Why you don’t need to fear evil

DSCN5747I step out the back door. The sun should have risen by now but who can tell? The world feels heavy as thick grey presses low against us.

I’m wearing my too-close-to-orange running shirt and black bottoms and this day feels too much like a shivery Halloween night. A crow sits black and silent on a fence post as I run past.

I listened this morning to Jesus warning Peter of his denial and I feared my own weakness; where would I deny Jesus today? “Oh, Father, you who rule everything, may your name be praised. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth—in me—as it is in heaven. . . . Lead me not into temptation, and when temptation does come, save me from giving in to evil. . .”

In this morning’s grey, I felt like I’d just stepped into Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness. There’s fog, and dark shadows, and the landscape is barren with ragged rocks. When I looked at the painting a couple of days ago, at first I just felt heaviness. As I continued to look, I began to see what is really going on: birds and animals encircle Jesus, each bowed in worship; angels hover, eager to serve. Even the great lion sits calm and docile with head lowered. Only the curving body of the snake moves toward Jesus’ heel. But the snake is small, small and as pale as the dust on which it slithers. He is dust, a creature like all the other creatures surrounding Jesus who sits dressed in royal red and blue. Fierce fangs notwithstanding, the snake remains a mere creature, no more danger to the outworking of the mighty plan of God than any other creature. The snake strikes—and in the same instant finds his head crushed.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet.” (Rom 16:20; cf Ps 91:13; 1 Cor 6:3)

The death blow of the cross continues under our feet, Jesus in us continuing to crush the head of the serpent. Maybe snake-crushing victory is always heralded by the sting of a bitten heel. Maybe we only know the serpent-slaying power of grace through wilderness struggle and Gethsemane tears and face-to-face encounter with sin.

Know this, friend: We may fail. God will not. Satan is small and conquered—no greater threat to the outworking of God’s purposes in world affairs or in your church or in my life than he was to the unfolding of God’s plan in the life of Jesus.

“I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)

“. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

I run home, fallen leaves crushed crisp under my feet.

Becoming human

IMG_3670

“The call to be an artist is first of all a call to be a full human being.” We sat, six students, a poet and an actor, around the table, reminded that we can’t write, paint, or create music without learning to pay attention.

We can’t be lovers of God either. The call to be the bride of Christ is a call to become a full human being, awake and alive in His love.

I’ve too long lived as though God meant my body mainly as a means to serve Him. I’ve worried that a long, slow walk with my eyes wide open was a distraction from the work I thought I “should” be doing, the work that really pleased God.

Juliet Benner’s words bring me up sharp:

“God is present—in the world around us, in the people whom we encounter and in our work. Sadly, it is we who are absent.” (Contemplative Vision, p. 28)

That long, slow, attention-paying walk is no distraction; it’s love. It’s learning to notice where God is working, learning to live in His love and join Him in His loving of the world. It’s practice seeing God in the light on the water and the way the young dad shields his sleeping daughter’s eyes from the sun, practice becoming alive to God’s touch through the wind in my hair, practice delighting in His love poured out as I see and stop to gather and taste the blackberries hanging lush in a wooded corner a month after the sunnier patches of berries have ended. And it’s welcome: slowing to open my whole self in gratitude to Him who longs for me to notice the love in which He wraps me.

When you struggle to settle yourself

DSC_0141

I’d been desperate to escape the night-and-day noise of the city outside my window, the pain of metal-on-metal of nearby construction, so I ran last week on wooded trails where I met only spiders who’d slung their silk across the path while the world slept, heard only songbirds celebrating the new day and a woodpecker tapping for breakfast. Then I wrapped myself in a huge soft blanket and sat with my Bible in the leather chair in the pale yellow and blue bedroom in the basement of the big house where all was still.

A day or two in, as I became able to sleep again and began to awaken to stillness, I came up hard against the lack of stillness within me. I could, for a few days, escape the noise around me. I couldn’t so easily turn off the noise within. I wanted to settle, to rest, to burrow deep into the peace of God’s love. I felt more like an overtired eighteen-month-old child, distracted and overstimulated and unable to figure how to settle myself.

“Oh, Jesus, I don’t like this in me. I’d rather be peaceful and joyful. . . . BUT I love it that you love me here, and rather than commanding me to fix it, You bring me close and settle me on Your knee—me with head still turning frantically this way and that, restless and wiggly—and hold me close and speak softly, ‘This is where I want to love you.’ Oh, thank you! I don’t know how to settle myself in Your presence today, but I come running to You anyway, bringing my whole self, eager to be with You and discover myself loved once again with the love that never lets go. Oh, Jesus, meet me here today and make my heart even more deeply Yours!”

And I find marvelous lines in Brueggemann’s book of prayers that always gives words to my tongue-tied heart:

“. . . We trust the great truth of your wondrous love

but we will not sit still for it,

UNTIL you hear us.

Our truth—heard by you—will make us free. . .”1

“Oh! I see! This is part of why I can’t settle myself in your love. I want to race past the stuff wrestling inside of me, and what I need first is not to try to pile more of your truth in but to let some of my truth—my secrets that I’m carrying and barely know how to put into words—out into the truth of Your love that enfolds all.

My heart feels quieter already, resting in the relief that I don’t have to fix the restless parts of my heart, finding again that every part of me is welcome in Your arms that never let go. Thank you, Jesus. I don’t yet know how to name what is restless within me, but I come, all of me, and sit on your knee, feeling your strong arms around me, waiting for you to show me what you want to bring into your light today to be welcomed and loved into wholeness, knowing that while I wait I am loved. All of me.”

The spiderwebs glisten in the rising sun and the branches hung with old man’s beard glow like they’re set on fire and the rising sun makes all in its path glorious and how can I see anything but beauty here? For this is grace, always entering the dark and the messy and restless and loving it into life.

DSC_0142

DSC_0126

DSC_0162

______________

1Walter Brueggemann, “A people with many secrets,” in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 25

Learning to breathe

DSCN1179

I don’t pretend to be a fantastic singer. I’ve sung in choirs and I delight to sing harmonies when we sing the old hymns in church. But a friend tipped me off to this Q&A and voice coaching turns out to be soul curing and learning to breathe the very stuff of life.

I could spend weeks pondering this fifteen-minute clip. But here’s the love that I hear God singing over me through the voice of Joyce DiDonato today:

Relax. You are made for this.

“Your body is a perfect instrument. . . .” [She demonstrates with a three month old infant sitting there wailing away. No placement, no concern about diaphragmatic breathing, yet the infant can wail for hours!] “We are built to do that. The biggest issue with breath support is not what we’re doing with our breath; it’s everything we’re doing to interfere with it.”

We are made to house the life of God. We were woken from our dusty beginnings with a kiss, Yahweh breathing into us the life that we are made to contain, to carry, to breathe out again into the world. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into His followers. That same Spirit still breathes in us, giving us all we need to sing, to pray, to live God’s love in the world.

Stick to your job

“The biggest job of the singer is getting out of the way of the breath doing its job. If I’m feeling pressure or tight or the sound is tightening up on me, it’s not a matter of me needing to support the breath more, it’s a matter of me needing to release somewhere so that the breath can move more freely.”

My default when things aren’t going well is to try harder. I feel stuck in writing so I make myself sit longer, try to write more, figuring that if I just try hard enough and long enough, it will come. There’s a place for persistence and good hard work. It can be part of my loving of God. It can also be me getting in the way, trying to do God’s job rather than my own, trying to make something happen rather than being content to open myself to the One who seeks an instrument on which to play, a body through which to sing. More often than not, the breakthrough comes when I let go of control and step into God’s ever-offered invitation to be small and let Him be God, when I stop trying to figure out the details of how and when and just let myself be His.

Know what you’re singing

“If you’re singing a pure vowel and are really clear in your brain about what that vowel is, the breath has a much clearer track on where to go.”

It is the truth that sets us free. Read, study, memorize the Scriptures that help you remember what your song is. Practice thanksgiving. Hike in the woods or watch the sunset or play with a toddler. We have a good God—a God who loves us with His life. Learn what helps you live in His love—and this is a little different for everyone—and keep doing it.

Use all of you

“The clearer the emotional content of what you’re singing, the freer your breath will be. If my brain knows exactly what the expressive quality is, my breath can move more freely. Somehow that way everything is unified and married. If I’m just thinking vocally, I start to concentrate on the breath, . . . [and get tense], and there’s no way the breath can move freely.”

It’s easy to think God only approves of certain emotions. But every single emotion—fear, joy, anger, hope, discouragement—is a gift that, if we dare to sing or cry or groan it honestly to God, can be a place where He meets us and breathes in and through us more freely.

Trust that the breath will be there

“[In a long phrase that’s hard to sustain], if I’m only thinking about the breath, I get scared that the breath is going to run out and I start trying to hold onto it and conserve it, which of course blocks off the breath and that freedom isn’t there. . . .If you get out of the way and have a clear intention on a clear vowel, the breath will be there for you. It just will be. It involves a lot of trust and being prepared to step off the cliff and being prepared to fall. . . . But the freer I am—in my mind, in my body—the freer the breath is.”

Enough said.

Just fill the jars

One day last week I was writing my book. (Okay, I was doing that every day, but that’s not the point here). I was coming up against all the things that hold me back. “You can’t write well enough.” “Your story isn’t interesting enough.” “No one will connect with this.” (Probably all lies, but that’s not the point here either.)

The point is, I was stuck. And the point is what I heard Jesus’ mother say to the servants at the wedding: “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

And the point is what He told them to do: “Fill the jars with water.” It was a lot of work – 120 or 180 gallons of water to haul. But it was something they could do. He didn’t ask them to fill the jars with wine.

Then, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They weren’t asked to stand in judgment over what was in the jars. They were just asked to fill them and offer their contents. (If they’d sipped when they’d finished filling—just to make sure what they were taking to the master was good enough—would they still have tasted water?) Their job was to do what Jesus told them.

I hear myself in the story:

“Fill the jars with water.”

“But I don’t have wine!”

“I just asked you to fill the jars with water.”

“But I don’t know how to make it taste like wine!”

“Just fill the jars with water.”

“But what if the guests don’t like the taste? What if the master fires me? What if . . .?”

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Between us and those we serve, between the water we draw and those who need wine, stands Jesus.

This story is bigger than you.

Just go fill the jars with water.