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In the Presence of Anxiety | Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul. Psalm 23:1-3

When I think of a Psalm that provides an antidote to my anxiety I think of Psalm 23. It is a Psalm of God’s presence. A joyful recognition that God is present in the midst of all experiences. When we are experiencing joy and the goodness of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ we find ourselves present with this good shepherd. When we find ourselves deep in anxious moments this Psalm teaches us that God is present there, too.

There are a couple of verses that just jump out at me when I consider how this Psalm deals with my anxious experiences. In verse 3 the phrase ‘He restores my soul’ might find a literal translation somewhere close to ‘he returns me to my breathing!’ Have you noticed when you feel anxious your heart rate increases and you feel it’s harder to breathe? At least that is my experience. God promises to return us to our breathing! He brings back the calmness of our steady normal rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. When I’m stressed or anxious I find that listening to music at 70 beats per minute (the normal heart rate) and deep breathing helps me feel calm. They are practical ways through which I sense God restore my soul.

Finally, the wonderful verse 5 tells us that God ‘prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies’! When I feel anxious I lose all desire to eat. My appetite disappears. With God as our shepherd we are invited to a banquet even when ‘enemies’ like anxiety feel close by!

He is a wonderful shepherd!

By Alex Walton

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In the Presence of Anxiety | Psalm 232021-01-22T13:43:23-07:00

Wait, What? | Joshua 5:2-7

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth. Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. Joshua 5:2-7

Today we land on an unusual passage. The miracle has taken place and a nation passes over the river (Joshua 4:1). Can you imagine seeing between half a million and two million people crossing a river? What a terrifying experience for the other nations! These people seem so strong and so powerful, and their God works wonders for them! I expect the Israelites felt pretty good about the situation too! And then the plot twists.

God tells them that they need to return to an old practice, one that they haven’t done for many years, one that has become neglected. They need to circumcise every male. This act of obedience must have taken a chunk of time and it makes all the fighting men weak! There is battle in front of them, a river cuts off their retreat. If the other nations know that the fighting men are unable to give battle, the Israelites are in terrible trouble. God’s command puts them in a place of weakness. But the people choose obedience.

I have only led worship once. It was a terrible experience. I was pastoring a team that could be dysfunctional at times. There was infighting, insecurity, moaning, and a great deal of hurting. I felt God leading me to pick up the guitar and lead them in singing “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” an old song inviting people to do exactly what its title describes, and I did! I was off key, I stumbled through the words and I missed chords. But God was there and met with his people. It was a life giving experience and one I was completely unable to create myself!

At times God seems more interested in our weakness than our strength. This doesn’t mean he didn’t give us our strength and that it isn’t valuable, but it does mean that we must learn not to rely on ourselves. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says it like this “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s desire is to be strong but in this instance he is made weak and comes to see that as a good thing. Those occasional moments where we are called to a place of weakness keep us relying on God. That is a good place to be!

By Alex Walton

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Wait, What? | Joshua 5:2-72020-11-12T14:22:56-07:00

Lament the Loss | Deuteronomy 34:1-8

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. Deuteronomy 34:1-8

Deuteronomy 34 opens with a community thrown into grief. Their beloved leader is gone. He has been more than just a leader. He has represented the connection between God and the people. This was not the original plan, but the experience of hearing from God had so terrified the people that they had asked Moses to act as a go between. Occasionally he had gone up to a mountain top to hear from God and to bring his commands to the people. In our text today there is this starkness to Moses’ death. This time he goes up to the mountain top and does not come back! The question hovers over the text; ‘when he is gone, is the connection gone too?’ Are they still God’s people?

A similar question can hover over a community when a pastor or leader leaves. We can become so reliant on our spiritual leaders that we question what life looks like without them! The New Testament writers take seriously the idea we are a royal priesthood, each with an intimate connection to the Father through what Jesus has done, but the grief and loss is real! We value their wisdom in our lives and we might just wonder, ‘will we ever have it so good again?’

Individually, we are experiencing loss this year. Some on the following list are more significant than others but each represents a change, and change means losing something, and loss is something to grieve. We may have lost loved ones. We may have lost landmark events like graduations and weddings. We may have lost relationships. We may have lost jobs or financial stability. We may have lost business. We may have seen a dream come to an end.

Lament is a spiritual discipline and lament is tough! Perhaps that’s why they call them disciplines, because they are hard to do! Lament is a passionate expression of grief. It takes our grief seriously. It acknowledges the good thing and mourns the loss of it! The pain of lament can lead us to avoid it, or skip over it, but our encouragement is to take it seriously. It is ok to not be ok!

What good thing have you lost this year? Choose to lament its absence.

By Alex Walton

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Lament the Loss | Deuteronomy 34:1-82020-10-22T17:28:07-06:00

Unending Water | John 4:10-15

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” John 4:10-15

Two ultra marathoners out in the Sierra Nevadas took a wrong turn and found themselves with no water in the middle of an inhospitable environment. Unsure where to go next, they looked for any water they could find and stumbled across a stagnant puddle of water. As they sat hoping for rescue they faced the unhappy choice of potential poisoning, or potential death.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan ‘woman at the well’ begins with an innocuous conversation about everyday water. He asks for water and she is confused, expressing surprise that a Jewish man would ask her for anything. His reply suggests to her that he may be more than what he seems on the surface and with no more proof she asks that he give her this water he has to offer. Suddenly the conversation is about spiritual water. A water that sustains the soul. While her reply suggests she still doesn’t quite understand (she expresses hope she won’t have to make the daily trek to the well for regular water!) something inside her now craves the fresh spiritual water that Jesus offers.

John 4:14 uses a greek word ‘pege’. John is not talking about a well so much as an artesian spring. Contrast that for a minute with the stagnant water our friends in the opening story encountered. Take a moment for inventory. Which image more closely represents your spiritual health? Are you quenching your spiritual thirst with things that aren’t healthy or allowing Jesus to transform your life into a spring? Just before drinking the stagnant water the two runners heard footsteps and a rescue party appeared around the corner. They carried fresh water with them. Jesus offers us the same.

By Alex Walton

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Unending Water | John 4:10-152020-10-15T13:13:20-06:00

Heaven on Earth | John 3:9-15

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:9-15

There is a heartbreaking story about an Air Force pilot who, upon seeing a series of mountains approaching, pulled the plane up only to crash straight into the ground. The pilot had been flying upside down without knowing it. They had lost their perspective. Sometimes that happens to us as humans, especially spiritually. We feel we have a good handle on everything and then something happens that shows us we have it all flipped upside down. I wonder if that’s how Nicodemus felt as he talked with Jesus, and I wonder if he felt the same way at Easter when Jesus died and rose again.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he (Jesus) must be lifted up like ‘Moses lifted up the serpent’. He is referencing an old, old story from a book called Numbers. In the story, the Jewish people have gotten themselves into one of their regular messes. They have complained against God and are suffering. We are told God ‘sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died’ (Num. 21:6). After they cry out God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (Num. 21:9). We don’t have space to unpack that fascinating story but Jesus tells Nicodemus that the events that will happen to him are similar. I wonder if they are similar in the way Nicodemus is expecting. The serpent is lifted up and in some ways glorified. The word could mean exalted. It isn’t a sacrifice at all. Jesus is lifted ‘up’ like a servant. He isn’t exalted, at least not in the way human beings would expect. The cross was designed to be humiliating. A death for the lowest of all. It is the upside down kingdom all over again! Jesus places himself lower than all.

The Father uses the incredible sacrifice of his Son for good. The worst news became the best news. The worst day became a precursor to the best day! In spite of the questions, Nicodemus is there with Jesus right at the end, even when it seems upside down (John 19:38-39). We are called to do the same. In what ways have you seen God use bad things for good? How has God surprised you with ‘beauty from ashes’? Is there a situation you are facing where you have to trust God knows upside down from right side up?

By Alex Walton

Heaven on Earth | John 3:9-152020-10-13T09:17:58-06:00
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