Friday, April 29, 2011

Walking To Be Still

“Be still and know that I am God.”  Psalm 46:10

“Be still.”  Being still is not one of my gifts.  Multi-tasking, though, now that is a gift for sure.  If I don’t have more than one activity going on at once, I get antsy.  So, best to have three or four things going, at least.  This leads to a kind of frenetic pace of life and prevents presence and patience.  I have a sense you know what I mean.

“[K]now that I am God.”  I know that He is God, almighty, all powerful.  I talked to Him this morning.  I feel His presence right now.  I meet Him in others, in serving, in praying, in reading, in . . . doing.

“Be still and know that I am God.”  Combining these two has the tendency to stump me a little.  What does this mean exactly?  

Sometimes I think God just wants to show me stuff about who He is and how I can know Him better and I don’t slow down enough to let Him.   Seems like everything I do is so that I can do something else or so that something else will happen.  There is always a goal or a destination to the task at hand.  Rarely do I do anything that is to appreciate the thing itself.  All this so-that living leaves little room for taking in what God provides to re-fill me.  When my hands are busy, my feet are moving, my brain is solving, and I become unknowingly convinced that I control outcomes, it is hard to really know that He is God, and neither I, nor anything or anyone else, is.   

God is working very deeply in my life right now, in different areas, in different ways.  I feel like an old house being torn down in order for a new one to be put in its place – all that is in me is being torn down and out and off, right down through the foundation.  Sometimes it resembles a gentle reconstruction, a piece carefully taken out and replaced here and there, and other times I feel like I’m surrounded by bulldozers, cranes, and wrecking balls.  This process requires extreme discipline, suffering, prayer, grace, trust, faith, and deep breaths.  And it’s not like I exercise each of these successfully all of the time, or even most of the time.  I’m beginning to understand that this a life-long deal, which can start to feel slightly overwhelming.  I am tending to want to hold on to all the stuff in the old house – the judgments, resentments, anger, jealousies, little hurts, big hurts, sinful habits – just because I know them so well, you know?  We have been friends for a long time.  Let me put it this way: I would not want God’s job rebuilding me.  I’d throw me into the impossible pile.       

I've started to sense that if I would just slow down and live in God’s presence instead of bracing against the rebuilding I might start to enjoy the process and recognize it as the miracle that it is.  If I could understand this not as something I am doing or have to accomplish, but as something to which I am submitting so that someone much bigger, stronger, and more loving than me can do.  God would replace the old stuff with new stuff.  And the new stuff is Him, His love, His grace, His mercy, His glory.  The judgments, resentments, anger, jealousies, hurts, and sinful habits can be put into industrial-size garbage bags and set out on the curb for disposal.  Even just a couple steps into the process, I have caught glimpses of extreme grace, freedom, peace and contentment.

So, as a way to submit to rebuilding, I’ve started walking around outside.  This may not seem like a huge step, but it is; for me, it’s huge.  I never really understood just walking around.  What is the purpose, the goal, the point, the destination?  I am walking so that . . . what?  But already, it is resulting in a centeredness, connectedness, and certainty in God’s promises I have never experienced.  The other day, God showed me something amazing.  I went for a walk and though my feet were moving, I was walking just to walk, and I started to notice all the things that grow and live and move and hang and shine and smell without me.  I mean everything.  I began to feel in a concrete way my smallness in comparison to God’s bigness.  I was walking, but there was a sudden stillness in my mind and heart that opened me and allowed God to show me how much I need Him to live. 

“Be still” is “rapha” in Hebrew, which means “let go” or “be weak.”  Let go and know that I am God.  Be weak and know that I am God.  It is God saying go ahead and be weak; I am strong.  In your weakness, I am strength.  Let go of all the old stuff you’re clinging to because it will not bring you life.  But I will, I am God.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Whatever The Cost

At first, I didn’t want to write this.  I didn’t want this part of the story to be real.  But the rest of this story matters.  
Over the last few days, I began feeling like God was whispering to me to follow-up with the woman I led to Christ last week.  (See The Party In Heaven On April 12, 2011)  I had been praying that He would work in her life, become real to her, transform her.  Truth be told, though, I was a little nervous about calling her.  Our conversation had been so volatile and I wanted to believe that once she accepted Christ and we prayed together (despite the very words I had myself said to her about the fact that all of her external problems would not go away) all of her external problems would go away and all would be well.  One person to whom I related the story said to me: you never really know how things will turn out after you lead someone to Christ.  It was in that moment that a bunch of things – fears really – collided in my head and heart.  This woman is alone in the world.  She has no family, no friends.  She is homeless and believes deeply that she has been wronged.  She is physically sick.  She is not employed.  And perhaps worst of all, she does not feel loved.  Becoming involved in her life would be . . . well, time consuming, hard.  A voice in my head said to be careful, and asked if I really wanted to get involved with this woman with so many different problems.          
I didn’t answer that voice and just took one small step: I called her and asked how she was doing.  She said: not well.  I asked how she was feeling about what we had talked about on Tuesday.  She said:  “Everything you said to me was a lie.  That you felt love for me.  All a lie.”  My head started to spin, my heart sank.  I screamed out in my head to God: “What??  Why, God?  What can I do?  Please, Lord, please intervene!  Show yourself to her!  Please!”

I collected myself and calmly asked her why she thought that.  She said, “Well, I thought if you did love me like you said, you would have helped me.  But, just like everyone else in my life, everyone else I’ve ever talked to, it was just a lie.”

I opened my mouth to say something and she interrupted, “That’s what I thought.  Until just now.  Now you have called me just to see how I am doing.  I may have to re-think things.  Maybe you weren’t lying.”  And there it was.

It would have been so much easier not to make that call, to simply believe that the story ended when we hugged and cried and she walked out the door.  I could invent all kinds of outcomes that would be great to tell.  To lead this woman to Christ and then walk away from her, though, would not have been following Christ.  I would have been saying one thing and doing quite another (which, believe me, I do more than I would prefer to admit).  Following Christ is costly, it’s inconvenient to my own desires, it takes from my claims to my time, it is scary and makes me step into things that are messy and broken.  But it is everything. 

As Bonhoeffer said, there is cheap grace and costly grace:

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”  (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship at 44-45)

I’m in something now that is messy.  I don’t know how long I’ll be in it.  I don’t know what it will look like.  I don’t know what will happen.  But it is beautiful, it feels like life, and it is everything.  Following Christ is loving one another as Christ loves us.  “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  (John 15:12)  You know the rest of the story, what Christ did, how He loved.

Loving someone as Christ loves us is not walking away from them, it is walking to them, whatever the cost.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Party In Heaven On April 12, 2011

I have not been a part of anything like this before.  And I tell the story only because God gave it to me to tell.  The risk in telling it is that one could read it and believe it is something I did, but I can assure you that this is God's story, not mine. If you, or someone you know, have wondered if God still works, still intervenes in the lives of people living today, and still searches desperately for those far from him, or, if you wonder if God could use you to draw others to him, this is a story meant for you.

I got word Tuesday that a woman was angry because of the service she received in a ministry in which I serve and she wanted to talk to someone. So, I met with her in a private room. She walked in, anger seared across her face and even in the posture of her body. I introduced myself and said I'd heard she had had a bad experience and if she would share it with me, I would love to see if I could help. I asked her to tell me the issue in a nutshell. She began, and to say it was complicated is an extreme understatement. As I listened, I became overcome with a deep and truly inexplicable love for her. But she was far from me and had a very hard shell.

After nearly an hour, she said she had no options; she didn't know how to solve the problem she was facing. We talked this through and she began crying, overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem. At this point, the Holy Spirit took over in a way only one who has experienced it could understand.  What I mean is that I no longer felt in control of the things I was saying and everything going on around me and inside my head was turned to this woman.  There were no distractions, no desires to be elsewhere, there was total singlemindedness.  I asked if she had a relationship with Christ. She immediately burst with tears and began to shake, her head down, eyes closed. She lifted her face to me and slowly opened her eyes, shook her head, and with a sense of embarrassment, said "I'm Jewish."  Without hesitation, I practically shouted: "I love that! I think that might be one of the things Jesus loves most about you. What a rich history you share with him."  She looked at me with shock.  And, I must say, I shared the feeling. 

From there she told me every reason under the sun as to why she could not believe: her family, fear, loss of control, apathy. I confronted her on each point, asking what she feared, what control she had, what her apathy did to her heart.  At one point I asked her if she felt loved. She said no. Not by anyone. I asked if she felt loved by me. She said: "No, to me, you might as well be that chair. I feel nothing from you or for you." I said: "Really? I feel such love for you. And there is something about your tears that tells me that even though we've just met, you feel love stirring in your heart. Maybe for the first time in years. Feel it. It's real and it's safe."

She then told me that she thinks God was with her once -- when things were good. She thanked him then, but now he had abandoned her. We talked more about that and then I asked if she had invited Christ into her pain and abandonment, to walk with her and comfort her.  (At this point, I knew where we were headed and I asked God to give me the words and I said to myself: I will stay here forever if that is what it takes). She said she hadn't.  I told her that a relationship with Christ did not mean that all her problems would disappear and that her external circumstances would suddenly different.  I told her a relationship with Christ meant that a peace would come into her heart, a love she could not understand would envelope her, a transformation of her entire being and identity would occur.  The Holy Spirit would strengthen her and give her courage and confidence and hope.  These are things I have come to know in my own life. 

I asked if I could help her invite Christ into her heart. After an interminable pause, in which she undoubtedly struggled with all that held her back, she said yes. I scooted my chair close to her and held out my hands. She said: my hands are covered in tears. I said: it's ok, mine are sweating. We laughed and locked eyes, locked souls. I had no idea what to say, having never experienced this before, so I opened a conversation with God and thanked him for Christ and the fact that we have a bridge, a way back into relationship with God because of Christ. I then asked her if she wanted to invite Christ into her heart to reign and guide her life. She said quietly: I do. We went from there.

Then came a moment in which there was nothing left to say, but the presence of God was more palpable than I have ever felt. I told her God was present with us, and said to her she could say anything to God or me if she wanted, that she was totally safe. After a few moments, and as we continued to hold hands, she whispered through tears: thank you.

I gave her some things to read in the Bible and then read Psalm 139 aloud to her based on a clear prompting from God to do so.  This Psalm describes God's love for her.  We hugged, and she left.  I have never loved someone so quickly, so deeply, so actively.  It is only because God has loved me first and loves her that I am even capable. 

This story would be quite enough to last a lifetime.  But, when I got home, my Bible was still open to what I had read that morning before going to the legal aid ministry: Luke 15:1-32.  You can read it for yourself, it is the three parables Jesus tells of the desperate searching a shepherd does for one lost sheep, a woman does for one lost coin, and a father does for a lost son, and the party that results when the lost is found.  In the Bible I had read that morning, these words were typed in bold: "In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven't strayed away!" (You can look in the Tyndale "The One Year Bible" and see this on April 12th.)

There was a party in heaven on April 12, 2011 for a lonely, brokenhearted woman who repented and turned to God, a God who had been searching and longing for her return since the day she was made.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Whether Your Heart Is Full Or Empty

Prayer is a tricky thing for me.  At times, I don't feel like I totally understand either how to do it or what it is.  This something that I have been struggling with for a long time and it wasn't until just recently that I realized it.  I have several distinct memories of prayer before I dedicated my life to Christ in 2008.
  • When my mom told me and my sister that my parents were getting divorced, I said to myself (at 6-years old): "Please God let us be okay."  I don't know how or where I learned to say such things.  We didn't go to church and as far as I remember, my mom didn't pray in my presence.  It was just inside of me; He was just inside of me.  And I somehow knew then to ask God for His help. 
  • My next recollection of any prayer was in my Catholic grade school.  At that time, prayer became a race, followed by a reward as opposed to a conversation with or worship or request of God.  We would recite the "Hail Mary" as we rubbed our fingers over plastic rosary beads, or the "Our Father" to begin the day.  I never took the time to understand the words I was saying and my only goal, as was most of my classmates', I suspect, was to get done the fastest. 
  • In high school (also Catholic), I began to understand personal prayer more and would, at times, though very rarely, turn to God in prayer.  During these times, I fumbled through and couldn't find words to express what I wanted to say.  So, I abandoned prayer altogether.
  • At certain family gatherings, we would join hands and say: "Bless us O, Lord . . . ."  I can't even type it here because the only way I can say it is at break-neck speed aloud.  I don't know the actual words, unless said in a rhythmic, hurried incantation. 
  • Last, when I was about 4 months pregnant with my daughter, I was taking a shower and my back was bothering me.  I turned to crack my back to see whether that would relieve the pain and when I did, I felt a pop not only in my back, but in my stomach, where this baby was growing.  I panicked, believing I had somehow hurt this little life inside me and I said to God: "Please God, let this baby be okay.  Let this baby be okay, and I will never do anything again to hurt her."  This was almost 12 years ago and it rings in my head like it was yesterday. 
I have a feeling that many pray this way: Years go by without prayer and in times of desperation, we turn to God because there is just nowhere else to go.  What I have found more recently, as I've begun to be with others who are devoted to Christ and all that He is, prayer is still tricky.  Less common is no prayer and more common is wandering, direction-less, rambling words disguised or referred to as prayer.  Of course, there are books written about prayer -- what it means, how it works, how to do it, when to do it. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines prayer as finding "the way to God and [speaking] with him, whether the heart is full or empty."  (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible at 10)  What has been interesting is that the more I have studied prayer and read books about it, the less I am able to pray.  I will sit in silence, with my hands turned upward and words will not come.  And this drives me crazy.  I stand up, pace the room, ask what is going on, say: why can't I pray?  Sometimes this alone is my prayer -- this crazed questioning pacing.  I am praying about why I can't pray.  Now that's something.  Bonhoeffer also says, though, that "[n]o man can do that [speak with God] by himself.  For that he needs Jesus Christ."  The logical place to start in understanding prayer or praying, then, is with Christ and the way He instructed his disciples (and us) to pray:   

"When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.'"  (Luke 11:2-4)

This, we know, is referred to as the Lord's Prayer.  Bonhoeffer says that all the prayers in Scripture are summarized in this single prayer and "are contained in its immeasurable breadth."  (Bonhoeffer, Psalms at 15-16)  Martin Luther said that the Psalms penetrate "the Lord's Prayer and the Lord's Prayer penetrates [the Psalms], so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to bring them into joyful harmony."  God's words are so much clearer and powerful than our rambling.  In my human-ness, if I am honest, the Lord's Prayer becomes for me too easy to recite, too easy to memorize, and thus too easy to remove all meaning.  I hate that this is true, but it is.  I know it by heart and like so many other things I take for granted from overuse, this too has become true of the Lord's Prayer.  I need to understand it or see it in a new way.  And so, I turn to the Psalms and other passages of Scripture to, as Luther said, help me understand and soak in the Lord's Prayer and vice versa.

As Thomas Merton quoted in his book "Contemplative Prayer," St. Macarius explained a loss of words in prayer this way:  "Only stretch out your arms and say: 'Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how!'  And if the enemy presses you hard, say: 'Lord, come to my aid!'"  This is enough. I have compiled and set forth below the words from the Psalms, or elsewhere as noted, that have of late become primarily my prayers as framed by the Lord's Prayer.  There are so many more you could put into these categories. 

Father, Hallowed Be Your Name

"You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you."  (Psalm 89:86)

"I love you, O Lord, my strength."  (Psalm 18:1)

"Praise the Lord."  (Psalm 135:1)

"Abba, Father," I belong to you.  (Rom. 8:15; Brennan Manning, the furious longing of God, at 46)

Your Kingdom Come

"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for your, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water."  (Psalm 63:1)

"Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you."  (Psalm 143:8a)

"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will."  (Matt. 26:39)

"Come, Lord Jesus."  (Rev. 22:20)

Give Us Each Day Our Daily Bread

"Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge."  (Psalm 16:1)

"My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken."  (Psalm 62:1-2)

God, may you give me the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that I may know you better, that the eyes of my heart may be enlightened in order that I may know the hope to which you have called me, the riches of my glorious inheritance in the saints, and your incomparably great power for us who believe.  (Eph. 1:15-20)

Father, stop my worrying.  You know what I need.  I will seek first your kingdom and your righteousness, and all I need will be given to me as well.  (Matt. 6:28-33)

Forgive Us Our Sins For We Forgive Everyone Who Sins Against Us

"Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long." (Psalm 86:3)

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love." (Psalm 51:1)
"Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10)

"Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me,
for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O Lord, how long?
Turn, O Lord, and deliver me because of your unfailing love."  (Psalm 6:2-4)

Lord, help me to forgive those who sin against me not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  (Matt. 18:22)

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

"Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me." (Psalm 71:2)
"Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck." (Psalm 69:1)

"Set guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil, to take part in wicked deeds with
men who are evildoers; let me not eat of their delicacies."  (Psalm 141:3-4)

"Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name."  (Psalm 142:7)

"Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul."  (Psalm 143:8b)

If you find yourself asking why and how to pray, or if you have lost your words and your prayers just seem to ramble without end or direction, think about the prayer you would pray as a child: simple, straightforward, blunt.  See if praying these words doesn't spark something and open a conversation with God whether your heart is full or empty.

Remember, if you still can't find your way: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will."  (Rom. 8:26-27)

Monday, April 4, 2011

How Can You Love Me?

God loves me.  

Several days ago, I knew this to be true based on several things (the Bible says so; God sent His Son to die to atone for my sins; He has worked miracles in my life; He has revealed things to me and used me in ways that I can interpret as nothing other than love; He has blessed me immeasurably), but I had not actually felt it. For me to understand love in my heart as opposed to in my head, you see, has been a lifetime struggle. Perhaps it always will be.  When people disclose to me how they feel the love of Jesus, I have a hard time understanding it.  I want to, desperately, but can't quite get there.  

I can relate it only to the way I feel love in human relationships, which, in large part, is more like need.  In other words, when other people need me, I interpret that need as love.  In this way, love becomes more like a business deal, or an exchange of some kind: I do good work, you love me.  I excel at sports, you love me.  I buy you a piece of jewelry, you love me . . .  or how about this one: I love you, so you love me.  Not every relationship is like this and not all the time.  But we often are loved and love people in this way.  And generally, this kind of love can sustain us for periods of time.  What happens, though, when you are not needed; there is no one who needs what you have to give?  Isn't that where loneliness and darkness set in?  We feel an emptiness, a uselessness or even worthlessness.  It is often in stillness, that I feel least loved and often unloved.  Worse yet, when I am feeling unloved, I cannot love others very well, if at all.  I suspect I am not alone in all of this.  There are others out there who associate love with need, or who believe subconsciously or consciously that love is what you receive in return for something else.  So when there is no one there who needs what you have, you cannot expect to receive.  You give nothing, you get nothing.  And when you get nothing you give nothing.    

I sat alone in my car last week watching a masterfully drawn sunset (above) and suddenly, despite myself, felt within me: God loves me.  It hit me out of nowhere and it was a feeling of deep sense of fulfillment, one I hadn't felt before.  This was followed immediately, however, by tears sparked not by joy and delight, but by overwhelming regret, shame, and embarrassment.  I asked God through my tears:     

      How can you love me?
      I am disobedient, unfaithful, sinful.
      How can you love me?
      I am ungrateful, forgetful, prideful.
      How can you love me?
      I don’t do enough, I could do more.
      How can you love me?
      I go my own way, I turn from yours.
      How can you love me?
      I fear, worry, and distrust.
      How can you love me?
      I do all of the things that you hate.

As soon as I ended this cross-examination/self-condemnation, hands shaking, eyes swollen, nose running, there was a moment of silence followed by a whisper from God, impossible to miss:

            One has nothing to do with the other.

In this moment I knew God had revealed to me not only a major flaw in the way I have been understanding His love, but also a new understanding of the way I am to love others.  To understand His love, I had to first tear down my construction of love.  His love is not an exchange.  Ever.  There is nothing I can do or not do that will make Him love me more or less.  One has nothing to do with the other.  He just loves me, unfailingly (Psalm 6:4), unendingly (Psalm 100:5), perfectly.  The way Jesus loves me is not based on whether I am faithful to Him, always trusting, always at peace, always fearless.  His love for me is not based on accomplishments or whether I come through on something.  His love is not dependent upon whether I love Him.  Indeed, God demonstrated His vast and unconditional love for me by sending Christ to die for me in my unfaithfulness, sinfulness, ungratefulness.  (Romans 5:8)  

This matters for two interconnected reasons:  

First, I can stop striving to earn God's love.  It is there no matter what.  

Second, I must love others the way God loves me.  Jesus said: "A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  (John 13:34-35)  Jesus did not say love others the way they have loved you.  Perhaps it's just me, but this command, though I've heard it thousands of times, suddenly feels pretty impossible.  But God's perfect love enables us to love the way He does.  "God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.  And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. . . We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:16-17, 19)  By accepting God's perfect love for us, our love for others will eventually come to resemble God's love, a perfect love.  And in our human relationships, if someone were to ask us the questions I asked God (above) or if we were to ask these questions of others, the answer would be: one has nothing to do with the other.  Imagine.