Come, Bow, Worship, even if . . .

Pray | Lord, in my hustle and bustle, joy or anxiousness, may I not be too busy or distant to pause and consider the wonder of who you are.

December is full of such good stuff! Families gather from near and far, friends are meeting up for celebration, lights go up with frozen fingers, trees and streetlights are twinkling, and there’s the buying, wrapping and giving one to another. But that’s not everyone’s story, it can also be a season of dread, loneliness and anxiety. There’s the reality that finances and time are limited, maybe a heart is grieving, conflict is in the air, or one we love so very dearly is not ‘round the tree but in a hospital. 

The Magi must have had their share of challenges that first Christmas. Before their long journey there were travel plans to make, camels to pack and such, and then miles and miles of searching. But even so, it is written that as they traversed, they saw “the star” and were overjoyed! This Advent, as the days tick off the calendar, will there be a point in which we are overjoyed at something so simple but significant?

When these Magi finally arrived at  the house of Mary and Joseph, they saw the child with his mother and bowed down and worshiped. (Can you just imagine the awe and relief of Mary and Joseph?! Maybe saying, “We have indeed understood these messages from the Lord!”)

Oh, that in this season of Advent, of arrival, that we would come to really see the manger, that we consider the baby, toddler, man, Messiah who came to be with us for such a loving purpose. If the calendar is crowded, and “s t r e t c h e d” is the feeling of the day, how much more valuable to pause, bow and worship (Exodus 20:3.) If burdened and heavy laden, now is the hour to make time for Jesus, for he says he’s gentle and humble in heart, that you’ll find rest for your soul (Matthew 11:28-30). If you find yourself confused, anxious, or with a grieving heart over something or someone, then come close, because it is written that Jesus is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). And if you are in a place of abundance and joy, the bid is still to come close (Deuteronomy 8:10-18). One thing is clear, there’s room for all of us at the manger.


Read | Matthew 2:9-12

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.


Reflect | Spend some time reflecting on the following:

We come often to the Lord with our needs and desires, which is so, so good, but what I love about the wise men, is that before Jesus did anything in his time on earth, they bowed, worshiped and gave gifts simply because of who he was, God with us.

May we each spend some time in reflection, asking God to help us come and bow this Christmas, no matter what, and even if . . .

Everyone is Upset

Pray | Lord, may I consider the posture of my heart this Advent season

King Herod was disturbed when he heard the Magi showed up asking about the one born King of the Jews. It is well documented that he was a paranoid, ruthless man. He killed many including his own sons and a few wives to name just a few of those who suffered death due to his fear of losing the throne.

 But also . . . the people of Jerusalem were disturbed.

Read | Matthew 2:3-8 
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for out of you will come a ruler    who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Reflect | WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

King Herod is easily identified as the one least accepting of the idea that the Messiah had arrived within his jurisdiction. But what caught my eye is that the people of Jerusalem were also disturbed. Herod’s reaction seems unrelatable, but the people of Jerusalem being disturbed has the potential to hit a little closer to home.

There are many reasons this news could be bothersome to all of Jerusalem, one being the fear of a violent response from this deranged king who sensed a challenge. But it’s also thought that this arrival could upset the status quo of their own daily lives.

The arrival of a new ruler — shepherd — king, though expected at some point, possibly left them wondering, “What does this mean to me?” The truth is, Jesus’ arrival whether in Bethlehem, the Jordan River, at dinner, the temple . . . or our hearts is a game changer. He just turns so many things upside down. There’s a new conviction in our spirit, while also leaving us peace (John 14:27). Though called to repent, he leads us not to punishment but refreshing and restoration (Acts 3:19-21). It means the old has gone and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17), and among so many other things, it means there is always a path to forgiveness and freedom.

In this season of preparation, as we string the lights, attend the gatherings, and find our Christmas socks, may we also look for the star, journey to the manger, bow in awe at who has come, and is to come.

This Advent, what are you doing to create space to consider the majesty and wonder found in the manger? 

The Magi

I was recently invited to be on the Devotion Writing Team at our church, Five Oaks in Woodbury, Minnesota. I’ll be writing three devotions about once a month. Once they have been sent out to the subscribers Daily Life Devotions I will post them here. I’m excited about this season of writing!

Pray | Lord, despite my comfort or discomfort, status, or not, whether I am near or far, overwhelmed or busy, like the Magi, may I seek the one born in Bethlehem.

The Magi – Who were these guys?
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to the question, who were the Magi? It’s likely that speculation, stories, and manger scenes have shaped our thoughts and traditions on who these men were. It is written that they came from the East, they may have been kings, advisors to a king or someone else entirely. What we do know is that they were expecting the Messiah, and they went to find him and worship him.

Read |Matthew 2:1-2
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Reflect | In what tends to be a very busy season, it can seem difficult to consider getting up to go find Jesus. It might be as simple as finding that box of Christmas stuff and pulling out the nativity set. But it could be as complicated as looking back at that confusing crisis that happened (or is happening), and wondering “Where did he go? Where is he?!”

Each year when we set up our nativity, we’ve always set the Wise Men far from the manger, then every day they move just a little closer to Jesus until they arrive in front of him bearing their worship and gifts. As we journey through this month and check off our lists, decorate the tree and buy all the things, may we, like the Magi, find ourselves asking, “Where in this is the one who is King?” Some of us will find him near as we spend consistent time with him, some of us are a little further away, maybe skeptical, or just unsure of coming too close for fear of what we’ve done, or even possibly, what we think he will require of us if we get too close. Wherever we find ourselves this season, the Lord promises in Jeremiah 29:13 that if we search for him wholeheartedly, we will indeed find him. May this Advent be a time for each of us to seek him, journey toward him, to come and adore, bow and worship. As we offer our gifts one to another, let’s also consider what we might offer to the one who came to set us free.

Where might you find Jesus this season?
Is there a specific gift you’d like to lay at his feet?
Words of adoration you might quietly offer up?

Not Feeling It

Have you ever been in a season of just not feeling your relationship with God? One where you don’t really want to read the bible, and prayer feels a little empty, kind of bland? I believe most of us have from time to time walked in what feels like a spiritual dry land. I’ve been there for a minute, and I have to say, it’s not a great feeling.

I hear my own voice telling others, “God is not a feeling”, which is true, so I open the bible and read. I open my daily devotions and read. I open my prayer journal and let what seems like limited words, and even less emotion, fall on the pages.

In describing this funk to a friend she said something along the lines of doing it to check the box, which I instantly knew in my soul wasn’t true. I’m reading and praying not to check the box, but because I know this is good for my soul, even if it doesn’t feel it. I know the Word is true and has power to be life giving, correcting, soothing, encouraging and more. I pray because I believe it might matter that I pray, and I believe the Lord cares that I do, even maybe especially when I don’t feel it? Bottom line, I’m doing it because I don’t feel like doing it.

Another friend read Kneeling with Giants – Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers, more than once she spoke of how great it was, so I’m reading it on her recommendation. The book has chapters on spiritual mentors from church history like Benedict, Luther, Calvin and more, and offers different methods of prayer, such as the divine office, the Lord’s Prayer, healing prayer, Psalms and more. I’m only through chapter one, but I sense optimism and just may be on the cusp of freshness.

I’ve started with the divine office taken from the Common Book of Prayer (modeled from St Benedict). I’m praying old prayers that seem written for today, there are prayers for leaders, prisoners – justly and unjustly imprisoned, pastors, the aged and lonely, the hurting, conflicts and more. I’m singing along with hymns of old that are feeling right for now; there is a time of confession, scripture readings and more. In this prayer discipline there are four set times of day to pray, I’m currently committed to the morning one, and slightly committed to the noon one.

In chapter one, Praying with St Benedict – The Divine Office, there are two places I’ve underlined, on page 21 Gary Neal Hanson writes, “It (the divine office) stretches me to pray in a healthy range of ways. It renews my connection to deep and holy things. When times are hard, it can put my battered soul back together. I admit there are days when it feels like a ritual performed without conscious thought – though even that can help me. Whatever it feels like, it puts my day in a rhythm of prayer. As one of my students put it, Benedict envisioned a life of prayer with work interspersed, not the other way around.” And on page 34 he says,
“. . . but the more hours you pray and the longer you keep at it, the better chance you have of keeping all of life in perspective.” In my short time with this style of prayer I’m feeling both of those statements to be true. I’ve decided to hang out in this prayer style for awhile before I move on to chapter two, Praying with Martin Luther – The Lord’s Prayer.

In the meantime, it is written to be prepared in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2); I’ve been feeling out of season, but maybe this is where some of the work is done so that the in season will return.

If you find yourself interested in reading Kneeling with Giants and discussing it, comment on fb, instagram, this post, or email me at shericarlstrom@gmail.com and we’ll figure out a way to connect through a group zoom, email or maybe private fb group.

(I’m praying the Divine office through an app, Mission of St Clare – Praying the Daily Office, I just have to click the morning, noonday, evening or compline prayer, making it very simple.)

This & That on a January Morning

This morning as I sit to capture my thoughts, they bounce around from this to that, and instead of paragraphs my mind delivers bullet points that look like this:

Read more books and record what you read
Over Christmas, our daughter Erin talked about the list of “Books Read” she’d created. What a great idea for someone like me who can’t often recall titles even recently read! The new year is starting strong in the reading department, I’ve completed two books and am halfway through a third; quite the variety thus far and I highly recommend all three. If you have books to recommend please comment, I’m hoping for an extensive “Books Read” list for 2022!

Drink more water
Two things – it’s obviously so good for the body, but also at age 56 I see it in the mirror when I’m not drinking enough water. Those little wrinkles in my face smooth out a little with good amounts of water. So I’m logging my water now to help me drink enough ~ my kidneys, brain, digestive system, and face are ever grateful.

Christmas cards
I just dropped the last few in the mail this week. If you’re on our list then you know I’m not exactly famous for being early (or even on time) with cards, and I a l w a y s write a letter. I didn’t write one this year, but it’ll be back next year. There’s something sweet about reading Christmas letters that arrive in our mail, I usually save them until January and then sit down with coffee and savor the capturing of updates and stories. I do love Christmas cards.

Be intentional with the Calendar
Schedule, and keep open, those squares with intention. Plan with priority.
It’s easy for me to fill up our calendar with this and that and then kind of just run out of days and weekends. This week I’m scheduling time to sit quietly with God, and check with our family, to see who and what is put on my heart. It doesn’t a l l need to be so planned, I definitely need to leave lots of squares for spontaneity. But for me, the urgent and lollygagging on my part can push out the important. Many years ago, our friend Kerry Thomas said, “We can’t manage time, only ourselves within time.” That’s some wisdom right there.

Declutter
We moved into our home 17 months ago, and yet there are some unpacked boxes that remain lining a wall in the finished portion of the basement. Our bedroom closet, once dreamy with space, has had to accommodate new additions and not enough subtractions to the giveaway pile. I’m out of hangers, so it’s time. The kitchen cupboards and laundry area are in need of a purge. It’s time to clear the things I’m keeping but don’t need. And in keeping with the intentional idea, I’m thinking, “Buy less this year”, that could also keep things more simple.

Birthdays
Get back to it. In the switch years ago from the wall to the Google calendar I’ve lost the art of really keeping track of birthdays. Maybe I go back to hanging a calendar on the wall? Maybe someone has a birthday app to suggest? Either way, this girl wants to up her game in this area.

Cheers to the New Year and to the this and thats, intentions and inspirations for the upcoming squares on all of our calendars which will fill our lives this year!

Devoted to Devotionals?

I’m reading two devotion books currently, Savor by Shauna Niequist is one of them; at first glance I thought it was a little simple, but what I’ve discovered as I’ve read through it the last few years is that Shauna is relational, open and authentic. (And she includes some fantastic recipes in this book!) Day by day she covers great topics, and asks good, self-reflective questions. I appreciate her voice as a part of my morning, and the truth is that simple can lead us to deeper and more complex places. (I remember my pastor, Stan Buck, once saying, “People sometimes want deeper teaching, but if I only ever preached “Love your neighbor as yourself”, we’d have all the depth we need.” — Powerful.)

My other (and all time favorite) devotion book is My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. This guy doesn’t mess around, he shoots straight, and isn’t inclined to be concerned about our feelings. He teaches and explains scripture, as well as challenges and elevates me to desire to bring my own utmost to each day. I have been reading this devotional every year for over 15 years, and it’s still fresh and challenging on the daily. He’s on a first name basis with me after all our years together!

Devotionals can be so good, they can be enriching, inspiring, challenging, and helpful; they have a place in my quiet time, BUT, they cannot take the place of the Word itself. In September of 2020 Jen Wilkin wrote an article in Christianity Today titled Your Devotional is not a Bible. Just the title of the article alone was such a word of truth and so convicting and I left that article out in the open for almost a year.

How many times have I a grabbed a devotion book instead of the bible because I was short on time, or energy or, um, devotion to God? Devotion is defined as love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Am I as devoted to God as I am to MYself, MY time, MY energy, MY to do list?

Here’s what I know, I cannot hear the voice of God if I don’t know the Word of God. I will only know his voice if I read His Word. While it’s good to receive words of comfort from a friend or book, it’s like salve when it comes from God. It’s easier for me to yield to correction from God than from any other source. It’s in the reading of the Word, praying and listening that my spirit is closest to God – he corrects, comforts, teaches, empowers, leads, strengthens, and encourages me.

Admittedly, it’s easy to get distracted and cut it short or not even enter into that time. A recent insight I’ve discovered about myself is that the days I haven’t met with God first because I’m “so busy”, it’s like I feel I have to accomplish even more to justify pushing God aside that day. But it’s like a chasing of the wind because at the end of those days there’s still something that’s not satisfied. But when I’ve sat quietly with God my days flow more as if everything that takes place and gets done is bonus – the most important minutes have been invested wisely and my soul is much more content throughout the day.

Here’s a bonus of devoted time to God on the regular, when I hit difficult places, I’m already disciplined to be near God, so in those times I find I naturally move a little closer to him and his word. In those times what I read and have planted in my heart is drawn up and out. So you’d think devotion to God’s writing would be a no brainer, and yet I submit that it can be a struggle to keep this a priority and discipline.

The reality is that there are many voices that want to speak into us, some are so good and needed, and I’m so thankful for that. Some are simply not true, or have a perspective that might be off, so the voice I want to have the most influence on me is the Lord’s. And that will be so when I have not neglected His word for someone else’s.

Losing color, looking limp, and barely hanging in there • • •

Have you been there friend?

This plant has looked tired and worn down most of the last year. I’ve almost given up on it too many times to count. When I finally gave it some dedicated attention I realized it literally had no roots; it was just sitting in soggy dirt. “No wonder it’s so pale and lifeless.” I thought and I finally threw it away.

But in a last ditch, heart inspired, rescue and recovery plan I snagged it back out of the trash and whispered, “Let’s try this again”.

Incredibly it did just that.
After a lifeless year, it’s coming back, I see new, fresh growth!

The old soil was wet and a little moldy. I dumped it out, washed the pot and put in fresh stuff. I tenderly placed it back in the pot labeled “grow”, and moved it to a new window.

And so lessons appear from the tired, fading plant ~

• let’s check our soil. What are we sitting in? Is it saturated with the wrong stuff?

• what am I rooted in? Do I even have any roots, or am I simply sitting on top of moldy soil in a pot I didn’t choose, falling over from time to time?

• do you need a fresh perspective? Do you need to change the window you’re looking through?

• and just in case you need someone to whisper this to you, here it is, “Hey there love, let’s try this again.”

The Kingdom Divided – Jeroboam & Rehoboam

Jeroboam’s background in a nutshell:
He was “a man of standing” and an official in King Solomon’s construction / building phase. Solomon put him in charge “of the whole labor force of the tribes of Joseph”. One day he was told by a prophet, who had heard from God, that the Lord was going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give him ten tribes…this would be done because the people had forsaken him and worshipped other Gods and not walked in obedience or done what was right in the of the eyes of the Lord. (King Solomon had allowed sin to remain, eventually corrupting him and his leadership.) Jeroboam was told he would be king over Israel and rule over everything his heart desires if he followed the commands of the Lord, walked in obedience, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, then the Lord would be with him.

(To me, that sounds overwhelming, humbling, a great responsibility and a great promise.)

This word about Jeroboam being made king made its way back to Solomon who then tried to kill Jeroboam, so Jeroboam fled to Egypt until Solomon’s death.

Enter Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. After his dad’s death, at age 41 he was made king. Jeroboam, feeling safe now that Solomon was dead, returned from Egypt. 2 Chronicles 10 tells that he and all of Israel  (remember, he was a respected leader) went before king Rehoboam and asked him to lighten the load that Solomon had put on them, saying they would serve him if would do this.

(This makes me want to go back and focus more on this – the wisest man put a heavy burden on his people. But also the wisest king failed in many ways, especially at the end, assuring us that none of us are beyond making terrible decisions.)  

Anyway, Rehoboam asked for a few days to consider this. He consulted the elders, who told him if he would be kind to the people, and give them a favorable answer they people would always be his servants. But the king rejected that, and for advice turned to the younger friends he had grown up with (who were currently serving him). Those guys said something along the lines of, Tell the people if they thought the yoke was currently heavy, that he (Rehoboam) would make the yoke even heavier and more painful, that he was even stronger than his father. And so the new king rejected the advice of the elders, answered harshly, and the kingdom divided. U f f f f f…

The ten tribes went home to the northern part of the kingdom, but Judah and Benjamin remained under king Rehoboam. Rehobom then ordered the two tribes to go fight Israel to regain the kingdom, but the word of the Lord came to them to go home, to not fight against their brothers, the Israelites. (Still a good word for us today.) In my notes I wrote that there was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, so that was a significant consequence as well.

My nugget from this ~ I believe pride, fear and more can keep us from seeking wise counsel. I also believe pride is likely the main ingredient that can keep me from listening and acting on wise counsel. Rehoboam wasn’t a baby king, he was 41, but clearly not mature or wise. When I read this story I see how foolish and arrogant Rehoboam was, and I don’t really relate to him. But then I wonder if that might be foolish and arrogant of me to think. So I commit again to seeking wise counsel with a soft and humble heart, not just listen to contemporaries who might tell me how great and strong I am.

More on Jeroboam to come . . .

(for reference: 1 Kings 11:26 – 14 & 2 Chronicles 10-12)

Once Upon a Time there was a King . . .

well several, and their stories were captivating ~

Recently I’ve been spending mornings with the kings of the Old Testament, specifically the kings of Israel and Judah when after Solomon’s death Israel was split into a northern and southern kingdom. They are some interesting guys to be sure; they intrigue me with their level of love for, and obedience to, the Lord. But also astound me as they exhibit dramatic ways of turning away, violence, fear, pride and more. Then of course there’s the Lord, who reveals Himself in displays of encouragement, reward, protection, anger, also turning away, justice and even much compassion.

I’ve been taking notes on these guys for a long time. Each time I read through Kings and Chronicles I make a list of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. I record how old each was when they began their reign, how long they reigned, if overall they were good or evil and then notes that stood out to me about them. There are lists and charts available to me, but each time I read through I create my own lists, making the same, and sometimes new, notes about them. As I do this over and over I’m understanding more and about their stories, timelines and how they fit together. (And now I’m getting more interested in the prophets and priests; how and when their lives intersected with the kings – I love how a v e r y old book can continue to be so new!)

Sometimes the kings remind me of me. They are the kings of old but they sometimes do things that I think, “I do that.” It’s a wakeup call to take a look around my own “kingdom” and see what notes I might put next to myself in a notebook.

I thought I’d write a few lines about each king here over the next few days and weeks. I’m not a bible scholar, historian or expert on the kings, so please feel free and invited to add, edit, correct, or comment on any or all of these guys. These are really just my simple observations gathered in notebooks.

stay tuned . . .

Lessons in the Layoff

I remember the day well, October 7, 2019 — I was at my sister’s for a ten day stay with my nephew while she and her husband went on a mission trip to Macedonia. Kevin texted with the news that he had been laid off. We were fourteen hours apart, my sister was about to leave for the airport and I just wanted to go home. Teary and in disbelief I grabbed a notebook and wrote down everything he said; my mind was scattered and I knew when we hung up I would forget all the things he said. Severance, amazing. Benefits continued, blessing. Call our financial advisor, good idea. Hiring coach provided, wonderful. But even in hearing this I still had many tears, a few sobs and a little panic.

Lesson One — Lean in and listen
Feeling a little unsettled, Kevin had been praying about his job for awhile, and he reminded me that the last word he had heard from God was to ‘Stay put. Stay on this path.’ Okay we did that, but now what? Kevin said he planned the next day to be a time of fasting; he would go into a state park with his bible and a notebook, walk and sit in the quiet and seek to hear from God. Of course — lean in and listen for God. I knew at that moment we would be okay because Kevin wasn’t going to go forward in his own strength or wisdom, though he has much of both, he was going to be still and lean not on his own understanding.

Lesson Two — Go visit your Father
I waited the next day for the fast to end and Kevin to call. I tried to not rush him through what he was saying but I was anxious to hear what God had said. What’s next? I was wondering. Where do we put our feet? What do we do now? I couldn’t wait to hear what God said.

And here’s what God spoke to Kevin’s heart, I’m glad you’re here spending the day with me.

Of course. The Lord was happy his son had come to spend time with him, to be near his Father; that Kevin knew who to go to before any decisions or directions were taken.

Though I hoped for a billboard with a map in the woods that day, what we got was far better; the reminder that sometimes God wants us to just come and visit. He wants to know we love him for him, not for what he delivers. Can you imagine if your kids never just snuggled up with you, climbed in your lap, or if they only called when they needed something from you? Once again, I felt a peace wash over me, God is with us, we’ll be okay. The what, when, where, why and how could wait. God had led us to this job six years ago, and now it was gone, but we didn’t feel abandoned. Confused maybe, but trusting still.

Lesson Three — Its okay to not understand
When we moved to Michigan from Indiana for this job, I didn’t really understand it. We had just launched our last one to college, alongside a few close friends. I had planned to enter the empty nest season with walks and wine on the porch with one of my best friends who lived around the corner. But alas it was not to be. Instead I would move 80 miles away to a very small, but adorable and historic, town. And as it turns out our time here has turned into one of the sweetest blessings of our lives.

Six years ago I said I don’t understand this move, it’s not what I imagined at this point of my life, but I trust it. I was sometimes lonely that first year, but I also had peace. And so it goes again — this is not what I expected at this point of our lives either, it’s not what I would choose, but I trust it.

I’m leaning in, listening, visiting my Father, trusting and peaceful as we enter this next unforeseen season. It’s not what I expected, but I do have peace and I still trust what’s next.