A prayer as we enter Lent

DSCN4380Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to the man who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.

You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.

You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep thrum thrum of your heartbeat.

You are the one in whom our journey ends.

We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.

Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.

Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.

Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.

Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.

 

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Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as he uses this season of Lent to help shape in us his heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball’s article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent

When you find yourself in a desert

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I wrote last week about Wesley’s covenant prayer and how it was getting easier to pray it. The whole week since has been a reminder that no matter how much I might have grown, I’ve barely made it into kindergarten yet. Last week I could pray most of the lines. This week I’ve struggled to pray any. Or I’ve prayed them, but I’ve wondered if it made any difference. “Let me be full, let me be empty,” I’ve prayed, and yet when my energy failed by noon and the do-list that I couldn’t do stretched long and the hours of emptiness still longer, and I couldn’t shake the self-pity or even seem to be able to let Jesus love me in the middle of it, I wondered if my prayer had made any difference at all.

It felt like I was standing in the middle of a desert with emptiness stretching away to the horizon and my only companions the self that I wanted to escape and the tempter slithering around in the endless sands of my selfishness egging me on.

“Where are you, God? And where am I? And how do I find my way through this parched place?”

I’ve been in high-altitude deserts where the mountains of work crowded close and the snow drifting through the passes cut off all escape routes, and I’ve been in deserts of burned-out emptiness where the hours stretched away long after my strength had worn out and my parched lips cracked with the waiting for an oasis to appear.

Every desert looks a little different. But underneath, the heart of every desert is the same. Every desert, in one way or another, strips us of our ability to think we’ve got it together and calls us back to the One who holds everything together.

And this week as I cried out, a drop of water fell onto my parched tongue. A tiny, two-letter word that budded with hope.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” (Luke 4:1)

I’d remembered that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert (Matt 4:1). I’d never noticed that Luke uses a different preposition. The one who led Jesus into the wilderness didn’t desert him at the first row of dunes. Jesus was, as the United Bible Society Translators’ Handbook says, “led about. Jesus went, guided by the Holy Spirit, from place to place in the wilderness.”

It shouldn’t surprise me. God not only led the Israelites into the desert on their journey into freedom, He led them about in it (Exodus 40:36-37).

It’s the way of the wilderness in Scripture. However hurt and grumbly we may feel as our comforts and our security are stripped away, however we may wonder where God is or who God is or how we’ve ended up in this place, God never leads us into the desert to desert us. He leads us here to draw us closer. To teach us to trust His love, to learn to let ourselves be led. Here in the desert enough of the clutter gets cleared away that we can finally, maybe, begin to hear again the voice of the One who is calling us closer:

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;

I will lead her into the desert

and speak tenderly to her.

There I will give her back her vineyards,

And make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. . . .

‘In that day,’ declares the LORD, ‘you will call me ‘my husband’;

you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ . . .

I will betroth you to me forever. . . in love and compassion. . .

And you will know the LORD.” (Hosea 2: 14-20)

What you were made for

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I’ve been soaking again lately in John Wesley’s covenant prayer which begins, “I am no longer my own but yours” and I just have to say this, folks: I love not being my own.

More on that in a minute.

“Have you seen a fish swimming?” Sally Lloyd-Jones asks in her wonderful devotional book for kids (and big kids like me). “It dives, darts, glides, turns, flashes through the water. A fish was made for water. That’s its natural habitat—the place where it belongs.

And the Bible says we were made for God—to be loved by him and to love him. That’s where we belong.” (“Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing,” p. 62)

It seems to me the greatest tragedy of the fall that we now fear the One in whom alone we are free. We’ve forgotten who we are and where we belong, forgotten that we were made by God’s love, for this love, and, whether we’re aware of it or not, that we live surrounded by this love.

When I encountered Wesley’s prayer four years ago my own praying of it was mostly an asking to be made able to pray it. This time around, though some lines are still harder to pray than others, the prayer tastes of freedom and joy, like a gentle hand picking me from the riverbank where I’ve been flopping and gasping, and setting me back in the river where I find myself free to swim and work and play with a remarkable joy and energy—because I’m not trying to flop and wiggle my way to the top of the riverbank. What has changed? Maybe just this: God and I have been through the cycle enough times—me falling apart, him bringing me close and gently loving me back together again—that my heart is finally starting to believe that He really loves me. That I can trust Him.

“I am no longer my own but yours.”

It’s the simple gospel truth for all of us who belong to Jesus, and it’s such good news! I don’t have to carry the burden of providing for myself, figuring out my minute-by-minute schedule, or trying to manage my future (Matt 6:25-34). Someone who dearly loves me is always looking out for me. As the hymn writer said, “The protection of his child and treasure is a charge that on himself he laid.” On himself. Not on me.

“Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.”

I was never meant to be the one to determine my status, my significance, or my daily occupation.

“Put me to doing, put me to suffering,

Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

Exalted for you or brought low for you.”

I keep thinking about the viola dream and how I’m made to be played, not to play myself. Sometimes there’s energy and my strings resonate to His touch, and then the energy’s gone and it feels like God has gently laid me back in the case to rest a while. And both—the good, hard work, and the gentle rest—can be equally lovely when I don’t fight them. . . when I don’t presume I’m failing and God is disappointed with me. “Put me to what you will. . . . Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you.” When I’ve prayed these words at the start of the day and God chooses to place me back in the case and invite me to rest, there’s peace there, and joy. And when he gives me work different than I’d planned, that’s okay too. He’s the musician and when I remember that I’m just the instrument it can even be fun when He plays a tune other than the one I was expecting.

“Let me be full, let be empty.”

When I’m full I can celebrate—He is filling me with Himself!—and pour that fullness out in love. And when I’m empty at the end of a day of writing, or when I wake empty and unable to write, that isn’t something I need to fight or fix either, just delight in His welcome to come close and enjoy resting in His love.

“Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”

This is one of those lines I still find it hard to pray. I don’t want all things—that seems too great a burden. I don’t want to have nothing either. But I’m pretty sure that there’s a freedom in this line as great as in all the others so I’m asking God to set me free to honestly pray it.

“I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, blessed and glorious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And may the covenant now made on earth be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

This fish wants to dart and dance and shout “yes, yes!” and “thank you!” in fish-language, and get on with the joy of being a fish in water.

When mystery eludes your grasp

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My breath made clouds in the early morning light as I ran along the seawall, my mind wandering back to the month I recently spent pondering the mystery of Christ in us. I felt I understood less at the end than when I began—not, I think, because my understanding had decreased, but because I’d freshly glimpsed how great the mystery is.

I slowed to a walk as a woman approached, her unleashed dog close at her side. The dog’s loving eyes were attentive to her every move. A slight point of her hand toward a crow on a huge fallen trunk and the dog saw and leapt and ran, wholly intent on pursuit. The crow flew and the dog raced and then, moments later, returned, panting, to his mistress’s side. My eyes met the woman’s and we shared a smile at the dog’s joy in the chase. I pictured God smiling too at the start of my month of pursuing mystery, a tilt of His hand gently directing my attention toward it, knowing I’d delight to chase it, happy for me to be free, to run, to play, to explore, my whole self alive and engaged in the pursuit for moments, days even, then, panting, the mystery having flown, returning to my Master’s side, eyes on His face, His hand, grateful once again that I don’t have to comprehend the mystery to live it.

I’m glad I couldn’t pin down the mystery, glad it’s still out there, wild and free. Glad I can chase it again, and know it will once again escape my full (small!) understanding.

In the process of the chase, my prayer has shifted. Oh, I still ask, “Help me to understand,” but alongside that prayer is another, more intent on knowing God than on understanding Him: “As You lead me into all truth, guard me from ever thinking I’ve got You figured out. If I ever think I’ve got You under my paw, it’s certainly not the true God I’ve apprehended.”

2016: To play or be played?

IMG_4514I sit slumped in my chair, waiting for the small, informal worship service to begin. Eventually I decide I want to play too—my dearly loved brother is playing, after all, and some others with whom I really enjoy playing—so I go to the back of the room to get my viola and join the worship team. I open the case. My viola is gone, and the end of the bow is lying outside the case, the stick shattered where the case has slammed on it, the hair hanging limply between the two broken pieces. Chips of wood are scattered inside and outside of the case. I cry out in grief and anger and fear. What has happened? Where is my viola? Who would do this?

Slowly the initial shock wanes, and I begin to look around. I see a second case on the table, and open it to find my viola safely hidden in it. It’s not gone after all! My heart lifts a little, then sinks again. What good is it without a bow? The worship is about to begin. How can I play?

Something inside me rebels against the sense of helplessness and my reason kicks in, determined to fix this situation. No big deal, I tell myself. I’ll just get another bow. Maybe it will even play better than the first. Where can I find one?

But the next morning as I pray about my dream I begin to sense that I’ve missed the point. This isn’t about replacing one means of control with another. It’s about realizing that I am not meant to be playing the instrument at all, any more than I, the clay, am meant to be spinning the potter on the wheel.

I am not the artist but the art, not the violist but the instrument lovingly tucked under the master’s chin:

“This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles. . .” (Acts 9:15)

“If a man cleanses himself from [ignoble purposes] he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Tim 2:21)

“. . . offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:13-14)

I talk often about God, and think and write about him, and it’s easy for me to slip into a subconscious posture in which he is the instrument and I the musician, analyzing, explaining, exploring his tone and his timbre.

Then He breaks my bow—through a dream, or a discovery that the mystery of God is (still!) too big for my little mind to comprehend—and I discover again that I am neither God nor expected to be.

I often ask God at the start of a year if there’s a word He wants to work a little more deeply into my life in the coming year as I allow it to question and shape me. This year He gave two.

The first was courage.

Courage. Yes, Jesus, I want to be a woman of courage. Please do this work in me. But. . . oh dear, why are you giving me this word now? What fearful things are you going to ask of me this year for which I’ll need courage? My mind races to the possibilities, all too big for me. But as I talk with a friend who helps me listen, I sense that this is about more than whatever specific external situations or choices might require courage. This is about the way I relate to God. This is about trusting Him, not my own reason, my tidy theology and carefully considered categories.

The invitation to courage keeps turning up everywhere.

At my soulcare group the next evening the leader has chosen Mark 6:45-52 for us to pray with. The disciples have been sent on ahead, rowing hard against the wind. Joints creak and every muscle burns. Their hair is soaked with sweat and they taste the spray of waves. The moon glints through a hole in the clouds, dimly lighting the scene. Are they even going in the right direction anymore?

Someone screams and points. They all see it—a ghostly figure coming toward them on the water, a sure sign of their imminent demise.

“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” There’s that word again. Courage. And linked to it is the second word I had been given, the place I find my courage: Jesus.

“It is I.” Though you don’t recognize me at first, it is I who am breaking your bow, unsettling your reason, coming to you in the middle of the dark night, in the middle of soul-straining winds, in the middle of a way-too-big-for-you-to-swim lake, walking along the surface of the water in which you can barely stay afloat as though it were as smooth and solid as glass. I come to you in a way which shatters your reason so your trust will be not in your understanding but in Me.

The unsettling is scary at first, but there’s a goodness in it too, and a peace, when I turn and look at the one who speaks. “It is I”—the Jesus whom I’ve come to know as so gentle, so passionately loving. The Jesus who, when his friends cried their fear from the boat, immediately reassured them with his words and, though he’d been planning to pass by them, instead climbed into the boat with them. It’s this Jesus who is unsettling me from my too-small assumptions to help me learn that He is more wonderful than I’ve ever dreamed.