One way to stand firm

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m trying to remember a verse and there’s a word that I can’t remember or that I misremember, that is quite possibly the word that, when I look up the verse, will hold the greatest gift for me. It has almost come to seem like one of God’s ways of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Pay attention here.”
It happened yesterday with a couple of verses from the story of God’s delivery of Israel through the Red Sea. As the people stand at the water’s edge with the Egyptian army coming after them, Moses says to them:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex 14:13-14)

As I was pondering these verses that had been in the morning’s Scripture reading from the pulpit, the phrase “stand still” came to mind. But when I looked up the verses again, “stand still” was not there. Rather, the two commands are to “stand firm” and to “be still,” or, more accurately according to the Hebrew, “be silent.” For me the two commands to “stand firm” and “be silent” carry quite a different, and richer, layer of meaning than simply “standing still.” And, funnily enough, they speak directly into a struggle of the past couple of weeks. (Thanks, God.)
I’ve noticed these weeks, as I’ve been trying to get back into the fall rhythm after weeks away with people, how unsettled I am. It has taken me time to understand what was going on, and it has likely been a combination of things—simple transition and jet lag, a busier than usual schedule, and a medication dose that was too high. But it was when I sat to be still and silent before God, putting down my pen and my journal and closing my mouth, that I finally began to feel more settled.
I am to stand firm in what I know to be the truth of God’s character and my calling—not just what I’m to do, but more importantly who I’m to be and how I’m to live out that calling in a posture of listening and utter dependence on God. But I’ve been learning all over again these weeks that I can only stand firm when I make time to be still, to let not only my hands and my mouth but my thoughts (as much as possible) be silent for a stretch of time each day.
Ruth Haley Barton shares how a wise spiritual director once said to her, “Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” (Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 29)
Her words ring true as I settle into silence with God, put down my pen, open my hands and say, “Here I am.” Sometimes all that I’ve noticed in those times is the racing of my thoughts. This time I could feel myself able to breathe again, and could sense the loosening of my anxieties.

“In solitude God begins to free us from our bondage to human expectations, for there we experience God as our ultimate reality—the One in whom we live and move and have our being. . . In silence we not only withdraw from the demands of life in the company of others but also allow the noise of our own thoughts, strivings and compulsions to settle down so we can hear a truer and more reliable Voice.” (Invitation. . ., p. 34-35)

Solitude an silence, even for twenty minutes a day, allows the stirred-up sediment in my soul to begin to settle.
Solitude and silence help me cease striving as they turn me from looking at the army of thoughts and needs and fears that pursue me to look instead at the God who is always working to set his people free.
They help me accept God’s own invitation, spoken through the Psalmist,

“Be still [“cease striving”] and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

When you long for stillness

There’s something about being out of the city that gives me life.
Maybe it’s the silence, or at least the exchange of engines roaring on the streets outside my window and heavy feet on the floor above my head for the gentler sounds of birdsong and wind in the leaves.
Maybe it’s that, immersed in the expansiveness of creation, I slow enough to remember myself small again, in a good way, and hand over the burdens meant for God’s shoulders.  There in that smallness I find myself part of this world which goes on minute by minute being created and sustained in love.
Maybe it’s the rich beauty that summons and soothes and draws me toward the One who is Beauty itself.
Whatever the mix of reasons, some nameable, some not, I come a little more alive when I can run in the woods or walk on the beach or drive along roads framed with white trunks and hay bales and the sun playing on water.

On the early morning ride back to the airport, the sun played tag with the fine morning mist, darting, disappearing, leaving a trail of gentle brightness behind her.


What could have felt like a long drive filled with sadness to be leaving was instead a joyful play of light and shadow, a final life-filled gift from the One who knows me well as I headed back into the city and into a busier stretch.
I know you. I love you. I am going with you and I will give you rest.
The day after I arrived home, not feeling quite ready to plunge into the fall busyness, the mailman knocked on my door and handed me a gift that was as unexpected and as grace-filled as the early morning hint of a rainbow and the empty seats beside me on both of my flights home.
I know what you need and I delight to give it to you.
The gift the mailman handed me was Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat
I love pretty much anything Ruth Haley Barton writes, and her newest book is no exception. It’s warm and welcoming and freeing, offering, as all her books do, not only life-giving encouragement and gentle challenge, but wise steps and insightful questions to help me move forward. She begins by lifting the burden of retreat being yet another heavy ‘should’. It is, rather, an invitation, with the implications of freedom to say yes or no, and the affirmation that I am wanted.

“. . .[W]e know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted, and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.
And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well.” (p. 3)

I long for quiet time alone with God in much the same way I look forward to the times I can escape the bustle of the city. I know I need still time to keep hearing God’s voice and to keep from wearing out, and I do my best to prioritize it. But, even knowing that as deeply as I do, sometimes a persistent little voice still tries to convince me that retreating is selfish or lazy or just plain impractical.
What that little voice fails to remember is that retreat is not my idea. It is Jesus’ idea.
Right smack in the middle of the disciples’ first ministry report (Mark 6:30-31), when the disciples were all excited about what they had been able to do and eager to get on with it,

“Jesus invites them to retreat. Literally! His words, ‘Come away to a deserted place. . . and rest a while,’ shut down the conversation they wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, Well, that’s different! What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.” (p. 3)

The One who knows me better than I know myself, knows my tendency to lose my way and think too much depends on me, gently interrupts my chatter about the article I’m writing and the workshops I’m preparing. He sees my mix of excitement and weariness and my need and longing to step back and be re-centered in who He is before moving any further into the busyness of the fall, and He graciously calls me to close the door and turn off the phone and the laptop and let Him settle and recenter me in His love. He reminds me once more that this is not a luxury, but a necessity, a part of being human. And that He has led the way.

“Of all people who might have been able to convince themselves they did not need to retreat in order to hear God, Jesus would have fit the bill. But instead we see him regularly retreating to the mountain, into the wilderness, across the lake, and into the garden in order to stay in tune with God’s heart and plan for him.” (p. 90)

Walking shoeless (OR When you feel unfinished)


Sometimes a particular dream catches my attention, as though it is wiser than I am and wants to tell me something if only I’ll pay attention. When I pause to ponder and pray about it, I often notice things that seem obvious once I see them, but I was too blind, or my mind too busy, to see them in my waking life.
One of those dreams came last week. In it I was feeling inadequate next to a friend whom I love and respect, and afraid that she’d tire of our friendship. We were at a course together, and as she came by my room to pick me up on our way to the next session a few steps across a small, dry courtyard, I observed aloud that we were both in sock feet. She looked at her feet, seeming mildly surprised, then smiled and shrugged as though she was used to discovering that she wasn’t quite put together. I, meanwhile, stopped to try to find my shoes. I couldn’t find them, but I wouldn’t stop looking—under the bed, in the closet, again and again searching places I’d already looked. The next class was beginning. Eventually, my friend went on ahead.
As I lingered with the image of being shoeless, I noticed that we were both in sock feet. None of us in this life has it all together, no matter how it may seem when I make the mistake of comparing my inside to someone else’s outside. The difference between my dream friend and myself was not that she had it all together, but that she had learned not to let her lack of togetherness derail her from her calling.
I remembered, too, God’s command to Moses: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Standing there together, both of us shoeless, my friend and I were on holy ground. Maybe we’d find that we always are, if we paused to pay attention, for where can we flee from God’s presence? My incompleteness, our incompleteness, is never the end of the story because God is alive and active and at work in both of us, as well as between us and through us. God is as eager to show us more of who He is as He was to show Moses more of Himself when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. And He’s still perfectly able, through that knowing of Him, to complete us with Himself—whether that means offering faith in the face of fear or, as it did with Moses,  transformation from being someone with such severe anger issues that he murdered a fellow human, into being one of history’s greatest leaders. That completion comes in the following, though, in the leaning in and clinging close and paying attention not to my inadequacy but to God’s sufficiency. The question is: Will I follow, shoeless, my attention on the wonder of the bushes burning around me, or will I stop and refuse to move until I find my shoes?
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Photo by Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.
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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.
May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.
May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.
Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.
Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:
The real call in Ash Wednesday

Beneath busy: one way to slow down when the world is spinning

Busyness: it might be the single biggest threat to my vocation to listen to God’s heartbeat and help others listen. Busyness, or, rather, hurry—the soul counterpart that too often accompanies the body’s busyness. My body operates under restrictions, and so, compared to most other people’s schedules, mine will never be truly “busy.” I don’t have the externally imposed busyness of young children pulling at me, the 9 to 5 requirements of an office job, nor, as I once did, the 80+ hour a week demands of a medical career. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t stop the soul-virus of hurry from attacking my system. Maybe I’m even more aware of its insidious attack because my schedule is necessarily limited, so I’m forced to admit that the problem lies inside me.
I remember again the advice Dallas Willard gave to John Ortberg when Ortberg, a busy pastor with a young family, called Willard long distance to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. There was a long pause, and then the answer came, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” The words stick with me because I need them so badly.
The words of another wise pastor challenge me even more deeply. He’s speaking as a pastor to other pastors, but I’m certain these words apply to me too, and perhaps in some way to all of us who are set apart to be Christ’s bride. How can we who are his hear his voice if our souls are always running off in one direction or another? How can we follow the great commands to love God and love others if our souls are racing too fast to pause and listen and love?

“The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my waste-basket is the letter addressed to the ‘busy pastor.’ Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.
I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.
‘The poor man,’ we say. ‘He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.’ But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 17, bold mine)

Over the page, he challenges me further.

“Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.
I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reason; both are ignoble.
I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? . . .
I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . . .” (Ibid, p. 18)

For me there’s a third reason, perhaps tied up in the vanity he mentions, or hidden beneath it. That reason is fear. I fear rejection so I say yes to avoid disapproval. I fear I’m not enough so I try to prove myself by what I do. I fear missing out so, instead of trusting that what I have is enough, I hold out hands to take everything offered, even when it’s too much. Sometimes I don’t know exactly why I’m tempted to say yes when I probably should say no. But here I find a lovely gift, because no matter what the root issue is, I’m finding one simple practice that helps me more than any other to settle and rest: a return to the truth of my smallness. A return to the joy of my smallness, and the freedom of it.
I picture myself sitting on Jesus’ knee, or held gently in his hands, treasured. Or, as I prepare to sit and listen with another, I picture myself as a little girl holding the hand of my Father who is taking me to work with him. This is his work. For this hour, he’s giving me a front-row seat and a little part to play, but the work is his and the weight of the responsibility remains with him. As I smile up at him, my smile mirrors his own.
Here in this place of smallness, I know myself treasured, so there’s no need to race around trying to earn love.
Here in this place of smallness, I remember that someone else is in charge, that it’s not my job to meet all the needs in the world, only to take the hand of the One who orchestrates it all and show up with him at the places he invites me to join him.
And only here in this place of knowing myself small and loved do I begin, slowly, to find myself free enough to say the yeses and no’s that let me live fully without succumbing to the soul-numbing race of hurry.
I don’t have all the answers for how to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” I don’t always faithfully live the answers that I do have. Drivenness runs deep within me, and the call to ruthlessly eliminate hurry will be for me a daily process of listening and choosing for the rest of my life. I do know that here, small and held, is the only place I can hear clearly enough to sense the moment-by-moment invitations, and know myself safe enough in God’s love to dare to follow.