesn’t happen until the revelation has Jesus in it, and you can’t get Jesus, Yeshua, in the nation until you speak Ruach over it.

The second ruach of Ezekiel’s prophecy can’t actually be fulfilled without the third Ruach of God filling the whole nation of Israel. The Ruach of revelation fills the revelation with the hope of Yeshua until the nation/revelation is restored to the uttermost and living in its true and full purpose.

The prophecy of the valley of dry bones has not fully come to pass. Peace has not fully come to Jerusalem yet. So I will keep praying. I am not Jewish, but I love the chosen people of God; and I am grateful for their history that brought the revelation of God into my small life. I will keep speaking Ruach of revelation over the revelation that is still searching for its hope. I pray they find that hope in Jesus and come into full shalom (Hebrew for peace that means restored wholeness), and are themselves filled with the Holy Ruach of God so they might be restored to the uttermost.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Time

When I first rejoined social media a year or so back, I remember running across craft type videos. The kind with cool editing and upbeat vibes. Where they take some of the materials out and -snap- everything is together and ready to add the next round of materials that have come on screen. Or they’re baking, one second the cake batter is raw and scooped into one paper lined cup of a muffin tin and -snap- all the cups are not only filled but baked and ready for frosting. You get the idea. It’s all a snap away.

Sometimes I get the same snappy impression when I read my bible. I’ll be reading along and realize that someone’s entire life played out in one, I repeat one, chapter. Years and years played out in the few short words of a single verse. What took me one minute to read, took that person a lifetime to live out. The chapter opens, a young man seeks God, God responds and -snap- the person is old and has fully developed and lived out their epic faith with God, conclude chapter.

Take King Josiah. 2 Chronicles 34 starts out with Josiah taking the throne in Judah as an 8 year old. Two verses later it’s his 8th year of reign and -snap- he’s 16. That verse in between glosses over 8  years of growing up under royal pressures, learning how to be an adult, how to rule, how to do all the king things, with a simple statement that he was a good king who tried to be like David. (2 Chron. 34:1-3)

He somehow made the connection between David’s awesomeness as king and his relationship with God, so when he was 16 Josiah began to seek God. I don’t know what he had to learn about David or how to seek God, because (spoiler alert) he doesn’t find the Book of the Law (aka the Torah, aka Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, aka origin story for the country he was ruling over) for 10 more verses. Maybe Josiah had the Psalms, a large portion of which were written by David. Or maybe he had some sort of oral history passed down to him. I don’t know, but Josiah had some clue that God was the answer worth seeking. (2 Chron. 34:3)

Verse three skips any glossing over and makes another jump to 4 years later in Josiah’s life -snap- now he’s 20. We’re told in his 12th year of reign Josiah decides to rid Judah and Jerusalem of all forms of idolatry. The next four verses describe the most holy tour ever undertaken. Only this time it’s not for earthly glory – it’s for the glory of God; and there may have been music, but this time it wasn’t rock and roll – it was worship of the LORD God Almighty. Josiah systematically went through his land and destroyed/desecrated every high place, altar, and image other than God. He went to all the established points of worship and destroyed it to the point of no return. (2 Chron. 34:4-7)

Verse 8, now it’s the 18th year of Josiah’s reign and he is 26. Josiah gets home from his holy tour and decides to turn his attention to Solomon’s Temple. He spends six verses raising money, rebuilding the personnel infrastructure of the Levites, and refurbishing the building. As the workers and priests put the finishing touches on the temple one of the priests finds the Book of the Law. He sends it to Josiah with a note, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey, we found the bible! Moses wrote it, so you should check it out.” Josiah was like, “Cool! Hey, Shaphan, you’re a scribe right? Read this to me.” Shaphan read the Torah to King Josiah. (2 Chron. 34:8-18)

For the first time in his life, Josiah heard Moses’ account of what God did for the Israelites in Egypt. He heard about the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He heard the Ten Commandments and the Levitical law. He heard the list of blessing that come with obeying the Law and the curses that come with disobeying it. At which point Josiah tore his clothes and sought the LORD again. He knew his fathers before him had not kept the Law and he wanted to know whether it was too late to make things right with God. (2 Chron. 34:19-21)

The scribe and the priest go and talk to a prophetess and find out that the former kings had brought curses down on Judah. But because Josiah had been faithful and humbled himself before the LORD as soon as he knew what was in the Law, God would spare him from experiencing judgement. Josiah goes on to throw the best Passover recorded since the days of Samuel. He carries on ruling and seeking God until his dies in battle somewhere in his late 30s. (2 Chron. 34:22-28, 35)

When you read 2 Chronicles chapter 34, it reads like a week, maybe two. When in reality it’s the majority of Josiah’s life. It’s easy to read the list of what he did and take it for granted that it was easy to live. There was probably some people who liked their idols and were pretty angry about losing them. I always wondered as a kid, growing up in the church, if there was ever a Levite that didn’t want to work at the temple and wished he could work real estate instead. Who knows what kind of fall out Josiah really faced when he confronted the sin of his country. But we read those four verses and are like, “Of course he did that. Someone needed to clean up Judah’s act.” Like it was a snap.

King Josiah spent years cleaning out idol worship and rebuilding worship at the temple. Not to mention the years of personal growth and character development he spent that got him to the point where he realized the idol worship needed to stop.

It took time for Josiah to become the good king who, “Did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of his father David.” (2 Chron. 34:2 NKJV) It took time to grow, to put the pieces together, to take action and bring about change. 18 years is a long time, no snaps about it.

In all likelihood it will take time for us too. Time to seek God, and grow. Time to recognize and remove the idols in our lives. Time to learn what it means to follow Jesus and worship Him. We don’t get verses that are easily skimmed over, we get years; and really, that’s a good thing.

 It says in Psalm 56:8, “You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?” (NKJV) God is still writing a book about His people. So I’m glad I have years. I can take the time I have in this life to set my eyes on Jesus. Time to seek the LORD, grow, and cry, and grow some more. One day I’ll have my own sentence, perhaps it will read something like Josiah’s sentence: Etta did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of her Beloved, Jesus; she did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Grace

As a kid I used to get grace confused with excuses. Like when mistakes were made, explanations were offered, and the wronged party was expected to say “That’s ok,” and repeat the explanation back as an accepted excuse for whatever happened. If the explanation was accepted like this, it was grace. If it was not accepted then it was an excuse.

This social dynamic always bothered me. If “grace” happened, the mistake wasn’t actually addressed and nothing changed; in fact the mistake was usually repeated somewhere down the road. The hurt experienced by the wronged party was devalued and also unaddressed. To me it looked like “grace” meant if you had a good enough story you could get away with anything and experience unending acceptance. On the other hand, if you were bad at storytelling there was no grace for you.

This was especially confusing when trying to learn about the grace of God. This false understanding of grace applied to the grace of God meant silver-tongues were the only ones heading up to heaven. I was relieved to read the bible for myself and find out that statement wasn’t true, but I still did not understand grace.

It wasn’t until I met someone who challenged me and told me excuses were excuses. The quality of the story and explanation did not change an excuse into anything other than an excuse. When you make a mistake, own it and do your best to not only make it right with the wronged party but also to change. They told me how corrosive excuse making can be to your character over time, and that it was important to cut excuses off in your life.

At first I was uncomfortable with this new perspective on excuses. I decided not to throw it out, but to sit with it and think on it a while. Ultimately I came to agree with the fact that excuses are excuses and nothing else.

I felt liberated.

If an excuse was and excuse and not also means of grace then I didn’t have to cling so tightly to excuses for acceptance. I could just be me, my mistakes could just be mistakes that I could work to change. It meant that all the times my feelings had been hurt counted, and deserved a grieving process. All the cover stories could be let go. Whether they were my cover stories, or those from others. I didn’t need them anymore.

I realized that all those excuses I had curated over the years became a sort of bondage. Without realizing it, the excuses I accepted kept me from healing; and all the excuses I offered kept me from growing. I tried to use excuses as a short cut to grace and ended up stunted and confused.

The truth is, there is no shortcut to grace. Because grace meets you where you are. Not the story of where you are, but where you actually are.

In Ephesians 2 Paul describes where we all are before Jesus enters our hearts and lives:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Ephesians 2:1-3 NASV)

The “children of wrath” life may look different for everyone in their day to day reality, maybe even downright banal. The truth is, underneath we’re dead. Whether keeping all the rules of culture, or breaking all the rules. Whether rich or poor, glamorous or plain, in a big family or alone, all are influenced by the spirit of the age and what we feel like at any given moment. No matter what all the media platforms say, none of these influences seem to bring life into the situations we are living out.

The story doesn’t end with “Dead in sin,” though. There’s good news, and spoiler alert, it’s Jesus:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” (Eph. 2:4-9 NASV)

God gives us some of Jesus’ resurrection life. So even though we’re already dead inside, we’re made alive. We’re saved from all the wrong turns and shame that’s killing us little by little, and it’s not by any cover story or excuse – not by anything we can do or offer – but by grace. Jesus meets us where we’re at with all His love and grace and brings us back to life because He wants us to be a part of His family.

Grace is something un-earnable. Not through works, not through words. No story can earn it, no logical sequence. Just forgiveness because of love; mercy because of kindness. It has everything to do with who Jesus is and nothing to do with the narrative.

Sometimes in church culture we think we’re acting out of grace by making excuses for sin, or explaining destructive behavior. But it’s the opposite of grace, because it leaves the person in bondage to excuses and dead in sin. We, as Christians, don’t need to make excuses for each other. We just need Jesus. We just need to be who we actually are in His presence, own it and ask Him for forgiveness. Forgiveness that He’s had waiting for this very moment since He bought it 2000 years ago.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Break

Break up bangs.

Countless women over countless years have gone through a break up and decided to move forward from that break up by cutting bangs. Some even go as far as cutting all their hair off and getting a bob. I used to think the popularity of the bob hair cut in the 1920s had something to do with an entire generation trying to break up with the terrors and tragedies of WW1. Personally, I changed my handwriting after a season of heartbreak and disappointment. We all come to points in our lives where something big needs to change so we change something small to start things off.

I recently read back through 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament. I couldn’t help but thing of break up bangs after a while. Because it seemed that every time a good king in Israel or Judah came into power the first thing they would do was tear down all the high places and Asherah poles. Instead of cutting their hair to break up with idolatry, they cut down poles.

One of my favorite examples of this is King Hezekiah. He shows up in chapter 29, restores the temple and celebrates Passover. It must have been quite the party in Jerusalem that week. The bible describes that Passover, “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. The priests and the Levites stood to bless the people, and God heard them, for their prayers reached heaven, His holy dwelling place.” (2 Chron. 30:26-27 NIV) There is something like 12 kings between Solomon and Hezekiah. That’s two or three generation’s worth of people in Israel and Judah putting off celebrating the Passover. Finally, here comes Hezekiah and he takes the initiative and foots the bill for this awesome celebration. The restoration of the worship of God brings joy to the people and catches the attention of God in heaven to their prayers.

The people were so moved by this time of worship they didn’t wait for Hezekiah to break up with idolatry. They did it themselves, “When all this had ended, the Israelites who were there went out to the towns of Judah, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. They destroyed the high places and the altars throughout Judah and Benjamin and in Ephraim and Manasseh. After they had destroyed all of them, the Israelites returned to their own towns and to their own property.” (2 Chron. 31:1) I can just imagine the crowd leaving Jerusalem and the Passover feast stirred in their very depths. The joy turning to talk, which then turned them to action, until they were a holy mob on a mission. A mission to remove every idol from the whole land. They had experienced God for themselves and did not want to return to the empty idol worship that had separated them from God in the first place.

I’m always so moved by this story. Moved to find any idols that might be in my life that I need to remove. When I look at the bible story, it seems so easy to confront the idols. They were made of real, tactile stuff. Wood and metal that could be cut up and burned away. They could be made with hands and destroyed with hands. Now it’s a little trickier, because the idols cropping up in my life are not made with hands, they are made within the heart.

It’s got me thinking about heartbreak in a whole new light. When I look back over my life, every major heartbreak has a direct correlation with a heart-idol, like the approval of others or money. The heartbreak usually followed prayers of renewed devotion to God. I would have an encounter with God that brought joy and restoration, like the Israelites under Hezekiah. I prayed for God to break off the idols in my life, and He answered. God answered my prayers with heartbreak – or rather, heart-idol break.

I didn’t always understand that God was removing idols at the time. I usually got pretty confused and upset from the heartbreak. I forgot that my idols had more to do with my heart than with my stuff. However, now I can see what was breaking in my heart were idols, and each break lead to greater freedom and intimacy with Jesus.

I’m not trying to glorify seasons of pain and loss. But I can honestly thank God for those seasons, and pray for His strength when I find myself in a new season of heartbreak. I also pray for the grace to see where the heart-idol breaks might be, so I can surrender the idols as well as the corresponding habits to God. Because idols made with the heart are broken with the heart.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Nation

The book of Isaiah is one of my favorite books of the bible. When I was young I heard the adults around me talk about how it was a difficult book. Their comments became an internal challenge that thrilled me to no end. Someday I would grow up and study the bible. It seemed inevitable to me that I would be the one to laugh and explain Isaiah to everyone else. That is, until I did grow up, and did finally try to read Isaiah on my own. As Proverbs warns us, “Pride comes before the fall,” (Prov. 16:18) and boy did I fall. Flat on my intellectual face. Isaiah might as well have been printed out in the original Hebrew, for all I understood the first few times I read it. Honestly, the only part I could grasp was the Christmas passage in chapter 9, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be on His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 NKJV) Thank you Peanuts Christmas Special for that one. I gave up on Isaiah for a long time.

I couldn’t tell you why, but the year I turned 30, I gave it another go. Suddenly the book came to life. Everything connected to everything else I had read over the years, Isaiah belonged to the rest of the bible. It wasn’t a stand-alone book at all. I would get up in the middle of the night just to read it alone in the quiet. I would cry over some parts, and put other parts to music and sing it all the time. This went on for about two years until one morning I reached the end of the book, and just like that the experience was over.

In a way my journey through Isaiah became a part of me, a part of my prayer language. It became an old friend that understood the human struggle with darkness and light, blessing and famine, fear and trust. Really, it became a picture of Jesus that I could hold onto in the complex landscape of adulthood and parenthood.

I think that’s why this last advent season I returned to Isaiah. After the darkness of 2020, I needed to find my way back to the light of Jesus. I returned to chapter 9, not because of the Christmas passage (although it is nice when things tie in together) but because of the verses leading up to it:

“Then they will look to the earth, and see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven to darkness. Nevertheless the gloom will not be on her who is distressed, […] The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy; they rejoice before You according to the joy of the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For you have broken the yoke of his burden and the staff of his shoulder, and the rod of his oppressor, as in the days of Midian.” (Is. 8:22-9:1, 2-4 NKJV)

I just lived in these in those verses for the whole of December. Oddly enough, I wasn’t the only one. It seemed like every sermon in person or online referenced these verses about the light of Jesus breaking into the darkness. There was a certain comfort in knowing I was not alone in the book of Isaiah, and I was not alone in the body of Christ.

The only rub was that bit about increasing the nation right there in the middle. After the painful political season of November, that was now bleeding into December (and now we know it kept going on into January), the last thing I wanted to hear about or think about was anything to do with “the nation” multiplied, or otherwise. Knowing Isaiah was talking about the nation of Israel did not alleviate my disease at all.

Then it dawned on me. Israel was more than an ancient nation. It was the embodiment of a revelation, the revelation of the Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. The nation is the revelation, and the revelation started with Abraham and the subsequent nation of Israel.

When I looked at my haven in Isaiah with this new perspective it all fell into place. If I might paraphrase, it looked something like this:

“Those of you muddling through darkness, there’s a light, and the light is Jesus. The Father, in His love, has multiplied the revelation of Jesus to you that you may see Him better and your joy may be increased. Now that you can see Jesus, His light will dispel the darkness. Rejoice! You have found the comfort of plenty from harvest, and you have come through a battle only to find treasure waiting for you.”

The light is Jesus. The comfort is Jesus. The treasure is Jesus. Just to make sure we all knew it was Jesus, after one more verse about battle, it’s the Christmas passage, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” That awesome light that brought all the hope and peace? Yeah, that’s Jesus. The guy who lifted the oppressive burden off of you? Yeah, still Jesus. I mean, that’s exciting!

Now every time I read about the nation, or the house of Israel, I can’t help but see “The revelation of Jesus” in my mind’s eye. So when Moses prays for God to blot him out in the place of Israel after the golden calf incident (Ex. 32), he is pleading for the nation of Israel but also the revelation of Jesus. I can just hear the words under the words, “Let me pay the price, only don’t take away Your revelation. Don’t remove our ability to see and know Jesus.”  

Or when Ezekiel is in the valley of dry bones, and God tells him the bones are the whole house of Israel, and He asks Ezekiel to prophecy over the bones (Ez. 37). First he prophesies the bones to come together and to have muscle and skin again. Then God tells him to prophesy breathe into them, so he does and the bodies become living people. I just hear God whisper to Ezekiel, “Here’s My revelation that seems dead and over because of the Babylonians. It isn’t over, prophesy My resurrection power into the revelation that it may live for all to see.”

I might be getting carried away to some degree. I have not read this in any of my commentaries. But I have heard it preached that Israel was the embodiment of the revelation of God; and I have read the genealogies in Matthew to see that Israel is the physical heritage of the Son incarnate (Jesus). So I’m not too off base here.

The light is Jesus. The hope in the face of death is Jesus. The peace in the midst of oppression is Jesus. The nation is the revelation, and the revelation is Jesus. He is with me and every time I see that he is with me, I rejoice.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Inheritance

My dad died unexpectedly last year. The last time I saw my dad alive, he was helping me get my tired grumpy kids into the van after the Christmas Eve Candlelight service at church. We got them all strapped in and shut the door on the crying and complaining. I said a weary thanks and went to get into the driver’s seat, but he stopped me and gave me a big dad-hug. I told him Merry Christmas, and that I’d see him in a few days. He and Mom always spent Christmas day just the two of them, unless they were travelling with family. By the end of Christmas day, he was gone.

My whole family came into town to help with funeral arrangements. We laughed, we cried, we remembered dad. The memorial service came and went. The music died down, the whiskey ran dry, and everyone went home. After the initial grief subsided, Mom and I began to sort out what was left behind.

Some things were easy, like clothes and shoes going to my oldest brother, who wears the same size. Another brother who is a guitar man, like Dad, got the two guitars that meant the most to Dad. Other things were intangible, but left behind nonetheless. Like the work my Dad did with my uncle, who has since decided to carry on with it. Or the years of mentorship in business and entrepreneurship that Dad gave to my third brother. Now he is passing that same mentorship on to his sons.

Archie even got a couple of Dad’s old electric guitars that he used to tinker around with now and then. One of them turned out to be from the golden era of Fender, so Archie’s pretty jazzed. I got a few books, but I couldn’t help feeling a little left out.

Other than Dad being Dad, and sharing a deep love of singing, I didn’t have a strong and obvious connection to my Dad, or his stuff. I’m not a business buff, or a guitar person. We didn’t talk every day, like my brother and my uncle. What did I have to remember him by?

I spent a week or so praying about it. One morning, in the quiet of prayer time, the Lord brought to my mind memories of praying with my dad. He was more than business and music. He was a son of God who dedicated his life to prayer and teaching prayer. He taught me to pray and to make prayer a lifestyle. One that I still practice today.

Maybe I don’t have the things my family and others have, but my dad still left me something precious. He gave me something close to his heart, the thing that undergirded everything else he did: a close relationship with Jesus built through prayer in the thick and thin of it.

My Dad taught me everything he knew about prayer through example, doing it together, doing it with others, talking about it, and reading about it in his book (Stark Raving Obedience by Ted and Isaiah Kallman). He taught me about spiritual authority, spiritual warfare, prayer for healing, prayer for deliverance, intercession, fasting, listening prayer, praying the scripture, and prayers of thanksgiving. He taught me to take everything to Jesus, everything.

My dad was like the men from the parables who found the pearl of great value and the treasure in the field. Once they found it, they traded everything else to obtain it. Dad found the pearl too, and he made sure I had it before he left this earth, and that is my inheritance.

-Etta Woods

Blogs

Run

In the 90’s and 00’s it seemed like every rom-com movie ended a traffic jam or a crowded airport where someone had to make a run for it in order to catch the person they loved. It was usually the one who didn’t particularly deserve the love of the other person, and somehow running absolved them of their faults so they could live happily ever after. After the third or fourth movie this scene lost it emotional power for me, and I developed a strong cynicism towards the story device.

The funny thing is, Nora Ephron (the ultimate-rom com screen writer of the aforementioned era) did not invent running towards love. It’s actually in the bible. I didn’t notice it until this last year, perhaps my cynicism blinded me to it, yet there it is in the gospel of Luke.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells a few parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. First there’s a lost sheep that the shepherd leaves 99 sheep to find. Then there is a lost coin that is found and everyone around the owner of the coin is invited to a huge celebration. Finally there is the prodigal son. The younger son asks for his half of the inheritance before his father’s death. He wastes all of it and ends up at rock bottom. After a while he decides to go home and beg to become a servant if only his father will take him back in.

This is where we see the running, “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20 NKJV emphasis added) After this the father accepts the son as his own and the son is restored back into the family. The father throws a huge celebration and everyone but the older brother is pretty happy about how it all turned out.

What’s interesting to me is that the bible flips the rom-com formula on its head. In the movies it’s the one who wronged the other person who is doing the running. They’re making an atonement for their wrongdoing. But here it’s the one who was wronged that is running. The prodigal father, as some theologians call him, is the one who makes atonements for the sins of the son. Just like God, who sent Jesus to atone for our sins.

God is running towards us. It’s for love that He’s running, His love for us. Our Father in heaven loves us with an everlasting love that is greater than any wrong we have ever done. Our sin no longer has to come between us and Jesus, because He overcame it at the cross. When we give our lives to Jesus sin loses its power over us and we are restored into God’s family, much like the prodigal son.

There aren’t too many rom-com movies in the theatres anymore. Perhaps we don’t associate running for it with “true love” anymore. But we still have the bible, and it tells a story about the truest of loves: God, who loves us, and is running towards us so we might be reunited with each other and live within His everlasting love.

-Etta Woods

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Hang On

This morning I woke up with a question on my spirit, “Will you hang on ‘til breakthrough?”

It’s been a particularly difficult year. Not just because of the global upheaval from Covid and political unrest. Though these are definitely contributing factors, they are not the sole source of hardship and worry. I’ve been praying for breakthrough on multiple fronts, with no cracks in sight for months now. Actually, I’ve seen cracks, but they’ve been in me and not in what I’ve been praying into.

I’ve kept going, kept hanging on. But like every athlete that “played hurt” there comes a point where it’s time to stop and heal up. When is that point though? How long can I stay in the hang-on phase before complete breakdown? God has been walking with me through the stress and the loss that has plagued 2020, sending words of encouragement and moments of reprieve. However, the main strain has not lifted.

It raises the question, “Will God come through with breakthrough before that point of breakdown?” It raises doubts like, “What did I screw up so badly that has warranted such hardship?” I don’t think these are the right questions though. The first one questions whether God is good, and the second wonders if He’s unforgiving and judgmental.

In my experience and reading, it seems that a lot of the time breakdown and breakthrough come at the same time. Not always, but it happens. Either way, God is good. If things resolve before breakdown, He is merciful and greatly to be praised. If it is after a breakdown, He is loving and kind, and He will walk through the rebuild with me.

Secondly, though hardship can be a result of poor decisions, even poor decisions of others, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is God’s judgement. The bible says there will be a day of judgement when all our actions and our character will be brought before God and measured (Matt. 25:31-46). Even then, those who follow Jesus, even those who followed Him poorly, will not lose their salvation (1 Cor. 3:10-15). I recently heard Tim Keller talk about guilt and shame, and whether the things that go wrong in our lives were punishment, or judgement, from God. He pointed out that they couldn’t be, because Jesus took all the punishment for our sin and failure on the cross.

All condemnation, and existentialism aside, sometimes a valley is just a valley, and the real question is: how are we going to handle it? Pull over and wait it out? Breakdown halfway through? Crash and burn down to ashes? Or plod along ‘til we come out to the other side? Even if we’re running on empty, or losing bits along the way, or hurting the whole time. Just keep going, keep being faithful to the best of our ability.

Solomon points out in his book Ecclesiastes, “I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man also does not know his time: like fish taken in a cruel net, like birds caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared in an evil time when it falls suddenly upon them.” (Ecc. 9:11-12 NKJV) In other words, sometimes you can do everything right and still not get the outcome you expected. Sometimes you’re caught up in an evil time, just because it’s an evil time and you’re alive during it.

It reminds me of the prophet Jeremiah. He was righteous, he spoke the word of the LORD to his people. Yet he was heavily persecuted for it. He had to endure the fall to Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem, despite his faithfulness to God. He was caught in an evil time through no fault of his own. He was asked to continue to speak the word of the LORD, even when it cost him everything. When all seemed lost and hopeless, when there was no way out, but through, he was asked to hang on and endure.

About half way through the book of Jeremiah, Judah has fallen to the Babylonians, and the crème of the crop has been taken away as captives to Babylon. Jeremiah sends them a letter with a word from God for them in their time of captivity. In it is one of the most quoted verses of the bible (and it’s usually quoted out of the grave context that surrounds it). “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11 NKJV) In another translation is says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV) In other words, “I know you got caught up in an evil time. But I’m thinking of you, and making plans for you in this time so it’s not all for nothing.”

The whole of chapter 29 can be summed up as God telling the captive Israelites that He isn’t going to take them out of captivity for 70 years. So they may as well set up life, get married, buy a house, raise children. Be faithful in this season of intense hardship, because I am being faithful to you behind the scenes, and the plans are for your good. God goes on to describe how He sees their wounds and how He is going to heal them, and sustain them until they are fully restored.

Now, as Christ followers, we can read Jeremiah 29 with the assurance that not only is God thinking of us in these difficult days of 2020, He is present with us through His indwelling Holy Spirit. We know that even in the valleys full of pain and plodding, He is walking and crying right alongside us, we are not alone in any of it. And it won’t all be for nothing, but it will work together for the glory of God He will redeem every minute and every tear.

Not only is God walking with us, and making plans, He is interceding for us. In Hebrews 7, the author explains why we no longer need the priests of the temple, because Jesus fulfilled the Judaic Law and is now the high priest of heaven. We are able to find salvation through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, and we are able to have direct access to God through Jesus because He is God.

One of the actions Jesus does as high priest is intercession, “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” (Heb. 7:25 NKJV) Jesus is praying for us. In the valleys and mountain tops. When we are lost and looking as well as when we are secure and grounded in Him. He is praying for our whole journey until it is finished, and we are saved to the uttermost.

On a day when I was out of my own strength and feeling low all around, I thought about an old comfort. I used to encourage myself with the knowledge that my grandmothers were praying for me every day, but they are both with Jesus now and that extra covering is gone. I started to think about my dad, a mighty man of prayer, but he died at the start of the year. Another covering gone. Not very encouraging, I know, but there’s a point.

In the midst of tallying the losses and feeling the weight of the world heavier in light of those losses I heard the whisper of The Spirit of Jesus in my spirit, “I am praying for you.” Jesus, who created everything, who became a man so He could live perfectly and die sacrificially only to rise again in victory. Jesus, who now sits at the right hand of the Father, on the throne of heaven, is praying for me. Not only is He praying for me, He took the time to notice I was crying and give me reassurance.

I may not have the prayer covering of my grandmothers or my dad, but I have His covering. I may be in the valley this year, but I have a companion who will never leave me nor forsake me. So I will keep going, stay as faithful as I can, and take care of my family. I will hang on until breakthrough, even if it means walking through a breakdown first. Because Jesus is praying for me, and one day the ground will change and I’ll be through this valley.

-Etta Woods

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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, as 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

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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

Blogs

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.

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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

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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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Resurrection

When do we die?

Is it when we take our last breath? Is it when our minds go? Is it when we give up on our dreams, or just on ourselves? I have had several conversations with friends about elderly parents or grandparents who have dementia and they always say how their loved one is not really there anymore. It’s like they’re already gone. There’s a Benjamin Franklin quote I’ve heard a few times in the last year that says, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Which implies that people die when they give up on life, not when they breathe their last. So I ask again, when do we die?

From a biblical standpoint, I’d say we die when we lose our innocence to sin. In the Garden of Eden the forbidden fruit was from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – in other words, the loss of innocence. The consequence of eating that fruit was death. Adam and Eve didn’t die on the spot, their physical death came later. I believe something inside them died then in the Garden. (Genesis 3)

Maybe all the definitions about death are true. Maybe there are many stages to someone’s demise. The first death is the loss of innocence. The second death is giving up on life. The third death is a loss of one’s mind. And the final death is physical death.

There is potential for a fifth death, Paul talks about the old man, the sinful nature, dying when Christ is accepted. 2 Corinthians says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 2:17 NKJV) Galatians says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20 NKJV)

Romans is the most comprehensive in what Paul is getting at. It starts in chapter 6, “Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death … our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, what we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin.” (Rom. 6:3-4, 6-7) Paul is pretty clear that there is a spiritual death that happens at baptism. The “old man” of sinful nature is dead and buried when we go under the water.

There is good news, when we die with Christ we can expect to be raised with Christ in new life, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life … Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.” (Rom. 6:4, 8-9 NKJV) The same resurrection power that brought Jesus back to life is at work within us. When we come out of the water of baptism we are resurrected into new life, a new man lives in the place of the old man.

The death that happened in the Garden of Eden that we all carry within us through sin, is reversed, undone. We can have new innocence in Christ. Our minds are renewed, our hearts are rebuilt, the dead dreams can have new life, and if we gave up on ourselves we can take up new effort. Many of the deaths listed earlier can be resurrected through the same resurrecting power of Jesus.

We are resurrected at once, but also resurrected over time. Philippians 2 tells us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13) Resurrecting over time is what “working out your salvation” means. I’ve heard Pricilla Shirer say that working out salvation is like unpacking a suitcase, taking one thing out at a time. Sammy Greig calls it “the slow gospel.”

Part of us comes to life instantly and other parts take time and I think the time is actually a grace. No one wants to hear that anything takes time in our instant-everything culture. But it is a mercy.

Consider this: you fall asleep in a weird position and when you wake up one of your arms has completely fallen asleep. Like, you have to move it with your other arm because you can’t feel it enough to move it at all. The arm feels dead, but as you move it and work the blood back into your arm it comes back to life. First it tingles, it feels kind of good. But when your arm falls asleep that badly the tingling soon turns to pain. It hurts a lot for a minute or two until finally your arm is back to normal.

Sometimes when God is applying resurrection power to something in our life it hurts. In my experience, a lot of the time being brought back to life, out of sin, hurts very much. If God didn’t resurrect our hearts over time, give us the slow gospel, we would be overwhelmed. It hurts to let go of comfortable sins, it hurts to let go of grudges that have been held so tightly for so long they feel a part of us. It hurts to admit ugliness in our hearts. It hurts to revisit old wounds so God can meet us there and bind up that wound. I thank God that He allows me to work out my salvation, to be resurrected and resurrecting.

There is also an intentional element to this resurrecting. During the low points and shortcomings, it can be really easy to stay down. I personally love to wallow. God recently brought to my attention a verse in Proverbs that says, “The righteous may fall 7 times, but still get up.” (Prov. 24:16 CEB) It came up 3 or 4 times in one week. That is the equivalent of flashing lights and a megaphone when it comes to God trying to get my attention. Whenever we fall, through resurrection power in Christ we get back up.

In the bible the number 7 means complete. So I take that to mean falling 7 times means falling in every way, the complete gambit of falling possibilities. I could fall every day, but if I get back up the day is not lost. I could fall in every way, but if I get back up the time is not wasted. When I step out in the working of my salvation and get back up God uses every fall, every wound, and every failure for good. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28 NKJV)

When Jesus rose from the dead His wounds were still visible. Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side and felt where the spear had pierced him (John 20:24-29). Yet Jesus was alive, the wounds no longer dictated His life or death to Him, He was alive by the power of God. God now dictates that Jesus is alive. In the same way our wounds might still show when we are resurrected in that area, but the wounds will no longer dictate whether we live or die in that area. The wounds no longer kill us while we are living so that we are dead at 25. Through the resurrection power of Christ we are enabled to live despite those wounds. We get back up.

My pastor recently told us about Scott Hamilton, a professional ice skater during the 80s, as an illustration in for not giving up. During an interview he was asked about how many times he fell during training and competition. Mr. Hamilton obliged and shared the number: 41,900 times. But he didn’t stop there, he pointed out that he got back up 41, 900 times and that’s what made the difference. Scott Hamilton won 4 consecutive U.S. championships, 4 consecutive World Championships, and a gold medal in the 1984 winter Olympics.

If Scott Hamilton can get up 41,900 times and do what he did for the glory of ice skating, imagine what we could do for the glory of God if we embrace resurrection power in our lives and always get back up.

-Etta Woods