‘I just wanna be a sheep’

This post was first published last year as a guest post on one of my favourite blogs – The Recovering Legalist.  I encourage you to go visit!

‘I just wanna be a sheep’

I come from a country that is famous for its sheep. New Zealand used to have more than 70 million sheep.  Now the number is about 29 million, according to teara.govt.nz.  August is the best time of year to see the sheep, as it is late winter, when the ewes are lambing. It is delightful to watch the lambs gambolling in the fields playfully, so different from their sedate mothers.

Thinking about sheep gets me pondering all the Biblical references to sheep. The way we farm sheep here in NZ is quite different from 1st Century Palestine or how David cared for his father’s sheep before he became king of Ancient Israel. These differences can teach us something about our relationship with God.

Shepherds in the Bible

It’s clear from reading the Bible texts that the good shepherds in those days (like David) had a small number of valued sheep, each one of which was known by the shepherd, and who knew the shepherd and followed him.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. “ (Luke 15:4-6 ESV)

Jesus also talks about the shepherd’s relationship to his sheep in John 10:3-4, where he says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. “

Contrast this with modern farming, where a farmer will often have hundreds, if not thousands of sheep. They live in fields fenced by barbed wire. They are seen as stupid animals, that the shepherd herds by using dogs to make them obey his will. You do not see a shepherd leading his sheep, instead driving them in front of him. They have an ear tag with a number to identify them to the sheep farmer.

To me this speaks of two different ways of relating to God.

What kind of sheep are you?

One kind is motivated by fear, and kept safe by barbed wire. These fences are like the extra rules that we make for ourselves or that others make for us, to keep us safe and away from sin. But they also keep us from following the Shepherd to green pastures. Instead we are boxed in where the grass has been overgrazed, living on stale hay.

Some sheep break out, thinking that the grass looks greener elsewhere, and end up on a busy road or in a ditch. This is like those who break away from legalism to do their own thing, or those who fear the Shepherd and his voice, and shipwreck their lives as a result. Both are far from the Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd’s sheep are motivated by love for their Shepherd. They trust him to keep them safe and fed, and they follow him wherever he leads. He leads them to green pastures and restores their souls. He protects them in the darkest valleys and lays down his life for them. Jesus said,  “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” The Good Shepherd’s sheep are led by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is not a factory farmer. He wants us to know his voice and follow him out of love. He doesn’t want us to be penned in by traditions or extra rules, but instead to walk with him to green pastures and fresh water.

Will you follow him?

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And here’s a fun kids’ song to finish – one of my 4-year-old son’s favourites!

Can you rejoice in Me?

Lying in bed, earlier than I want it to be.
The sound of children’s voices when I want quiet.
Grumbles rise to the surface, discontentment chafing.
If only I had a bigger house, quieter children…

Recognising the path my thoughts are taking, reining them in,
Offering thankfulness for this house, these children, this life.
And then His whisper in my mind:

“Can you rejoice in Me?”

Not just thanking Him for His blessings,
But basking in His presence,
Opening my heart to the rays of His love,
Looking past the changing circumstances, good or ill,
And seeing the One who never alters.

I will rejoice in You!

Unless You Become as Little Children…

I would like to share this post from a blog that is very special to me. Three and a half years ago God used this blog to help me to find freedom and peace, to know that I am under grace, not under law, and that Jesus is enough.

8thDay4Life

I really believe the human default (for adults that is) is law and legalism. I am not sure we are born with it, but society operates on this paradigm so it’s drilled into us at a very early age. Even if you don’t grow up in a legalistic religion, classmates and teachers both will make sure you understand the ground rules of success both socially and academically. How far back can we trace our fear of failure and rejection? Maybe parents were critical and you felt you must achieve something to gain their love. I am starting to see behavior-based religion as a secondary element that we choose because it flows with the worldview we already have. All the world religions I know of fall well into this same paradigm.

The problem isn’t that the law framework is false. Reaping and sowing are obvious – and even Jesus talked about…

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The Concertos Will Come

 

Nature Boy in the spring, 2013

Nature Boy in 2013

Imagine a nine-year-old boy playing the violin.  He has an excellent ear and almost never plays a wrong note.  He can play any tune he hears.  But the sound coming out of his violin doesn’t match the music in his head.  It is scratchy and weak. Despite regular practice, he does not seem to improve. It is frustrating to listen to him, knowing the possibility of his talent.

That was our son a year ago.  We had taken him to violin lessons, but his teacher had not worked enough on good playing habits, instead forging ahead with more and more difficult music, because of his excellent ‘ear’ and ability to read music.  At first we were pleased with his progress, but as the music got harder his bad playing habits began to hamper him, until his playing was no longer a pleasure for the listeners.  He had poor posture, and his hand was crooked as he held the violin.  His bowing was weak. Something had to be done.

An email came into my inbox from the homeschooling network to which we belong, someone recommending their daughter’s Suzuki violin teacher.  The cost would be higher than what we were already paying, and it was further away.  But I had been praying for guidance.  We decided to leave the old teacher and try the new.

She took him right back to the beginning, back to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.  I tried not to care, thinking, “It won’t be long before she’ll move him on to the pieces he was playing before.”  She worked on his bowhold first, then his hand position.  Week after week, she has been working on his playing habits – making sure the bow goes in the right place to get the best sound, standing up straight, hand in the right position, thumb pointing up at the ceiling not lying down.  Every day when he practises at home I watch him to make sure that he is following her instructions.

Almost a year later, he is still not playing the more difficult pieces he was before, but the sound that comes out of his instrument is a hundred times better.  His playing habits are not perfect, but vastly improved.  I have learned patience, waiting for the fruit of our labours, knowing that this time nurturing his musical gift will be worth it in the end.  The concertos will come, but the foundation must be properly laid.

As I was watching him at his violin lesson recently, I started thinking about what God has been doing in my life, about the bad habits that held me back from His purposes for me:  self-pity, pride, criticism of others, self-condemnation, anger, impatience.  Like me watching my son practising his violin, the Holy Spirit reminds me when my thoughts and behaviour go off the rails.  He is patient and never condemns, but I am frustrated at times because I want to be so much further on than I am.  However as we continue together, the new behaviours will become the norm, and the old will fall to the side.  Already, some bad habits have died, and others are breathing their last gasp.

“Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  Therefore lift your dropping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

Hebrews 12:11-13

Letting Go

It seems like I am like an onion, with layers that need to be peeled off.  God does some things in a hurry, and others take more time.  I have been going through an intense spiritual and emotional shake-up since Easter, when I had a disagreement with a family member.  The rift dragged up memories from my childhood, of the feeling of never being good enough, and it was like I could hear my family member condemning me and my life in my head.  Every criticism or perceived criticism by this person and other people came to mind, and it was almost unbearable.

For the last few weeks God has been working away at the festering wound of my resentment and childhood pain, getting rid of it for good.  He’s been working on my thinking about my parents, showing me that I need to focus on and remember the good things about them. He has shown me that I needed to repent and change my attitude towards them (Whatever is Lovely…). He’s been reminding me that my identity is in Him, not in my human family (Pain). He has promised me that He’s filling in ‘the pit’ of depression, so that I will be able to jump for joy (God’s Landscaping Business).  And last week, He showed me how to forgive.

Recently I have been reading the book To Forgive is Human, in this quest to forgive and find lasting peace.  It discusses stages of forgiveness and why people forgive, for example, because of social pressures, or because they want peace in their family.

Reading about human reasons for forgiveness got me thinking about God, and why He forgives.  Obviously there is no outside pressure on Him to forgive – He is the one that makes the rules. I realised that forgiveness is part of who He is – it is His nature. He does not experience the struggle that we often do to let go of past hurts and forgive. In fact, His commitment to forgiveness is so great that He paid the ultimate price so that our relationship with Him could be restored. As Jesus was taunted by his enemies on the cross he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24) He had no desire for revenge, only empathy that pitied His enemies and recognised their blindness.

As I thought about God’s forgiving nature, I heard the song “Endless Hallelujah” by Matt Redman, which speaks of Heaven and the perfection that we will know there. All the resentments and grudges we hold here will dissolve in that place. All of our mistakes and wrongdoing will be forgotten. Then the thought came:

Why not let my resentment go, and let Heaven into the dark places of my heart, the not-so-secret corners, where I squirrel away my grudges and bitterness?

As He is, so shall we be.

My Father’s nature is to forgive, and I am His child, therefore unforgiveness has no place in me.

For some time now (for years, to be honest) I had been holding on to resentment for hurts in my past, knowing that I should forgive but unable to find peace. That word ‘should’ is like a weight around one’s neck somehow – all the things that we ‘should’ do but just can not. It had helped to concentrate on the good things about those who had hurt me, but somehow I was still struggling with forgiveness. However as I thought about who God is, and who I am as His child, I was able to let it go. I saw how much I had been forgiven myself, and the sins of others against me were a mere pittance in comparison. He takes away the burden of resentment and replaces it with joy – the joy of a prisoner set free.

All the pain I caused, the lies I spoke, the hate I breathed,

You nailed on the tree

And said, “Follow Me.”

A Bubble Bursts

As a child I listened to my grandfather playing on his baby grand piano, and I thought, “I wish I could do that.”  I would look at the musical score and tried to figure out what it meant, but all I could understand were the letters ‘m’, ‘p’ and ‘f’.  Were they notes on the piano somewhere?  I tried to play them but it didn’t sound anything like my grandfather’s playing.

Then when I was seven my parents sent me to piano lessons.  The written music started to make sense.  This was something I loved to do, and I never had to be told to practise.  Unfortunately after about six months of lessons we moved and the lessons stopped.  Playing the piano became a dream once more.  I had to wait until I was nearly 12 before starting lessons with another teacher.  During the waiting time I borrowed other people’s piano books and figured out quite a lot on my own.  A piano teacher, who I hoped would teach me, frowned disapprovingly when I told her this, saying, “You’ll be picking up bad habits.”  Perhaps I was, but music was already an important part of me.

Once I started lessons again I worked hard, but was never a prodigy, just an above average amateur.  I played in church for the first time when I was 14.  At first I would have to practise for weeks before I could accompany the congregation.  I spent hours playing all the songs in the book so that I would be ready whenever I was needed.  I learned how to play using chords and later on, how to play by ear.

There were always others who were better than I was – one of my classmates who had started learning earlier, a younger girl who had learned using the Suzuki method, someone else who played the same pieces that I did, but so much faster.  There was an ugly envy in me.

I tried to get into the performance programme at university, but my application was declined.  I hardly talked about it afterwards, because I was so embarrassed that I had even tried.  I stopped playing anything challenging for a long time after that.

My husband and I met over a piano keyboard.  He was playing in church.  I didn’t know anyone, so I thought I’d talk to him.  I didn’t think much of him at that first meeting, but fortunately he was more impressed than I was.  🙂  Our first ‘date’ was playing duets.  We play at approximately the same level, albeit with different strengths.  It is in keeping with God’s beautiful design in bringing us together – ‘oak and ash in a dove-tail joint’.

When I was in my early thirties I decided to have piano lessons again, as I had never done any exams, and wanted to be able to teach piano.  Over the next few years I played lots of Beethoven and Bach, and was introduced to Scarlatti and Brahms, and learnt about cadences and what a second inversion meant (“Drama!” my teacher said).  It took a few years, because I had our fourth child during that time, as well as homeschooling, but finally I was able to sit the ATCL performance exam, and passed, at the ripe old age of 35.

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But I’m still only an above average amateur, and I still struggle with pride and envy.  I realised that last week when someone at church commented that she missed hearing my husband playing, as she had heard me playing more often.  She commented about his style being different from mine, and how he was ‘very accurate’.  The ugly green-eyed monster hadn’t died yet.  I was hurt and put out.  Something important to me was under attack.  Thankfully we sorted it out the same day, and she realised she had been making some wrong assumptions (she thought that I had been stopping him from playing, when I hadn’t).

But I got to thinking about how I had reacted.  The only thing that was hurting was my pride, and that didn’t deserve to live.  I had been congratulating myself on my excellent musical renditions, and someone had come with a sharp pin and *pop* burst my bubble.  And I was reminded of these words (the paraphrasing is mine):

“If I play the sonatas of Beethoven by memory, perform Bach with breathtaking accuracy, and my fingers fly like swallows over the keyboard, but I have not love, then I am only a sounding gong or a clashing cymbal….I am out of tune and they are only notes, worth nothing.”

Conversely, when I play with love and without pride, it doesn’t matter if my fingers trip up or I miss some notes.  My Father in Heaven loves to listen anyway.  🙂

God’s Landscaping Business

This is a follow-up to my poem “The Swamp” that I posted a couple of days ago.

A good friend, Naggie, texted me yesterday morning.  When I received her text, my eyes just about popped out, and I had to call her to find out more about it.  She hadn’t read my poem, and she had heard this from God on Monday but didn’t send it until Thursday.   Here goes:

Oh Jo, I got a prophetic word for you … It is that God will “fill in the pit”, that you will never trip back in, slide back in, jump back in, stumble back in … But instead rejoice and be glad and jump on top of the filled in pit … Knowing that He IS the victory!  He is victorious!  He has conquered and you just get to dance on top of the pit that no longer exists as He has filled it in!!

 

Ever since I was a teenager I’ve been in and out of depression, up and down, back and forth.  Even in the good times I wonder when it’s coming back.  In the bad times it feels like I’ve always been there.  I have seen it in my mind’s eye as walking through a field of pits, never knowing when the next one is coming up, doing my best to stay away from the edge, but somehow unable to keep away as circumstances push me in.

And now God’s saying that…

Those pits are going to be filled in!

I’m not going to live in fear of depression anymore.  He’s changing the landscape.  He’s God, and He can do that.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
Isaiah 40 verse 4

For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.

Isaiah 43 verse 19

Here’s a little bit of Handel’s Messiah, because great words deserve great music.

Whatever is Lovely….

In a recent post (Pain) I wrote about the difficulties I had been having getting over hurts from my childhood.  Even though my parents have been loving and good parents on the whole, there were painful memories and resentment that I was holding on to from the past.  Every time I visited my parents the old pain would be renewed, and I would come home unsettled and fighting depression again.  This happened many times, so that I began to avoid visiting their home.

The last time this happened was at Easter.  I was bitterly disappointed, because I wanted to be able to move on and not have this horrible pain, dealing with the same thing over and over again.  I felt like a child who couldn’t grow up.  It helped to remind myslf of God’s love and his acceptance, but I still couldn’t let go of the resentment towards my parents.  I asked God, “How can I get past this?”

The answer came when I met with a close friend and her husband for prayer.  My friend asked God for healing for the hurt places in my life, going all the way back to the little girl I was, who believed herself to be unloved.   And then she gave me a verse.  It is very well-known, but I had never applied it in this way before:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

She prayed that when I would think of my parents, I would think of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, etc: that my thoughts and memories of my parents would focus on the lovely, praiseworthy things about them (and there are so many – thank you Lord!).  I realised that my mind had been set on a certain track, so that when I thought about them I would focus on things that I resented, and each time my thoughts went that way, the groove would become deeper and it became more and more difficult for me to think about them any other way.  God was asking me to consciously change my thought patterns.  I had been asking God for the way forward, and He had shown me the path.

After my friend prayed I realised that I needed to repent of my wrong attitude towards my parents, particularly the way I had judged them and criticised them for years.  So I did that.  When I went home I felt like a huge load had come off me.  I was exhausted, but free.

Since then the pain is gone.  It sounds simplistic, but it really is completely different.  I was a wreck emotionally before I went to that prayer meeting, and since then, I have been at peace.  The real test will be when I see my parents again.  Will the old hurts still sting, or are they healed forever?  At least I now have a way forward.  If I am hurt again, I can choose to think on ‘whatever is lovely.’

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Why my blog is called Isaiah 41 verse 10

I was about 10 or 11.  I was staying with my parents who were missionaries in the kind of country where people don’t usually go for a relaxing holiday.  I never felt like I belonged anywhere.  Not in that culture, because I couldn’t speak the language, and I looked different and was foreign, and not at the boarding school for missionaries’ children, where the other kids often picked on me or disliked me. At an early age I had stopped believing in my mother’s love for me, and the lie that I was unloved was causing me to grow up crooked, like a tree that overcompensates for an early injury.

But I had heard that God loved me.  I also had heard that He would speak if one listened.  One day, when I was by myself in the room I shared with my sister, I took my Bible and sat on the bed, and asked Him if it was true.

“Is it true that you love me?  Do you care about me?”

I waited.  Then a verse reference popped into my head: one that I didn’t know.  I looked it up.

Isaiah 41 verse 10

So do not fear, for I am with you;

Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you; 

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

 

Then I knew that it was true.  He does speak, and He does care, and He is not only the one true God, Creator of the universe, He is my God, the one who watches over me.  He is Love.

He has kept His promise to me.  With Him I am strong.  He is always with me, and He holds on to me.  I’ve wandered off the pathway lots of times, and got distracted, and disobeyed His instructions, but He has not given up on me, and He never will.  Some songs say, “I will never let you [Jesus] go.”  I always change the words when I’m singing to “You will never let me go,” because the truth is that we often let go, but He doesn’t.

I’ve found that if I hold onto His love, I can love other people, and not be afraid of them hurting me.  It’s hard to unlearn old habits of mistrust and criticism, but slowly He is making the change.  If I ask Him to show me how He sees a situation or a person, it’s like He changes the perspective, making clear what was blurry, changing the colours, and sometimes revealing details I did not notice before. 

Sometimes I look back and wish I had pursued Him earlier, when I knew this from an early age, but for a long time it was about following rules and being a ‘good Christian’.  I was too busy trying to fix everyone else, and swinging from self-hatred to pride and back again.  But they say that nothing is wasted with God, so I will trust that He is making something beautiful with the mess. 

Pain

The last couple of weeks have been difficult.  Tension with a family member has dragged up emotions and memories from the past that still have the power to wound me.  I am stung again by rejection, criticism and the feeling of never measuring up.  Once I start thinking this way, it becomes habitual, and almost anything can trigger off the negativity, even an article in the newspaper about someone’s ‘perfect mother.’ I am reminded of all the ways I fail, and start thinking I am pathetic, hopeless and just generally a blot on the landscape.  Why do I listen to that voice?  I don’t want to fight this battle over and over again.  I am in tears many times a day, remembering, and then turning to God for comfort and truth.  There are some things He has told me that I have to hold on to:

“My Father’s house has many rooms.”  John 14:2

I am loved and welcomed by my Heavenly Father, always accepted because of Jesus my Saviour.

“You are a daughter of the King.”  Romans 8:15

No longer dressed in rags, but in his robes.

“We must obey God, rather than men.”  Acts 5:29

My allegiance is to Him, not to others’ expectations.  This is particularly difficult when I love and respect a person, and they disapprove of my choices, even though I believe that I am obeying my Heavenly Father.  People-pleasing is only taking me down the well-worn path of rejection and despair.  God will not take me there.

I feel like I am a child again, confused and wanting desperately for someone to look after me.  I feel completely inadequate to be a parent to my children when I am still a child myself.  But somehow my children are beautiful, sensitive people, who are growing in faith and learning to care for others.