Love Mandate

“A new commandment I give you: Love one another.” John 13:34

Mandates are not real popular these days. It seems nobody likes being told what to do. Some people expend enormous amounts of time and energy either supporting or opposing mandates that come down from places of authority. The debate rages on between standing up for our individual freedoms and laying down our rights for the good of others. I’m not about to wade into those murky waters. Our silly arguments pale in light of Jesus’ final words to His followers.

The night before Jesus was killed, He issued a mandate to His disciples:
Love one another.

Growing up Jewish, the disciples were used to commandments. They knew the Big 10, they were well versed in the 613 precepts found in the writings of Moses, and the hundreds of added Pharisaical laws were familiar to them. There hadn’t been any new commandments for hundreds of years. The people had their hands full trying to obey all the old ones.

This command was different.
It was not a suggestion.
(“You guys might want to try getting people to love each other.”)
It was not based on emotions.
(“Love people when that ooey-gooey feeling overtakes you.”)
It had no conditions.
(“Love people, but only those who are lovable.”)

This command was new.
Love was to be the distinguishing factor in the movement that was about to take over the world.

This begs some questions:

Can you command someone to love? Apparently, yes.
Do we need to be commanded to love? Evidently.
Does Jesus have the authority to command this? Yep.
Is this commandment optional? No siree.
Who are we commanded to love? Other believers.
Why do we need this commandment? Because it’s not our natural default.
Does God expect us to obey this mandate? Absolutely.
Where can we find an example of this? John 15:13

Do Christians have the right to not love?
I say no.

What say you?

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

I once read a true story about a mom and her three sons. She had a terminal illness and before she died, she wrote each of her boys a letter, to be opened in private after her passing. Each message held her special thoughts about each son. All three letters ended with the same line: “Don’t tell your brothers, but you were my favorite and I loved you most.”

Five times in John’s gospel, this mysterious phrase pops up: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The fact that those words aren’t used anywhere else in the scriptures raises suspicion that John may have been referring to himself, while trying to stay humble. Why does John tag himself as that disciple Jesus especially loved?

John’s Gospel uses the word “love” 39 times, more than the other three gospel writers put together. (Matthew–15x, Mark–7x, Luke–14x) But John doesn’t use the word until the third chapter. In the middle of a discussion with a Pharisee about the Kingdom, rebirth, and believing, Jesus drops an astounding truth. God loves humans. “God loves you so much,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “that He gave you Me.”

God loves the world, yes.
But somehow, He also loves each of us.
So don’t tell anybody,
but today He wants you to know this:
you, who are especially loved by the Father,
you are His favorite.
You are the disciple whom Jesus loves.

Be Like a Tree

When I was a young girl, I used to love the apple tree that was in the horse pasture by our house. It had a low hanging branch that made it easy to climb. I would take my Nancy Drew book, jump over the fence, and then hoist myself up to sit on a limb, resting my back against the trunk. Reading a book while sitting in a tree was magical.

These days, I might sit under a tree with a book, but my climbing days are over. Still, trees hold an allure for me. I’d take a walk in the woods over a stroll on the beach any day. (Unless it’s February — then a stroll on the beach can’t be beat.)

The opening song in the Hebrew book of prayers, Psalm 1, tells me to learn from the trees.

“…be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither…” Ps. 1:3

There are some instructions on how to be this kind of tree:

  • Get planted in a good place
  • Be still to let living water saturate the roots
  • Pay attention to the seasons
  • Graciously share what develops
  • Stay refreshed and vibrant

So I’m asking myself some questions:

  • Where do I plant myself most days? In ungodly counsel and in the seat of mockers (Ps. 1:1), or in God’s Word, meditating day and night (Ps. 1:2)?
  • What am I soaking up? Fresh springs of living water from the Lord, or the lifeless stagnation of worldly advice?
  • Am I willing to accept seasons of dormancy and stillness, or do I constantly push for peak productivity?
  • During times of prosperity and growth, will I be generous and eager to share, or will I hoard the bounty for myself?
  • As I grow older, how will I keep myself from withering up and being blown away like chaff (Ps. 1:4)? Will I abide in the Vine, remaining in Him, bearing much fruit (John 15:5)?

A children’s Sunday school song runs through my mind every time I read Psalm 1.

I’m gonna be like a tree, planted by the water,
Trusting in the Father to keep me strong.
I’m gonna be like a tree, planted by the water,
Trusting in the name of the Lord.
The deeper the roots grow, the better the fruits grow,
The blessings bloom out for all to see.
The deeper the roots grow, the more my life shows,
That Jesus is the Lord of me.

Integrity Kids Worship

What kind of tree will I be?
With over 60,000 species in the world,
there is plenty of room for variety.

I have no visions of becoming
a tall pine
or a stately oak
or a majestic redwood.
I would like to be an apple tree,
with a low hanging branch,
in a green pasture,
inviting small ones to crawl up
and sit a while with a book,
munching on the sweet fruit
of a life lived in Jesus.

My Word for 2022

This is going to sound extremely nerdy,
but I chose a Hebrew word for 2022.
The word is “hesed”.
I did this because I’m setting out to spend a year
on each fruit of the Spirit in my personal study time.

But the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace, 
patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 
Galatians 5:22

Yep, that’s nine years.
I like to plan ahead.
(Kinda glad self-control is at the end.)

The first fruit for year number one is love; but that seemed too general, too obvious, too broad. One of the ways our word “love” is translated in Old Testament Hebrew is the word “hesed”. Don’t be fooled by its simple appearance. It is long, deep, high and wide. Author Michael Card decided to take a year to write a book on this single word. It took him ten.

Hesed is possibly the most unique word ever uttered. That may sound like an exaggeration, but consider the following: this one Hebrew word is translated into English in over 100 different ways, making it practically untranslatable. There is lots of room to crawl inside and rattle around in this two syllable treasure for a year.

Back in 1535, when Myles Coverdale was working on an English translation of the Bible, he invented a new word to try to capture what “hesed” meant. Lovingkindness. But that doesn’t even come close to covering the depth of this word. Don’t take my word for it. Here is the list* of ways we come across it in our Bibles, compiled by a man who spent 10 years studying one word.

That should give us enough to chew on for a while.

* “Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness”, by Michael Card

Have you picked out a word for the year? Please share!

A Final Thought on My Word for 2021

My word for this year was ASK.
I intended to steep myself in good teaching on prayer.
And I did.
I determined to establish a more consistent prayer life.
And I did.
I set out to ask, seek and knock.
And I did.

Now, as the year winds down,
it seems God has one more lesson for me on asking.

I tend to think of asking as always asking for something. I add to my list of prayer requests week after week, hoping for a positive outcome — to get what I’m asking for. I am looking for a result with a good benefit and it doesn’t get checked off my list until I receive that answer. Even when asking for “spiritual” things, the desire is still there for action, change, fulfillment.

Then God began to ask me some questions.

What if there is another kind of asking?
The kind that isn’t focused on results?
What if you asked different types of questions?

God, what do You want me to know before I go into this day?
Should I buy this ____, or wait?
What books do You want me to read?
Where would You like us to go on vacation?
Who do You want me to reach out to today?
What should we write about today?
Lord, what other questions do You have for me?
What are You asking of me?

A year spent exploring prayer, and the whole time my emphasis was on my words — how to pray, what to pray, when to pray. And I learned so much. But the fact that this new insight didn’t come up until the end of the year makes me wonder if God couldn’t get a word in edgewise until now.

I’m grateful for the invitation to ask.
Ask and it will be given to you.
Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened to you.

I’m grateful for this new invitation to ask better questions.
And learn to be a better listener.

Top Movies/Shows of 2021

Here are my top picks for movies and TV shows that PB and I watched this year. It’s getting harder to find television that is praise-worthy. Maybe you noticed. I went over my list and checked it twice to stretch this favorites list to ten. I didn’t include two carryovers from last year’s list (“The Great British Baking Show” and “The Chosen – Season 2”) even though they received a star in the margin of my journal.

1. Miss Potter (Amazon Prime) — This is the story of Beatrix Potter, the author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”. It takes place in Victorian England and is charming from start to finish. A little romance, a little comedy, and a look at the creative process of an absolutely delightful writer/artist. (PG)

2. The Repair Shop (Netflix) — This is a British television reality series that follows expert craftspeople who restore family heirlooms. They all work together in a barn in the English countryside. It is all very proper, but not in a stuffy way. These people are genuinely nice and polite to each other. It’s a wonderful escape from a world that has not been so nice and polite lately.

3. Get Low (Amazon Prime) — Robert Duvall plays a crusty old hermit in the mountains of Tennessee who throws his own funeral, where he uncovers a long-held secret. (PG-13)

4. A Week Away (Netflix) — If you’ve ever been to church camp in the summer, you will totally get this. A bad boy gets sent to camp and meets a good girl. Completely predictable and cheesy, but it’s like they know it’s cheesy, so it’s okay. Super fun music and dancing (it’s a musical!) with cameo appearances by Amy Grant (camp nurse) and Steven Curtis Chapman (lifeguard).

5. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) — This series is definitely a departure from my usual wholesome picks. It is rated Mature for many reasons, so beware (language, suggestive scenes, addiction and abusive behavior). It is the story of an orphan who is a chess prodigy. She grows up to compete at the highest level, but self-destructs. It’s pretty dark, but gave me compassion for people struggling with addiction.

6. Fatherhood (Netflix) — The previews to this movie led me to believe it was a comedy. I cried through the whole thing. Kevin Hart plays a widowed dad who has to raise his baby girl alone. There are some lighter moments, but grab a box of tissue. (PG-13)

7. Marvel Movies (Disney+) — I’m lumping several Marvel movies into one category. They are pure entertainment. We watched “Guardians of the Galaxy” (volumes 1 and 2), “Ant Man”, “Ant Man and Wasp” and “Dr. Strange”. (PG-13)

8. All Creatures Great and Small (PBS) — This Masterpiece Theater production is set in the 1930’s in England. It’s based on a series of books by James Herriot, a veterinarian in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. The characters and the filming all make for a really enjoyable experience. Season 2 is coming soon!

9. Awakenings (Netflix) Robin Williams stars in this remarkable story about a doctor who discovers an experimental drug that effectively brings catatonic patients out of their unresponsive state. Based on a true story, Robert DeNiro awakens after 30 years of sleeping-sickness. (PG-13)

10. Sports — I can’t overlook the fact that PB and I watched a lot of sports this year. Between the Brewers playoffs, the Bucks championship and the Packers run to the Superbowl, we logged in lots of hours. Plus, I can read a book while there’s a game on, so everybody’s happy. Full disclosure — I’m the only one who stays up when games go long. But I yell loud enough to wake up PB when there’s an exciting finish.

That’s it! Happy viewing in 2022.
Or read books, knit sweaters and bake bread instead.

My Top Books of 2021

I like reading end-of-the-year posts that reflect back on favorite things, especially books. Sometimes I find a few titles to add to my TBR list. Sometimes I shake my head and screw up my nose at people’s taste in reading. These lists are pretty subjective and mine is no different. So take what you want and feel free to leave the rest.

I read 53 books in 2021, 12 of which were fiction, which is a new record for me. Because I focused on prayer this year, there are several titles on that topic. Here we go!

10. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People, by Pete Greig
Pete is the head of the 24/7 Prayer Movement. Back in 1999, a simple student-led prayer vigil in England went viral and people all over the world joined in to pray. And it never stopped. Twenty-two years later, Greig has learned a thing or two about prayer. This straight-forward, approachable guide was a good reminder of basics that I needed.

9. God On Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, by Pete Greig
What happens when the head of a global prayer movement doesn’t get an answer to his prayers? Greig’s wife suffered a series of seizures that almost took her life and she continues to live with a debilitating disease, despite prayers for healing. In this book, Greig gets personal and honest about his own struggle and helps us wrestle with the hard reality of unanswered prayer. He reads the audio version of his book — you can hear the pain and the hope in his voice.

8. Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, by Tish Harrison Warren
Drawing on her own painful experience of loss and doubt, Warren was grounded by liturgical prayer when she had no words of her own to pray. She writes about going through hard seasons in a way that helps us see the beauty in the midst. Her book opened up to me the world of ancient prayers given to the church through the centuries — rich prayers that are deep and vibrant.

7. The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
One of my reading goals this year was to find a novel set in Montana in the early 1900s. Why, you ask? My great-great-grandparents went to Montana in the late 1800s and homesteaded near Lewistown. I have a pile of letters written by Great-Great-Grandma Harriet to her daughter Kate (my great-grandma) in Wisconsin. I have long idealized what life was like for them out in Big Sky country. This novel helped me enter into their world. Plus, it’s a really enjoyable story.

6. Reading Ruth, by Leon Kaas and Hannah Mandelbaum
Our church did a women’s Bible study this summer on Ruth, so I downloaded this short volume to read along. It is written by a Jewish man and his granddaughter, which I thought was charming. Although Kaas is not a Jesus follower, his insights into Jewish tradition and the Hebrew meaning of words really enriched the study.

5. Night Driving: Notes From a Prodigal Soul, by Chad Bird
This is the story of an arrogant pastor and driven seminary professor who destroyed his marriage and career with affairs and addictions. With his life in a heap of ruins, he started driving a semi-truck through the Texas oil fields at night. After ten years of bitter struggle, grace and healing finally won his heart. He was a prodigal soul who found his way back to God. Chad Bird became a humble servant who now writes like no one else. Other books by this author that I read this year include: “Your God Is Too Glorious”, “The Christ Key”, and “Unveiling Mercies”. I will read everything this man puts out there.

4. Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle, by Alistair Begg
This book caught my eye at a radio station where PB and I were doing an interview. The host told me to take it home with me and since I can’t turn down a free book, I slipped it in my purse. I was afraid this little paperback would turn out to be one of those “name-it-and-claim-it” kinds of things. I was skeptical. I was wrong. This small gem held many nuggets of truth that I’m still thinking about.

3. God of All Things: Rediscovering the Sacred in the Everyday World, by Andrew Wilson
At the time I read Wilson’s book, I thought it was okay. But then I kept taking it off the shelf and referring back to it over and over. He takes the simple, ordinary things of this earth and weaves them around scripture, tying the holy to the common. My favorite chapter was entitled “Pigs”, but each short chapter holds its own treasure.

2. A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, by Winn Collier
Collier was given the privilege of perusing all of Eugene Peterson’s personal diaries and journals, as well as compiling notes from hours of interviews with the famous pastor/writer before Peterson died in 2018. This biography doesn’t leave out the uncomfortable stuff, yet captures the remarkable life of a man of enduring faith, boundless creativity and lifelong devotion to the Word.

1. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, by Eugene Peterson
My number one book this year combined the theme of my year (prayer) with one of my favorite authors (Peterson). This book was a turning point for me in my quest to better understand prayer and become a better pray-er. “We cannot bypass the Psalms. They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest.” Here is his recommendation: “That’s it: open your Bibles to the book of Psalms and pray them — sequentially, regularly, faithfully, across a life-time. This is how most Christians for most of the Christian centuries have matured in prayer. Nothing fancy. Just do it.” Most of my copy of this book is underlined. If you’re at all interested in falling in love with the Psalms, or learning to pray like Jesus did, this is the book for you.

As always, I’d love a good book recommendation!
I’ll add it to the 200 titles on my TBR list.
Here’s to a happy reading year in 2022!

10 Things I Learned About Prayer in 2021

When the calendar page flips open to December, I start a long, slow reflection back on the year. What worked? What didn’t work? Did I learn anything? Have I grown?

My word for 2021 was “ask”, which I took as an invitation to explore prayer. It’s been lovely to spend a whole year focusing on one topic, allowing it time to soak into my heart and soul. The extended time seemed unhurried, more like a leisurely stroll with a friend. It gave God a chance to straighten me out on some misconceptions and fill me up with practical truth. Here are some things I learned:

1. A year isn’t long enough to explore prayer. Neither is a lifetime, of course. Prayer isn’t something to master or figure out. There’s no code to crack or formula to follow. I want to keep growing and learning in this area, so I plan to continually have a book on the subject in my TBR pile. Here are two I’m looking forward to reading in 2022.

2. The old dead guys have written the best books on prayer, but contemporary authors are providing some great resources. The stack in the photo below are some of the books I’ve read this year on the topic. I heartily recommend them.

3. I am in a very different place at the end of this year than I expected to be in January 2021. My neat and tidy prayer lists and tabbed categories and boxes to check fell by the wayside. I’ve loosened my grip on controlled formulas and rigid routines. Even though my word was “ask”, I find myself twelve months later asking less and enjoying time with God more.

4. Many years ago, someone told me that my prayers for healing for a loved one weren’t answered because of my lack of faith. That put me in a tailspin for a while, until a more mature believer put their arms around me and gave wise counsel. I still have some residual angst about prayer and faith, so I loved Ole Hallesby’s thoughts: “The essence of faith is to come to Christ. You have more faith than you think you have if you have faith enough to pray.” The simple act of opening my heart’s door to Jesus and giving Him access to my helplessness is enough. I do not need to muster up some kind of fake confidence in order to help God secure an answer. He does not need my help, simply access.

5. I’ve learned that there are bigger things to pray for than Uncle John’s bum knee and Aunt Susie’s sore shoulder. Allistair Begg points out that praying for health issues is rare — almost non-existent — in the Bible. Paul’s prayers for other people were on another level. He prayed for the eyes of their hearts to be opened, he prayed for their love to abound more and more, he prayed for his friends to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding. I’ll continue to bring physical needs to the Lord in prayer, but I’m learning to also pray for Uncle John and Aunt Susie to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

6. “Be with…” is the lamest prayer there is. I’ve stopped saying, “Be with her, be with him, be with us.” For one thing, it’s unimaginative and unambitious. For another thing, Jesus’ last words before ascending were, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for people the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.” (Begg) No more “be with” prayers!

7. The book of Psalms is where it’s at when it comes to prayer. Eugene Peterson recommends a daily dose of psalms on a regular rotation. He goes so far as to say the Psalms are necessary to the praying life of every believer. “They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest.” Martin Luther put it like this: “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter seriously and regularly will soon give a vacation to other little devotional prayers and say, ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter.'” O Lord, I want to pray juicy prayers, strong and passionate prayers, prayers with some heat. So I will pray the Psalms.

8. There is something beautiful about praying the same prayers that saints down through the centuries have whispered. When my own words fail me, I fall back on the language of ancient liturgy and Puritan preachers. I’ve memorized the Compline, a nighttime prayer, and find that it’s a good way to end the day. As I put my head on the pillow and shut off my light, I know that people all over the world are joining me.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(From “Prayers in the Night”, Tish Harrison Warren)

9. I had narrowly defined prayer as me talking to God. Once I ran through my list of prayer requests, I was off and running into the day. But there’s more. I’m learning to pause for a few minutes and say, “What do you think about this, God?” and then actually listen. I had also narrowly defined prayer as personal time between me and God. But many of the Psalms are undeniably intended for corporate worship. “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture.” (Ps. 95:6-7) Lots of plurals there. Sounds like we’re supposed to pray with one another.

10. I will end the year with the same request I started it with: “Teach me to pray.”

Pray until you can pray;
pray to be helped to pray
and do not give up praying because you cannot pray.
For it is when you think you cannot pray,
that is when you are praying.

Other helpful resources:
The Daily Prayer on Wild At Heart app, John Eldredge
Prayer in a Noisy World, podcast by Valerie Woerner
Lectio 365 app, 24/7 Prayer
In The Lord I Take Refuge podcast, Dane Ortland
Hidden Streams podcast, Chad Bird

Time to Pray

I’m a detail person.

If the bathroom rug isn’t even with the lines on the tile floor,
I might straighten it.

If the dish towel hanging on the oven door handle is wrong side out,
I might turn it around.

If there are two pillows on one end of the couch,
I might move one down to the other end.

I just notice things.

Sometimes I intentionally leave the rug all wonky, or the towel inside out, or the couch unbalanced just to make sure I don’t become a raging perfectionist. Details matter to me, though, so when one jumps out at me from the pages of the Bible I sit up and pay attention. Like this one:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer —
at three in the afternoon.” Acts 3:1

Why the specific mention of this exact time of day?
It seems details matter to God.

Three o’clock in the afternoon was a Jewish regularly scheduled time of prayer. It was the precise moment when the sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the temple. People were called to the holy place to be there as witnesses to the cost of their sin and to receive forgiveness. The congregation recited a brief prayer together and then went on with the rest of their day.

On most days, by 3:00 p.m. I’m in need of a moment to pause and “re-center my scattered senses upon the presence of God”*. It’s an appropriate hour to remember the Lamb of God, who died at exactly 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

I’ve always considered set times of prayer to be unnecessarily structured. After all, I don’t live in a monastery and I tend to throw up prayers all day long. But if Peter and John did it, I decided I should give it a shot. To make that happen, I set an alarm on my phone and at the appointed hour, the sound of angelic harps reminds me it’s time. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop for just a minute and say a brief prayer.

Most of my creativity and energy has been expended by late afternoon, yet there are still several hours left in the day. So I ask the Holy Spirit to fill me up once again that I may finish the day well. I thank my Father for the gift of time and pray He helps me redeem it, not waste it. I reflect on the moment my salvation was won on the cross and I express my gratefulness to Jesus.

What started as an experiment has turned into a lovely afternoon time-out to recalibrate my soul. It’s proving to be a holy habit that is keeping my spirit connected to The Spirit.

*This phrase is taken from the Lectio 365 prayer app.

God’s Prayer Notebook

The biggest and best thing I have learned so far during this year of exploring prayer is that God has His very own prayer notebook. It’s called the book of Psalms. He put it smack-dab in the middle of the Bible so it’s easy to find. God provided 150 prayers right in the Holy Book so we could have words to pray back to Him. The Psalms are God’s gift to train us in prayer!

I’ve read the book of Psalms.

I’ve studied some of the psalms.
(Remember For the Flock — a 15 day study on Psalm 23?
And The Long Song — a 6 month study of Psalm 119?)

I’ve even sung a few psalms.

But it took me this long to catch on to the fact that I’m supposed to
pray the psalms.

Here in the pages of God’s Word
I have found my school of prayer.
This is where I’m learning how to pray.

I used to think the book of Psalms was a good place to find a bit of comfort, a word of assurance or a little inspiration.
Now I’m learning that I’m supposed to live in this book, using the ancient poetry in my own conversations with my Father.

I used to occasionally open to a handful of my personal favorite go-to psalms, depending on my mood.
Now I’m learning that I’m supposed to be nourished by all 150, on a regular basis, even when I don’t feel like it.

I used to believe that these songs belonged to King David, predating Jesus by hundreds of years.
Now I’m learning that Jesus dwells in the lyrics, and that He Himself often quoted from this beloved hymnbook, even on the cross.

I’m learning.

“The Psalms are the perfect prayers
for they are God’s words to us
that become our words back to God.”
Chad Bird, The Christ Key

Next: Time to Pray