#57 – Nice Place to Visit – Wouldn’t Want to Live There.

READ THISThe 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.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
​and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

David concludes his Shepherd’s Psalm with this wish to be with God forever. Not just sometimes. Not just an hour on Sunday morning. Forever.

Not only that – David wants to go to where God is. The house of the Lord. For the Jewish people, the temple (and before it, the tabernacle – which is what David is referring to) was the physical place where God lived, where he ruled from. The one place where they believed mankind and the creator were together. Where the people made their offerings to show contrition and atonement for the wrongs they’d done. It’s the place of God’s presence on earth.SIde Note: when Jesus came, he claimed he was the new temple. The place where God and Man overlap. The way for people to be with God. The ultimate offering for our wrongs. So for us in many ways, when we hear Old Testament talk of the Temple, we can think of Jesus. (and also the church…but that’s for another day) This 4-minute teaching from the Bible Project is the most insightful bit of teaching on the temple I’ve ever come across. Do you want to visit God – or live with him?

Another way to ask it – do you want things from God – or do you want to be with him?

David expressed a similar desire in another one of his poem/songs -Psalm 27:One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.

David wanted to dwell there. To live there. To stay there. not just visit, not spend holidays or long weekends there – to move in and take up residence. Change the address on his drivers’ license kind of move.

The other way many of us have seen this played out is more like weekend visitors. We like to hang out with God – on our terms. We visit for a bit but then get to go home. We spend a day or so, but then duck out if we get bored. We can pop in for a bit, but take off if it no longer suits us.

So the question really is:

Do you want to visit God when you need a hand – or dwell with him?

Honestly – which do you want?


DO THIS

Answer this question:
What do you most want God to give you?

Is it a solution to a problem?
A reprieve from suffering?
A way out?
A ‘blessing’ of some kind?

What do you want more: That thing….or God himself?

Do you long to dwell in the house of God – or have him leave a present for you on the porch so you can pick it up?

Do you want that thing…or God himself?

If you could only have one….which one do you really want more?


PRAY THIS

God of all,
give us hearts that desire you.
Not your gifts, your blessings, your benefits.
But give us hearts that ache to be with you.
Give us hearts that long to dwell with you.
Hearts that long to be with you always.

Amen

#55 – Seriously? How easy is your life?

READ THISThe 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.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23 has some lines that feel out of place in our world. But mostly because King David speaks of such sweet, honest contentment. And for us – that feels strange.

At first glance, it’s easy to look at what he’s saying and feel he’s totally out of touch. Or at least his life is not like ours. Really David? How hard is your life that you say “goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life”? Really… that is your everyday? The House of the Lord forever? Really. How easy is your life man?

Just to recalibrate what he’s speaking of from his experience….

While it’s not entirely clear at what point during his life he wrote the Psalm, it was at least after the death of King Saul. Saul, the most powerful man in the nation, the father of David’s best friend Jonathan. Saul – who had David hunted down and repeatedly tried to have him killed. David fled for his life – literally. Not just to save his profession or reputation. The King was trying to have David assassinated.

It’s also possible that Psalm 23 was written later in David’s life. After his own son Absolum staged a rebellion against him. This is after Absolum killed his own brother and staged a coup. Now David is on the run again, hiding in the wilderness just to not be murdered by someone he loves. Again.

Ah yes – where were we “Goodness and mercy follow me every day of my life”

First off- it should be noted that mercy is basically not being punished like we ought. Not getting what we deserve. (compared to grace – which is getting what we don’t deserve). So having mercy follow every day is more of an admission of guilt. I need mercy every day – because I will screw up every day. For someone like David with his well-known Bathsheba incident (a significant adultery-murder combo) – he was perfectly aware of how evil he could be, how much he needed daily mercy.

But – goodness? Every day? Even the days he was literally hiding in caves in the wilderness because he was being hunted like an animal?

Note the Psalm doesn’t say “easiness, and niceness will follow me” or that “pleasantries and kind people”.

Goodness.

Goodness can occur in the midst of sadness. Goodness can be felt in the middle of depression, guilt, and betrayal. In fact – in my life – those are the times I’ve noticed it the most.

Maybe that’s more what David is getting at. Goodness – in the midst of all the hard things. Mercy – because we need it.

Not a promise of an easy life – but a dream of one of contentment. Looking around and seeing the goodness and mercy that are with us in a hard life.


DO THIS

Where is God showing you his goodness – right now? Even in the middle of hardship, and sadness, and hurt.

What mercy are you being shown? Those graces given that you don’t deserve.


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
giver of mercy,
giver of goodness.
Give us eyes to see the gifts all around us,
especially when our eyes want to focus on the problems.
Remind us of your mercy, make us aware of your goodness.
And let us find contentment in that.

Amen

#54 -grab a bite, wash my hair, spill my coffee

READ THIS

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.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

We’ve hit another section of this Psalm where we need to remember who was the author of this Psalm.
David was a Hebrew man living in the Middle East about 3,000 years ago. His world was very different from ours. (OK fine – I can’t speak for you – but it’s a lot different than mine)

If a modern, western person were to hear a phrase like: “make a meal for you with your enemy around, put oil on your head and your cup is overflowing” my guess is that the image may be something like “OK – so I’ll grab a quick bite to eat – GREAT…but now I have to wash my hair, AND my latte spilled out of my travel cup”

Not exactly the original intent.

First, we have something more like a feast – as the phrase “prepares a table” indicates. This is not drinking a cup of soup and running off. This is not eating a protein bar as it gets just the nourishment you need to survive. This is more. Remember “I lack nothing” is how this Psalm started. It’s not just enough, it’s more than enough.

Then there is the oil on the head. This is something that was done at the coronation of a king, but also at festivals and times of celebration. Anointing with oil was also something you did for an honored guest who arrived at your home.

My cup overflows. not just a bit of water to drink. Not even a full cup. but literally more than enough. So much that you can’t even hold it all at one time, and it’s spilling over it’s so much. Holding your water bottle under a raging waterfall kind of ‘full cup.’

However, there is one additional phrase in there that causes some difference in interpretation.

In the presence of my enemies

I’ve heard this discussed many ways. Some seem to view it as an almost spiteful way to eat. Your enemies are right there – and are hungry and tired – and you sit down to binge in front of them! That doesn’t seem in line with how God presents himself throughout scripture. The God of the Bible asks us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.

It seems more likely this image is supposed to show God’s protection. Remember, He is the shepherd with the rod and staff. Even though our enemies are there – within sight of us – they can’t hurt us. If God thinks it’s time for us to have a rescue, they can’t stop it. If God decides to spoil us with more than enough, others can’t destroy that. Even though they are close by – they haven’t been eliminated – we still have the feeling of safety to sit down and eat.

What a great image to hang on to when it feels like there are those who consider themselves your enemies, still within striking distance.


DO THIS

What kind of table is God spreading out for you right now?
Even though enemies, evil, sadness, sickness, death…may be right there.
In what tangible, specific ways is the Good Shepherd caring for you?


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
you give me so much, sometimes I can’t contain it all.
Help me to be generous.
When I have lots
When I have too much.
When I don’t think I have enough.
We pray that you would somehow be preparing tables for the people of Ukraine.
Even though others who act as enemies are in their presence.
Be their rod and their staff.
Help me be mindful and thankful today – and every day – of your protection

Amen

#53 – Two Sticks of God

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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. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Many who have been around church for a certain length of time, likely have heard the description of these two different kinds of sticks that are described in Psalm 23.

The rod is usually described as an instrument of defense. It’s what the shepherd uses to smack a rogue beast on the head if it comes after his sheep.

The staff is the stereotypical stick-with-a-hook that a shepherd uses to guide and direct. The hook can pluck a wayward sheep out of a bush or a lake. For some reason, every picture I’ve ever seen of “The Good Shepherd” only has this one stick in his hand. Maybe because it would look super awkward to be standing there with two sticks.

One small tidbit I’d never heard before was how a rod (or staff…whatever) was also used by a shepherd to count their sheep. They’d hold it up – and have each one pass under – to make sure counting them one at a time would neither miss one nor double-count one. (Lev 27:32 is an example of this usage).

This Rod/Staff combo then is not only symbolic of protection and guidance – but also concern. The Shepherd wants to make sure he’s still got every sheep he started out the day with. Each one is important. There are other passages in scripture where this is spelled out more clearly (like the parable of the 1 sheep that goes missing from the other 99).

It’s not just that the shepherd will protect the sheep.

Or even that he will guide and rescue them.

He also counts them -and has concern that each is still there.


DO THIS

Which of these characteristics of Jesus as the Good Shepherd do you most deeply need to believe / feel / hear – right now?

That you are guarded?
That you have a guide?
That you count?


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
Thank you for your protection,
your guidance,
your concern.
We especially pray today for the people of Ukraine.
Hundreds of thousands of people made in your image,
Suffering the brutality of evil, hatred, and pride.
Bring hope to the hurt.
Rescue to the lost
Be with those putting their own lives on the lives to help others.
Be their guiding, protecting, caring Shepherd even right now.

Amen

#52 – not just for funerals anymore

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as a reminder – this is where we are in our movement through the 23rd Psalm

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. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

That one line is the one we hear every time a movie fades to a graveyard scene with a priest standing over a casket speaking “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”

But that line is actually so much more important than just funerals.

“Shadow of Death” feels like it only applies to that one moment at the end of your life. However, the Hebrew word tsalmaveth צַלְמָוֶת is what we’re looking at here. From tsel “a shadow” + maveth “death”. So literally the word in Psalm 23 is “death-shadow.” But this same Hebrew word occurs in many other places in the Bible and it’s usually translated into English as: deep darkness, deep shadow, thick darkness, dark, or even black gloom.

The word that becomes ‘evil’ that we are not to fear -is commonly translated as adversity, affliction, bad, calamity, displeasure, distress.

So perhaps its clearer for us to think of this verse as: Even when I walk through places of black-gloom-shadows, i will fear no bad thing.

The Message translates it as: Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid.

The line is not written in the future tense – but present. Now – as I walk through. Not -some time in the future when one time I will walk through.

OK

So what?

So – this phrase, this idea, this Psalm is not just for funerals.

This idea that we don’t have to be afraid is meaningful to our everyday lives. It should be applicable whenever something bad/ scary/ dangerous/ threatening/ evil happens to us …in any way, at any time.

That’s when we should remember we have a good shepherd with us.

And we don’t need to be afraid.


DO THIS

What frightens you? What is scaring you right now – at this point in your life? What threatens (your reputation, resources, career, family, health, well-being, happiness, etc etc)

Re-read the Psalm – with that as your “valley of the shadow of death”. Something like this:

“Even though I walk through a week where I”m not sure my company will survive one more pay-day, I will fear nothing bad, For you are with me”


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
you are with me.
Even when I don’t remember,
even when I don’t see it,
or feel it,
or even believe it.
Give me strength to walk through today’s valleys.
Amen

#51 – Path to what?

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Every Monday at 6.45 I gather with a handful of other men on someone’s porch. Fellow believers who, for various reasons, also live here in Rwanda. One of them is probably 20 years older than me, but has experiences you would think would take several lifetimes to accumulate.

He’s been going through a season of change, potential transition, with a lot of confusion, and lack of clarity. The last few weeks he keeps coming back to what he feels the Lord is putting on his heart:

the journey is the destination.

Last week we looked at how the sheep in Psalm 23 are so content in their shepherd that they are less interested in things like water and grass than one would expect. Today is a brief passage -but at least for me packs a lot of punch in it. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Notice where the shepherd leads – not TO someplace (“a meadow” or “pasture” or something) – but ALONG some path. A path of righteousness.

The journey is the destination.

In the Psalm, King David doesn’t specify where this path leads or what he hopes it ends. We have already read that the shepherd leads beside still waters, and to green pastures – but it seems we’re still going.

I think sometimes we get convinced that the goal of following Jesus is to get to heaven – a twisted version of our understanding of this life. Yes – we WILL (by His grace) get there – but is that THE goal? Just limp through this life, dodging whatever evil and hurt in this life – so we can get to the next life?

The shepherd doesn’t just pick us up and take us to the destination – he allows us to walk, and leads us. There must be a reason for that.

(see – told you there was a lot in that tiny passage – and we haven’t even touched “for his name’s sake)


DO THIS

Reflect on how these three verses speak to you about the path you are following right now:

Psalm 119:105: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,”
Psalm 119:9 “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word.”
Clearly, the Bible is key to finding and following this path, but not all.


Romans 8:14, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.”
Without the leading of God’s Spirit – we may still go astray, even with the gift of his written word.

Where is the righteousness (rightness, God-honoring, justice, right-relationships) in the path?


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
You have given me your word,
The example of your Son,
And the indwelling of your Spirit.
All of which help guide me.
But I’m easily distracted,
second-guess your instructions,
and just stubbornly ignore.
Forgive me.
Lead me.
Teach me on this journey.
Use me on this journey.
Amen

#50 – Do WHAT with the grass??

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Last week we looked at only those opening words of Psalm 23 “he leads me..” – and I asked you to reflect on – if that’s even something you truly want.

Today we look at the phrase we skipped over, and the sentence after it: He makes me lie down in green pastures.He leads me beside still waters.He restores my soul.

For the longest time, this image didn’t really speak to me a whole lot. The thought of a fluffy, white sheep next to a babbling brook, in a lush green meadow, was pleasant. It gave feelings of comfort and safety.

But I never noticed what the sheep were NOT doing.

The sheep in this passage are not acting normally. They are walking past the water they would normally love to drink. They are laying down on the green grass they should want to eat. For some reason, they are so content that they are ignoring these material blessings they should want.

The way I see it, there are three reasons why we would not be drawn to things we want or even need.

ONE

We convince ourselves that we don’t have desires for ‘worldly things.’ Don’t misunderstand, we often have desires for things that are not good for us, and we should ask God to take away those desires as we fight against them ourselves. But food and water are not those things. Neither are a lot of other good things we can pretend we don’t want. We can pretend we don’t want friends, or that we don’t crave some level of acceptance by others. We can put on appearances that we aren’t bothered by things when deep down we really are. But this is clearly not a sustainable approach. We’re perhaps tricking ourselves for a time – but that’s it.

TWO

We have received so much recently that we’re satisfied. We can momentarily look past these things because we’ve recently received them. If you’re just rolling out of an all-you-can-eat buffet, walking past a donut shop may not hold any temptation. You don’t even care – because you can’t possibly eat any more. Maybe we are finding contentment in all the blessings God has given us. We have family, and health etc… However, we are still basing our contentment on things. Skye Jethani said of this approach, “When I seek contentment in God’s blessings my wants only subside temporarily, and they soon return, stronger than ever.” So perhaps the sheep have temporarily abated the desire for more because they are so full – but that desire will come back, likely stronger than before.

THREE

The third option is that they are so focused on the shepherd they don’t really pay as much attention to what he offers them. They have moved their eyes from the gift to the giver. Jethani finishes the above quote with: “When I learn to seek my satisfaction in God himself, however, the pleasures offered by the things of this world grow dim in comparison.⁠”

There is only one option above that is sustainable for real contentment. We can pretend we don’t need things, or binge on them, but eventually we will come back to desires for more. We will be discontent because we don’t have what we want, or think we need, or demand we deserve.

Focusing on the shepherd is the only way we can not be made discontent by the things of this world – even when they are good, and necessary.


DO THIS

Have a listen to the old hymn Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – (perhaps Lauren Daigle’s rendition).
The line that directly addresses what we’re talking about today is: And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.

What things of this world do you need to grow strangely dim?
What aspects of his glory and grace are you missing out on?
How can you make changes to your life – TODAY – that will allow you to dwell on these things more deeply, so that the others will grow more dim?


PRAY THIS

Good Shepherd,
help me to focus on you.
not on the problems,
not even on the solutions.
Not the hurts,
not the gifts.
Give me the clarity to turn my eyes upon you,
on your glory, on your grace,
so the things of this world grow strangely dim
Amen

#49 – Not so sure about that…

READ THISThe Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He leads me…..

Let’s just stop right there.

Yes, we’re not very far into this Psalm, but we need to take stock right upfront. It’s something that we can recite pretty easily – but if we stop to think about what that honestly means – we suddenly realize we’re not so sure.

This poem was written by David – someone who was referred to as “a man after God’s own heart.” (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). Yes, he was a deeply sinful man – committing a murder-adultery combo that few attempt. However, he was also deeply remorseful over his sin and was fully aware of his dependence on God.

David’s words and actions show he had a deep passion to follow Yahweh. He wanted to do what was right, to seek the Lord, to have more of him.

It wasn’t just that he wanted to be saved from his enemies (although he wanted that), he wanted Yahweh – for the sake of being with him. He wanted to be led by God, because he trusted him – not because he thought he’d get something from it.

He wanted God. Full stop. Not because he will get something. Not because he’ll be spared something. But because he wants God.

He wants to follow the shepherd.

That’s where we need to start. If we can’t get on board that desire right from the beginning – the rest of the Psalm will be fairly meaningless.

So let’s get that straight.


DO THIS

What part of your life is the part you just can’t give up? The parts where you are unwilling to be led by the Good Shepherd?
Examine your heart – really. Truly.
Do you really – honestly want to follow Jesus through this life?
Or are you more convinced you need to keep control? At least for a while? At least in that one area?
Before we look at the Shepherds Psalm any further – examine if you really – actually – want to be led by him.
Ask for the faith to follow. Ask for the courage to want to be led.


PRAY THIS

Lord you are the Good Shepherd,
yet I struggle to trust you.
I know you lead me in good ways,
to peaceful places.
You know what’s best,
yet I still want to lead myself.
Give me the courage to set my pride aside,
and follow your lead.
Amen

#48 – Not Just for cross-stitch

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Today we’re going to start a series based on one of the best known, most widely used, most mis-understood, mis-directed parts of scripture:

Psalm 23

We all know it. Even people who know almost nothing of the Bible have some familiarity with both John 3:16 and Psalm 23.

It’s used in funerals, especially in movies and tv. It seems to often be quoted in strange situations. It’s made into posters, and is a solid contender for “scripture you most likely saw cross-stitched in someone’s grandma’s house as a child.”

But like so many things we get very familiar with, we can lose sight of it. It’s the ole’ ‘water to a fish’ situation.

However, it is anincredible teaching on contentment.

A sheep that lies down even when surrounded by food. It is not scared even when in scary situations. It can see and appreciate what is given to it by its shepherd. Sheep that find – to use Dallas Willard’s words, ‘a life without lack.’

So we’ll spend the next few weeks digging into The Shepherd’s Psalm.

Trying to understand more clearly how the truths that have always been there, actually have a lot to say to use about contentment in our lives today.


DO THIS

Read through Psalm 23 in a different version than you normally do, or even in a paraphrase (like The Message or The Amplified Bible). It’s actually really short – probably much shorter than you realise. Listen to it spoken to you

 Psalm 23Streetlights

Listen to one of these musical arrangements:

  • The House of God Forever – John Foreman
  • Psalm 23 (Surely Goodness, Surely Mercy) – Shane & Shane
  • Psalm 23 – Peter Furler
  • Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112 – J.S. Bach

Even do an image search – even if it’s just to see how our culture thinks of this Psalm. Look at how ‘the good shephard’ is portrayed. How many seem destined purely for children.


PRAY THIS

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Amen

#47 – Advent 4 – Contentment with who you are

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One of the peculiarities of the Christmas story is the cast of characters. 

Joseph, who we are introduced to only because he is engaged to Mary. Otherwise, he seems to be a manual labourer from a small town in rural Palestine.

Mary, a teenage girl, who seems to have nothing significant about her before the story picks up.

Some farmworkers, who drew the short straw and had to work the night shift watching over grazing sheep.

The Magi / Wise Men are the only ones in the nativity story that are educated (scientists -which in that day included astrology) with respectable jobs (probably trusted advisors to the King they served). However, they likely don’t come for at least 40 days (and some say up to 2 years) later. 

We need to re-examine the nativity scene we think we know so well.

It’s full of poor, uneducated, rural, young.

So what?

The arrival of Jesus was a surprise to every human on earth (except Mary and Joseph, and a few others close to them)

But who played a role in that scene – who was present?

God plucked shepherds out of obscurity and they became people who have been portrayed in art more than any king or emperor.

There was Joseph who – through no doing of his own – became a key player in the story of God coming to earth. He was busy working as a carpenter, thinking about getting married and starting a family. Suddenly his name is coupled to the event that literally changed human history.

There is a young, unwed, pregnant girl. Whose identity is now synonymous with yielding faith, and whose name millions of Catholics and others recite every day of the year for the past several millennia.

Why?

What did these people do to become key players in God’s movement of history?

Nothing.

They were just living their lives, and they were obedient when called.

That for me is the Contentment of Advent.

We don’t have to struggle to be used by God.

We don’t have to hustle our way into his plan

We don’t have to figure out how to be a part of his movement. 

He will use us.
As we are.
Where we are.
Who we are.

We just – like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds – have to be willing to 

listen
and 
respond.


DO THIS

What are you trying to do – to become – to get – to accomplish —SO THAT you may be used of God?

Think about where you are right now. How much more influence you have than the shepherds. How much more education, and resources than Joseph. How much more of the story you know than Mary.

What can you do RIGHT NOW – TODAY – to respond to God’s call.

What can you do NOW – to play your part in His story?


PRAY THIS

Emmanuel,
God with us,
I don’t understand why you choose to work through the people you do.
I don’t even know why you want to include me,
or how.
But I trust that you do.
Give me ears to hear what you are calling me to,
and eyes to see the needs,
that are right around me,
right where I am
right now.
Exactly as I am.

I trust that your story is big enough to include even people like
Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds,
and me.

Amen