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)

 

Making peace with smallness

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“Who dares despise the day of small things?” God asks the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4:10).
“Ummm . . . I guess I still do. Sometimes.” I whisper, not really wanting to be heard.
The days of writing—or deleting—a single paragraph. The days of small choices made a million times to turn my thoughts back to gratitude, to God, to how he wants to meet me in the present. The days of asking forgiveness when I haven’t turned my thoughts to him and receiving the grace to begin again. Again.
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Being okay with smallness: this seems to be a theme God is wanting me to hear again these days.
In last week’s sermon, the challenge rang through the little prophet Haggai:

“Who of you is left who saw this temple in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:3-5)

In yesterday’s sermon, it was Zechariah who reminded me:

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ declares the Lord Almighty . . . . ‘Who dares despise the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Photos courtesy of Brian Whitacre
Photo courtesy of Brian Whitacre

The pastor (who had, he confessed, felt very small while preparing this sermon), reminded us that God accomplishes world-transforming things, but always through the small:

  • Israel, the fewest of all peoples, chosen to be God’s special nation.
  • Gideon, the least man from the least clan from the least tribe of Israel, (the one whom God called while he was cowering in a winepress), called to defeat the Midianites—but only once God had reduced his army from thirty-two thousand to a mere three hundred, armed only with trumpets and torches inside clay jars.
  • The young boy David with his slingshot chosen over trained, experienced warriors to defeat the biggest, meanest giant.
  • And of course the little boy’s lunch which fed five thousand, and the tiny embryo in Mary’s womb, the lonely figure hanging on the cross, and the small group of followers who became three thousand in a day when the Spirit of God fell on them.

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I continue the list:

  • A caterpillar forming a cocoon.
  • Character forged by years of moment-by-moment decisions to stay true in the small things when no one is looking.
  • A forty-year-strong marriage made of little, daily choices to love the other.
  • A scientist working in a top-notch research lab on projects my brain can’t begin to comprehend who has learned to persist through a whole list of ideas not working to find one that does. And who started out once upon a time with someone else not despising the days of dirty diapers and 2 a.m. feedings, toilet training and sounding out letters.

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A lot of things start flashy and fade, but doesn’t everything that turns out to be anything start small and grow through thousands of baby steps?
Perhaps it has to be this way, for everything that lasts is rooted in God, who gives himself to us in each small moment. This small moment—the only place we can meet God and be joined to him, filled by him.
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“Spiritual formation,” says Mulholland, “is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things.” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 33)
Perhaps making peace with smallness is one of the greatest challenges—and greatest steps—in our discipleship. Maybe, in our culture obsessed with bigger, better, faster, discipleship is a lot about becoming smaller, learning to release our attempts to prove our significance and cling to our control, and rest instead in the love of our strong God who delights in working with smallness.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)

___________

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“Be still and know that I am God”: One of the practices that is most helping me make peace with smallness is to simply sit in silence before God. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” The words call me to stillness. When I realize that my mind has wandered off (again) to try to solve another problem, I let the thoughts go and return (again) to the words that keep calling me to prayer. “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”

 

What time is long before it’s money

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When I told my doctor that my Lenten practice of taking time to be still in God’s presence before bed had enabled me to stop needing the sleeping pill I’d been on for seven years, I was surprised at her response, “But contemplative prayer takes so long.” Assuming I would want to eliminate the time involved and assuming, I suppose, that I was only continuing the prayer because it helped me sleep, she offered me instead cognitive-behavioral therapy, or another type of pill.
One part of her was onto something: The complaint, “It takes so long,” often runs through my head or escapes my mouth. Centering prayer. Imaginatively entering a Gospel story to encounter Jesus there. Housework. Love. Caring for my high-maintenance body with its routines of salt drinks and carefully timed medications, a morning run and an afternoon nap. All of them can feel like they’re filling up my hours with distractions that keep me from accomplishing something more significant. It’s easy for me to chafe at the time involved.
Another part of her was wrong: I choose to be still in God’s presence not because it helps me sleep but because it helps me receive God’s love and love him back. “Be still and know that I am God,” he summons, knowing that for me to be still before him, even for twenty minutes, I have to stop trying to be God, stop trying to figure out how to run even my little corner of the world. I need that practice. I want that gift. There’s a lot of relief in not having to be God.
Last week, as I was pondering the number of times “It takes so long” had escaped my mouth, the question came: What am I here for?
If my life purpose is to accomplish tasks, then centering prayer, Scripture memory, housework, love are all things to be done quickly, delegated, or resented as a waste of time which get in the way of my true purpose.
If, however, my life purpose—my desire and goal, and the purpose for which God created me—is to love and be loved, then these places that “take too long” may be the very places that guide me into my true purpose. They awaken me to my need of love. They slow me down enough to notice love. They teach me to enter and savor the spaciousness in love, and enable me to offer that spacious love to others.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said when Judas berated Mary for pouring a year’s wages of perfume on Jesus’ feet. “It was intended that she save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8). I’ve always understood Jesus’ words to be about money: there’s a place for love that is incautious, apparently wasteful, in its extravagance. Now I hear his words also to be about time. “A year’s wages”—that’s a lot of time wasted (says Judas), or fulfilled (says Jesus).
People say time is money. But that’s only true if money is the supreme yardstick against which we measure everything else.
Time, like the rest of creation, is first of all love. Time is a beaded necklace of moments carefully threaded by the divine hand, each minute a tiny locket specially hollowed and hallowed to hold holy encounters of love.