When your heart grows faint


“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).
“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.
The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.
He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.
And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

When you lose sight of the truth


Dear Self,
You know those times when things that were clear before now seem confusing, or even clear in the opposite direction? (“How could you ever have thought God was calling you to write, or to help others listen? Look at you! You can’t even listen yourself!”) Those times when everything seems dark and you’d rather eat chocolate than stick with your prayer time because Scripture doesn’t seem to have anything to say to you and what’s the point anyway? Those times when you’re restless and it’s hard to settle and you’re afraid to say anything because what if your wise friend or spiritual director agrees that you aren’t cut out for this after all?

There are a few things you need to remember in those times, Self. But since those are the times you’re most likely to forget these things, I’m writing them out for you here so that when those times come you can reread them and remember the truth.
First: take a deep breath and remember that it’s okay. You are not the only screwed up mess in the whole wide world even though in those moments it might feel that way. You’re just experiencing the down of the ups and downs that are a normal part of every serious disciple’s life. It doesn’t feel like it right now (that’s part of the nature of this—it claims past and future and absorbs them into its apparently eternal present), but this will pass and you’ll come back into the light and feel close to God once again. Saint Ignatius called the downs—the times when you feel empty and confused and far from God, when you lose sight of who He is and who you are—spiritual desolation.
Second: When did you last eat? Take a day off? How’s your sleep? In other words, does this desolation have physical, psychological, or spiritual roots? You’re human, remember, and one of the surest ways to set yourself up for spiritual desolation is to act as if you aren’t.
Your Father doesn’t forget that you’re dust, so let your heart line up with his gentle heart and go for that walk you need.
Take the nap. Get the counseling. But in the process don’t forget that your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Remember that, as strong as he may seem, he’s a coward and a bully, always aiming for your weakest spot (so know yourself!) and convincing you to keep quiet about the struggles (because, like an illicit lover, he knows the game is up when he’s exposed). He’ll chase you to the ends of the earth if you turn tail, but if you stand up to him, you’ll find he’s quick to disappear.
Now: if the sadness and confusion are more than physical or psychological—
(and, Gallagher says, we can be sure the enemy is at work in someone who

  • is growing in love for and service to God,
  • has “considerations” or reasons concerning their spiritual life which seem convincing to them, and,
  • arising from those considerations, is discouraged or disquieted in a way that reduces their emotional strength in serving God)

—then don’t forget these things:
You’ll be tempted to change decisions you made in the light. DON’T! As Saint Ignatius reminds us, in times of spiritual desolation it’s the devil whispering in your ear, so to change decisions in a time of desolation is to let the devil be your spiritual director. (But note that this rule applies to spiritual desolation; if you’re exhausted from overwork, changes in your schedule to permit rest might be precisely what you need.)
All those things about how pathetic you are that sound so obvious and convincing and true? This is not the time either to go along with them and beat yourself up, or to get into an argument with them. Just accept that the voice you’re hearing is not God’s voice and move on to the next step.
There are a few things you can do to help yourself in these times: 1) Ask God for help 2) Remind yourself—through meditation on Scripture and remembering past experience—of God’s loving faithfulness. 3) Pay attention to what is going on in you. Prayerfully try to understand if you’re in spiritual desolation, where it began, what caused it, and what actions will help you reject it. 4) Act in the way opposite to what you’re tempted. If you’re being tempted to skip or shorten your prayer times, be careful to stick to them, and stay even a few minutes longer.
Know that this pain isn’t pointless. As you choose to lean into God in the tough times, he uses them to strengthen your faith. To grow in him, you need these painful times as much as you need the times of spiritual consolation.
Those are a few of the basics, Self. They’ll get you started. But also don’t forget how helpful you’ve found Gallagher’s The Discernment of Spirits with its deeper exploration of the rules of Saint Ignatius and its many case studies in which you’ve seen yourself. From time to time you’ll probably want to pull it off the shelf and review all this more deeply again.
Until then, may you deeply savor God’s love in times of consolation, and stand firm in his truth in times of desolation, receiving them both as gift. You are His and He won’t let go.
Love, Me

_____________________________

Photo #1 by Macie Jones on Unsplash. Photo #2 by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

God’s (perfectly serious) joke

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I almost laugh out loud as I watch God’s little joke unfold.
I’m reading in 2 Kings 6 of Elisha’s calmness when he rises in the morning and discovers the city where he is staying surrounded by enemy troops.
His servant panics. “Oh no, my lord! What are we going to do?”
Elisha responds, “Don’t worry. There are way more on our side than on theirs.” Then he prays, “Open his eyes, LORD, so he can see.”
And here I’m intrigued. The hills around the city are filled with horses and chariots of fire. They are present, sent, attentive and protective. And yet they just stand their ground, up in the surrounding hills, and the one to act, calmed and empowered by the knowledge of their presence, is Elisha. The fiery horses don’t decimate the enemy troops. They don’t show themselves and make the enemy die of fright or run for their lives. They quietly encourage faith in those who see.
It seems that God’s kingdom power, made visible in those fiery horses, so vastly outweighs the power of the human armies that God decides to play a little joke while he’s at it. Why not have a little gentle fun when the situation at hand is so easily managed? And Elisha, trusting God, gets to be part of the joke. Is it hard for Elisha to hold back a smile as he prays for the God who has opened the eyes of his servant to blind the eyes of his enemies? They don’t seem to notice their blindness, and Elisha, the man whom the troops are seeking to capture, calmly carries on with the joke. This small, vulnerable man—the intended captive—is graced to carry out God’s work while the armies of heaven stand by watching and witnessing (and marvelling at?) this grace.
“Oh, no, this isn’t the right road, and this isn’t the right city,” Elisha says to the troops. “Follow me and I will lead you to the man you’re looking for.” How absolutely true. It wasn’t the right road or the right city for what God was doing, and with every step Elisha was leading them to the man they were looking for, the man who was walking just a few steps ahead of them and whose identity would be revealed when they arrived.
They reach their destination and the would-be captors find themselves captives in the city of the king of Israel.
God’s magnificently gentle, perfectly serious joke continues.
“Oh no, don’t kill them,” Elisha instructs the king. “Feed them and send them back to their master.” And so the army which comes to take Elisha captive is taken captive by that same praying, trusting man, and is set free after being honored and cared for, nourished and tended.
(And for some reason, despite the extravagant hospitality, the enemy soldiers don’t seem tempted to come back for another meal. Problem—which in God’s eyes was never much of a problem—solved.)
 

Oh LORD, you change times and seasons,

You set up kings and depose them,

You free your people and feed your enemies

And You do it all with such creativity and freedom,

Such lovely humor and grace.

 

Open our eyes to see you at work in the world around us

and give us the faith to join in your perfectly serious joke.

 

LORD of the nations, we pray

make America great again—

great in faith and love and peace,

in joy and courage and generosity.

And let all whom you grace to stand and watch,

to walk and speak and lead hungry captives to the banquet

do so gently and humbly

delighting in your limitless love

and your vibrant joy

which erupts again and again in rich hospitality.

Three more reasons you can dare to put your heart out there


I’m sitting in that uncomfortable space of waiting while a couple of trusted friends read a draft of my story. As much as I try to steer my runaway thoughts in more helpful directions, they seem to have a remarkable ability to slip under the fence when I’m not looking and make for this week’s favorite question: Are my friends cringing as they read, wondering, ‘How am I going to tell her this is really, really bad?’
At the same time I’m preparing to share pieces of my story with my small group and some (pretty big) part of me is wishing I’d found a way out of this.
I want to faithfully steward the story I’ve been given to live and write. But the actual stepping out of hiding and sharing it can sometimes feel like one of the scariest things in life—right up there with stepping on that plane heading for Afghanistan.
I turn for the hundredth time to my list of ten reasons I can  (and must)  dare to put my heart out there. This week God has added three more:
1) God wrote my story first. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps 139:16) Every one of us has been given a unique and beautiful story to live. And with God as the author, there’s no question that the story is worth sharing.
2) I am meant to need help. The idea that I should be able to live—or write—my story alone (and perfectly!) is a lie from the pit of hell. We are not isolated individuals with something to prove. We are body-members, called to live together in God’s love and work together for his glory. Only I can live and write my particular part of this story. But others have been given overlapping bits of story to live which include helping me see and write my story more clearly, or praying for me in the process. Living a story, and writing one, is a community project, with every person’s part important.
3) Telling the story God is writing in our lives is one of the most powerful ways to overcome the enemy of our souls. “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” (Rev 12:11) The God of peace who dealt the fatal blow to Satan’s head through Jesus’ bare, nailed feet continues to crush Satan, now underneath our feet (Rom 16:20). And in the upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom, vulnerable bare feet, willingly offered, crush Satan’s head far more effectively than self-protective steel-toed boots.
So, friends, let’s take off our shoes. We need to stand barefoot anyway, here on the holy ground of helping each other live and share the stories God is writing into our lives.
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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.