I Have Stored Up Your Word in My Heart

I have an early memory of being aware that God was a real presence, not a cartoonish old man on a glitzy throne in heaven. I was in my elementary school’s third grade classroom, and I was eight years old. A mighty storm raged. The sky was dark as if evening had already descended. A sideways rain pounded at the rippled glass. As any classroom teacher can attest, every child was focused on the weather outside, math or spelling lessons forgotten.

My dad worked for the telephone company, and sometimes his job required him to climb telephone poles to make repairs. When bad weather hit, I usually worried about my dad up on a pole. (I am certain he would never do something that risky, but when you are eight and your dad is a superhero, you just never know.) As I watched that wild storm whip the trees and rattle the glass, I felt calm and unusually relaxed. I felt, for the first time in my life, that God was with me—real, present, and almost close enough to touch. I remembered the story of Jesus calming the storm around his boat while his frightened comrades huddled, fretting about their fate. My parents read that story at home. My Sunday School teachers taught that lesson in class. Our VBS staff reenacted it. This truth about Jesus had been placed in my memory and stored in my heart. The moment arrived when I could tap into that storage and pull out assurance. 

Through the next 30+ years, I have often felt thankful for the little snippets of Scripture and broad Biblical truths that are living in my memory. Some of them are a little dusty; I’m ashamed that I often cannot pull out the exact verse and chapter, and I would never win a Bible Bee. But I only need to blow the dust bunnies away, and my knowledge of the Lord comes flooding back. 

Why Learn the Bible?

Comfort is not the only reason to know and remember Scripture. Psalm 119:11 tells us, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Knowing God’s word, including his commandments and standards, helps us to be aware of ways we may sin by doing something God forbids or neglecting something he requires. I find this analogy helpful: When you visit a new swimming pool for the first time, you cannot know if you are going to dive into the wrong area or bring in a forbidden beverage unless you know the rules. Storing away God’s word helps you avoid sinning against him.

We also read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “[all] Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” This passage highlights several related reasons to know the holy Scripture. When we encounter God’s word, we are both being taught ourselves and being prepared to teach others. His word is a primary means he uses to prepare us for good works. We cannot anticipate the next mission he will present, but he can and he does! The Scripture is the main way God’s children hear his voice, so if we want to partner with him, we must listen and remember.

Additionally, the written word of God is a tool for growing faith. Romans 10:17 reminds us, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” When our faith is brand new or has been weakened by time, experience, or weariness, we can come to the Scripture where Christ’s words live and actively move (see Hebrews 4:12). This is our fuel, our nourishment, the fertilizer that grows our faith and our relationship with the one who is the source of all good things.

How to Learn Scripture

I benefited greatly from teachers in my early life who knew the value of the Bible. I had parents, relatives, Sunday school teachers, and pastors who committed their time and energy to planting God’s word in my heart and praying for it to take root. However, my education in the Scriptures didn’t end there, and a person’s relationship with the Bible doesn’t depend on beginning in childhood. 

First, dig into the Bible knowing that your pursuit will be imperfect. As a young Christian, I took a few approaches. Sometimes, I simply opened a Bible and read. I took a passage and tried to read with an open heart, eager to hear from God. Other times, I made use of a study Bible. Short, clear annotations allowed me to gather historical context or nuances of the language that led to deeper insights. I also took a book-by-book approach, seeking to understand the larger story of the entire Bible. I knew that I would make mistakes and sometimes misunderstand. I accepted that I would miss details or stumble on challenging language, but I also knew that God promised to provide understanding through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Secondly, learn in community. Look for opportunities to join a Bible study or class. More informally, reach out to your brothers and sisters in Christ and ask to gather around the word of God over coffee or by means of technology while social distancing is still wise. 

Finally, remember that memorization happens in small pieces, and memory is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. A single verse may challenge you now, but a whole chapter is possible with time and practice.

A Perfect Resource

Whether you face extraordinary struggles or the average setbacks of a regular day, know with full confidence that God has already provided a soothing word for your pain or a pointed direction for your next steps. He has prepared a perfect resource as we learn, grow, and prepare to teach others. Compared to his might and majesty, we are all children in a storm, invited to call upon the Lord for safety, calm, and assurance. Tuck his truths into your heart so that you may remember his love when the wind rises.

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Now is the Time to Love Our Neighbors

At the time of this writing, we are semi-quarantined in hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has made the start of 2020 quite memorable. 

Response to the escalating cases revved up like an old lawn mower.  First we heard rumblings of a sickness across the globe. Tensions rose, and worries took hold. Finally, in one big surge, the engine roared to life, and next thing we knew, schools and businesses closed, and we huddled inside.

What does this mean for Christians? Some believers say that now is the time for the world to know that the Church really is not a building! We are the body of Christ. 

Scripture commands us at least nine times* to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is no caveat for pandemics, natural disasters, or personal inconvenience. We are Christ’s hands and feet, motivated by love and fueled by the Holy Spirit. Our work does not cease.

I have been thinking about the unconditional command to love our neighbors. Serving others in the current climate feels a little like making sandwiches with our hands tied behind our backs. How can we show love from isolation without touching or visiting? Knowing that we are all learning as we go, here are a few thoughts on loving our neighbors.

Boost Your Physical Health

The guidelines for protecting your own health are not new, but they require added diligence while the threat of illness is high. Details about good hand washing technique and basic disease prevention are available at the following website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html. As we practice disease prevention and focus on the well-being of our neighbors, isolation in our homes is a great act of love. We help prevent spreading the virus to the most vulnerable people and potentially reduce the strain on healthcare workers simply by staying home.

Reach Out

We must think beyond handshakes, hugs, and gathering together as ways of showing we care. Calls, e-mails, or messages through social media are not as intimate, but they provide connection and help create a sense of community. Conversation, by any means, shows your love and concern. Ask how people are doing with sincerity and with patience. 

Anticipate Needs

People may hesitate to ask for help, so be proactive and anticipate ways to be of service. Ask for wisdom from the Lord. James 1:5 reads, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Pray for insight as you seek to bless people around you. We need wisdom in order to keep ourselves safe while also extending help. Fortified by prayer, we are better equipped to serve. 

The healthy among us can limit exposure for people in high risk categories by offering to pick up groceries or run essential errands. Even spending a few minutes picking up litter or raking the weathered leaves from last fall may improve someone’s view from home or lighten his or her workload.

Healthcare workers, retail employees, and emergency responders are still very much on the job. We can broadly assist them by protecting our own health, and we can specifically boost morale by leaving notes of gratitude or sharing colorful drawings from children. If possible, donate supplies or money for emergency work. Consider others in your community who might be under added stress during these difficult times. Small businesses are transforming their operations in order to remain open; we can support their efforts by choosing to purchase essentials from an independent business owner who may be struggling to support a family.

Remember, isolation raises the risk of depression and anxiety for some people. Be mindful of those whose mental health may suffer. Washington County’s mental health crisis hotline is 1-877-225-3567. 

Prioritize Real Health

As Christians, we know that lack of disease in our bodies is a small part of our overall health. We cannot look to physical fitness to assess our well-being. The apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7b-8, “rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Resist the urge to raise bodily health as the highest goal. 

We can preach hygiene day after day, but real hope only comes through the message of Christ. Philippians 4:4-9 tell us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We are in a position to illustrate what the peace of God looks like in the daily life of a believer. We can share the source of our joy. If we seek total assurance in masks, gloves, vitamins, or government leaders, we are headed toward disappoint. If our eyes are upon God, we are headed toward rejoicing. Help the people in your life to know real health and see real hope in action.

As followers of Christ, fear should not dictate our actions nor halt our work, but if fear has crept into your heart, know that you are not alone. The Lord knows our concerns. Join your voice with others as we pray for comfort and protection. 

I pray that God will open our eyes to the needs of our neighbors so that we can shine his light with confidence and love. Our God is a wise and holy father. A virus took us by surprise, but the Lord was not caught off guard. He is ready to equip us to continue the work of his church. 

*Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43; Matthew 19:19; Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10: 27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8

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Where Our Gaze Lands

We gathered around a glass enclosure at PetCo. My kids pressed their fingers and noses against the glass, trying to get a look at the entangled pile of ferrets napping in the corner. Some of the animals curled in upon themselves, while others were practically upside down—their mouths sleepily hanging open to show tiny, pointed teeth. I shuddered a bit.

“Oh, Mommy! Can we have one? Please?” my family begged in chorus. “They’re so cute.” 

Cute? Ferrets are too “rodent” for my taste. They make me think of a rat that got stretched like dough in a pasta maker. Sure, a ferret’s face resembles the more appealing sea otter, but the teeth, the little feet, and the beady eyes all bring me to emphatically decline my children’s requests.

“Mom, the sign says $39.99,” my first-born reasoned as he pulled out his wallet. “I almost have that much. If you could just…”

“No,” I interrupted.

My husband stepped in with a grin on his face.

“Give Mommy some time, guys,” he said. He turned to me with mischief in his eyes. “Do a little research. You’ll come around.”

I playfully punched him in the shoulder. This is an on-going joke between us. For as long as I can remember, I have loved research. When I dive into a subject, I become enthusiastic and nearly obsessed about my subject matter. I can become sympathetic to a cause after I’ve examined the complexity of the issues. I believe this is a good character trait—leading me to be well-informed and a person of compassion and empathy. However, it can also get a little silly with long, one-sided conversations at the dinner table about anything from urban chicken farming, to cellos, to childbirth. I admit that I dive in and try to drag my family with me.

When I allocate time to an idea, I am altering my perception of the world simply by placing my attention in a specific way.  You probably do it, too. We want to lose weight, so we dig around on the internet for solutions. We desire to change something in our relationships with our kids, so we pick up a parenting book. We’re hoping for a promotion at work, so we listen to the latest leadership podcast. Most of us have realized that when we learn more about something, we sharpen our attention toward that issue or object. We might not grab another doughnut because we just read about the downfall of simple carbs, for example. Most of us have also experienced the fading interest that comes shortly after a New Year’s resolution loses its sparkle. It’s easy to lose focus and hop to the next obsession. 

As a Christian, I know that my attention needs to be on the Lord, and my growth in faith is dependent on a steady diet of truth from God’s word and an influx of the Holy Spirit. Not unlike the weight-loss books and last year’s resolution, the knowledge and richness I gain from Scripture can fade if I am not deliberate about making time for study and prayer. I will drift back to the world and the sinful thoughts of my own heart if I do not return to the Bible with regularity and lean into the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Consider Matthew 6:21. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Aren’t time and attention two of the gifts (the treasures) God has given to us? We allocate these finite things in many ways through a lifetime. The world clamors for our attention. We are bombarded daily with messages that insist that we must focus on our bank account, our BMI, our wardrobe, our kids’ report cards, our grocery list, and our calendars. And on and on. 

Any Christian knows that the emotional high of being saved or coming to a new understanding of Christ does not last forever. Our hunger for God waxes and wanes over the years of our discipleship. This is common. Few of us will stay on the soaring cloud of first love. God knows the fickleness in our humanity, and he will, through his Holy Spirit, sustain us when new love fades and we are enticed by things, people, and ideas that he does not intend for us. He welcomes us back after we have strayed, even pursues us when we would rather flit from one worldly interest to another. (See the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7.) But we can be wise in fixing our gaze upon our Savior.

God offers us instruction on how to avoid the temptations of the world. In Philippians 4:8, we read, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” God gives us discernment and his Spirit so that we can choose purity over vulgarity, beauty over ugliness, and honor over corruption. Without his intervention, we would not see the world for what it is, but with Scripture in our minds, we will see the world through a different lens. Again, God knows this. In Deuteronomy 8:10, God tells his children, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.” This is an instruction to keep God’s word ever present. 

When I am researching an issue, I have trouble thinking about anything else. I have lain in my bed long after I should have been asleep, unable to turn off thoughts about landfills, industrial farming, math curricula, and whether or not I could actually run a marathon. (Yes, my interests are varied.)

Imagine if my days included more time lingering over the Bible, resting in its promises and being stretched by its commands. Where, then, would my thoughts drift when I am troubled by an obligation or a looming deadline? How, then, would I react during a strained conversation with a colleague? Where would I turn when I face disappointment or pressure? How would I respond to a homeless person on the street, my spouse after a disagreement, or maybe even my neighbor’s question about the reality of God? A shift toward a heavenly focus can be as subtle as closing internet clickbait in favor of time in the Bible or redirecting a conversation with a friend in order to steer away from the potential of gossip. I can place my focus with intention and follow it.

Where our treasure is, our heart lies. Where our gaze lands, our thoughts follow. When we focus on Jesus and his good news, we are primed to walk nearer to him, speaking and behaving in ways that bring us ever closer to our Savior. 

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Called Inside

Circe Denyer, public domain

The evening was unusually warm for early April. Large fans hummed to the right and left of the communion table. We could see them oscillating in unison, but their breeze never made it to the choir loft where we rehearsed Mozart’s Requiem for First Presbyterian Church’s annual spring concert. The large double doors at the entrance were propped open, inviting night air to enter the sanctuary like a beautiful spring bride, ready to make her way down the aisle.

Throughout my four years at W&J College, I went home nearly every weekend, so I was an infrequent face in the congregation of this church. However, the pastor and I built a strong friendship, and my music professor often spoke of the high-quality choral performances at First Presbyterian, encouraging students to participate. That’s how I found myself in a choir loft on an April evening, working to perfect the alto line of one of the most beautiful pieces of choral music in the world.  

A choir rehearsal—especially of an intricate, complex piece—can be a frustrating exercise in Red Light, Green Light. Sometimes, only a bar or two passes before the conductor stops everyone for a series of corrections. Off we go again before coming to a full stop once more, only inches down the score. But from time to time, especially in the final weeks before a performance—as we were that night—the music is allowed to stretch and soar. Notes follow notes until the choir hears what all its diligence has finally created.

As our voices rose and fell and blended into one instrument, our sound escaped the loft, burst from the church, and spilled onto the street. Apparently, our music circulated outside, for soon a group of passers-by entered the double doors, compelled by the beautiful sound. The young people, perhaps in their early twenties, elbowed and nudged one another, teasing as they entered a place they didn’t expect to be. They looked out of place in their t-shirts, tank tops, and baggy shorts. One removed a ball cap.  Another ran his fingers through his hair. They settled in the last pew, their laughter and jabs turning to silence and stillness as Mozart worked his charms.

Compelled. Sometimes we are drawn forward without our express permission. We simply cannot help ourselves. We are compelled to take steps we had not planned, to stop when we intended to go, to wait when we were eager to proceed, to speak when we would normally have remained silent, to reach out when our personality would typically tell us to withdraw, or–like those young folks on the street—to enter when we would have walked right by on any other evening. God compels us, his chosen children. Far bigger and mightier than Mozart, the God of all the universe calls us by name to come to him. By his Holy Spirit, he reaches into our hearts and tugs us toward Christ—a beckoning we simply cannot resist. Christ reminds us in John 6:37 and 44, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And “I will raise him up on the last day.”

Oh, I praise God for drawing me, a sinner, close to himself! The very inertia of my corrupt humanity would have naturally kept me dead in my sin. I could never please God in my regular old human self (Romans 8:7-8). I needed him to pull me away and interrupt what I would surely have been.  

I think of a long-ingrained habit, like putting on my seatbelt. I do it without thinking or planning. Something out of the ordinary must occur to stop the automatic urge to reach over and pull the belt across before driving away from the curb. Sometimes one of my children calls out for help with his car seat, or someone requests that I insert a CD in the stereo or roll down a window. I am compelled to step outside of my routine, and for a moment, I’m pulled out of autopilot.  When I snap back to my task, I feel surprised to find myself unbuckled. Thank God that he has the power to interrupt the automatic path of sin, compelling me and sinners throughout time to draw close and walk beside him toward holiness when our nature would have wallowed in the dark for eternity. We may look at ourselves—post conversion—in grateful awe, knowing that we would never have reached salvation without his irresistible grace.

The impromptu audience in the last row of First Presbyterian may have walked past the pretty church on many warm evenings. They likely lived nearby and socialized in the neighborhood, simply enjoying the night with friends. Perhaps they were heading to meet up with other people or to catch a ride elsewhere. But on that evening, the sweet strains of the Requiem stopped them in their tracks, compelling them to postpone their plans for something far sweeter.

May our Lord always compel us to the sweet beauty of his embrace, a call we cannot resist.  As we walk through lives that are complex and often fast paced, are we waiting in the stillness for his voice?  Listen, my friends. Allow yourself to hear and know his undeniable voice.