“Speak to Us Smooth Things”

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For 5 days, we kept our eyes to the sky and our ears tuned to the Weather Channel. We dusted off our hurricane vocabulary and liberally sprinkled our conversations with isobars and wind speeds, storm surges and a new addition — post-tropical cyclone. The forecast was dire: high winds, lashing rain, flooding and rip currents. We fretted, changed vacation plans, took in all possible projectiles and waited for Hermine to join Belle, Gloria, Irene and Sandy, the Storm Sisters that have made history on the East Coast.

We got a few drops of rain and a strong breeze.

You’d think people would be relieved and thankful. Instead, they were disappointed and just a little mad. Newspaper headlines sneered: “No-Show Hermine.” The Twitterverse accused forecasters of hype, fear-mongering and causing undue economic hardship for beach towns depending on Labor Day weekend tourism.

It didn’t take long for the memes to pop up. It’s not that we’re rooting for disaster; most of  us are not that perverse. But if you’re prepared for one and it doesn’t haphermine-150x100pen, you feel pretty foolish standing under a clear blue sky wearing rain boots and wondering what you’ll do with all those extra batteries and bottled water. And when we feel foolish, somehow, “thank you” isn’t what springs to mind. We should be grateful for being spared, but somehow all we can think about is our ruined weekend at the beach and those “weather types who are always wrong.”

All this crankiness about our near-miss with a hurricane got me thinking:

We have an uneasy relationship with prophets of any kind — whether they’re meteorologists or messengers from God.

We don’t like it when they’re wrong. We like it even less when they’re right.

When they are wrong — and in the case of God’s prophets, this means their prophecy has not yet come true — we treat them with contempt and scorn.

God’s prophet Jeremiah knew this well. For 40 years, through the reign of five different kings, Jeremiah warned that if Judah didn’t turn back to God and His commandments, there would be destruction and exile. Many didn’t listen because they just couldn’t believe it could be true — that the God of Abraham would abandon them, that He would allow His temple and His city to be destroyed by pagan nations. So they just stuck their fingers in their ears and went on with their idolatry, injustice and unholy alliances they thought would secure their future.

It must have been hard for the faithful — there must have been some — to see the wicked go unpunished for their obstinate rebellion. They weren’t grateful that God was showing mercy and patience, that more might repent. They mistook mercy for weakness, or for evidence that the prophecy and the prophet couldn’t be trusted. When our forecasters are wrong, we just shrug and vow never to listen to them again (or at least until the next hurricane). Jeremiah wasn’t so lucky. The price he paid for being “wrong” was ridicule, being called a traitor, death threats and imprisonment.

Of course, we’re not really happy when they’re right, either. I doubt that the people of Judah were pleased when, finally, Jeremiah’s vision of destruction and exile came true. Oh, you might have heard the occasional “Why didn’t I listen?” But human nature being what it is, I imagine the exiles were more likely to blame Babylon’s agression, their own king’s failed policies, or even God for abandoning them before they would admit that the judgement was on them. Anyone but them.

When prophets are “wrong” and the consequences of our sin have not yet materialized, we mistake mercy for weakness or ineffectiveness. When they are right and we see the consequences of our sin, we are quick to look everywhere but ourselves for responsibility.

Unless they’re telling us we’re perfect just as we are, prophets can’t win for losing with us.

Another of God’s prophets, Isaiah, put it this way:

“For they are a rebellious people,
lying children,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things …”
                                                                    (Isaiah 30:9-11)

And so, I pray.

I pray that we will have ears to hear, even — especially — the stuff we don’t want to.

I pray that we will be faithful and patient, even when God’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled.

Most of all, I pray that God will deliver us from the prophets whose words never offend— prophets who speak to us smooth things.

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Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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A Threefold Cord

rope-1468951_1280“Never visit anyone empty-handed.” This was one of my mother’s inviolable rules of etiquette. When you rang the doorbell, you’d better be packing — a nice babka from the corner bakery, a book or magazine, or flowers from your garden.

I broke this rule recently.  I didn’t have any choice. The friend I visited is in prison.

I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything — no babkas, no books, no bouquets. The solid metal door slid open and I walked in empty-handed with nothing to offer but myself.  I felt like Wonder Woman without her bracelets — stripped of power and protection.  

In difficult situations, The Present is a welcome social lubricant. The book can be a conversation starter. The cake is an excuse for some distracting busy work as plates are fetched and tea is brewed. Your friend can marvel over the intricate stitchwork of the prayer shawl. But there would be none of that here; I had no props that could give me the illusion of being useful or any tangible sign of my care to leave behind. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, all that would be left at the end of this visit would be my evanescent smile.

If I couldn’t bring a present, I still hoped I could offer some magic words — words of explanation, exhortation, words of wisdom. I came up empty there, too. So I sat. I listened. I talked a little. We laughed. It hardly seemed enough.

And yet. Without the protective cover of a present, I was forced to consider the gift of presence. It is easy to minimize the power our “mere” presence can hold, and yet when I think of the hardest times of my life, what I remember are the people who sat with me, who let me grieve the way I needed to, and who were simply there. I think of the time my friend Peggy cajoled me into leaving my dying mother’s hospital bed to go for a walk. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was an hour of respite, a reminder that outside that hospital room, there was life. Baton-twirling, bagpiping, beer-guzzling life. It didn’t change anything. We returned to the hospital to the same diagnosis.

But I returned knowing that whatever was coming, Peggy would hold my hand, make me laugh, let me cry. It was a small thing. It was everything.

This is all we really want and it is all we need. In times of crisis, we stand in a long line of sufferers stretching all the way back to Job who cry, “Why?”  There are theological arguments that address this question, but often we have to be satisfied with mystery. Ultimately, we make peace with “Why?” and instead ask, “Who?” Who will stand with me? Who will be brave enough to share my pain? Who will let me cry and listen to my darkest thoughts without shifting uncomfortably in their seat? Who will be Jesus to me?

This is one of God’s enduring promises: I will be with you. And while this is true in a cosmic sense, it is also true in the most literal, boots-on-the-ground sense. God was with me because Peggy was with me. God was with my friend because I was willing to walk into that prison, sit down and offer my presence, as inadequate as it seemed.  God is with us through us.

“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

                                                               Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Our presence can seem like an insignificant offering, all that is left after admitting that we can’t fix the problem, take away the pain or heal the illness.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  It is nothing less than the gift of God to the people He loves.

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The Potter, the Clay and the Stone

 

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The potter sits at his wheel with his ashen hands cupping a squat chunk of clay. It looks unremarkable, giving clues neither to its potential for beauty nor the obstruction hidden within.

He plunges his fingers into the center of the spinning clod and the walls of a vessel begin to rise. As it grows taller and its walls thinner, a small stone emerges, like a mole on an otherwise smooth and flawless complexion. The jar spins and spins and the stone surfaces, distorting the shape the potter is now laboring to maintain. With each revolution, it becomes ever-more lopsided until finally, it collapses onto itself. If this vessel is ever going to be beautiful and useful, that stone will have to go.

This is a story about hidden stones.

*****************************************************

The first time it happened I was kneeling at the altar with my hands outstretched to receive the Body broken for me. By the time the cup was passed, the bread I dipped in it was already wet with my tears. I was surprised, but I figured if you weren’t moved to tears every once in a while by Holy Communion, you probably weren’t paying attention.

Then it happened again and again — during holy moments when I keenly felt God’s presence, and during less transcendent ones, like the church announcements. It would rise up suddenly, like a summer squall. One minute I’d be sitting there listening to the sermon or happily passing the peace and the next, I’d be struggling to tamp down racking sobs. These were not ladylike tears that could be daintily dabbed away by a lace hankie. They were gasping, snot-nosed keening.

I had cried like this before, when grieving or in deep distress. Now, I was neither; I was just crying like I was.

The embarrassment was bad enough; to not even know what all the tears were about was excruciating. My husband pronounced it all a beautiful mystery. I was not convinced. I prayed day after day for God to make it stop. He did not.

**************************************************

I turned to the mystics, who knew a thing or two about holy tears. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers talked of the gift of tears as something to be greatly desired. They saw it as purification, a recognition of your brokenness and need of grace. Evagirus said this gift would “soften the savage hardness of your soul.” Others compared these holy tears with baptism.

My prayer changed from “Thanks, but can I return this gift?” to “Please show me what this means. Show me what you want me to see, help me to do what you want me to do.”

Months went by and nothing changed. I settled into a weary resignation about the whole affair. I continued to worship. I continued to cry. I continued to pray for revelation.

Revelation came one day through a song. While absentmindedly singing along to a favorite tune, the tears came. And for the first time, I knew why.

“I’m so sorry for things I have done,
I’m so sorry for what I’ve become
I’m so sorry for how I behaved
I’m so sorry for acting this way

If you take me back, I promise to seek your face“

These words that I had sung so many times had finally revealed a hidden stone. More than a stone: a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

Since becoming a Christian, I had asked for God’s forgiveness for many things. But never for the years I spent mocking Him, rejecting Him, secretly accusing Him of abandoning me. True, I had left all that behind me and turned towards God. I acknowledged Him as my Creator, my Father, my Savior. But I had never asked for forgiveness for my rebellion. This small stone stood between me and God. 

All at once — and finally — I saw my hidden and unconfessed sin. I asked for God’s forgiveness and in that moment, felt the mysterious burden I had been carrying for months lift. The tears left just as suddenly as they came.

*********************************************

Hidden stones. We all have them. They can be hidden sin or old wounds, disordered thoughts or unrecognized idolatry. They are invisible to us, either through familiarity or willful blindness, and it is God’s longing that we see them for what they are and how they have hindered us.  And if we are to be beautiful and useful, they’ve got to go. Uncovering them and removing them is hard and often painful. And if you’re hardheaded like me, it can take a while. (I often think that for me, God’s “still small voice” just isn’t enough. With me, He has to SHOUT. )

But I also know that we can become more sensitive, softer-hearted, more attuned to what God is trying to do with us, in us and for us. I like to pray these verses from Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer of preparation, allowing me to be formed true and straight and strong by purging my impurities.

It is a prayer for revelation, asking to see in myself what God sees in me.

It is a prayer of absolute trust in a God who wants to remove my “stones” and get on with the work of making me beautiful and useful to his purposes.

 

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Lost and Found

 

When we last left our unlikely pilgrim, she was contemplating the nature of sacrifice in a cow pasture in Spain. Inspired by Romans 12:1, she set out to “present (her) body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” by walking the last 80 miles of El Camino de Compostela, an ancient pilgrimage route. Her romantic notions of noble self-sacrifice were punctured by pain and exhaustion, and she began to wonder: Just what was God up to here?

This is how my last day on the Camino began: My Pilgrim’s Passport went missing.

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The pilgrim’s passport is a booklet in which you collect stamps at stops along the way, everywhere from charming chapels in the woods to bars and hotels. At the end of your Camino, you present the passport at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and you receive your compostela, a spiritual diploma that attests to your accomplishment.

On that last day as we prepared to walk the final miles of our Camino, my passport was nowhere to be found. After a week of carefully guarding it and diligently getting it stamped, it was suddenly missing. I tore apart our backpacks, our suitcases and every last pocket on my many-pocketed hiking pants. It was just gone.

I was flustered. Mystified. Angry. After all this, after pushing myself beyond exhaustion day after day, now, I wouldn’t even get my certificate? Are you @$%&* kidding me?

Like a demented drill sergeant, words of anger and frustration barked out the cadence for my final march to Santiago:

I. Can’t. Believe. This.
I. Can’t. Believe. This.
On and on I stomped, furious that after my fantasies of a Camino filled with spiritual revelation had already been dashed, even this small pleasure of getting that certificate would be denied me.

And then I swear I heard God laugh.

I heard Him say, “Really? Is that what this has been about — a certificate, a report card, a Gold Star?”

And then I laughed. A rueful, I-can’t-believe-what-a-dope-I-am, laugh.

You see, the only really unbearable pain of the week wasn’t physical. No, the worst pain I had on my Camino, the pain that made me cry hot, bitter tears, was my own embarrassment and shame.

Now, I had no illusions about being the first to reach our meeting place each day; neither did I believe I would come limping in last. I figured I would be a respectable middle-of-the-pack; a good solid B-.

That’s why it was so hard to watch pilgrim after pilgrim stride past me in what (seemed to me) to be pain- and fatigue-free spiritual ecstasy, while I struggled. And why, when I did come limping in last one day, I didn’t hear the love and encouragement in my friends’ cheers; what my distorted ears heard was pity and judgment.

You know how it is. When you’re tired, or sick or discouraged, you are exquisitely vulnerable to thoughts that flow from old, ulcerated wounds. The worst pain on my Camino was knowing that my weakness and failure were on display for all to see, a dread that has thrummed throughout my life. And then, to not even get my compostela — my gold star — well, that was just more failure than I could bear.

Although not in the way I imagined, God showed up on my Camino.

I so wanted to offer Him a perfect gift in this pilgrimage; instead He honored my gift in its imperfection.

I wanted to achieve and get my gold star; He wanted to release me from the tyranny of achievement.

I wanted to be alone in my shame; He provided loving friends to surround me.

God chose this moment, when I was at my weakest and most worn out, to ask, “Are you tired of this yet? Are you ready to let it go?”

Yes. Yes I am.

God chose this moment to ask, “Are you ready to believe that you are of infinite worth for no other reason than you are my beloved daughter?”

Yes, I am.

This was seismic stuff. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t lost that blasted passport. I believe that in His infinite mercy — and sense of humor? — God hid my pilgrim’s passport from me so I could come to this moment. (I say this because after God and I had a good laugh at my ridiculous fit over losing the passport, I suddenly knew where it was — in a hidden pocket of a jacket that was packed in my suitcase. And sure enough, when we got to the hotel in Santiago, there it was.)
“Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” (Romans 12:1). This was my plan for the Camino.

The verse that follows it (Romans 12:2) was God’s plan:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Yes.  It would take a renewed mind to reject the world’s definition — my definition — of success and failure, worthy and unworthy.  It takes a transformed mind to begin to see what God deems good and acceptable and perfect.  Those last steps of my Camino were just the beginning of my pilgrimage.

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Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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Anniversary

 

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Today is the anniversary of the first time I cried. I was probably hungry, or in need of a clean diaper. Perhaps it was the bright lights, the shock of being smacked by the doctor, or the odd sense that my body was no longer tethered, protected, safe. It surely wasn’t the last time. There have been many tears over the years, some, like that first day, because I felt a need that I couldn’t satisfy myself. There have been hot tears of anger, helpless tears of frustration and tears of stone cold fear. I have cried over the sublime and the ridiculous. I have wept with grief and with gratitude. I have cried mysterious tears with no obvious cause —”holy tears” the mystics call them.  But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first breath I drew, the first of millions. Most of them I breathed without noticing, like an app running quietly in the background while I focused on more important things, like why I wasn’t popular or what I should have for dinner.  Even so, there are some breaths that I do remember: The breath that was knocked out of me when my parents died. Breaths that came quickly when I danced to my favorite song (Uptown Funk, anyone?) Slow, steady breaths as I fell asleep in my husband’s arms. The breaths that emerge from my body as song. But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first time I felt someone touch me. That first touch was likely a firm smack on the bottom (see The First Time I Cried), but after that, there would have been kind hands cleaning me, wrapping me, placing me gently in my mother’s arms. That day was the first time I felt my mother’s hands holding me, touching my cheek, stroking my hair (I had a lot of it!). There have been many touches since then. How small and safe my hand felt enfolded by my father’s, and the sting of that same hand when he hit me — just once, when his rage at my teenage rebellion boiled over, but a reminder of how we can hurt those we love the most. Holding my big sister’s hand as she walked me to school, hugs of consolation, triumphant high-fives, pats on the back (both literal and figurative), having my forehead anointed with oil — so many touches followed that first one, long ago.

Today is the anniversary of the day my life — this life — began. There will be a last day, too, something I think about more than I used to. Sometimes I find myself wondering how and when that day will be — more with curiosity than fear. I am acutely aware that I have more days behind me than ahead and I want them to count. I want to love well, do good work, and feel joy, even in sorrow.  I want to honor the God who imagined me and created me, who has known me from the beginning — and I mean the real beginning, before the first breath, the first cry, the first touch.  

The Psalmist put it this way:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

                                              (Psalm 139: 13-16)

 

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please and thank you

 

 

“I totally forgot to pray for J. last night!  I prayed for dogs and not for J.!!”

Such was the chagrined email I received from the leader of our weekly Bible study. The night before, after our study time, we opened up the floor for prayer requests. We prayed for a niece’s surgery. We prayed for the well-being and safekeeping of children. We asked for comfort for a friend facing the illness of his beloved dog.

Here’s what we did not do: we did not thank God for the miraculous healing He brought to our friend J., who had recently had extensive, complicated surgery. We remembered to pray for God’s intercession in our lives, the lives of our children, even the lives of our pets. But we forgot to praise and thank the God who was healing our friend, prompting our leader’s self-flagellating morning-after email.

Now I should tell you that this sin of omission was unusual; this is a group of faithful pray-ers (both individually and communally), and I chalked it up to a rare instance of spiritual amnesia. Still, it got me thinking:

Why is it so easy to focus on today’s pain and troubles and forget to be thankful for prayers God has already answered?

Why I am quick to catalogue my requests for God’s intercession, but slow to give thanks for what He has done, or for the fact that I can ask Him for anything at all?

Why am I so much better at “Please” than “Thank you?”

For one thing, Please is easy. Please is all about me: my needs, my pain, my worries, my fears. Let’s face it: what’s easier or more interesting than focusing on me? Please is the clarion call from a Laura-centric universe.  Thank you — well, thank you is a whole ‘nother thing.

If Please is about me, then Thank You is about God.

Thank You puts me in my (rightful) place in God’s universe — at His feet, under His power, in His debt. For someone who likes to live under the delusion that I am in control, that’s tough stuff.

Thank You also raises the ugly specter that haunts every pray-er: unanswered prayer. Thank you acknowledges that the healing wasn’t a coincidence. It acknowledges that it wasn’t random. God acted and the diagnosis changed. God acted and the relationship was repaired. God acted and I had courage and strength where there had been fear and weakness. Yay!

But once you say “Yay!” “Why?” isn’t far behind.

Why did God act this time and not others? Why was this prayer answered and not others? These are uncomfortable questions, because honestly, we don’t know why. Not really. Sometimes in retrospect, we think we can see a good reason why our prayer wasn’t answered in the way we asked, and maybe we’re right. But more often, we really don’t know why God sees fit to heal some and not others. Some people look at that last sentence as prima facie evidence that God is either cruel and arbitrary, or doesn’t exist at all. And some believers look at that sentence and find it hard to be grateful to a God who doesn’t act predictably and in accordance with our desires.

But Scripture tells us to give thanks at all times, in the “Yay!”, when it’s easy, and even in the “Why?”, when it’s not. Perhaps in those moments when we confront unanswered prayer, we can still give thanks for the privilege of prayer itself. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we can even approach the Creator of the Universe with our concerns, our pains, our joys and yes, our thanks. It is only because of His grace that, broken and imperfect as we are, we can come into the presence of such perfect love and power.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
                                                  1Thessalonians 5: 16-18

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(Un)Welcome

Or, Why I Stopped Being Such a Good Hostess

 

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One Sunday I stood in the back of an empty sanctuary. I was the “substitute preacher” that day, and was taking a few moments to center myself before worship began. I closed my eyes and began to shake my head emphatically from side to side. My husband asked, with some alarm, “Are you all right?”

“I’m shaking off the sign,” I said, as if I was a pitcher who didn’t want to throw the fastball. Not only didn’t this clarify anything for him, it made him even more concerned for my sanity, so I told him about The Thoughts.

Sometimes, right before I preached, I would start thinking, “What makes me think I can do this? I’m not holy enough, not learned enough, haven’t been a Christian long enough. It wasn’t that long ago I was the person who mocked believers, who scoffed at the very notion of God. It’s pretty cheeky of me to think I have any business being in the pulpit. Who do I think I am, anyway?”

With shaken confidence I would preach anyway — after all, what choice did I have? But once I began, I remembered that it wasn’t my worthiness that consecrated the words; the Word consecrated me. Once I began, I would feel the joy that I always did, the feeling that this is exactly where I should be. Still, the next time, The Thoughts showed up on cue.  

After a while, I got tired of them. I got tired of being thrown into a tizzy right before I was going to lead worship. I got tired of doubting that God wanted me in that pulpit.

I got tired of the sniping, snarky, soul-sucking voice of Satan.

Because that’s what it was. The Thoughts had me asking, “God, am I unworthy? Does my past unbelief permanently disqualify me from proclaiming the gospel? Am I kidding myself when I think that You have called me to this?”

When Jesus says that His sheep recognize His voice, He is right. When I thought about it, I could see that The Thoughts were not the voice of my shepherd.  Jesus doesn’t sow doubt and fear and shame.  Jesus would never say “You’re not good enough.  You can never be better than your worst sin.”    

No, The Thoughts gave voice to one who only wanted to silence me, to make me believe that a transformed life was not possible. 

I recognized in them the voice of Satan because, let’s face it, who else would want to keep the Gospel from being proclaimed?

Why, then, was it so easy, so natural, to entertain these thoughts? And entertain them I did. They rang the doorbell, and I showed them in.  I entertained them because they disguised themselves well, either masquerading as humility, or sneaking in on the coattails of my dear old friends self-doubt and despair. 

I showed them to the most comfortable chair, and fed them so they could grow fat and happy. I made up the guest room with its breakfast tray and fresh flowers and invited them to stay as long as they liked, even if that meant there was no room at the inn for my shepherd and his unmistakeable voice.

I pride myself on being a good hostess. My greatest joy is house full of people, all talking at the same time, entering and exiting separate streams of conversations seamlessly, like some kind of conversational double-dutch. And food, lots of food. So the thought that I would ever refuse hospitality for any reason makes me shudder. And yet, I have learned that some guests should not be welcomed.

There are guests that are not coming to me for the warmth of my table or to share the blessings of my home.  Instead, they seek to “steal and kill and destroy” and I have let them. I have listened to them tell me I’m not enough or that I’m too much. I have been attentive to the whispers that insult and demean me, that steal my hope. 

St. Paul knew what to do with such things.  This is what he tells the believers in Corinth: 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

                                      ( 2 Cor. 10:5, emphasis added)

Now, when The Thoughts present themselves, I can say, “Oh, so it’s you again! Have you met my shepherd?  He’s in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t.” I’ve never thought of Jesus as a nightclub bouncer before, but that’s the image that keeps coming to mind:  my Savior working the velvet rope that guards my heart and my soul.  It makes me feel safe.  It makes me smile. 

 

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