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)

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.

Morning Mercies

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Snow settles soft on the earth, fresh grace

falling

calling me to come

to rest

to fall, myself, into its welcome

and then to fall again, now part of its gentle blessing,

tenderly touching foot-roughened earth

with hope and peace and beauty.

 

“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,

for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

The limits of discipline {OR When God’s love tastes like ice cream}

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I was walking along the seawall, hands pulled up into my sleeves away from the chilly dusk air, arguing with God about a bowl of ice cream.

I’d been reading a book on prayer, and questions about fasting were sharpening both my desire to have that bowl of ice cream, and my guilt about that desire.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation unfolded, but I do remember thinking, “I’m sure this isn’t that big a deal, but we need to talk about it because I’m not able either to enjoy the ice cream or to happily forego it.” And I remember the gentle choice: “Which do you want? Do you want the discipline not to have the ice cream, or the freedom to enjoy it?

There was, I’m afraid, a bit of self-pity as I wavered between the choices and finally reminded God that I’m a body as well as a soul, “and, please, tonight, I just want that bowl of ice cream. And I want to be able to enjoy it without guilt.”

That was when He asked the question that left me trying to hold back the tears until I could get inside: “Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline as well as in your discipline?” There were other questions later about whether wanting a bowl of ice cream (or, rather, half a cup of vanilla frozen yoghurt with fresh fruit) is a problem or a normal, healthy, desire to enjoy one of God’s many good gifts, but God knew that we needed first to face the bigger issue—the fear that some lack in me would keep me from being close to him.

“Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline?”

It was as though a sudden wind blew through and the needles of a two-month-old Christmas tree gave up trying to hold on and fell, revealing dry, naked twigs, the branches too dead even to draw close and cover their shame. I was discovering that my self-discipline which, when fueled by passion, has helped me go far, is, on its own, pretty shabby. And the legalistic “should” was being shown for what it is: at best a guardian, at worst a bully, but either way powerless to help me be the person I want to be:

“I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; meekness, but not humility; scrupulosity, but not virtue; self-assertion or bravado, but not courage; lust, but not love; commiseration, but not sympathy; congratulations, but not admiration; religiosity, but not faith.” (psychoanalyst Leslie Farber, quoted in Benner’s Desiring God’s Will, p. 50)

And then, having revealed the true state of the tree, the same wind whispered the invitation to lay the dead trunk on its side and shape it into a welcoming manger. When we find our limits, we also find grace, and Love waiting to reassure us that what sheer will can’t do, Love can.

“. . . [R]elying on willpower. . . is still living a willful life. The kingdom of self and the kingdom of God are like oil and water; they just do not mix. Genuine surrender does not depend on discipline and resolution. [Genuine surrender] is leaving all that behind and being seduced by Love, even if that takes time. Seductions always do!” (Benner, Desiring God’s Will, p. 73)

No ice cream has ever tasted so good as that bowl, every spoon full of God’s tangible love.

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Next week I’m off on a course so won’t be here blogging. I look forward to listening together again when I return!

Why you can trust the process

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When life seems faded and pale, a dim echo of glory,

or surreal, too busy and bright,

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you can rest, friend, and trust the Artist, because you are not self-made.

“We are God’s masterpiece” (Eph 2:10, NLT), all of us being loved together into a Life more magnificent than we can dream.

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Masterpieces aren’t made in a day. There are stages and phases and layers, and if you try to rush the peach onto the blue, you just end up with mud. “Soul work is slow work,” a wise friend says, and the master Artist delights in each step of the process.

“We who with unveiled faces all (already!) 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 Corinithains 2:18)

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And we can be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

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We are His masterpiece, continually being loved toward completion by the One who delights to claim us as His own and sign His name to us.

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Painting and photos of the stages by the lovely Patricia Herrera. Used with permission.