If We Could See Ahead…We’d Run the Other Way

Have you seen this meme? Every time it pops up on Facebook, I laugh and say, “That is SO my life!”

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I was chatting with a friend last night, and we were talking about goals and priorities and where I wanted to be in the next few years. I’d been thinking about that recently, and, in fact, I KNOW where I want to be and what I want to be doing…at least I think I do.

Because I think like that top picture. I’m all about goal-setting and proactivity and action steps. Here’s my goal, my desired destination, and here’s the straightest path there. BAM! Seems easy.

But that’s not really reality. As I sit here, typing away, I have to reflect and realize (not a new realization, trust me), that NOTHING in my life has turned out like I’d planned. Not family, not career, not even my spiritual life has been at all predictable. In fact, as my girlfriend and I were chatting, we both agreed that, if we knew what the future held, we’d probably pull a 180 and run pell-mell away from it.

But I don’t really like that. I’m such a Type A personality:

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For the more linear folks:

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Here’s how it flushes out in my everyday, well-planned, ordered, and theoretically executed life:

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Sometimes my prayers sound a lot like this.

Highly driven and focused. Proactive, self-motivated, and always thinking about what needs to happen to get closer to the goal. And sometimes I get a little worked-up (since I refuse to use vulgarity here!) with others about it…

And I get a bit worked-up with God when he changes my destination…or, when I get there, says, “This was just a rest stop…movin’ on!”

In my 48 years on this planet, I have had at least five career paths. Ministry (in a variety of churches), music performance, music education, social worker, and a short stint as a Mary Kay lady (never could achieve that cat-eye look with the shadow, though). And in the midst of each different life chapter, I threw everything I had into it, convinced that THIS was what my life was supposed to be about.

And then CHANGE. Divinely ordained change.

According to change experts (yes, they’re a thing), change should be prepared for and eased into and processed while it’s happening – ask any management guru about what happens when change is thrust upon an organization. Better yet, ask the employees. They’ll give you an earful.

I don’t think God has consulted with the experts or the gurus.

Each time change has come to my life, it has come with little warning and no time to prepare…probably because if I had warning and time to prepare, I would absolutely pack my bags, pull a Jonah, and catch the next train to Joppa.

In her devotional book, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, (and no, I don’t get a cut for advertising…I just really like this book!), Sarah Young writes:

You would like to see a map, showing all the twists and turns of your journey. You’d feel more prepared if you could somehow visualize what is on the road ahead…I will not show you what is on the road ahead, but I will thoroughly equip you for the journey. (Entry for January 12)

As I look back on the multiple times God has quite literally pulled the rug out from under my feet, I see one common thread. Each time, I have been forced to rely on God’s grace direction and have had to obey not out of pious desire, but out of sheer need to survive the rocking of the boat and the shaking of the foundation. And each time, I can identify the hand of my Heavenly Father orchestrating the whole darn thing.

And it’s not like I was ever being disobedient to be where I was. Oddly enough, as I reflect, each different chapter of my life was, in fact, exactly where I needed to be at that moment.

I learned skills and lessons and evolved as a person. I learned to recognize different facets of Heavenly Father’s character and personality and grew closer to Him. I became more attuned to His voice, more able to recognize Him in the midst of the chaos.

And I rather like me at this point in life.

Furthermore…

I wouldn’t trade any of it.

So here we are. 2018 is still in its infancy. I know where I’d like to be and where I’d like life to go in the next 11-1/2 months, but really, all I know is that God is taking me somewhere.

I can either go all Type A, demand to see the map (and since He won’t show me, it would be making up the map in my little brain) and wrest the steering wheel away from him, or I can learn to be more Type B and relax, enjoy the scenery, and trust that He knows where we’re going.

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It really is a tender mercy that He doesn’t give us the whole plan at once. He really does have our happiness in mind. I can trust that.

Following Jesus

This is not a whine, or complaint.

It is, however, a statement of what is.

25 years ago, this weekend, I was commissioned (ordained) as a Salvation Army officer (minister), alongside 51 other people with whom I ate, studied, played, prayed, preached, and traveled in ministry.  We were – are – the “Followers of Jesus”.

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Our session flag.

I did so not out of a strong sense of divine calling (in fact, the night we signed our covenants to serve as Blood and Fire officers in The Salvation Army for the rest of our lives, I felt a nearly overpowering urge within me to not sign, a voice, almost, saying this is not for you…), but out of not knowing what else to do.

I was born and bred to serve.

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My very first covenant with God – signed the day after my 7th birthday, when all children in The Salvation Army can make this promise.  Big promises for a 2nd-grader…

I knew no other expression of Christianity than that which wore navy blue uniforms, called each other by rank, and populated those ranks with souls rescued from abuse, addiction, and overall life trauma.

I was young – 22 – and I wanted to make my parents proud.  This was the natural progression for a young lady who rose through the ranks as a Junior Soldier, Sunbeam, Girl Guard, Senior Soldier, and Graduate Corps Cadet.  “Officer” was next.

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Cadet Berko (we had no first names) – 22, genuinely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

After being commissioned, I lasted two-and-a-half years, miserable every day, knowing that my path had to be different, because the path within The Army could not possibly reflect the joy and peace of God promised me.

Not one day of joy, not one day of peace…just longing for something else.

I was 25 when I walked away.  After much prayer, and fasting, and more prayer and fasting, I resigned my commission and followed Jesus on faith alone.

Against the counsel of leaders, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Even though it broke my mother’s heart, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Not looking back to answer the questions of others and address many raised eyebrows, I walked away and followed Jesus.

The road hasn’t been easy, but along that road I have discovered the love of God in so many different ways, in so many different places, and with so many different people.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – or what I thought were mistakes. There have been dark spots…places where this sheep was truly lost and could no longer hear or see the Shepherd…

…but it was in those times that I discovered just how creative and out-of-the box He is when He comes to the rescue.

Mistakes? Maybe. Wasted time and life? Not at all.

I do not regret my choice.

I have returned twice to lay service in The Army, and every time, it brought out the worst in me and ended badly – very badly.  No one can say I didn’t try to find a place within their ranks – I most certainly did.

That this worldwide, beloved-by-many Christian church, known for its selfless service to the indigent, the poor, the ignored and oppressed, is not my place is no longer in question.

I have found my place. After a long journey through many denominations and experience gathered from countless forms of vocational and avocational ministry, I have found my place. A quieter, more isolated and solitary place, one that relies on secret prayer, unspoken devotion, and receives no great attention.  No banners, no bands, no flags and drums.  And I continue to follow Jesus Christ with joy, just as do those of my dear friends whose place remains in that band of spiritual soldiers.  Perhaps because it was woven into my very DNA, I continue to love the unloved, never reckoning the cost…and I am happy.  I am at peace.

But.

On the 25th anniversary of that momentous event, I can’t help but miss the relationships, the camaraderie, the sense of unity and purpose and direction – almost a “lockstep” with companions that a more solitary walk with Christ just doesn’t have.  I miss the late night, post-service “afterglows”, the common stories, and the wordless glances where volumes are communicated in an instant.  I miss a common paradigm for life and service. I miss the music…how I miss the music…

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Music was always my passion – sung, played, composed…on top, the Followers sing our session song.  I don’t know what we, the band, were playing…maybe it Leslie Condon’s march, “Celebration”, which we did play rather frequently and is my all time favorite…check it out here: https://youtu.be/Ta1q8zswza0)

It is a family – a family within the family of God.

As I look at pictures posted on Facebook of my sessionmates celebrating the 25th anniversary of our commissioning, watching many of their children celebrate that same, powerful event, a solitary tear is trickling down my cheek.  Not one of regret, or even sadness.  It is a tear of nostalgia, a tear of contemplation as I reflect on just how unique the journey for each individual follower of Jesus is.  Unique and tailored to most fully develop the image of our Savior in each one of us.

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Can’t believe it’s been 25 years…and Nancy still has her session jacket! Wow!

The day I walked across the stage at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Long Beach, California, to receive my commission and my first appointment, General Paul A. Rader spoke this Scripture to me, and it has echoed in my soul for the last quarter century:

For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.  (2 Chronicles 16:9)

Even though my path has been different, and life has taken turns and detours I never even imagined, the Lord has shown Himself strong on my behalf – so many times, and in so many ways.

His tender mercies have flanked me behind and before, and He is acquainted with all my ways (go read Psalm 139!).

I am still, in every way and now more than ever, a Follower of Jesus.

Green Pastures? This? YES.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday!  And what is Good Shepherd Sunday? Well, from that fount of all contemporary knowledge (no, you weren’t mistaken, that was sarcastic), Wikipedia, here is a fairly accurate definition:

Good Shepherd Sunday occurs on the third or fourth Sunday in the Easter Season. The name derives from the gospel reading for the day, which is taken from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. In this reading Christ is described as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_Sunday)

In the Episcopal, and many other “liturgical” churches, the Scripture lessons are predetermined by the lectionary, or the established schedule of Scripture readings over the course of three years.  Apparently, it’s set up so that, if you follow it daily, you will read the Old and New Testaments (additional, alternative Scriptures not included, although on occasion they do sneak in some of the Apocrypha) over the course of three years.  There’s an Old Testament reading, a Psalm or other poetry/wisdom passage, a selection from one of the Epistles, and, last but certainly not least, a reading from the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  The one that gets the most attention, with lots of pomp and procession as THE BOOK is carried into the midst of the congregation who are all standing in reverence, of course, is the Gospel reading.  The one that gets the least attention and is even sometimes skipped, is the Psalm.  But it’s the Psalm that got my attention today, because it’s what’s been getting my attention all week.  Fitting, I suppose.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, what do you think a suitable psalm would be?  It’s kind of a no-brainer: “The Lord is my shepherd” immediately comes to mind, and you’re right.  Today’s Psalm, dutifully read in responsive fashion, was Psalm 23.

I have warm, fond memories of Psalm 23, hearkening back to my nearly-faded-from-memory toddler years.  Psalm 23 was very important to me, because, in Sunday School, if we could memorize and recite 50 scripture verses, we would win our VERY OWN New Testament.  Not that my home didn’t have shelves upon shelves full of Bibles, but this New Testament spoke to me, called my name: “Han-nah, you want me!”.  It had a little girl and boy with Jesus on the cover and by golly, I was gonna get it.

And I did.  I memorized 50 scripture verses, straight from the hallowed pages of the AUTHORIZED King James Version.  (On a completely unrelated side note, I didn’t deviate from that narrow path until I was 18,  when I gave in and went New International.  I have since returned to my King James home.  I once had a sweet Baptist friend who called the NIV the “Nearly Inspired Version”…my apologies to those of you love it…really. Whatever floats your boat.)  Those 50 verses included the standard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  It included Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God”, as well as the rest of that evangelical super-highway, “The Romans Road” (Billy Graham, eat your heart out).  I don’t know what else it included, except for this: Psalm 23.

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Thanks to the designer, To Such As These.  For some great Scripture art for your home, please visit their Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/ToSuchAsTheseDesigns

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  I could recite it, but I couldn’t quite understand it.  To my little 3-year old brain (and this 3-year old knew exactly who Jesus was), it didn’t make any sense that I should not want the Shepherd.  That’s what I heard every time I repeated it: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.”  Of course I wanted the Shepherd!  Who wouldn’t want the Shepherd, what with all the green pastures and still waters and tables placed and oil running over and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever!  Who wouldn’t want that?

Nonetheless, 50 scripture verses later, I got that New Testament.

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I loved it well.  I made sure I would always remember why I got it,

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practiced writing my name in it, and, as any 3-year old girl would, promptly fell in love with the handsome shepherd boy depicted there.

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But it it took me a long time to really understand what Psalm 23 meant.  I certainly missed what I now know really is the message of that Psalm…by the time I could really read the Living paraphrase of that psalm on the back cover, I’d moved on to my first King James Bible, an 8th-birthday present; it was white bonded leather with GOLD LETTERING ON THE COVER and a ZIPPER!  I don’t have that white Bible any more; somehow part of the Noah and the Ark story went missing and I stopped using it, but I still have this very loved and worn Living New Testament; it’s been with me for just over 44 years now and sits in my living room with my collection of Bibles in multiple translations.  When I look at it, I feel immense gratitude for being taught to love the Savior at such a young age.

And, those same 44 years later, I am reminded that, still, I sometimes don’t know what that Psalm really means.  Life gets hard.  As we follow Jesus Christ, we often forget that He warned us, basically, “If you follow me, you’ll get what I got.  It ain’t a rose garden; in fact, it’s usually more thorns than roses on any given day.”  We like to skip to exaltation and glory without putting in our slow-going, right choosing, intentionally-placed-there, seemingly unending wilderness time, much like my piano students want to skip to being awesome without putting in the requisite thousands of hours of slow, correct, intentional, and seemingly unending practice.  And we whine, and pray for deliverance, and wonder just when the wilderness will end.

Some people desert the Shepherd in the middle of the wilderness: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want [anymore]”.  It reminds me of the account given by John, in his gospel.  John 6 has Jesus feeding the 5,000 off of a few tuna sandwiches – now we’re talking green pastures!  The crowds followed Him willingly.  But when tuna sandwiches turned into the idea of true loyalty to Jesus Christ (who was starting to suggest that He, Himself, was the Messiah), and the difficulty that following Him often entails, the change of heart and mind and walking away from what we think we know and understand…well then, we have 6:68: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”  When the green pastures turn into rocky cliffs, many turn back.  “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Numbers 11:5-6).

(Another side note: how many remember Keith Green?  Can’t continue without leaving this; he really nails it.)

As I was considering my own personal wilderness (and we each have our own, tailor-made, in fact), which happened to coincide with a mindless browse through my Facebook news feed post, this popped up.  I’m sure it was just a coincidence…(yes, more sarcasm).  Take five minutes out of your life and watch it; it’s really good:

Belly deep alfalfa.  I love how Mr. vander Laan depicts our understanding of “green pastures”, and how he shows, so clearly, what this psalm is talking about.  The Living paraphrase nails it: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”  How would my life have been different if, at the age of three, I had absorbed that, instead of the images of belly deep alfalfa in my spiritual life?  And for sheep in Israel, there is never belly deep alfalfa, only the sparsely scattered tufts of grass, just enough for them to keep going.

Mary Poppins is another fount of all wisdom…probably more reliable than Wikipedia!  In that scene where she’s giving the kids some cough syrup (that magically tastes like their favorite treats, which are different from person to person…wonder if she went to Hogwarts?), Michael starts begging for more, to which she replies:

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My dad used to, at holiday gatherings (usually at my mom’s folks’ house with her family), stand up and, in his booming New York accented voice, declare, “Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”  Yes, there’s a double entendre there…but he generally meant that he was grateful for the immense amount of food he was about to pack into his belly (which was sizable).  As disciples of Christ, we so often are deluded to think that God’s provision – materially or spiritually – means that we will never want for anything, that said table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies means that we are feasting as gluttons while they starve.

But that’s not what scripture says.  It says that, as we follow the Shepherd, who leads us into those green pastures (which look an awful lot like rocky wildernesses!), we will have everything we need.  If we don’t have it, we obviously don’t need it but, like children, we often think that we need many things we don’t.  Nonetheless, our Shepherd, our Savior, knows exactly what we need, and He delivers all our needs right when we need them the most, just enough to get us over that next rise, where our next need will be fulfilled.  And He does this, truly, to the amazement and often conversion of onlookers, and He does this to bring glory to His, and our, Heavenly Father, as He brings many, many children of God to glory.

It really reframed how I look at what has been a very long journey, or what I think has been a long journey, through the wilderness.  But, in the distance, I can smell the water, I can see a slightly more abundant patch of grass.  We’ll get there.  He won’t leave me, and I truly do, and will, have all that I need, in this life, and in the next.

Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need…Your goodness and failing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with You forever in Your home. (Psalm 23:1,6 – The Living Bible)

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday!