Lent


“The choice between God and every other god is a real choice.  Both make promises, both demand loyalty.  It is possible to live by both.  If there were no real alternative to God, all [humanity] would choose [God].  Indeed, God is the more difficult choice to justify in terms of provable results.

“The chief difficulty is that God demands of us that we live by faith:  faith in [God], [God’s] sovereignty over the future, [God’s] sufficiency for the present; while, on the other hand, the various other gods whom we can serve appeal to us in terms of the things which we can see and the forces which we can calculate.  The choice between the life of faith and the life of sight is a choice between a God whom only faith can apprehend and gods whom one has only to see to understand.”

-DT Niles in The Bible Through Asian Eyes

In a conversation with my daughter last night, I have come to the awareness that we know little what to do with our emotions as those who follow Christ.  Of course, she is 13 and I do expect a little (OK…a lot) of irrationality, she also voiced an ideology that I think runs rampant among us.  Even if we don’t say it out loud, we – in the depths of our souls – believe it.

The conversation (translation::argument) began when I told both of my kids the time of night had come to read.  She complained of “not having anything to read” (translation::I don’t want to) to which I suggested she read a portion of the Scriptures.  This began a whining session full of thirteen year old rebuttal as to why she did not want to do that.  She didn’t like the fact that I had TOLD her to…it didn’t feel authentic.  She doesn’t like to read her Bible very much…and isn’t that just being a hypocrite toward God when she does?  She didn’t FEEL like it…and since God knows her heart anyway, it wouldn’t “count”!  (Please don’t judge her harshly….she is a great kid and honestly, I am sure I have thought many of those things, but just don’t have enough honesty to say them out loud.)

After the snow flurry of emotion subsided a little, I tried to logically reason with her.  Bad mistake!!  I just go more of the same rhetoric from before.  Then God opened my eyes and let me catch a glimpse into what (perhaps) He sees.  What I saw was a beautiful, young woman on the precipice of a new place in her spiritual formation (in being formed by His story).  Up to this point (and still all around her) she had received the message that God is awesome, and fun, and amazing, and He talks to you, and He makes you feel good, and answers your prayers and when we are full of good emotion we worship Him…..

Now, many of those things are true, but when that is how we view God, we begin to love God for what He gives us – the fun, emotion, good feelings, answered prayer, etc.  At that place in our spiritual formation, we love God for pleasure’s sake.  And I don’t think that is inherently bad.  When we are new believers (or young in our faith), God feeds us just like a mother nurses her baby.  I explained to her that just like when an infant cries, her mother responds to her with gentle caresses, something to eat, taking care of her every need…so God does that in our early life with Him.  He does this because He knows this moves the soul toward spiritual things because of the pleasure we get from them.  It moves us into the process of being formed by His story, but then something switches inside us.  Sure, we know the spiritual pleasures are given to us from God, but the pleasures become the goal of what we think our relationship with God is all about.

Both my thirteen year old and I laughed at the idea that she would still be breastfed at her age…in fact, she wrinkled her face up and used the term “That’s gross!!”  We talked about all the other food she now enjoyed but only because she had to give up the first infant pleasure.  We also talked about all the food she doesn’t enjoy, but knows she needs to eat in order to stay healthy.  I reminded her that God loves us so much that He will not leave us to get caught in our pleasure seeking faith, but brings about a discontentedness in order to move us away from loving Him for pleasure’s sake.  (What a great risk on His part!)

Instead, it feels as though He begins to pull away.  He doesn’t give the feelings as much any more, nor does it seem like He answers prayer like He once did.  What was once fun and happy-slappy-clappy, becomes boring, dull and dry.  And in it all, He works to grow our soul to abandon loving Him for pleasure’s sake, and learn to love Him for love’s sake.  This is a love based on a real relationship between two persons (with all the good, bad and ugly) and involves a letting go of the key barometer being pleasurable feelings.  I explained that it is like a mom who takes care of her baby.  That baby does not always give her pleasure, and in fact, many times brings the absolute opposite of it, but she loves that baby anyway because she CHOOSES to.

We went on to talk about how it is not “being a hypocrite” or being “inauthentic” to read our Bible, pray or worship when we don’t feel like it.  It is actually entering the next place in the formation process; it is choosing God even when the feelings (pleasures) aren’t there.

And then I was reminded of one of my favorite books in the Bible…the book of Psalms.  The poetry and imagery are often as raw as that discussion with my thirteen year old.  The feelings abound…God is questioned…He is accused of having left and taking His pleasures with Him.  But each psalmist comes back to a solitary conviction….despite the feelings (which God is big enough to handle, by the way!), it is always good and right to worship God for Who He is and to pursue Him for love’s sake.

That is the journey my thirteen year old is on….she must, at some point, make peace with the psalmists.

Just wrote this post yesterday on my business blog…what our family will be practicing for Lent.  It is an exercise in thanksgiving….inspired by a book I am currently reading.

May we all learn to see the wonder before us and give thanks for the small gifts that God gives!!

 

 

Last weekend we were out of town at our daughter’s volleyball tournament.  All the girls were so excited to be staying in a hotel together without their parents in the room…and perhaps the parents were excited to have a hotel room without their kids!!  The first evening we all had dinner together at a local restaurant and it was a fun time for the families to get to know one another off the court.

The next afternoon we were trying to put plans together about where we could go and thought we had it down when…it all fell apart.  The girls were whining about the plans, other parents just dropped their kids off at the hotel and took off, the coach turned a cold shoulder and walked away in the middle of a conversation without a word.  In a nutshell everyone simply chose THEMSELVES without thinking of anyone else.  And as they did…I followed right along with them, but mine had some really good “righteous justification”!!

In my heart (and with my husband) I simply said “I’m done!”  I was done trying to help pull together someone else’s plans…I was done worrying about how the girls with no parents around were going to get something to eat…I was done trying to communicate with a person who is repeatedly inconsiderate and immature.  (I did go to the pool to be the “lifeguard on duty” because I didn’t want anything to happen to the girls…but I did it with a very bad attitude!)

I was sinking into the very thing that I was so mad about – selfishness, doing your own thing, individualism.  And the sad thing?  I kind of knew it, was trying to slap a “Jesus label” on it to make it all right, and wanted to wallow in it for a while.  With my teeth gritted, arms crossed and eyes narrowed, I proceeded to state my very good case before the Almighty.

It was the next morning, however, when He answered me back.  It was that gentle answer of God that pierces you to the core and makes you feel undone…don’t you love how He speaks?

I am reading a book right called The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton.  It is about meeting God in the church year.  In it the author made this statement:

In recognizing our sin and, with it, God’s mercy, we become able to face – and embrace – the reality that we are utterly dependent on God.  The ashen cross we receive on Ash Wednesday, which reminds us of both our origin and our destiny, could be interpreted as a clarion call for charity.  For charity begins with humility, the recognition that we share a common origin and a common destiny: we are all dust and to dust we shall all return.

(And here is the part that gripped my heart.)  The despairing response to this declaration is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  The Christian response is to turn, marked as we are with the sign of our mortality, to the Lord’s table where we do indeed eat and drink, but soberly recognizing in the Bread and Wine  the body and blood of Christ who died that we might live…It reminds us of who we are – human beings who depend utterly on the mercy and lovingkindness of God.  Knowing this, we can extend to others the mercy God has extended to us….”

At this point I had to close the book because I was so fully convicted and my head was swimming.  It is true that I am called to dine at the table on the body and blood of Jesus.  Iif I am a Jesus follower (which I am) then that is the very food that sustains my life and gives me the energy to move in this world.  In this meal that Jesus gave us, I feast on love, sacrifice, forgiveness, laying down my life, justice, kindness, compassion, holiness, death of my own will and probably a million other things that I don’t yet even comprehend.   I dine on HIM and it is more than enough.

But what about all these other people?  The ones that make me really frustrated?  Though they may not come to the official communion table, the food I receive there can come to them.  As we are together, do I offer them the mercy I have tasted?  Do I take the morsels of forgiveness and compassion out of my pockets and share them?  Do I offer them a long drink of love?  I guess I began to wonder if…in my everyday life, do I give others a taste of the very body and blood of Jesus?

On the last day of the tournament, the girls won their first match and we had an hour and a half until they played again.  Many of the girls were hungry and we were trying to figure out how to get some nourishment into them.  Our family had bought some Subway sandwiches before we arrived that morning just so we would be sure that our kids wouldn’t be starving.  As I reached into our bag to pull out my Veggie Delight, I knew there was a girl on the team who is a vegetarian.  I have a really tough time with this girl – her attitude, how she talks to the other girls – but I knew what the Lord wanted me to do.

I asked her if she wanted half of my sandwich, to which she gratefully smiled and said yes.  I unwrapped that sub sandwich and as I broke it in two I swear I could hear the words, “______, this is Christ’s body given for you.”   I am pretty sure she didn’t hear it, but I did.  And that act of sharing my Subway sandwich became an act of worship.  I wanted God to know that I choose the way of the communion table – to give up my life for the sake of another.  And I wanted the world to know just of little of what God tastes like.

I went for a walk yesterday.

I followed the trail through the woods, down to the beach.  And once on the beach, I asked God to enable me to see a small item or two that might be a gift from Him.   I have been struggling with so much in my heart during the Lenten season and have had a tough time sensing His presence.

I walked on a quiet coastline – my only companions, the birds scavenging for bits of crab or sand dollars.   The outgoing tide had pulled its blanket back to reveal a coastline inlaid with stones, drift wood and other debris left by the ocean.

My eyes scanned the ground…for what I was not sure.  A shell?  A special stone?  And then I caught a glimpse of a twinkle – a reflection of the (rare!) bright morning sunshine.  I bent down to find my gift in my hand…a piece of sea glass.

As I continued to walk I found a few more of these treasures, some translucent white and others a shamrock green.  As my fingers massaged the pieces and they rolled around in my hand, I asked God to help me understand the gift.  Here is what was whispered to me:  “Grace upon grace upon grace upon grace…”

I breathed in those words and then I understood.  In my hands I held broken pieces of glass and much like the broken pieces of my life, when they are freshly broken they are far more dangerous.  They can cut and wound and inflict much pain.  Given up to the sea, these glass pieces go on a journey – probably a very tumultuous one.  They are rolled and rocked by the waves, carried in and out with the tides.  They are tumbled upon rocks and scraped across the rough sand…I am sure (to the glass) the process is a brutal one.

The outcome, though, is quite different.  While perfection is not their destiny, their sharp, jagged edges are smoothed by the sand, rocks, and “wave upon wave upon wave…”  They adorn the sea shore with spots of color and, most importantly, they can be picked up with no fear of cutting the hands that hold them.  Their brokenness remains, but the time traveled in the ocean takes their edges off.

It made me think of my broken places…of how God has taken those pieces on a journey that has sometimes felt severely brutal and yet as each new drowning wave crashes upon me, I hear the words “grace upon grace upon grace….” I cannot deny the existence of this brokenness…it is more real than I wish it was.  But I also know that God is smoothing out the razor sharpness and destructive edges.  The color of the brokenness remains the same, but in the waves of God’s making, it is tempered and frosted.  It is as though those broken places become colored by Grace –  they are not so shiny, so vivid, but frosted – more quiet and at peace.

O God of the oceans, rocks, waves and sand…help me trust you with my brokenness.  Even when it feels brutal, let me remember that it is Your grace – tempering me, changing me and creating something beautiful out of my broken scraps.

Found this prayer by Bonhoeffer and it fit – as though it were the very blood passing through my heart into every vein in my body.

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you;

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me…

Restore me to liberty,

And enable me to live now

That I may answer before you and before men.

Lord, whatever this day may bring,

Your name be praised.

Amen.

It dawned on me this morning that my heart is very spongy.

This Lenten journey, for me, has been about looking at the places of anger in my heart and it has not really been fun.  I feel like over the last few years I’ve become more critical, less trusting, and less willing to give grace.  I want to believe the best in people, but I don’t.  I want to rejoice when they rejoice, but I struggle.  I want them to have the freedom to be themselves, but I find in me a criticalness that wants to control  them.  I am usually a pretty hopeful person, but I find myself wrestling with bouts of extreme grumpiness.

As I read Psalm 50, 69 and 70 this morning, the recurring theme that jumped out at me is to continually give thanks to Lord.  “Let God be magnified”….”I will praise the name of God with song” – phrases like this seem to weave in and out of the painful petitions and hurts recounted in these psalms.  And I was convicted of my lack of singing songs of praise or even rejoicing and being glad.  Then I wondered why…and this is what God seemed to say.

He told me that my heart is spongy.  And then He gave me this picture of a drop of blue dye falling onto a paper towel.  Of course, the dye stains the spot it hits, but because of the properties of the paper towel, the dye continues to saturate it and soak in.  This, He seemed to be telling me, is my anger.  It falls upon my heart and doesn’t just affect that one area, but seeps into other corners and crevices until it stains all areas.

So I find myself grumpy or distrustful or even angry when there is no reason to be.  Anger has permeated my heart, touches many other areas and darkens my world so I cannot sing God’s praises or be truly loving to others.

And the answer?  Well…I’d like to wring out my heart and tell it to quit being spongy, but I don’t think that is even an option.  So I think as I repent and acknowledge these areas, as I choose forgiveness, the Spirit comes and drops His life into me and into places of anger.  As I sing His praise in the midst of pain, then my spongy heart absorbs the Spirit’s coloring into all those other corners and cracks.  I am colored once again, but this time by Him.  And my spongy heart works for me, not against me.

The journey of Lent is long and lonely and difficult sometimes.  A few years ago I asked God what He wanted me to give up for Lent.  He answered back, “I want you to give up fear”…. I haven’t asked Him since.

This year He didn’t wait for me to ask the question.  He has just started prompting my heart toward the areas of anger that lurk there.  It is not a pretty picture.  The one above is much more beautiful than the war that is raging in my heart right now!

As Psalm 51 was read yesterday during the Ash Wednesday service, I realized that I had participated in an Ash Wednesday service a few days prior.  Sure… it wasn’t on a Wednesday, there were no ashes to be placed on our foreheads, we were a VERY ecumenical group, and most of us were not even supposed to be there.  What we did though was a solemn call to repentance, a renewed vision to prayer and forgiveness, and a stated desire to follow Jesus wherever He leads us – even into the wilderness.

My husband and I had just been a part of an amazing week at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.  We were supposed to fly out on a Sunday but because of a snowstorm, we were stuck in the city…well, actually the hotel!  Many other friends – some international, some from the US – were in the same predicament.  So we decided to make the best of it, and the Sunday morning gathering that unfolded is probably one of my favorite moments of the entire trip.

As we gathered in a suite, a Palestinian pastor lead us in a service of song and prayer.  The group gathered was diverse –  Orthodox, Evangelical, Muslim, those trying to figure out this thing called faith.  We sang some worship songs, people prayed in their own languages, and then we read Psalm 51.

It slowly dawned on me that the psalm was the story of that room.  We all came having sinned against God and one another and our heart’s cry was that God would create in us a clean heart.  I smiled when I  read “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”.  As I looked out the window I wondered if  God had  “trapped” us with that white snow to give us a visual example of His desire for those who walk after Him.

I watched the pastor speak eloquently and open the text in new ways to those in the room, but most of all I watched him.   From the days previous, I found him to be one of the most humble and kind men I have ever met.  He lives in Bethlehem, Palestine  in the middle of conflict, and hatred, and contempt and yet he doesn’t seem to be jaded by it.  His demeanor is that of one washed in God’s mercy and forgiveness, desiring justice and peace in land full of turmoil.  He is a pretty important man in the area ( my Lutheran pastor friend even knew of him) and yet I never would have known it.  The more I think about it…he reminded me a lot of Jesus!

I left that room with my Lenten charge, though a few days early…to confess, to forgive, to be reconciled, to not dehumanize, to love – my brother, my enemy, my neighbor, my world.

(the pastor’s website is www.mitriraheb.org)

Well, it is Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season has officially begun.  AND once again, I feel like I just need one more week before I’ll be ready.   Not sure what is wrong with me this year…I have lots of good ideas to write about but my times on the computer often get interrupted (like right now the phone is ringing!) and then I lose my concentration.  However, since I didn’t pick up the ringing phone, I have a few moments of quiet and just thought I’d share a few things we are going to do as a family to observe this Lenten season together:

During a conversation around our breakfast table, we discussed Lent and the stories or images that are often associated with it.  From these stories we decided to form some activities that our family will engage in during the next 40 days.

1.  Prayer – this is a no brainer, but prayer is at the very heart of Lent.  We ask God to “create in us a clean heart”, to help us see ourselves and Him ever more clearly, and to deepen our union with Him.  Because of this, we are going to set up a little prayer space in our house.  It will be a corner with a little table, a candle, a prayer book, a bible and whatever else our kids decide to add to it.  Both of them struggle with prayer (they think it is boring!) so there may be some unconventional items in our prayer space.  However, the point is to create a space that reminds us to pray and helps take us further into our prayer practice.

2.  Tie-Dye – As we talked about the imagery of Lent being the dying to self and Easter being the risen to new life, baptism naturally came up.  In the process of the conversation, my husband shared with us that “baptism” was the word they used when they dyed fabric.  What went in one color took on a new color after being dipped in the dye.  I thought that was a beautiful picture of us sharing in the life of Christ – of being baptized into Him – and coming out colored by His life, death and resurrection.  So….we are going to do a couple types of dyeing experiments.  The first will be taking black shirts and using bleach on them (the idea being that He has washed us whiter than snow).  The second will be taking white shirts and tie dyeing them to give us a physical picture of our lives taking on the colors of Jesus.

3.  $2 a Day Challenge – we have decided as a family to attempt to live on $2/day per person 2 days a week during the Lenten season.  Now this may not seem like much to you if you’ve done something like this before, but we have two growing children and this challenge is frightening the heck out of our 10 year old.  He is an active boy who needs lots of snacks during the day and so this is going to be his greatest act of faith.  We read the story of how Daniel and friends were sustained by only vegetables and water rather than the choicest foods from the kings table, and made sure he knew that the God of Daniel is still GOD!!  We’ll see how it goes…But at the end of Lent we’d love to take what we have saved over those handful of days and donate it to some organization doing Kingdom work.  (Got the $2/day challenge from Mustard Seed Associates).

4.  Planting in the Darkness – often times Lent can seem lonely, and dark; we are asked to do the hard work of digging in the dirt of our hearts, identifying the weeds and trusting that God is planting seeds of transformation in us even when we don’t see it.  So we are going to plant seeds in the dirt as a way to say that we will trust God’s process of growing us even in the darkness.  We are going to plant ours inside (after all the Pacific Northwest is not that warm yet), they will grace our vegetable garden in the spring and even become the food we harvest and eat in the summer.  (Is there any better picture of the slow, steady growth of God’s Spirit in our hearts and lives?)

I end with shoes.  It is the picture I have as I am invited by Jesus to walk into Lent with Him.  It is the picture I get as I think about our kids being formed by the Story of Lent and being able to walk through it together.  And as I feel ill prepared, a little too busy, not godly enough, and a little discombobulated…shoes are a comforting picture.  They remind me that in Lent, the important thing is not how we come, but how we leave the journey that matters.

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