“To Do” or “To Be”?: Exchanging Checklists for God’s Presence

Not long ago, I finished up a beautiful study on the book of Hosea by Jennifer Rothschild. She challenged her readers to do something I love: to make a to-be list instead of a to-do list.

I’m prolific at creating master to-do lists. They give me a sense of control, a sense of accomplishment and keep my cluttered mind from letting crucial jobs slip through the cracks of my faulty memory. (Correction: these things give me illusion of control, accomplishment and clearer brain function.)

Despite my love of meddlesome to-do lists, I think they are overrated. Our culture is so consumed with “do more”, schedule-juggling, organizing, managing and rearranging that we’ve lost sight of something quite important. Call me crazy, but I think we’ve got the whole cram-more-into-your-day-and-wonder-why-we-need-caffeine-and-stress-management-to-keep-up thing down.

No. Better organization isn’t the problem. What we choose to tackle in a day has less to do with a checklist and more about what our priorities are. In other words, to do is not nearly as important as to be.

As yourself the question, “Who do I want to be?”

For you hard-core list makers, start writing. I started my to-be list and, in just a few minutes, I was running out of room on the page. list making

To Be:

Compassionate

Loving

Kind

Less prideful

Less stubborn

More flexible

Teachable

Heart to serve others

Look at people through God’s eyes

Wise

Slow to speak

Serene

Joyful

Encouraging

Prayerful

Seeker of God’s heart…

The longer I gripped my pencil, the more I realized I was circling around one person, one focal point. All these character traits and more were compressed and displayed in the person of Christ. Scanning the list, it became clear…I want to be like Jesus.

Flip over to 1 John 2:6 and you’ll see that John worded it this way: the one who says he abides in Him[Jesus] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”  

So to be like Jesus, I just need to walk like Jesus. Got it. Check that off the list.

If only it were that easy.

That’s kind of a tall order, you know? It’s like saying to be a great basketball player, just play like Michael Jordan. To be pretty, just look like Cindy Crawford. It seems unattainable. Impossible.

little boy basketballmichael jordan 2

Before I crumpled the overwhelming list in my hand, I took a deep breath. The Lord knows I’m not perfect, and He knows I have, and will continue to, mess up. That’s why He sent His Son.

The idea isn’t to be sinless…it’s to strive to be like Him. To please Him. To know His heart. To let Him mold me into the image of His Son.

So like any good, organized girl does, I made a list.

How did Jesus Walk?

  1. His prayer time with God was long and a priority.
  2. He sought out the broken, rejected, abused, mistreated & social outcasts.
  3. His concern was doing God’s will, and ONLY God’s will.
  4. He battled temptation with scripture.
  5. He touched the untouchables.
  6. He made people mad.
  7. He spoke the truth.
  8. He was a God pleaser, not a people pleaser.
  9. He wasn’t consumed with material wealth.
  10. He did not chastise the broken for being broken. He offered them Living Water instead.
  11. He served those he knew would betray and abandon Him.
  12. He wept for people who rejected Him.
  13. He forgave.
  14. He offered compassion.
  15. He loved people, even when they were messy.

This list barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start. I may never be all I should be, but with His help, I can strive to respond like Jesus, to show forgiveness like Jesus, to extend a hand like Jesus and to love like Jesus.

There’s an old story that claims when Michelangelo revealed his masterpiece statue of David, a man asked him, “However did you create such a breathtaking work out of nothing more than a block of lifeless marble?”

Michelangelo replied, “It is not difficult. A person need only chip away the parts that do not resemble David.” sculptor

That’s what God wants to do with us—chip away all the hard stuff in our hearts and lives until we look like His Son.

A good way to start? Drop the to-do lists and focus on how to be like Christ. Spend time with Him. We are who we hang out with. When we shift our focus on to-be, our to-do list rewrites itself.

And isn’t that a relief? No more to-do lists.

Check.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are other ways that Jesus walked? Are you a list-maker? Have you ever switched your to-do list for a to-be list? What differences did you notice in your focus?

Rods and Staffs

God’s presence. How I long for it. There are days when I feel nearly desperate for it. For Him. In some ways, it’s an odd longing. Didn’t Jesus already promise He’s with me until the end of the age? (Matt. 28:20) Absolutely. He said His Spirit is living inside me as a deposit of the promises yet to come. (2 Cor. 1:22) Yet, there are days when I don’t always feel Him with me.

I’m not alone. When I googled “God’s presence” I racked up a whopping 37 million plus hits. If Jesus is with me and living inside me, why do I still struggle to find that heightened state of an awareness of His presence?

thaddaeus-lim-40018The chaos of living in a media-crazed culture certainly plays a part. The rush of schedules crammed too full of go-go-go make it worse. But digging deeper, I think these things are band-aids slapped on to hide a deeper problem. We keep ourselves drowning in noise because silence is too condemning. We let our busyness anesthetize us from the wounds and pain we have no desire to confront. We long for quiet. Every fiber of our soul screams for it, but we are, in equal parts, terrified of it. Why?

 Because sitting at the feet of Jesus requires change.

Since “presence” is my word for 2017, I’ve been giving it some study. In the Scriptures, God’s presence is mentioned as He led Israel from Egypt into the promised land.

13 Now therefore, I [Moses] pray you, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways so that I may know You [becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with You, recognizing and understanding Your ways more clearly] and that I may find grace and favor in Your sight. And consider also, that this nation is Your people.” 14 And the Lord said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest [by bringing you and the people into the promised land].” 15 And Moses said to Him, “If Your presence does not go [with me], do not lead us up from here.” ~Exodus 33 (AMP)

 God’s presence is also mentioned numerous other places, like Psalm 139:7-10.

rod and staffWhere can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol (the nether world, the place of the dead), behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will take hold of me. 


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful words of Psalm 23:4.

“Yes, 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.”

Here’s what I’ve noticed about these verses in regard to God’s presence. The majority of them revolve around adversity. Pain. Lengthening shadows and the mysterious unknown. Rejection. Abuse. Wounds. Betrayal. Grief and loss. But where pain abounds, His love abounds in greater measure. his love abounds

We tend to think of God’s presence as our quiet time when everything is picture perfect and quiet. The kids are behaving, things are going right for a change and we can have a little jam session with God. But it rarely works out that way. (At least, in my house.) broken piecesSitting, loving and living in the presence of God is much deeper. It’s coming to Him with all your messiness and broken pieces and laying them bare before Him. It’s giving Him full access to the shadowed places of your heart you’re ashamed for anyone else to see, and then gratefully basking in the knowledge that He loves you wildly, despite the mess.

Suffering requires us to relinquish something. A dream. A plan. A person. A place. Whatever it is, grief is involved. But there is beauty in our suffering when we learn to worship at the feet of Jesus, and say, “Not my will but Yours.”

Then His love moves in to fill the cracks where our hearts bleed.

Seeking a deeper walk with God is kind of like seeking humility. All of us want to be humble, but most of us don’t want to endure what it takes to get there.

Walking close to God may require a walk through the valley. “I will not fear. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…” 3 nails

Keep your eyes fixed on the Shepherd. Trust Him with your messy, broken places. In His presence is healing. In His hands are love.

Drowning out Silence

Noise can be a drug.

It’s a numbing anesthesia, insulating us from pain and reality, a distraction that keeps us from looking too deeply at what haunts us most. We do the same with food, with shopping and debit cards, with possessions and degrees, with sex and alcohol, power, possessions, money, relationships, children…yet the more I consider the bombastic nature of our society, the more I believe noise has become the preferred drug of choice.

too-much-noise

By noise I don’t mean only auditory transmission, but sensory overload. Cell phones are nearly sewn on to fingertips. Television shows and music can viewed and heard from nearly any technological device man has dreamed up. Itunes, radio, Youtube, podcasts, streaming…we are a culture saturated with more. Add to that long work days, running children to and from the vast array of extra curriculars they must be a part of in order to succeed as a human being (yes, that is a note of sarcasm you hear in my voice), runs to the drive-through, caring for aging parents, chasing sticky toddlers, sweeping up crushed Cheerios, swallowing down caffeine to keep up with it all, and then throw in church and several ministry projects, because, after all, Jesus comes first, right?

You would think we would crave silence. Yearn for it. Want it with every fiber of our being. Some do.


Yet, truth be told, for many of us, when we are given the option to sit in quiet and wait for God to speak, we reach for our cell phone instead. Rather than walking through a silent house, we turn on the television for some background noise. Instead of talking with our Father on the drive to work, we blast the radio as loud as we can because “music speaks to us”. Does it speak louder to us than God does? Why?

Please understand, there is no condemnation here, for I do it too. All the time. I’ve always loved it when my kids aren’t fighting and the day is calm, but I can’t say that I’ve always loved perfect quiet. There is a big difference between the two.

girl-in-fieldAm I saying noise is wrong? Absolutely not. And God speaks to us beautifully through sound—the rush of a waterfall, the cadence of nature, the laugh of a baby, melodies and rhythms—all of these are tremendous gifts. What I do wonder, however, is how often we use busyness and noise as a way to avoid having to deal with our wounds.

When the electricity goes out, the heat clicks into dead cold, when there’s no hum of currents running through the house, it’s an odd feeling. Quiet. Sudden. It feels as if something has been ripped away. Our natural inclination when something has been taken is to fill that space with something else. So when there is silence, we automatically want to replace it with something. Anything.

boy-hidingSilence, at times, can be terrifying. There’s no hiding. All those thoughts and fears we so successfully shove down during the busyness rise to the surface. There’s no escaping them. The screams of silence soon turn to condemnation and we find ourselves in a place of pain that we knew existed but never wanted to confront.

My friend, the pain you hide in private will eventually become what you wear in public. The noise, the distractions, are only patches that will work for a little while. Jesus is waiting in the silence. He wants to hold you and heal those cracked places in your heart. To be seen, truly seen, is scary, but He is safe. His grace is greater. He will not turn you away.

In the past few years I’ve learned I’ll never accidentally fall into a closer walk with God. It’s a deliberate choice to lay aside the distractions and noise and seek His presence. I try to take five minutes each day to sit in silence with Jesus. No hiding. Just being still. I’m treasuring this new time. Instead of the condemnation I used to pour on myself, I now hear Him whisper His love to my soul. be-still

He’s with me in the quiet and He’s present in the noise.

Do you like silence? Why or why not? What are ways you unplug from the busyness? Where do you hear God or feel His presence most clearly? 

Lessons Learned in His Presence

Last week I told you my word for the year was presence. I’ve become desperate to release the juggling, the striving, running and cistern-filling that never actually fills. I yearn for Jesus’ presence…to sit at His feet. To learn and love and live. I don’t want to care about what each day brings as long as I can journey through each day with Him.

learn-to-rest

I thought my biggest obstacle to sitting in His presence would be learning to rest. For the past few years, I thought tending to chores around the house was resting. Compared to standing on stage while speaking and singing, or pounding out another book project or some other creative endeavor, mindless activities like folding laundry or scrubbing counters feel like rest. But they’re not. Here’s the tricky thing about living in the cycle of go-go-go for so long…after a while, the nonstop activity is like a drug. When it’s gone, there’s a terrifying hole of quiet that suddenly needs to be filled. Some people automatically understand how to rest. I don’t. For me, it’s a learned behavior, one I have to be taught but I’m getting there.

I thought learning to rest would be the most difficult part of this whole-seeking-God’s-presence-journey. But I was wrong. There are two others that hit me hard.

The first I learned while putting my three-year-old to sleep several nights ago. After two runs to the bathroom, a drink, a ten minute long prayer, and another drink, Nate grabbed my hand and kissed my palm, looking up into my face with a hopeful grin.

“Stay til I sleep, Monny?”

I inwardly sighed. His bedtime routine was growing longer each night and a long list of chores still awaited me. But I kissed his forehead as God’s Spirit spoke to my heart.

Stay. nate-asleep

I settled next to my little man and rubbed his face. Maybe it was the realization that time was fleeting. My children are growing up too fast. Maybe it was pure obedience that kept me rooted in place. Whatever the reason, I stayed and stroked his forehead, toyed with his chestnut curls, ran my fingertips over his eyebrows and temples until those heavy lashes could stand it no longer.

As I watched him succumb to sleep, Jesus pressed this thought into my spirit.

You’ve been seeking My presence. My Spirit is within You and if you long to sit at My feet, it is here, in these humble moments, caring for those entrusted to you that you’ll find Yourself closer to Me. Ministering to the needy. Feeding the hungry. Encouraging the broken. Visiting the prisoner. When you do this, you sit at My feet. I AM with you. I am here.

The next night I was plagued with a nasty bout of insomnia. I tossed and turned but couldn’t get comfortable. One thought kept bugging me over and over.

Rise and write.

I ignored it. I mean, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do when insomnia’s restless fingers flutter over our minds? Lie still. Ignore the TV and phone. Keep the lights off.

Nothing worked and that night was one of the most miserable I’ve endured in ages. The next morning, I sat up in my grump-induced haze and wondered if perhaps the urge to write wasn’t the crazy whim of a hyperactive right-brained blonde, but instead God’s sweet plea pulling me from sleep to offer a divine invitation. interrupted-by-god

As I stared out window, watching the sun streak the morning pink, I prayed, “Lord, was that You?”

Following Me often means interruption. Sitting in My presence may pull you away from other things, but it is always an invitation to know Me. To create with Me. To walk with Me.

Maybe I’ll get the hang of this eventually. I’m glad God is patient. Even when I get it wrong, He is so tender. So patient. And even in my mistakes, He is teaching me.

That’s the amazing thing about being with Jesus. You cannot walk away unchanged. The well of love and knowledge in His presence is unfathomable.

light-of-your-presence

The word for 2017 is…

I’m not a big believer in life verses. It’s too easy to manipulate a verse from the Bible and make it what you want it to be while ignoring context and purpose.  But I do enjoy choosing a word for the year.

sinai-3Each year I pray over a word God may have for me. Last year’s word was Sinai. I know what you’re thinking. Sinai? Really? How about Mephibosheth? Or Maher-shalal-hash-baz? Trust me, I thought the same thing, but after seeing the way God breathed His plan and sang over the pivotal moments of this past year, looking back I finally understand why He impressed the word Sinai into my spirit. It was fitting and profound. I saw His glory come down in a very tangible way.

One of my favorite reads of the past year was Allen Arnold’s The Story of With. In it, Allen said something that hit me hard. “Live completely unbalanced for the things that matter most.”

Live completely unbalanced…

live-unbalancedThat phrase echoed through my heart for weeks and wouldn’t let me go.

After years spent spinning my wheels, and a battle with depression, God tenderly showed me how deep is the pit of people pleasing. It’s taken years to crawl out of the abyss…years as He’s held my hand, walking me from darkness into Light. Time when I’ve learned what it means to be a God-pleaser instead of a people pleaser. Time spent learning how much I’m loved by Him…how different approval is from love and a host of other things. Years when I wrote a book about recognizing the destructive patterns to find healing. Years of agony, living out of balance until I finally found freedom. https://www.amazon.com/Hollow-Victory-Landmines-Victorious-Christian/dp/1484100131/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1483218376&sr=8-2&keywords=tara+johnson+hollow+victory

I suppose it’s natural to yearn for balance after living in such an upside down way for so long.

Yet Allen’s quote continued to haunt me. “Live completely unbalanced for the things that matter most.

It finally hit me.

In my strive to step away from people pleasing and approval addiction, I had redefined my boundaries which was needful, but had allowed myself to become cocooned in a sterile bubble. I tried to ‘balance it all’ but still failed. I said no to the boundary abusers but failed to nurture what mattered most…deep connection with God. I bought into the myth of multi-tasking but only succeeded in doing many things poorly and wondered why I still couldn’t get it right.

lucy-and-ethel

This past year has marked a profound shift in my walk with God. It’s a time of putting down the ‘to-do’ list and more time trying ‘to-be’.

Before my battle with depression, I was living out of balance for the things that mattered least. But what if Allen is right? What if I learn to live out-of-balance for Jesus? What if I stop trying to get everything perfectly situated? To keep a perfectly tidy house? Juggle the perfect schedule? Perfect meals? What if I become comfortable with being messy me and spend my time at Jesus feet?” What if I just focus on living like Mary of Bethany, who didn’t care about all the other ‘stuff’ because she knew, in the long run, it didn’t really matter? “She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

My word for 2017 is presence. I want my sole focus for this year, and my life, to seek the presence of my Savior. To know Him. To crave Him. To love Him. Nothing more.

We have this moment. If you’ve lost a child, faced a heart-ripping betrayal, an unexpected diagnosis, or well, hit puberty, you know the harsh truth: life is change. Sometimes we can’t imagine a moment more perfect than the one we are in and then we are dashed upon the rocks, slammed with such force we can scarcely take a breath from the pain of it. Sometimes we aren’t even sure if taking a breath is worth it.

If your heart is still beating in your chest, God’s work with your life is not yet done.

I don’t want this year to be marked with the drive to be efficient, worship my to-do list, balance it all or live in the hamster wheel that powers the dimly lit bulbs of my family’s house. I’ve lived that way long enough and have found it to be a broken cistern than takes more than it gives, drawing blood and life from those willing to be lured into its trap.

I’m starting out the new year buried in his Word, and reading a new book by Shauna Niequist, Present over Perfect. present-over-perfectBut even in this I must be careful. I don’t want to be busy learning how to be in his presence and neglect time when I can put down the books, the phone, the ‘stuff’ away and just be with Him. Learning about someone is never as rewarding as talking to the person one on one, am I right?

I crave Jesus. I crave His presence. I want to live unbalanced for the One Who matters most.

Do you have a word for the year? What is it? What do you find most difficult about nurturing your relationship with God?