African monkey traps and our giving God

By Shawn Allen (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In my spiritual director training, one of the facilitators shared a question that she often asks herself when she finds herself reacting to a situation, “In the midst of that situation, what must I have been assuming God is like?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too, since it helps me get below what I think I believe about God to see what beliefs really shape the way I live.

I found myself asking that question this week when I felt afraid of stepping into something new. “Why the fear? What must I be assuming God is like?” And I discovered that though my head knows that God is the ultimate Generous Giver, some part of my heart deep down believes that God is not a Giver at all but a Taker, demanding constant hard work, perfection, service even if it kills me—demanding my whole life.

It was an uncomfortable surprise. Thinking about it now, though, it’s not all that surprising. Isn’t this just another form of the lie that has been woven into our DNA since the garden, that God is not good and can’t be trusted, that he is holding back from us the best? Isn’t this still the core of the daily struggle to trust, even for those of us who are His, who have tasted and seen again and again that the Lord is good?

This lie woven into our DNA is why we’re told over and over to remember that God is good, and given reminders to help us do so.

It’s why I need to intentionally savor each moment as a gift from the One who loves me, and look back at the end of each day asking God to help me notice where he was in the day.

And it’s why I need to remember the larger story and stay consciously aware that the lie of the serpent that sings quietly in the background is precisely that: a lie.

Often an image helps my heart see truth, and the picture of the African monkey trap helps me understand how my heart can so easily mistake such a generous Giver for a Taker.

The African monkey trap was “a large gourd with holes carved out on the sides just large enough for an orange or a monkey’s hand to pass through. No elaborate system of nets and concealed pits was needed, because once a monkey put its hand into the gourd and grasped the orange, it could not remove its hand without releasing the orange. Based on a ‘monkey mind’ mentality, which always deemed it necessary to hold on tenaciously to the orange, the trap never failed. Even when the hunter, club in hand, stood threateningly near, the monkey would think that it was stuck, never realizing that all it had to do to escape was drop the orange and run away.” (Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Heart, p.136)

God does ask me to let go of everything. But he does it not, in the end, to take from me, but to give to me. He asks me to let go of a single orange in order to free me into a forever life filled not just with trees hanging with oranges but with the One who creates it all. His taking is always in the service of his giving. It’s my monkey mind which keeps me focused on the orange I’m being asked to drop and prevents me from seeing the full life God is wanting to release me into.

And in the moment I understand that I’ve been seeing God as a Taker, my eyes fill with tears because I also see this: He knew what my heart has believed about him, and he hasn’t criticized or condemned but just kept gently loving, teaching my heart to trust. It’s one more bit of proof for this slow-to-learn heart of mine, that God is a generous, gentle, gracious God, a God who can be trusted to love this heart of mine, in all its doubts and fears and longings and loves, and to love it well.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24-5)

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

On the other side of the cross: the grace that carries you forever

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has wound its way through Lent, summoning me to surrender to love in all sorts of ways. But it’s in one moment on Good Friday that I experience the magnitude of this grace most clearly.

For a moment on Friday morning as I read John 19 I am his mother, watching him hang on the cross, hearing him speak to me, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to his best friend standing beside me, “Here is your mother.”

I want to protest, “Forget about me! Look at you! You are scarcely able to breathe for the pain, the weight of your own body suffocating you!” I’m wringing my hands now. “Oh, how can I help?” It’s all so backwards, so upside-down. Surely this moment at least, this moment of his suffering and death, should be about him, about me caring for him.

But, no. Here on this day when the world is coming to an end, when my heart is hanging there with him on the cross, he tells me that my needs matter. Even here.

This love is too big. I can hardly breathe. I watch him rise again, pressing his feet against the stakes to gulp another lungful of air, and as I watch, I realize:

It’s not “even.” It’s “especially.” Especially here on the cross my needs matter.

That’s why he’s on the cross at all—because I matter to him. Because my needs matter to him more, even, than his own life.

This is the wild, crazy, ridiculously extravagant love that dies to meet my needs for healing, forgiveness, and a certain knowledge that I am forever loved. And this is the love that rises again, carrying me with him into the present, the future, always enfolded in this strong and gentle love that is enough for every need.

Someone sends me Flora Slosson Wuellner’s meditation and I find myself pausing over every line, noticing how the risen, living Christ is with me on the other side of the cross, still carefully tending every need within me and loving me into strength and wholeness.

“The risen, living Christ

calls me by my name;

comes to the loneliness within me;

heals that which is wounded in me;

comforts that which grieves in me;

seeks for that which is lost within me;

releases me from that which has dominion over me;

cleanses me of that which does not belong to me;

renews that which feels drained within me;

awakens that which is asleep in me;

names that which is formless within me;

empowers that which is newborn within me;

consecrates and guides that which is strong within me;

restores me to this world which needs me;

reaches out in endless love to others through me.”

~Flora Slosson Wuellner
, in Prayer, Fear, and Our Powers, Upper Room Books, 1989.

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I’ll be away from the blog for the next few weeks, first for the next intensive week of classes in my journey deeper into listening and helping others listen, and then for a couple of weeks of rest and celebration with family. As this new season of resurrection life begins, may you know Jesus loving you in each place of longing and need, and I look forward to listening with you again here soon!

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Paintings by Patricia Herrerra.

Why I mourn the cross this year—and why Jesus doesn’t

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Lent, and especially this week between Palm Sunday and the cross, sometimes feels to me unbearably heavy. The one I love is walking to the cross—because of my sin. How can I bear to watch? How can I bear not to? I want to be with him. It hurts to be. I feel so helpless. So guilty. So ashamed.

But when I look from the cross to the face of the one on it, I see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it. 

The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27)

In this week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind. The two parables He told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross. (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13)

Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30)

I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world are, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16)

The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It started with words straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony:

“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

It finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .” (John 17:24)

The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.

This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”

Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.

We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.

It is four years since I first saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross. That year, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? But this year? This year I hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.

I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.

The long-spoken words echo through his silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10)

The too-good-to-miss news of where Jesus was born

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It was two nights before Christmas and I’d slipped into my common refrain of wishing I had a better self to offer Jesus—less fearful, less selfish, better able to trust. I didn’t sing that refrain long, though, because I let the thoughts become a conversation with Jesus, and he has a way of speaking into these conversations exactly what I need to hear.

So I told Jesus that I wished I had a better self to offer him, but I didn’t have a better self, and I couldn’t seem to make the self I do have better, so I was offering him again the only thing I have to offer (which just happens to be the thing he really wants)—my real self. I told him that even though I sometimes hold back in fear or selfishness or pride, the deeper part of me longs for him to be at home in me and to live his life out in and through me. Peace began to creep in, as though that deeper part of me sensed that Jesus had accepted my ongoing welcome and was loving me in it. And then the thought came, and with it, tears:

Jesus was born in a stable.

The warm, though prickly, straw of the manger welcomed him, the gentle lowing of cattle sung him to sleep, the breath and bodies of animals warmed the space in which he was born. And those same animals dropped pungent cow pies and sheep dung and wakened him with their noise just after his mama had finally rocked him to sleep.

Jesus’ newborn lungs first gasped air thick with the scent of dung.

He made his first home, as he’s made every earthly home since, where homely welcome and glimpses of earthy holiness sat side by side with all manner of things that irritate and smell and need to be disposed of.

Jesus is no stranger to mess. He is not afraid of my brokenness, not ashamed of my sin. He has breathed it in, carried it inside himself all the way to death, then come out the other side having left sin and its consequences gasping their final death-rattling breaths in the grave.

Jesus just asks for a stable. He can be born just as well in a stable as in a sterile delivery room—thankfully, since I for one do not have a sterile delivery room to offer him. He just asks for a welcoming stable, and his presence, as he grows there, slowly turns it into a clean and beautiful home.

What your heart needs for all the days after Easter

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My Easter weekend was messy. I wanted to stay and comfort Jesus in the garden; I soon asked him to comfort me instead. I wanted to love Jesus in his suffering, to focus on him, to serve him; I couldn’t get my mind off keys lost and assignments unfinished and the floor that needed sweeping. I found myself sitting squarely among the disciples who fell asleep, denied, betrayed. Who ran away. Who failed.

But in that place my heart understood. The cross speaks truth: I can’t do what I want to on my own. I can’t love, can’t listen, can’t trust. Can’t fix myself. But the cross speaks another truth too, about who Jesus is.

I’d been watching Jesus walk toward the cross. His friends and family should have been supporting him, serving him, comforting him as he walked that long road. Apparently they shared my inability to fix themselves because Jesus was the one who stooped and washed their feet, prayed and broke the bread, spoke three chapters of encouraging words and prayed tenderly and confidently for them in their hearing. His friends weren’t able to give him the hour of comfort he asked for; he left them to sleep and got on with loving them all the way to the cross. With one of his last breaths he entrusted his mother to his best friend. With another, he begged forgiveness for those who had put him on the cross.

He rose, and his loving continues. Once more, he is the one comforting, strengthening, encouraging. “Peace be with you.” When he should be the honored guest, he takes the role of the host, leading the Emmaus couple through the Scriptures, taking bread at their table, giving thanks, and breaking it. Building a fire on the beach to cook breakfast. Summoning the fish to the nets of his friends. Jesus is always the host.

The pastor says the manger was a clue. Manger: those six letters in English an animal feeding trough, in French the verb “to eat.” Right from his birth, Jesus was serving himself up. (Thanks, Pastor Tim!) Here, here alone, at the manger, the cross, the empty tomb, here, at the Lord’s table, enfolded in the arms of the risen Jesus, is our nourishment, our satisfaction, the only One who keeps us alive and lets us grow into who we’re made to be.

All weekend I kept wanting to step out of the mess and into the celebration. I finally found a truer celebration in the middle of the mess. This, after all, is the reason for the celebration: Love comes into our mess. Even when Easter dinners have to be cancelled or challenges press in close around the table, the celebration goes on. Because Jesus is the meal. Jesus is the celebration. Jesus is the one who offers himself again and again in our doubt and fear and confusion, in our longing and inability and aches, declaring forgiveness and sufficiency, satisfaction and completeness. This is where joy is, finding Jesus present, alive and laughing and loving, right in the middle of our mess.