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)

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.

The Hidden King

DSCN2737As I sat yesterday in the pew of a big city church, distant echoes played in my mind, echoes of that Sunday a couple of years ago when I’d sat with a friend on a similar wooden pew near the back of a little country church. That day, the unexpected sun had filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, had reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.

When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.

In the calendar it’s only one week a year, this week between the end of one liturgical year and the start of the next; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?

The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.

Years have passed and faces and places have changed, but as I sit once again in this week between yesterday’s Christ the King Sunday and next Sunday’s beginning of Advent and look at the world around me, it’s the same never-old truths that still speak peace. This King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. This King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.

Soon I will begin again to weave crosses in red and gold to clothe the naked tree, singing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.

“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”

And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that need.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”

The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”

The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.

And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”

The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.

I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.

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An edited repost from the archives as we sit again in this in-between week.

 

When you need a little comfort {The End of the Story}

Gratitude flowed through me yesterday when Pastor Andrea called us to worship with the Easter refrain, “Christ is risen!” and we responded, “He is risen indeed!” Somehow, until we arrive each year at that Second Sunday of Easter, I seem to forget that the forty days of Lent are matched on the other side of the pivotal weekend with fifty days of Easter.

For forty days of mourning, God gives fifty days of joy. Or, more truly still, for forty days of suffering, our extravagant God gives fifty hundred1 (Mark 4:8, 20; Mark 10:30), or a whole eternity (Rev 21:3-4), of joy.

When we’re in them, the days of suffering can feel like an eternity. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we need the season of Easter, and the mini-Easters of every Sunday all year, to let this truth sink deep: God can be trusted with suffering.

“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” The psalmist repeats it to be sure I’ve understood: “He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Ps 126)

This is one of the assurances of Easter. God never wastes suffering. We might waste it, complaining our way through it, or denying it, trying to avoid the pain. But God doesn’t waste it. Instead, He invites us to plant our suffering, to plant ourselves deep in Him, to let ourselves be planted with Him—that grain of wheat that fell to the ground and died—and wait to see the harvest that God will bring forth (John 12:23-28).

“I say to myself, the Lord is my portion;

therefore I will wait for him.

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,

To the one who seeks him.

It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

(Lamentations 3:24-26)

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1Yes, I know, 40 x 100 is forty hundred (or four thousand), not fifty hundred, but fifty hundred is my sister’s favorite number, and I figured our extravagant God who gives us a whole eternity of joy wouldn’t mind me rounding up a little :-)

Photos compliments of former colleagues in Afghanistan.

“You in me and I in you”: learning to live the mystery

DSC_0366The first day of the course was hard. I had only slept a couple of hours the night before. Even at the best of times, my brain processes things slowly, though richly and deeply, and with fatigue and nervousness added to the mix, I found myself unable to complete any of the exercises in the time given. “Please slow down!” I wanted to cry to the facilitators. “I can do this, really I can! I just need a little more time.”

“You’re failing!” a voice in my head prodded anxiously. “Pull it together! Hurry up! Just try a little harder!”

Another voice mocked, “You might as well stop trying. It’s obvious you’re not cut out for this. You’re already failing.”

But finally that afternoon, when I could sit alone with Jesus for long enough to let the other voices still, He reminded me of truth: I am His and He is mine. He delights in me and desires me and it doesn’t matter one iota to Him that I couldn’t complete the exercises in the minutes allotted. It doesn’t make me one tiny bit less in His eyes. It doesn’t even make me less close to Him. Instead, it drives me closer and makes me love Him more, as I’m reminded again that I can do nothing on my own—can’t come close to Him, can’t settle myself in His presence, can’t hear His voice—and He draws me, settles me, helps me hear, just because He delights in me and wants me close.

The next morning we listened to the story of blind Bartimaeus. We were instructed to put ourselves into the story, to imagine ourselves on the road, in the middle of the crowd. “What is the road like?” Instantly I was back in Afghanistan, my black shoes greyed by the clouds of powdery dust that rose with each step. It was hot and I was sweating and I could feel the press and shove of bodies around me. A woman hidden beneath a dusty burqua tugged on my sleeve, clinging, slowing me with her pleading.

“Imagine you are Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. What do you hear, what do you feel as Jesus approaches?” I didn’t even get to how Bartimaeus’ might be feeling. As soon as I found my place as the beggar, sitting at the side of the road, I was surprised by a lightness within me. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what had happened: I’d dropped the weight of having to be Jesus. I only realized when I took my place at Jesus’ feet that I’d experienced the scene first as though I was Jesus, crowds pulling at my clothes, begging for healing, I feeling the weight as though their needs were mine to bear.

There’s a tree behind the home where we met. Its bottom has been hollowed by death but its top is wildly, vibrantly alive. I can’t explain it; I only know that the rent ascends and descends from perfect love, and opens wide enough for me to step inside and stand wondering at the mystery which opens upward, too high for me to see the top. I want to stay there, to live in the love that opens wide for me and welcomes me in. I am there, held and surrounded and forever belonging.

The mystery is too big for me. We, together, are Christ’s body, Jesus living in us and through us. He looks out of our eyes at crowds and loves beggars. Sometimes we are the way He bears burdens and touches blind eyes with healing. But He is in us only because we are in Him, held and loved, ourselves beggars being healed into disciples. We rest, forever safe in the embrace that carries the weight and keeps loving us in the reality of what is in any given moment.