When you need help

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

What do you do in those moments when you’re afraid you’ve got it all wrong—that something you said or did was off the mark?

I had to wrestle through that question after I wrote last week’s post about Michael Card’s words:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

In spite of all the verses I shared about Jesus laying down his life for us in the past, continuing to wash our feet as he prays for and sustains us in the present, and waiting on us at the coming banquet table—all of which I knew were true—I sweated and squirmed. Was the slant correct? Had I adequately balanced the need to receive Jesus’ serving of us with the need to worship Him as Lord? I’ve grown up singing a song about Jesus as our Servant King, but to think of Him not just as a servant but as my servant, well, that feels like a different thing.

Verses from Isaiah came to mind and as I searched I discovered that in the Old Testament, Jesus is only ever referred to as the servant of God (Is 42:1; 49:5-6; 52:13; 53:11). How did this fit with what I’d written? Is there a difference between Jesus serving me and being my servant?

It helped to see that in all of those passages, Jesus’ work is on our behalf. He is God’s servant, though He serves us.

I kept digging, turning this time to the New Testament. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced picture with its range of Greek words for servant, some used for Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and some for his relationship to us. (Stay with me here—there’s good news to be had!)

Pais (child, slave)

When the writers of the New Testament speak of Jesus as the servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:30), the Greek word they use for servant is pais (or paida as it’s conjugated in these verses), which can simply mean a child (think “pediatric”) or it can mean “one who is committed in total obedience to another; slave, servant” (BDAG). Jesus, the Son, is committed in total obedience to His Father. That is great news. (Aren’t you glad the One guiding Jesus’ work in the world is not you or me or any other frail and biased person but the Creator who made and sustains the universe in love?)

Diakonos (servant, minister); diakoneo (to serve)

When Jesus is referred to as a servant of the Jews (Rom 15:8), or when Jesus says of himself that he “did not come to be served, but to serve [us!],” (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45), the word “serve” is diakoneo (think “deacon”), which means “to render service in a variety of ways either at someone’s behest or voluntarily” (BDAG). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from all these [other] terms [for service], diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. . . . In diakoneo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In other words, while Jesus is committed in total obedience to His Father, He serves us voluntarily, lovingly, in a whole range of ways. We receive the gift of being served in all the ways God knows we most need, but we are never Jesus’ master. 

Much of the time, I’m not even sure what to ask for, so it’s a relief to be reminded that I’m served by One who loves me and knows far better than I do what I need. 

This is news that lightens our burdens in another way as well. We are also called to serve this way —giving ourselves first and wholly to God for the sake of others. We aren’t asked to serve many masters. We aren’t asked to keep everyone happy. We’re asked to serve and obey only God, the One who loves us perfectly and doesn’t forget that we’re dust and delights to give us His best, and as part of our loving of God, to love and serve others, but not to let them decide the shape of our lives.

Doulos (slave); douleuo (to serve as a slave)

A third Greek word for “servant” might help us here. (Still with me? This is the last one.) Douleuo (think doula) means “to be owned by another; to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG). We are to live in total service to God—because we can’t give this kind of total service and obedience both to God and something (or someone) else:

“No one can serve (douleuo) two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24 ).  

This word, douleuo, also shows up in the verse that pictures Jesus still serving us when he returns:

“It will be good for those servants (douloi – ones solely committed to another) whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on (diakoneo – voluntarily serve) them” (Luke 12:37).

So then: Is Jesus our servant? Yes. He is our diakonos – one who voluntarily serves us in love. And I don’t know about you, but I sure need to receive his gracious serving in order to have the courage and strength to, with Him, serve the only One who can rightly direct my life.

And all my wrestling and questioning? Turns out there was Someone serving me, helping me in it, leading me deeper into truth (John 16:13).

“No longer my own”: the good news

The Sunday bulletin slipped through the mail slot in my door. I’d been home sick and a friend had dropped it off. I read the simple liturgy used that week to commission volunteers for their service in the church and the world. At the end, the whole congregation was asked to stand, recommitting themselves, too, by praying together the Covenant Prayer written by John Wesley almost three hundred years ago. 

“I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
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.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

I’ve encountered this prayer several times in recent years, and each time have been challenged by it. 

Seeing it there, bolded on the page, it drew me again, and challenged me. It drew me not because I could easily pray it, but because I couldn’t. In the days of lacking energy to write the ideas burning within me, or clean my own apartment or buy my own groceries, could I honestly pray, “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”?

And yet, day after day I’ve been returning to the prayer, asking for grace to be able to pray it. And as I ask, once again I’m hearing the good news in that first line more fully.

“I am no longer my own but yours. . .”

Sometimes when the prayer has come across my path, I’ve been able immediately to hear that line as good news. Other times, I first hear in that line what I’m giving up – the right to my own self-determination, and with it, a sense of control and the apparent security of choosing the comfortable options. 

Now when I read that line and the echoing lines near the end, I hear more deeply what I gain in exchange. I need to know this in order to dare to pray the rest of the prayer. I gain all of the tender, protective, providing love of the Trinity, who takes on my problems as though they were God’s own. Still more: I gain all of God himself.

“. . . And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. . .”

Only when I know that I’m safely held and cared for can I dare to pray, “Let me have all things, let me have nothing,” knowing that if God chooses to let me have nothing, he himself will provide, day by day, exactly what I need.

Only when I know I’m already cherished as someone worth dying for can I let go of my striving to have others think well of me and pray freely, “Rank me with whom you will.”

Only when I know God gives himself wholly to me can I dare to give myself wholly to him.

The first line and the echoing lines near the end remind me that in this prayer I’m reaffirming the covenant of marriage that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5, where the command to submit to God is given alongside a description of the God to whom we’re asked to submit.

God doesn’t ask me to surrender to abuse, or even to uncertainty, but to love, gentle and passionate love that protects and provides and cherishes even to the point of giving up his life for me.

God doesn’t ask me to do anything that he doesn’t do first.

He gives himself wholly to me, asking me to open to that love by giving myself wholly to him. 

As in a loving marriage, when I suffer, he suffers with me. When I have nothing, he steps up to provide. We are in this together, sharers of life and love. He asks for all of me—and gives me all of himself. (I think I’m the clear winner in this exchange. Incredibly, he seems to think he hasn’t done badly either. “The Lord delights in his people.” Psalm 149:4) He loves me.

When I let all those middle lines of the prayer stay framed in this truth that I am not only his but he is mine, then I see that what I lose in this arrangement is not security, but the weight of having to provide it for myself. 

I pray, “Let me be employed for you or set aside for you,” and I’m freer to receive both the days when I don’t have energy to work and the days when I do as gifts. God and I are both in each kind of day, loving each other, giving ourselves to each other, and that is enough to make even a low-energy day a beautiful, worthwhile day.

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Which line do you find most difficult to pray? Why? How do you think the God who delights in you might want to be with you both in your current situation and in your struggle to pray that line?

What’s the greatest freedom or encouragement for you in this prayer?

Related post: What you were made for

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.

When you feel the wind

Photo by Tim Stief on Unsplash

Each summer in Prince Edward Island, I pause on the dirt road and watch the gulls on the grassy field. I pull my jacket tighter around me against the wind, tug my hood over my head, and maybe, if the wind is strong enough to snatch my breath, turn and walk backwards into the wind. But the gulls stay standing, dozens of them, or hundreds, all facing fearlessly into the wind as though watching, waiting, sharing a single mind, a single attentiveness.
Out here in Vancouver, I sit by my window and watch the PEI gulls’ west coast cousins soar on windy currents, carried. They swoop and ascend again, circling, scarcely moving their wings. It looks like joy, like play. I want to soar too, to surrender to the wind and let it carry me rather than turning my back and pulling my jacket tighter.
What do the gulls remember that I don’t? How can they face so fearlessly into the wind, even play with or in or on it?
They don’t seem to care that wind collapses houses, tears up trees, and sinks boats.
They’re probably not aware that it also flies flags and dries towels, scatters seed and powers lightbulbs.
They don’t know that, for individuals and nations, it has often been God’s messenger, parting the Red Sea, removing the plague of locusts, and bringing quail for the people to eat. Or that the Spirit first came with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.
Somewhere deep down they might know that it cleanses—sweeping the sky clean of clouds and blowing away chaff.
Something in them seems to simply accept that the wind is. That in it, or beyond or behind it, is a greater, stronger Reality, and if instead of fearing it, fighting it, or trying to figure it out, they turn into the wind and take off into it, trusting it to hold them, it will lift them, carry them.
Is it any wonder that their surrendered soaring looks like joy, freedom, play?
Their flight seems a fully alive game of tag with the God who also soars on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:10; 104:3-4)
The gulls know by instinct what I need to practice remembering:
Winds, even ones that threaten to snatch my breath, are God’s messengers and are under his control, carrying the power of his presence to both uplift and uproot, to scatter seed and offer energy and sweep life clean again.
It’s only when I think power needs to be my own, held in my own small grip, that I fear the wind.

Why God calls us to take up our cross

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.
This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.
A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.
I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.
Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?
There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others  as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.

“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”
(Hosea 6:6, The Message)