Archive for February 2008
I have been struggling with writing this post. My drafts have included the topics of “fasting”, “intimacy”, “seeing”, “daring to draw near”, and “gut honesty”. But I have been unable to find words for what I really want to say here and for my true answers to the guiding questions for this week’s theme:
What are you up against in your life as a God follower?
What’s the hardest obstacle?
- What keeps you from believing that God is with you all the time?
So, I turned where I sometimes turn when my own words fail me: to my hymn book.
Charles Wesley was arguably one of the greatest hymn writers the world has ever known. Of the hymns he wrote it has been said that they cover the entire scope of Christian doctrine and practice. They give words to our theology and expression to the hearts of Christ-followers.
As my answer then, to those questions about struggle–a description of the place I want to live in terms of my will, my desires, my responses; how I want my heart to be so there is nothing in the way of loving Jesus as He longs for me to and as I want to myself—I give you Wesley’s “I Want a Principle Within”. (This, by the way, was written in 1749, in what should have been one of the happiest years of his life. It was the year he married his wife, Sarah Gwynne. Theirs was by all accounts a very a happy marriage, although it was also touched by sorrow: only three of the eight children born to them survived infancy, not necessarily an uncommon circumstance in that time, but heartrending if one has a heart, which Wesley obviously did.)
I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
Help me the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire;
To catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.
From Thee that I no more may stray, no more Thy goodness grieve,
Grant me the filial* awe, I pray, the tender conscience give.
Quick as the apple of an eye**, O God, my conscience make!
Awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.
Almighty God of truth and love, to me Thy pow’r impart;
The burden from my soul remove, the hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain my reawakened soul,
And drive me to that grace again, which makes the wounded whole.
(Words we don’t generally use in daily conversation: *filial—befitting a son or daughter; ** quick as the apple of an eye—as sensitive as the pupil of one’s eye)
waiting, pushing, waiting
listening for my Lover’s voice
quieting my own
God speaks in the everyday
listening, doubting, waiting
Love that doesn’t feel like love
am i willing to be clean
waiting, wondering, praying
fitting my steps
stretching my stride
pausing, shifting, waiting
the mystery of strength
that’s found in rest
walking in the grace of faith
waiting, hoping, waiting
breaking me, for brokenness
waiting, waiting, waiting
waiting, resting, waiting
Here’s what I know:
Waiting isn’t stopping
Resting isn’t idleness
If God can’t use me now, why would he use me when
Struggles: What are you up against in your life as a Christ-follower? What is the hardest obstacle? What keeps you from believing God is with you all the time?
We have used various terms through the years to identify people of faith. In the early church we might have been referred to as people of “The Way.” We were first called Christians at Antioch. As believers we were set apart from non-believers. We have been called disciples and more recently “Christ-followers.” Each label has its own implications. Christians – little Christs – those who reflect His character. Disciples are learners – students of the Christ. Believers – those who believe in the birth, death, resurrection of Jesus and have trusted Him as Savior.
Then there is this term Christ-follower. Here is where the struggle begins. Am I really a Christ-follower? I struggle to always know where He is leading. At times I struggle because I do know and I’m not sure I like the direction. I struggle because I would much rather choose a direction and ask Him to bless it than to wait for Him to take the lead. Being a Christ-follower sometimes means waiting until He is ready to move.
When I think about the hardest obstacle or perhaps the biggest obstacle, it is ME! There aren’t circumstances that keep me from following, it is my will – my desire to have things my way. Then I read a quote from A.W. Tozer – pastor, evangelist, author: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” In the article there was a study of Jacob and his encounter with God. “Hurt and humbled, Jacob is a new man; Israel is born. He leaves Penuel having seen God face to face. His life is changed, but from now on he will walk with a limp” (Genesis 33).
I know of few people who want to be humbled – and yet, until we are, we can never follow freely. There will always be hesitation, reservation and even obstinacy. The writer to the Hebrews described it this way: Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:10-11).
I have never questioned His daily presence, only my submission to His leadership. I think it is then that I am most aware of His presence as He prods, tugs, and attempts to herd me.
The obstacle in this journey of faith is me. But I am thankful for a Savior who continues to work to move that part of me aside so that I can follow him unencumbered.
Recently I have been the recipient of charity, and I must confess that it is a struggle for me to accept it graciously. In this case the charity is not financial, although I have been in that difficult circumstance as well and found it equally uncomfortable.
We sometimes forget that the word charity derives from ancient words, in more than one language, that mean love. Here is what love looks like. The photo shows my pastor, Mark Pollock, and his younger son, Cory. Along with other members of our church family, they spent many hours last week doing strenuous work that my mom, my sister and I are unable to do.
On March 12 we are moving to a new home, combining three households into one, and leaving the property my parents bought in 1970, when this part of Austin was way out in the country. Thirty-eight years of memories stuffed into closets, cabinets, antique armoires, and an entire building where the leftovers of the family business were stored when my late father retired.
With my physical battle (still undiagnosed, still going through tests) comes the emotional battle of worrying how everything is going to get accomplished for the move. And the spiritual battle of being the recipient of an outpouring of love.
Ingrained into my psyche is the apostle Paul’s quotation of our Lord, words that sound familiar even to those who have never opened the pages of a Bible: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). I was taught to practice charity as a child–taught by the example of my parents, who were generous givers, who shared their home and their hospitality, who demonstrated love in practical ways, day in and day out. It’s simply the way they lived their lives; my mother still does.
As our brothers and sisters in Christ–oh, what depth of meaning is packed into that phrase, words that too often sink into the overgrown swamp of Christian jargon–sifted through the detritus of decades of her life, Mom looked for trinkets and souvenirs to share. A crystal elephant pendant for eight-year-old Carmen, as much an organizer and leader as her mother, Sonya. An antique anvil for Cory–who knew the teenager had taken up metalworking as a hobby?–was suddenly transformed from a hundred-pound albatross into a prized possession for a new owner.
Meanwhile, forbidden to enter the musty storage building because of my respiratory problems, I sulked. I was embarrassed that I was too sick to help. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing my share of the work. I worried and fretted.
Why do we find it so much easier to give than to receive? True, it is “more blessed to give,” as the scripture says. But in order for there to be givers, there have to be recipients of their charity. When someone refuses to accept an act of charity, they deny the giver the blessing that accompanies the act.
My struggle, I realize, is rooted in pride. It’s easy to perceive being a giver as being in a position of power. Being a receiver implies powerlessness. That’s not a feeling I like, so I chafe against the very notion that I am not self-sufficient. Of course, the idea that I am self-sufficient is a complete illusion. I need to reread John Donne: “No man is an island . . .”
Have you ever been in the position of receiving charity? How did you handle it? Was it as much of a struggle for you as it has been for me?
While prayerfully pondering the topic of struggling (Jon’s suggestion for this week’s posts), the word “staleness” comes to mind…in several contexts. On Friday night, chilled and tired from a long day, a long week, I struggle to write something coherent about Struggling. Here’s part of it:
I am forced to admit that the toughest thing I’m up against in my life as a Christ follower…is me. When the still small voice of God feels muffled and far away, I know what the issue is: I’ve stuck the cotton wool of my own monologuing in my ears. When His living Word reads like stale bread, I know it’s that my appetite’s been dulled by overindulgence in other food, other books and diversions. When I lose another battle to the same old sin again, it’s plainly due to armor which is full of chinks or out of place entirely.
Saturday morning, rested and alert, I look at the book in my hand and see it as a gift direct from God. To explain:
On Tuesday this week I saw several large stacks of books (sight to make me salivate like Pavlov’s pups) on the work counter at church. One title leaped out at me: Study Guide for Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I rank Celebration… as a favorite, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read much of it. “Ooh, I’d like to borrow this! I wonder whose these are?” I thought. Later, the books had been moved elsewhere. Sigh. Then on Thursday night in our chapel, while attending a prayer meeting for moms of prodigals (I have two—another struggle), I automatically looked at the room’s bookshelf…and there was another copy of the Study Guide. Without hesitation it went into my purse.
At home I pull Celebration of Discipline off my shelf and note that I first read this book in November of 1995. ‘A few years’ indeed! I am vaguely embarrassed. What does it say of me that an allegedly “life-changing” book has had so little apparent effect?
Foster speaks of spiritual growth as a path, and my heart recognizes a metaphor I’ve been using this season. “We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur. This is the path of disciplined grace.”
The path does not produce the change. Foster illustrates this with another word picture. The farmer, he says, “is helpless to grow grain…all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing…” After tilling the soil, planting the seed, watering, feeding and weeding, he has no control over the germination, rooting and growth of the mature plant. This, he writes, “is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are…God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. ” (“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” I Cor. 3:7)
If the obstacle is ME, the obvious way to navigate it is HIM. When I recognize my struggle, He is faithful to remind me that the work is HIS, not MINE. I’ve been breathing stale air and tripping over my own feet because my head is down, my gaze is inward. In fact I’ve wandered into a bog where it’s hard to walk and the air is rank. Back on the path again, head up and eyes on the Son, I’ll let Him guide my feet. Deep breath. The air is freshening already.
This week’s theme is supposed to be about struggle. It is supposed to be about Lent and a relationship with our Father and His Son.
I am a son of a father whom I can no longer see. I am a father of two sons and a daughter who still get to be with me. On Wednesday, at the age of 37 years 4 months and 11 days I will become the only male in my family in three generations to survive to this ripe old age.
What I know is that I am not my father. I am not my father’s father and I know that Our Father who art in heaven has laid before me a responsibility, an opportunity to be a father.
What I have always struggled with is the concept of giving my life over to God, and having faith that He has a plan for me. I struggle with this because I ask; where in that is my responsibility? Where in that is my acceptance and ownership of the gifts that he has given to me? When we say ‘it is in God’s hands,’ does that mean that it is not in ours? If we are created in His image, does that only mean physically, or does that mean that we are meant to create, as He did, our lives using the gifts we have been granted?
I believe we can trust in Him, we can know that He will provide as He always does, but we cannot for a moment, forgo our responsibility to honor the image of Him to embrace our gifts and chart our course mapped by His example, guided by His Son.
I don’t know when my time on earth will end and there is no physical sign that it will soon. I don’t suffer from any ailments. There is nothing imminent.
I do suffer from the weight of history. However, I have come to understand that I am not the image of my father or his father, but Our Father. I understand that being created in His image means that I get to continue to create and honor that image. And I understand that trusting in Him does not mean that while my life may be in His hands, I shouldn’t use my own.
What does it mean to be eternal?
“How long will this hurt?”
“I hope this day never ends!”
“I could just sit here forever.”
“I will love you till the end of time.”
“And lo, I will be with you.”
Explore WNYC Radio Lab’s exploration of time.
I love to read. For every occasion from those long rides on the big yellow bus of my childhood, to the wait in the late Friday afternoon bank drive-through line of my now, to the reward of a few quiet minutes to myself at the end of any busy day, a book makes a fine companion. Well-written fiction is pure pleasure; non-fiction can fascinate and inform delightfully. You know it and so do I.
You likely have discovered by now that not all books are meant to be read in the same way. Some must be dissected, carefully pondering the placement and function of each part. Some must be partaken of in tiny bites, allowing ample time for digestion. And then, there are those that cry out for plain old “gulping.”
There’s the “page turner”. It’s the whodunit that has you stumped and won’t let you sleep till the mystery is solved. It’s the volume written on an obscure or previously-thought-boring topic in such an engaging manner that you can’t close it until you’ve read the last word and all the back matter. It’s the romance that keeps you saying “Just one more chapter” until you’re sure there will be a “happily ever after.”
When I read that way, I cover big chunks of text in short amounts of time. I take in a great deal all at once, not pausing to evaluate or process much, just …gulping.
It is after I’ve finished reading a book in that manner that the synthesis takes place. It is after those reading sprints that I take a look back to see where I’ve been. During the time I’m reading, the focus is totally on what’s between the covers. If any of what I’ve read is to become a part of who I am, that will happen gradually in the aftermath. At least, that’s how it works for me.
I’m wondering if the observance of Lent is somewhat like this. In choosing to focus intently for a relatively short period of time on the meaning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth and in opening ourselves wider than usual to Him through times of prayer and fasting, is there a kind of “gulping” activity that takes place in our faith life?
There’s an intensity, a ramping up, a concentration of our intake in the spiritual realm. It may be exhilarating. It may make us weep from a place deep inside ourselves that we hardly recognize. It may leave us with questions which leave us empty-handed when searching for answers…at least for a time.
Most of us could not live in this place 365 days a year, just as a sprinter couldn’t keep up his winning pace indefinitely—the intensity would kill.
It seems paradoxical that what we might assume to be a contemplative time could feel like a sprint instead of a marathon. But, think about this, to use other imagery: Maybe it’s the difference between the wide angle lens and the zoom—same subject, different perspective and view of the details. Eventually the lay of the land becomes evident and we comprehend the meaning of the experience. But for now, we are totally engaged in the view and that is enough.
About a year ago, I began the process of falling in love with Jesus all over again for the first time. I say it that way because while this love has a depth, a “what can I do for you?” attitude that usually only comes with maturity, it also has a “head over heels” freshness that more often characterizes love’s first blush.
In my previous 30+ years of Christianity I’ve always struggled to be consistent in bible study and prayer. But now, in this new/old, happy/sad love, more often than not, I struggle to stop, stop reading, stop praying, stop the quiet listening and get on with the day, the actions, the stuff, the feeding of children (what? You’re eating again …).
I finally understand how to love God first, more than my husband, more than my children. I remember saying to someone in the early days of this transformation (for that is what it has been/is being) “I could so become a nun right now …”
But I can’t.
What does any of this have to do with Lent?
It’s like this: In my last post I talked about fasting in a radical way. I was planning to go on a complete food fast for however many days I felt led by the Holy Spirit. But that hasn’t happened. I discovered that it’s hard to fast when you’re the mom, partly because approximately 78% of my waking hours are spent preparing food for my children to eat, but also because I live here, with these people, and one of the things that is really important in the dynamics of this family is the sitting down together at the dinner table.
And I began to struggle with that choice. Because I want to go all out for my Father. I want to gladly “spend myself” for the sake of the gospel. I want to give more and more and more. But my interests are divided. I am glad of the blessing of my family and I don’t love them grudgingly, but I struggle to find a balance between sold out for Jesus and the mom/wife thing (I realize even as I type it that it is an artificial delineation of my own invention).
I’ve struggled with this tension a bit this week. Am I doing the right thing? Am I pleasing God? And then I realized that offering myself to God is done in the grace in which I now stand. There is no value in agonizing over the details. God is only interested in my heart. He is interested in my offering because it represents my heart. He is interested in my fast because it changes my heart.
And I’ve come to recognize that for me and my family, at this time, this is the right thing.
And I’m recognizing that, for myself, in order to walk in the grace, I need to learn to let go of forms and structures to find balance. I need to stop going to meetings and just meet. I need to let go of ministries and minister. And I need to remember that part of whom I meet with and minister to are those inconvenient, but oh, so lovable people that live in my house (and eat nearly constantly).
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
I remember training for the Columbus marathon a number of years ago. I followed a prescribed training program that involved running up hills, doing speed work (sprints) and long runs (building up to at least 20 miles).
I have been reflecting on this whole idea of our life of faith compared to a sprint or a marathon. Is it most like a sprint or a marathon or like both or neither? Having raced distances from the ¼ mile to the ½ marathon and having run the distance of a full marathon, it seems to me that our life of faith is a combination of sprints and marathons – that there are seasons of long – seemingly slow growth like a marathon and other times when there is the breathless burst of growth resembling a sprint.
Races – sprints or marathons – imply starting and stopping points. Each race ends either when you drop out or cross the finish line. Dropping out does not seem like a good option in matters of faith and where is the finish line? Is heaven the finish line or is it a transition to a completely unencumbered, but continuous journey of companionship with Christ? Perhaps then it will seem less like a race (whether sprint or marathon) and more like a stroll in the park with the One who has redeemed us.
Peter Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality describes this life of faith as a journey. “Journeys involve movement, action, stops and starts, detours and delays and trips into the unknown.” I like that description. It is a journey – one that requires perseverance, mid-course adjustments, rest breaks, intense drive and endurance. It is more like a string of races – sprints, marathons and ultra-marathons with periods of respite between the surges required for each stage of the journey.
So what does any of this have to do with the Lenten season? We give up, give in, and give more to seek deeper fellowship with Christ, cleanse our hearts, express our love for Jesus and reflect on our journey.
Lenten seasons are “breathers” – pauses in the journey (not vacations) but pregnant pauses – opportunities to evaluate the journey; to make adjustments in the race; to insure we are on the right course, in anticipation of the next leg of the journey with all its hills, valleys, hurdles, storms and days of sheer running pleasure.