When the Way is through the Sea

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I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, and he will hear me.

In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

When I remember God, I moan;

when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

You hold my eyelids open;

I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I consider the days of old,

the years long ago.

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search:

“Will the Lord spurn me forever,

and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah

(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)

These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song.  These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.

God, where are You?

Can You hear me? 

Have You forgotten me?

Did You stop loving me?

Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?

Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search…

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

I will ponder all you work,

and meditate on your mighty deeds.

(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)

When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.

Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

Your road led through the sea,

your pathway through the mighty waters—

a pathway no one knew was there!

(Psalm 77:19, NLT)

“Yet your footprints were unseen.”

“A pathway no one knew was there.”

Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.

So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.

Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.

Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,

when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,

help me to diligently seek You.

And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,

help me follow Your lead.

Amen. 

For College Students in Christian Community

My husband and I lead the college and young adults ministry at our church. We love the students we get to hang out with. The majority of them are students at a Christian university where they have required chapels and dorm devotions, a required number of Bible classes regardless of the degree they’re pursuing, and a plethora of Christian teachers, leaders, and mentors speaking into their lives. It blows our minds that they STILL wake up early on Sunday mornings and come to church an hour and a half before service to be at a small group they’re not required to come to! (No judgement if you’re a college student who comes to our church but doesn’t wake up early to come to small group. Seriously, if sleep is what you need, then we want you to sleep! No guilt! However, no coffee or donuts either. Just sayin’. Well, okay, you can still get coffee in the church lobby. But the donuts—you gotta come to small group for those.) This post is for all the students who find themselves in a strong Christian community—whether it’s in a Christian university, a Christian organization on campus, or even a local church you call home (or home away from home). 

There are some things I hope you learn from us and carry with you long into your future. This is one of them:

Following Godly instruction is not the same as spiritual transformation.

There’s a story in 2 Chronicles about a king named Joash.

2 Chronicles 24:2 says, “Throughout the time of the priest Jehoiada, Joash did what was right in the Lord’s sight.”

When this story is told in 2 Kings, it says, “Throughout the time the priest Jehoiada instructed him, Joash did what was right in the Lord’s sight.” (2 Kings 12:2)

Under Joash’s leadership (and Jehoida’s instruction), the people of Judah abundantly donated silver to pay for the temple of the Lord to be repaired.

“The workmen did their work, and through them the repairs progressed. They restored God’s temple to its specifications and reinforced it. When they finished, they presented the rest of the silver to the king and Jehoiada, who made articles for the Lord’s temple with it — articles for ministry and for making burnt offerings, and articles of gold and silver. They regularly offered burnt offerings in the Lord’s temple throughout Jehoiada’s life.” (2 Chronicles 24:13-14)

The people of Judah worshiped the Lord while Jehoiada the priest was alive and influencing the king. But after Jehoiada died, the story took a turn:

“However, after Jehoiada died, the rulers of Judah came and paid homage to the king. Then the king listened to them, and they abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the Asherah poles and the idols. So there was wrath against Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs.” (2 Chronicles 24:17-18)

Something that strikes me when I read the books of Kings and Chronicles is how incredibly gracious God is. Even when people have turned their backs on Him, He still beckons them and provides a path of repentance and restoration. In this chapter in 2 Chronicles, as soon as we see the people turn from God, we see God’s graciousness in the very next verse: Nevertheless, he sent them prophets to bring them back to the Lord…” God isn’t quick to pour out His judgement; He’s quick to forgive and shower people with His grace…“but the people would not listen.” (2 Chronicles 24: 19)

In His graciousness, God reached out to them, but they wouldn’t listen. Ooph. And what happens next is heartbreaking:

“The Spirit of God enveloped Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood above the people and said to them, ‘This is what God says, “Why are you transgressing the Lord’s commands so that you do not prosper? Because you have abandoned the Lord, he has abandoned you.”‘ But they conspired against him and stoned him at the king’s command in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. King Joash didn’t remember the kindness that Zechariah’s father Jehoiada had extended to him, but killed his son…” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22)

Joash didn’t just turn away from the Lord and lead the people in idolatry. He forgot about the man who invested so much into his life, the man who was responsible for all his success. And he murdered his son. Wow.

Things didn’t turn out so well for Joash in the end. (You can read about his assassination and sub-par burial in 2 Chronicles 24:25-27.) His life was a tragedy. He had so many good things going for him before his mentor died. When he had someone in his life who gave him godly instruction, he did great things. But that’s not enough. Not for Joash. Not for us.

Seek knowledge, but don’t stop there.

Strive to follow godly instruction, but don’t stop there either.

It’s easy to follow God when you’re immersed in a spiritual community where you’re regularly receiving godly teaching.

But what’s going to happen after you graduate and you’re no longer part of this community in the same way? What’s going to happen to your relationship with God when you don’t have regular chapels, small groups, or Bible studies anymore? What’s going to happen to your faith when you no longer have people checking on you, pouring into your life, and encouraging you to engage in spiritual things on a daily or weekly basis?

The challenge right now is to make sure you’re going beyond just following godly instruction. Knowledge and godly instruction without spiritual transformation is unsustainable.

If there isn’t spiritual transformation that’s happening in your life in this season while you’re immersed in godly community, then your chances of continuing to follow God when you’re no longer part of that community aren’t very high. One day you will leave this community—the people and activities that come with it. You may find yourself in another strong, Christian community. But you may also find yourself in a place where you are standing for God alone, called to be a light in a dark place. The kind of relationship with God you foster while you’re in this community will go with you. And if you foster a relationship with God that is dependent on other people and a set of activities, don’t be so sure your faith will stay intact when those people and activities are gone.

Go deep—where the Spirit of God can transform your heart, soul, and mind. In these years while you’re under the covering of a strong Christian community, learn what it means to be with God. And after you graduate, when you branch out from this community that has spiritually nourished you for the past four (or however many) years, continue. Yes, continue to seek knowledge and continue to follow godly instruction. But more than that, continue to go deep with God. Seek Him. Cling to Him. When things are hard, wrestle with Him. And allow Him to daily transform you from the inside out.

This is my prayer for you:

May you continually experience the transformation of God and become like trees planted by streams of water. And may streams of living water flow from deep within you and into the world around you. Amen.

More to See

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“I know how to tell the difference between a slur and a tie!” my young piano student declared, moments after learning what ties are for the first time.

Skeptically, I asked, “You do? How?”

“A slur is always higher than a tie,” pointing to his music. (For those who care, his piece had slurs in the treble clef and ties in the bass clef.)

“Well, it’s like that here,”—I tried to be gentle—”but sometimes a tie is higher.”

“Ok! Well,” he continued confidently, “a slur is always longer than a tie.”

I pulled out a music book sitting beside me, again showing him he had more to learn about slurs and ties.

He wanted so much to keep trying to prove he knew what he didn’t actually know. But if I had let him keep going, the time would’ve run out on his 30-minute lesson before he could learn the difference between a slur and a tie.

“I’ve seen a lot more slurs than you,” I said, “and I’ve seen a lot more ties than you. So let me show you how you can tell the difference between the two.”

How often do we think we’ve figured out faith and God after we’ve learned or experienced some things? Our minds naturally try to sort new information into categories and patterns, but when we reduce things to patterns or formulas, we miss out on the infinite more. We stop seeking, studying, experiencing, pushing forward, digging deeper. We get satisfied—proud even—with our small picture of God. We think we’re wise and mature when really we’re just stuck in an existence void of awe and wonder.

We often live out our faith on auto-pilot and neglect to leave space for the years to pour into us more learning and experience, for the wisdom of others to refine us, and for God Himself to reveal to us a bigger picture of who He is and what He can do.

Sometimes the way God works is like simple arithmetic. Sometimes the way He works is like the Fibonacci sequence, opening us up to a world of wonder. And sometimes His ways are too abstract or messy or wild for us to reduce to a formula any human can fully comprehend or imagine.

All the while, God is daily beckoning us to sit with Him and humbly listen. “I’ve seen more than you, and there’s still more for you to see. Let me show you.”

When the Dream Dies

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Me, circa 2005

To my bright-eyed, 21 year-old self:

People tell you that you’re talented and anointed. “You’re gonna change the world,” they say. (You’re never going to stop believing that!) Your life is overflowing with possibility.

But before your 25th birthday, you’ll pour your heart and energy into a beautiful, God-sized dream and that dream will fail.

And it will feel like death.

When the dream dies, you’ll question if you really did hear the voice of God calling you to this dream or if you just imagined it. You’ll wonder about the myriad of things you could have done differently. You’ll worry your life is over. You’ll fear you’re too broken to try anything worthwhile again.

But as your mind spins with a myriad of questions and emotions, please let yourself mourn. Grieve this death. Feel the pain—God can’t comfort the hurts you refuse to feel. Allow yourself to feel this, even if that means you find yourself kneeling on your cold, bathroom floor crying in agony. Your agony is not too big for God. It is safe in His presence. You are safe in His presence.

When the dream dies, you will learn that your tears don’t make you weak. You’ll learn that you are strong and God is stronger.

One dead dream does not mean the death of all dreams. There will be beautiful things waiting for you on the other side of this.

When the dream dies, your life won’t be ending. It will be a new beginning.

Over time, He will resurrect you from the ashes. You will hope again. You will be courageous again. And you will dream again.

 

Words We Sing on Monday

Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,

“You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.”

I wasn’t just singing words. I was remembering times when I desperately cried out to God in my pain and He flooded me with His comfort. I was worshipping the God I know, the God I’ve experienced.

I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.

People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.

Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”

And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”

“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:

  • Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
  • If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
  • What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)

The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.

This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.

So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down…

After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?

I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.

God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.

“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).”
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Prayers We Stopped Praying

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In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Luke 1:5-7, ESV

“Why is this happening? How have I sinned? What’s wrong with me?” Years of living for God and doing everything right, and still she was barren.

“Lord, please give me a child.”

How many times did this prayer escape her quivering lips? How many times did she allow her heart to hope, only to be disappointed? And with each passing year, her window of possibility got smaller and her wounds grew deeper.

She was barren, marked with shame. And her years of hoping were over.

She knew the story, the one that happened millennia ago. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was 90 years old when she conceived. “But God has been silent for centuries. Could God still do things like that today? And if He could, would He?”

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”

Luke 1:8-17, ESV

He was chosen by lot. What appeared to be the luck of the draw, something completely random, was divine. God was in the randomness. And as he performed his duties, something miraculous happened. Prayers he had stopped praying years ago were extravagantly answered. He was finally going to be a father.

How do I know Zechariah had stopped praying for a child? Because what he said in response were not the words of a man who still prayed to have a child, but the words of a man who had given up:

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.'”

Luke 1:18, ESV

He had just heard the most wonderful news of his life, but He couldn’t praise or give thanks. How many times had he prayed for a child? How many times had he consoled his crying wife? How many times did he mask his shame as other men in the community beamed with pride because of their growing families? How many years had God disappointed him before he stopped praying that one, painful prayer?

And after all those years, when his peers were enjoying the births of their grandchildren, was God really going to finally give him a son? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he still felt the sting of old wounds. Either way, the idea that God would bless him now in this way was preposterous.

But this man who had dedicated his life to God’s service had more to learn about God and His ways. Zechariah’s age, circumstances, and limitations were no match for what God could do. God could do anything. But after everything Zechariah had been through, could he believe this—really believe in a personal, non-theoretical, hope-risking kind of way?

And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Luke 1:19-22, ESV

I used to think that Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief, but now I’m not so sure. Because he was suddenly unable to speak:

  • he could no longer speak words of doubt
  • other people were able to see he had a divine encounter, so they became part of the story and Zechariah wouldn’t/couldn’t walk this journey alone
  • he was constantly reminded of what God had done
  • he could spend more time listening, remembering, and reflecting on what God had done.

(How often do I think God is punishing me when really He’s blessing me and preparing me for something beautiful?)

Sometimes when God answers prayers we’ve abandoned or forgotten, He needs to break through the walls we’ve raised to protect our hearts and get our attention so we don’t miss what He’s doing. For Zechariah, he was speechless. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a literal, inconvenient, and disruptive kind of way. For nine months.

Nine months to let this glorious miracle sink in. These nine months would transform Zechariah to his core and make him the kind of father that his son would need him to be: a father who wholeheartedly believed in the God who can do anything, who hears our prayers, and who keeps His word.

When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. How kind the Lord is!’ she exclaimed. ‘He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.’”

Luke 1:23-25, NLT

No one could look down on Elizabeth any longer. Not only did God make Zechariah and Elizabeth a father and mother; He made them a father and mother like Abraham and Sarah. How kind the Lord is!

And this child would have a special place in history. He would be the one who would prepare the way for the Lord, the one who would baptize the long-awaited Messiah, the one of whom Jesus would one day say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

God knew what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story would be all along, writing their story so much more beautifully than they possibly could. However, I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful to Zechariah and Elizabeth as they navigated the many chapters of barrenness and abandoned prayers. But God didn’t stop writing their story when others declared it to be written. When the plot seemed to be at a standstill, everything changed. Their future would not be the quiet they anticipated and their past now had purpose they had never been able to see before. For them, it was as though God rewrote the story they thought they knew.

And for us…

God remembers the prayers we prayed long ago, the ones we gave up on and stopped praying, the ones that became too difficult to pray as the years went on and left us wounded. He remembers and does something more wonderful with them than we can imagine. 

God is kind even when prayers go unanswered, even when He delays, and even when His ways make no sense.

And God writes beautiful stories. If you feel like your story isn’t beautiful, just wait; God’s not done writing yet.

Choose Kindness

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One day I got in trouble in my junior high Sunday school class for saying something ghastly: “Jesus wasn’t nice.”

The Sunday school teacher was horrified. “What?! How can you say something like that?!”

“He wasn’t,” I replied. “Jesus wasn’t nice when He made a whip and overturned tables in the temple. He wasn’t nice when He challenged the religious leaders. He wasn’t nice when He yelled at Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus was NOT nice!” I stood by what I said. I still do.

Jesus wasn’t nice, but He was always kind.

What’s the difference?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nice” as “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory.”  “Kind” is defined as “having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.” Kindness goes deeper than appearances and good manners; it’s an overflow of love for our neighbor (and even our enemies).

Jesus wasn’t very good at pleasing people’s expectations, being agreeable, or doing what was satisfactory. He loved people so much that He would rather hurt feelings and egos to show love, illuminate truth, and bring out the best in people, than to let people stay the way they were. This isn’t nice; it’s kind.

He was kind when He showed compassion. He was kind when He rebuked and corrected. He was kind when He showed people the error of their ways and showed them the path to life.

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

Fred Rogers

Choose to be kind. You don’t always have to be politically correct. You don’t have to obsess over whether or not you offend someone. You don’t even have to be liked. But if you want to be a light in the world, you do need to be kind.

Be kind when you don’t feel like it, when you’re upset, hurt, sad, or just plain not in a good mood.

Be kind when someone needs help.

Be kind when you see a friend doing something destructive and they need some tough love.

Be kind when you see something you disagree with on social media.

Be kind when you’re right.

Be kind to liberals / conservatives / democrats / republicans / libertarians.

Be kind even when someone is being unkind.

Be kind to everyone.

Gazing Upon the Wonderfulness of God

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wonderful

ADJECTIVE

Inspiring delight, pleasure, or admiration; extremely good; marvelous.

(from en.oxforddictionaries.com)

“One thing have I asked of the Lord,

that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord

and to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 27:4, ESV

 I’m going to be completely honest: I ask God for a lot, but one thing I don’t find myself asking Him for is to dwell in His house all the days of my life. There’s something strange about that request for us simply because we’re temples of the Holy Spirit—we don’t have to ask to dwell in the house of the Lord because the Lord dwells in us. But still, my longing for God is nowhere near that of the psalmist’s, and it’s far too easy for me to take the presence of God for granted.

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