I had the privilege of sharing a message to the middle schoolers I work with at my church this past Sunday. I was having a hard time preparing for it because I so badly wanted to say the right thing — what GOD wanted me to say — but I felt like I was repeatedly coming back from prayer empty-handed. I had been trying all week to hear from God and he just seemed to be so silent.
The night before I was supposed to give my message, I climbed into my fiancè’s bed and just started to cry.
“What am I doing wrong?” I asked. “I feel like I’m in a dry season, but I don’t want to be in this season. I thought everything was going fine, but even reading the Bible or spending time in worship isn’t doing what it used to do anymore.”
That’s when I got hit over the head (by Grant, but also probably by God) with some stuff I needed to hear. Thus, my sermon was born at eight o’clock that night.
I want to share with you what I was able to vulnerably and authentically share with those middle schoolers yesterday morning. I’m praying that it speaks to you just as it spoke to me and to those few middle schoolers who needed a good dose of encouragement while in the desert. We all sometimes find ourselves in the desert, don’t we?
. . . . .
Something I’ve always wondered is when I really began having a relationship with Jesus. I didn’t go to church very much growing up, but I knew who he was and there was a brief period of time between fifth grade and seventh grade where I thought I was completely in love with the idea of following God and being a Christian. But when eighth grade rolled around, I just kinda dumped him. I told my grandparents, who were taking me to church at the time, to stop picking me up on Sunday mornings, and I put my Bible in a box and I stopped trying to pray. I didn’t pray for two years. And during that time, I really lost my way. I made friends who weren’t the best influences and I treated my family poorly. I just didn’t care about God or the Bible or his plan for my life. I was selfish and self centered.
But I guess I reached a point where I felt too empty to want that sort of life anymore. So on a random night in tenth grade, I just told myself to be a Christian again. And I was. The next day I pulled out my Bible for the first time in two years and began reading. I started talking to God like we had never stopped. I even started going to church again. And I haven’t looked back since.
Seriously following Jesus these past six years has been the best decision of my entire life. Because I find joy in this relationship. I find freedom and healing and wonder and peace. But you know what? I also sometimes find sadness. And doubt. And questions. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
I knew since last week that I wanted to talk to you guys this morning about having a personal relationship with Jesus because I feel like it’s really easy for adults, especially pastors at church, to give us the do’s and dont’s of being a Christian. They define sin for us and godly living for us all the time. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but sometimes I feel like I need a relationship with Jesus to be defined too. Like what does that even mean?
What is a relationship with Jesus supposed to look like? Is it a relationship that has ups and downs, that goes through dry seasons and mood swings? Or is it supposed to be sturdy and steady and always the same?
Lately as I’ve been thinking about this and trying to answer that question, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with my mom. My mom is my best friend. My mom has meant so much to me that she’s going to be walking down the aisle with me as my Matron of Honor when I get married this October. I can’t think of anyone else who’s done so much for me and has been so understanding of me and supportive of me. I feel like I can tell her just about anything. I love where my relationship with my mom is.
But her and I weren’t always close. In fact, when I was in middle school, I hardly wanted anything to do with her. I was such a moody preteen. Anything she said just made me so mad. Just a “hey, how was school” when I walked through the door was enough for me to roll my eyes. And she didn’t know what to do with my mood swings, so she’d just call me Miss Attitude and I’d go up to my room and not come down until dinner. Her and I just did not get along. And I know most of it, if not all of it, was my fault. Anytime she wanted to get close to me, I’d come up with reasons to keep her at an arms length. I pushed her away and our relationship suffered. In fact it wasn’t recovered until years later when I finally understood that my mom wasn’t out to destroy my life. She was actually trying to help me build my life. I mean, fathom that. My twelve year old self didn’t see that coming. Some of you in this room still don’t understand that about your parents. And for right now, that’s okay. I hope you do someday.
My relationship with Jesus reminds me of my relationship with my mom because it’s had ups and downs.
Some of you guys might know what I mean by that. We have these long periods of wanting to pray all day everyday. We want to read the Bible all the time. We want to go to every Bible study known to mankind so we can soak in all the wisdom and Jesus that we can. And then there are periods of time where we are like, “Hello? Are you there?” Reading the Bible feels like a chore. We don’t notice anything different about us when we do read. We can’t find the right words to pray. We don’t see him in our lives like we used to. We may even start to question if he’s moving in our lives at all.
While I was preparing to give this sermon, I was reminded of a really strange thing that happened to me two years ago while I was staying with my friend Lacey in her hometown. Lacey lives in this really southern town called Thomasville, which is like four hours South of here. And while in Thomasville, her and I would walk around the downtown district there and just hang out and look in the shops. One day, we found this patio kind of hidden behind a gate that someone left open, and there were some cute tables and chairs set up there. It was closed off and shaded by plenty of trees. It was really beautiful. And since she had her Bible and I had mine, we decided that was where we would have our time with God. For about a half hour, we read and journaled and prayed in silence.
That day I was reading the story in the book of John about Lazarus, the man who died and was risen to life by Jesus. In this passage, Jesus is summoned to go see his dear friend Lazarus who is ill, but instead of going to see him right away, Jesus waits. Now this is the man who is known for healing and saving lives. This is the man who’s been walking around town spreading the news about Gods love and goodness. And yet he waits to go to Lazarus. And when he finally makes it to where Lazarus and his sisters are staying, he finds that Lazarus is already dead.
Now this is the most difficult part of the story for me: When Jesus finally makes it to Lazarus’ house DAYS later, Lazarus’ sister named Mary falls down at Jesus’ feet and says to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ And as she’s weeping on the ground, Jesus begins to weep as well.
I knew that the story ends with Lazarus being raised back to life, but I was stuck on that one part for a long time, the image of Mary just being completely filled with sorrow before Jesus, the man she thought was going to be there and heal her brother.
As I read this story and sat with Lacey, I began to pray and I told God that I don’t understand him. I knew that Jesus was glorified through Lazarus’ death, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Mary’s suffering. I just didn’t understand it.
But what happened next was something I needed to see.
After I finished praying, I looked over to see what Lacey was doing. She was watching the birds playing in the trees above us and her Bible was opened to Luke 12, to a passage that talked about sparrows. The one that says something about how not one sparrow is forgotten by God and we don’t have to worry because we are worth more than many sparrows.
Well, as I was looking at this passage in her Bible, I started thinking about birds too. So here were Lacey and I, both sitting and thinking about birds in this beautiful isolated patio while trees are swaying and birds are playing above us.
And then those same birds, the ones she was watching, suddenly flew into a glass window just a few feet from us and dropped to the ground. Three of them. We were speechless, stunned. And those birds just laid there, motionless.
Now Lacey is the bold one and she jumped up to examine the birds while I was still sitting there and tears were flowing down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Lacey confirmed after a second that at least one bird was dead. And I remember asking God in that moment, What does this mean?
The two other birds, she then realized, were unmoving but breathing, like they were paralyzed. At first she told me she was going to have to kill them, which I could not emotionally handle at all. But then Lacey did what I didn’t have the courage to do. She picked up the birds and stroked them and started praying over them. So I started praying, too. And I remember my prayer was something like:
God, it says in your Word that if you care for the birds, then you must care for us too, right? …But what does this say about your love and care for us if you DON’T care for these birds?
I was afraid to know the answer. But shortly after silently asking this, both of those birds were healed and flew back up into the trees as if nothing had ever happened. We were stunned. We didn’t know what to say.
And you might be thinking that wasn’t an answer to our prayers because maybe the birds were just in shock and were never paralyzed to begin with. Regardless, I do believe that God was there that day because I know that he was trying to tell me something through those injured birds. God wanted me to know that day that he does not need to prove anything to me. He doesn’t. And whether or not those birds continued to suffer and slowly die, his love and his goodness for you and I would still be true. It’s always been true and it always will be true.
What I think God wanted me to learn from that day and what I think he’s wanting me to communicate with you today is that Jesus is in a relationship with you and he wants that relationship. He fights fiercely for that relationship. And if it feels like he’s silent and not doing anything and not present in your life sometimes, that’s okay.
His faithfulness to you far outweighs your questions and doubt.
And those questions and doubts are a normal part of any relationship. When you are feeling distant from God, it’s okay to ask those questions. Where are you, God? Are you really there? Do you really care? Because when you ask those questions, he gets the chance to answer. And it’s not a quick “Yep, I do. You betcha” kind of answer.
It’s an answer that you will see played out over the course of your life — if you choose to see it.
Just like how as a preteen, your mom or dad’s love for you might not make sense, but as an adult they could very well be your best friends and everything is suddenly crystal clear.
Let Jesus be your friend. Let yourself be in this relationship with him. Because even though you might not see the full fruit of it right now, just like Mary didn’t understand the miracle she was about to witness in her dead brother’s life, you will see it over time. If you’re like me and sometimes wonder where your relationship with Jesus is at, just know that it’s not so much WHERE the relationship is at, but rather WHAT you are learning where you are at. Are you grasping the things he’s trying to show you? Are you learning to lean on him even when you can’t see him? Are you starting to figure out what his grace and mercy for you really means?
We are told in Scripture that we will find God when we seek him with all our hearts. And if you’re struggling to feel God’s presence in your life and you’re in a silent, dry season, that verse is still true. Because what that verse doesn’t say is that we will INSTANTLY find God when we seek him RIGHT NOW with all our hearts. God doesn’t operate in our timing. We won’t find him the very instant we want him. And that’s a good thing. Because he lets himself be seen and felt when he knows we need it most. Only he knows the growth that we need. Only he can tell the perfect time for us.
Think about this: Only Jesus knew that Mary’s brother wouldn’t remain dead forever. And the fact that he wept with her in her suffering instead of give her the quick reassurance right then and there might seem kind of mean, but it’s not. Because after that point, when Mary thought of her relationship with Jesus, he wasn’t just the man who healed her brother and did what she wanted him to do when she wanted him to do it. No, Jesus was now her friend, the one who wept with her and was there with her in her sorrow. That’s one of the moments she would have remembered most later on in her life. She would’ve carried that with her for a very long time. I bet the fact he was there with her in that moment, sharing in her sorrow, meant more to her later on in her life than a pat on the back and a quick reassurance would have meant.
Jesus went from being a miracle man to her best friend because he gave her what she really needed, not what she wanted.
Jesus gives us what we need, too. He gives us what we need and not just what we want. Just like our parents. They know what’s best and we don’t understand that. But with time, we might begin to see and then our relationship can grow for the better.
What might happen to our faith if we stopped putting God in a box? What if we started seeing Jesus as someone so much bigger than a book or a sermon or a church or a worship song? What if we stopped accusing him of being absent and just started trusting that whether or not he proves it when we want him to prove it, he is actually all around us and loving us more than we could ever imagine being loved?
If we want to be in this relationship with Jesus, we need to understand that this relationship will not be as uniform and predictable as we want it to be. That’s why our testimonies are all so different. That’s why some of you guys went to camp and were forever changed and some of you guys went to camp and came back pretty much the same. And if you were one of those people who expected this big life change and then came back not really understanding why you went in the first place, I want you to know that Jesus did not leave your side at all. Not once.
But just because he was by your side doesn’t mean he was going to whisper all the answers you wanted in your ear.
We want answers, don’t we? We want to know everything. I want to know why those birds hit that window. I want to know why it was Mary’s brother who had to be the one to taste death. I want to know why I went through that two-year period of not praying or caring.
But will knowing why really change all that much? Will having all of the answers we desire satisfy us? Will it make our relationship with Jesus richer and deeper and fuller? I don’t think so. There’s nothing in the Bible that says that when we seek the answers, we will find the answers if we seek them with all our hearts. There’s some things we don’t need to know.
But we need to remain committed to this relationship, whatever it looks like for us right now. Some of you guys are in dry, confusing seasons where you’re not sure of what following Jesus means yet and you don’t even know if you want to. Some of you have been a Christian for years but you’re not sure of how it’s changed your life all that drastically. Some of you have been experiencing the most amazing times of your life, growing in your faith like never before. Whichever one of those groups of people you fall into, I want you to know that your relationship with God will go through ups and downs, just like any relationship. But it’s the best relationship worth committing to.
God speaks to me.
I get really nervous when I claim that around people, particularly those who are not as… umm… pentecostal?… but He does. Through the Holy Spirit, He communicates to me. And no, it’s not an audible voice. It’s just a voice that I know and recognize in my head.
And it sounds a lot like myself. Which also makes me nervous. Why would I think a voice in my head that sounds like MY voice could possibly be God speaking to me?
That’s where faith comes in, I suppose.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve had times where I thought I was hearing from Him and I clearly wasn’t. I was trying to predict things and declare things in my life that I had no business predicting. Lo and behold, those things didn’t come to pass. I sometimes accused Him during those times, as if He led me astray. But then I realized it was just me mishearing, me wanting answers so badly that I tried to answer them myself. And that was even more discouraging. If I can confuse my voice for His voice at times, then could it be that I’m confusing my voice for His voice ALL the time?
But I know I’m not. There have been times when He’s spoken so clearly to my heart. That voice in my head guides me into His love. Sometimes it guides me to love others and speak into people’s lives on things I would never think to speak of out of my own power and knowledge. I am given insight, prophetic words if you will.
I know not everyone believes in this kind of stuff, but it’s all real to me.
Let me tell you something, though. About a year after I began actively hearing God, I stopped listening. Something happened where I just didn’t know if I could trust that voice anymore. I was “hearing” things about my future and my family that ended up not being right, and that just threw me for a loop. Things had never been so wrong. I had never felt so wrong. Guess this was all just a lie, I told myself. And that time of freeing, reciprocated communication came to an end.
But a couple months ago, I began listening again. I stopped trying to put Him on mute. What a beautiful time of whispers and assurances and loving guidance this has been.
But the thoughts still linger: What if it’s not real? What if this is just me? What if I’m just really good at talking to myself?
I’m afraid of both losing my faith and finding my faith. I don’t want to put up a wall between God and I, but I also don’t want to be naive.
I’m at the point now where I’ve decided that whether I’m right or wrong or a little in-between, I like this relationship thing I have going on with Him. It’s a give-and-receive, hear-and-listen kind of relationship that’s changed my view of God and myself.
The doubt remains, but right now I’m taking baby steps, sitting before God in the mornings and letting Him speak words to me while I’m trying my hardest to soak them in.
I think He understands how hard this is. Surely He’s not blind to the obvious— He’s up there and we’re down here, and there’s A LOT of room for misinterpretation and questioning.
When I was praying about these doubts of mine a couple days ago, I was led to these verses in Psalm 139:
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand– when I awake, I am still with you (v. 17-18).
If King David was given a glimpse into the thoughts of God, then perhaps God really is revealing some of His thoughts to me, too. After all, I have the Holy Spirit. And I don’t think God has changed His mind on wanting to communicate with His children.
And you want to know what I think? David probably wrestled with some of the same things. I mean, the guy was a king and then he committed this sin and ended up being hated and then was chased out of his kingdom. There’s no way he was just a happy-go-lucky camper who believed a hundred percent of the time that God was always there and speaking to him. And I know this because all throughout his Psalms, we see things like:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:1-2).
He asks the same questions a lot of us do. He dealt with doubt just as we do. And I believe that asking those questions and dealing with doubt is okay.
If God is trying to communicate with me and I’m slow to listen or believe, I don’t think He’s going to sit up there in heaven, shaking his head in frustration.
No, I believe He would pursue further. As Jesus took Thomas’ hand and showed him his wounds, I believe He’ll show me what I need to see, as well. He doesn’t want to leave us in our small-mindedness or doubt.
Look, Jessie. I know you don’t want to believe these words. I know you don’t think it could be true that I would want to speak to you and spend time with you just as eagerly as you do with me. But I do. Look at these wounds in my side. Look at my scarred hand. Look what I did so we wouldn’t have to be apart! And this Holy Spirit that’s inside of you now isn’t some fictional mass in your body. It’s me. I want to be your friend, your counselor, your guide. You don’t have to find your way in the dark by yourself. You don’t have to silence the enemy’s lies on your own. I’m here. Look at me. Hear me calling you now.
I’m being careful, only allowing myself to believe so much and take in what I know to be absolutely true. My faith is growing again, though. And I’m again finding some of the joy and peace that I felt like I was missing during that year of silence.
God doesn’t deserve to be muted. Even my own voice doesn’t deserve to be muted. I was given this voice from the Creator, was I not? I need to listen to both, discerning what is true and good and holy.
And I definitely need to kick that stupid satan’s voice out, too. Which is a work in progress.
I’m forever going to hear voices in my head and I want to pursue the truth that those voices are communicating to me while dismantling the lies that try to come between God and I.
I’m still scared of being wrong, but if I’m right— well, what a beautiful thing.
Last week, I witnessed death for the first time. And it was just so devastating yet eye-opening all at once.
It all started when my friend Lacey and I found a beautiful place to have our quiet time with the Lord. We stumbled across this closed-off patio shaded by trees with such inviting tables and chairs. Joyfully, we entered into this piece of heaven and sat down to spend some time individually in the Word and prayer.
I began to read in the book of John about Lazarus, the man who died and was risen to life by Jesus. My heart began to feel heavy as I felt some of the emotion contained within this passage. Jesus is summoned to go see his dear friend Lazarus, who is very ill, and instead of going to see him right away, he waits. This is the man who heals the blind and lame. This is the man who speaks of love and God’s goodness. And yet when he finally makes it to where Lazarus and his sisters are staying, he finds that Lazarus has already died.
The most difficult part of this story for me to read and understand is when it says that Mary, Lazarus’ sister, falls down at Jesus’ feet and says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32). As she weeps on the ground, Jesus begins to weep as well.
The story does end with Lazarus being raised back to life, but I was stuck on that one part, that one image of Mary being raw and completely filled with sorrow before Jesus, the man who she thought was going to heal her brother and save her from this pain.
I sat in that beautiful, lonely patio and prayed. I confessed to God that I didn’t understand Him. I knew that Jesus was glorified through Lazarus’ death, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Mary’s suffering. It’s a similar suffering to the one I see all around me. People die every second of every day. People mourn from loss all around me. And Jesus does not heal everyone. Why, God, why?
I didn’t understand then and I still don’t fully understand now. But what happened next was something I needed to see. God found a way to calm my soul.
I looked across the table and saw that Lacey was watching the birds playing in the trees above us. She seemed so captivated by them, and I glanced at her Bible to see what she had been reading. It was a passage from Luke 12, but I couldn’t make out what exactly it was. I later discovered it was this passage about sparrows.
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7)
As I began observing the birds myself, I was reminded of a different passage about birds (which I also later discovered was in Luke 12).
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? (Luke 12:24-25)
So here Lacey and I were, both thinking about birds. I didn’t know what she was reading, and she didn’t know what I had been thinking and had just spoken to God. It was at this very moment that we were unknowingly having our hearts prepared for what was to come.
The same birds that were innocently frolicking through the trees suddenly flew into a window above our heads and dropped to the ground next to us. There were three of them, and they laid motionless while we were rendered speechless.
Lacey jumped up to examine the birds and confirmed that at least one was dead. Tears flowed from my eyes. What does this mean, God?
The two other birds were unmoving but breathing. It seemed as though they were paralyzed and hopeless. But Lacey did what I didn’t have the courage to do. She picked up the birds and stroked them. She prayed over them. And all I could think to do was pray, too.
God, in your Word it says that if you care for the birds, then you must care for us, right? But if you DON’T care for these birds, then what does that say about your love for us?
It was in that moment God reminded me that He didn’t have to prove anything to me. Whether or not the birds continued to suffer and slowly die, His love for me and for His children would remain true. It always has been true and always will be.
But still I hoped that these birds would live. I begged God to heal.
The truth is that I knew in my head that God’s love was real, but in my heart there was doubt because so much in this world screamed otherwise.
How could I trust unwaveringly in God’s love and goodness when people are dying from gunshots, cancer, and starvation? How could I believe that God would take care of me when innocent people have been victims of suffering since the beginning of time?
These questions have haunted me because there isn’t one perfect answer. All that I have been told is to just believe.
And here was a moment where I had to believe more than ever. I was staring at death. True, they were birds, but they were living creatures I thought God cared about nonetheless. If they all died, then I would be faced with the choice to either continue believing God’s Word to be true or let that moment change my mind about His love.
He said that we are more valuable than birds. He said that we are worth more. He said that just as he cares for them, he cares for us.
So if they all died before my eyes, what would that say?
Even though I heard the voice of God telling me so surely that He loves His children, I wanted proof.
Understand this: God didn’t HAVE to heal those birds. They all stupidly crashed into a window and there seemed no divine reason for them to be rescued and raised back to life.
But I think that because He knew I was struggling and questioning, because He knew I was like Mary who found herself begging at Jesus’ feet, He chose to heal them as a testimony of His love.
It was a small and simple testimony, but one I needed and cherished nonetheless.
Just as quickly as they had come crashing down, the two unmoving birds responded to Lacey’s tender touch and flew back up into the trees to continue their lives.
They were well again. They were alive and healed.
And a part of my heart was healed, as well.
I still can’t fully fathom His love or completely understand why the world is the way it is, but I do know this: God is good. Even if he hadn’t healed those birds for me, He would still be good. That’s a hard concept to grasp. I think that humans are very limited in their understanding of life and pain and death. I know I find myself confused and baffled by such things all the time.
But I’m learning, slowly but surely.
God knows my weaknesses and my doubts, and He doesn’t condemn me for them. Instead, He invites me to believe in Him. And when I’m struggling to believe, He gives me bits and pieces of evidence and wonderment. Like He did with those birds on that day. It was a truly beautiful thing.
God is in the business of producing beautiful things– both around His children and in His children. That’s something I’m believing in more and more each day. That’s something we’re all beckoned to believe in. I think now is the time to pray for our eyes to be opened more than ever to the divine power and beauty around us. There is love and life to be found.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.