Hungry for mercy: thoughts on comparison, prayer, and Luke 18

clouds on Mauii

Fear settled in like the rain clouds this week. Not a torrential downpour, but a misty trickle that has me wanting to pull blankets over my head and hide. Like a scared dog, I want to tuck my tail and slink under the couch waiting for the threat of thunder to pass.

I want to hunker down and armor up, praying God will somehow vindicate me. I play the me vs the world game.

It’s bananas. It’s unhealthy. I know it.

And it still took me about twenty-four hours to find a bigger perspective while my feelings roamed all over the place and the lies weighed in heavier and heavier.

I consulted Jesus. What I wanted was vindication.

What I needed was grace. Continue reading

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Worth the Risk: Choosing Courage

012216 Holiday Train 6Getting trapped in a crowd causes my ears to pulse. I can hear the thumping of my heart pumping blood. My eardrums rattle like the china in my kitchen cabinet when our neighbor’s bass is turned up too loud. My heart races. Fight or flight. Survival mode kicks in. My temper fuse, which is normally fairly long, shortens to millimeters.

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Vending Machines and Prayer

vending machineA few years ago, in one of my seminary assignments, I railed against the idea of prayer working like a vending machine — as though we toss up the right words and phrases and out comes our spiritual Snickers in response. God’s not a vending machine.  And I still stand by that statement. God isn’t a machine we manipulate and control.

Yet, as I’ve been thinking about prayer again for a class I’m teaching at my church, maybe the vending machine metaphor isn’t entirely bad for thinking about prayer.

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All Wound Up Together: Communion, Family and Feeling Loved

God met me this weekend.  Last week as I was preparing to speak with my pastor for the first time, I was highly nervous. Part of that was a struggle to discern what God had to say to me in the topic.  So, I asked a few friends to pray that God would show me what the message was for me.

Well, God delivered.  Not what I expected.  Not anything related to the topic I was speaking on.  But, over the past two days, I’ve had one of the most powerful God moments of my life.  I’m overwhelmed.  I even started writing poetry again for the first time in ten years (Meme, if you’re reading this, you’ll probably be thrilled about that, though the poem itself is rusty and clunky. Further, no, I’m not showing it to anyone at this point, possibly ever.).

It all began with communion Sunday morning.

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I Shall Not Want

I came across Audrey Assad’s song I Shall Not Want this week. I’m not a big sharer of videos and other multimedia; I’m kind of anti-cool.  But, I’m going to do it today anyway because I love the song that much.  The video is simple;  her singing and playing the piano. That’s it.  No fancy bells or whistles.

Fair warnings:  the song is a tad slow, which I love for reflecting, but is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The lyrics of her song are what grabbed me,  and I’ve listened to (and let’s be honest, sang along with) the song in my iPod on repeat all day today.

They are both my hope and my prayer for my life right now.  The timing of this discovery was particularly poignant as it fits right in with what I’ve been reading in Luke.

Luke pierced my heart earlier this week. I can’t let it go. I was so shocked by Jesus’ zinger about how much God will give the Spirit to those who ask.  The assumption here being that when we pray what we seek is no less than God.

I suddenly also felt grieved for God.  How painful and hurtful must it be when we humans abuse prayer.  When we twist it into seeking our own ends rather than God.  Imagine if our friends treated us this way.  I don’t think we’d count them as our friends for very long.  Yet God is a patient God.

I am challenged to think more seriously about how I pray.  I’ve thought of prayer as relationship building for a long time, so what I’m experiencing isn’t new.  I’m still struggling with how to quantify it.  Maybe it’s an invitation to something spiraling deeper.  Maybe it’s more experiential understanding God’s goodness.  Somehow I’m feeling God’s goodness in my gut and in my bones.

And it’s a goodness that isn’t rooted as much in God satisfying my agenda, as much as I am learning to become satisfied with just God.  That sounds so churchy and weird to say.  But, I don’t have a better way to describe it.  I feel like I’m sampling God’s goodness.

I fear those things that get in the way.  Assad mentions my main ones:  the love of my own comfort, the fear of being lonely, the fear of having nothing, the fear of trials.    I don’t think deliverance always means that God evacuates me from my circumstances and crazy; sometimes deliverance means work on my part — and that in itself is still God delivering me when I’m able to do that.  For me, this week, I’m taking seriously those things that get in my way with God. I’ve been picking at those fears and desires that start making me seek my own agenda rather than God’s kingdom.  I see them as so much more destructive now, and not so innocuous as I once did.

I think there’s something to Assad’s point that as we taste God’s goodness, we shall not want. I’m reminded of Jesus in the temptation scene in the Gospels.  After 40 days in the desert, Jesus was tempted by the invitation to turn stones into bread.  His response to the temptation is to say that humans don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.  I don’t live just by immediate needs.  I’m sustained by God’s activity in the world – not by my self-sustaining actions. This breath, this keystroke, is a gift.

A Good and Generous God: Reflections on Prayer and Luke 11:1-14

The Lord’s Prayer.  That prayer from church that starts “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Well, at least if you’re praying the Matthew 6 version — which is what most folks use.  Matthew’s version is a bit longer than Luke’s.  When I’ve heard teaching on it in the past, it has tended to be focused on either the individual components of the prayer like a primer on what to say when talking to God, or on the context of Matthew 6 and the hypocrisy that Jesus is trying to combat against.  I haven’t heard much on Luke’s account on the Lord’s Prayer.

This week as I studied in preparation for my LifeGroup, I found Luke’s account fascinating.  Luke doesn’t pull punches in his gospel; his gospel is the most bold and aggressive about the connection between loving God and taking care of the vulnerable and marginalized.  One can’t both love God and ignore (or do things to harm) those whom God values; these are mutually exclusive options.

I’d expect Luke’s version to be more “in your face.” Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is striking in contrast to Matthew’s. Luke seems gentler here than Matthew.  Luke teaches about prayer right after the famous moment with Martha and Mary (Luke 10).  Martha is busy with preparations around the home to honor Jesus while Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning;  Mary is affirmed for choosing the better way.  And then, Luke introduces Jesus’ teaching about prayer.

Rather than the focus on hypocrisy, Luke instead situates this teaching about what it means to pray within a discussion about the character of the One we’re praying to.  This is a radically different conversation for me. Thinking about the nature of God changes the way I pray. Jesus teaches that the disciples can pray with confidence on two counts:  that God hears and responds, and that the response of this God is that of a good father who doesn’t give scorpions when his child asks for an egg. The emphasis in Luke seems to be more upon the character of the One to whom we pray and less about the one praying.

Luke’s challenge for me this week was to think through the character of the God I worship. I was forced to confront that there’s a connection between the way I view God and the way that I pray (and vice versa).  Having a warped view of who God is causes problems in the way that I feel about prayer and God’s response (or lack thereof) to me.

One, I can get focused on praying about things that are about me instead of God’s kingdom.  For instance, my wanting to have a baby.  Having a baby is a normal human thing.  The desire for that isn’t wrong.  But, somehow having a baby became more important than God, and that made my prayer life a little twisted.  I started thinking of God as someone who served me, rather than the other way around.  I was praying for my kingdom come — instead of God’s kingdom come.  Then, I got all up in arms because I felt like God was ignoring my request.  God no longer seemed good as I saw him withholding a child from me while I prayed and nothing happened.

Two, either I rest on my independence for daily bread or I want more security than just today’s bread.  When I rest too much on my own abilities, I start to forget that all that I am I owe to God.  I think I can stand on my own feet, and I forget that all that I am and have is a gift.  When all is the result of my own merit, I also miss out on experiencing the wonder of grace and get trapped in my pride.

Sometimes I want to hoard up more than today’s supply of bread.  I want to hold the promise of security for more than today.  I want to rest in secured safety, rather than in the trust that God will be faithful tomorrow as God has been faithful today.  When I want to hoard things, I’m actually doubting God’s faithfulness as I try to claim for myself security with my hands.

Maybe the root of all this is deeply ugly:  what really gets in my way with prayer is when I want things and safety more than I want God. There’s a song by Rend Collective called “The Cost” that’s been on repeat in my iPod lately that hits this point.  One line stands out most: “I do not need safety as much I need You.”  I want this to be true in me. I’m growing here.  But if I’m honest, I think this is a weak point for me, and I’m still working on it.

This ties in closely with what shocked me the most with Luke’s teaching on prayer.  Luke 11:14 says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  Luke references how much more will the Father give the Spirit to those who ask; Luke doesn’t talk of things that God will give — rather that God will share God’s very self. The conclusion to this section on prayer assumes that what we are seeking is no less than God.  God is eager to be generous with God’s own self.  God desires us to to boldly seek his face.  God is eager to be found by us.  We are loved, and we are valued by the holy Creator. God desires that we know and be known by him.  Even though we are broken people, God desires that we seek and find him.  

God desires that I seek and find him.  I am welcomed.  Somehow that’s much harder to write than saying we and you. I’m forcing myself to do it anyway, and to own that I am loved and wanted. 

In an earlier post, I mentioned asking God to give me a name.  God did that tonight as I was walking into Bethel for a meeting after my LifeGroup. It wasn’t anything that I was expecting, and I’m not going to share it here.  But, it was a profound moment for me.  I nearly fell over and almost started crying. I think it’s going to change my life.  Not in the clarity and security way that I wanted.  But, it’s forcing me to re-think the way I think of myself and my value.  God gave me a gift of the Spirit.  I sought God, and God is answering.  God has been generous to me. 

Walking in a Haze

Today as I was sorting through photos stored on my camera, I came across this one.  I think it captures visually the way I feel about my life right now.  A few immediate things concrete and in focus, but the rest is blurred.  Looking beyond the focused leaves makes me feel queasy in much the same vein that looking beyond the next month or two does.

As I near the end of the road for seminary, folks keep asking me (and, let’s be honest, I keep asking myself), “What’s next?”  What a scary thought.  The answer is I don’t know. Not knowing makes me uneasy. I want crystal clear directions. But, I don’t have them.  I keep finding more questions and less concrete answers.   It makes me feel unproductive.  I’m 33.  Why don’t I know yet what I want to be when I grow up?  Why can’t I just settle on something? This all makes me feel a tad neurotic and insecure.  And also incompetent.  Perhaps I get a little too wound up in comparing my life with others.

I know seminary is where I’m supposed to be, but I have no idea how God is going to use this education when I’m done.  The places I’m being led towards don’t involve big paychecks, but rather volunteering and small-time gigs.  These aren’t the things of comfort and security.

Thus far seminary doesn’t feel like career preparation in the way school has felt in the past.  Instead, seminary feels like part of a journey towards God.  I started seminary feeling bitter and frustrated with God.  The infertility journey drove a wedge into my relationship with God, and there was a disconnect between what I thought I should believe and my experience.  I remember praying in my first semester and asking to experience God as good and to help me learn to hope again.  Tucked away in a dark and quiet corner of campus, I felt time pause, and felt like I locked a destination into a GPS.  A moment where I concretely felt my life change course in a significant way.

In the past two and half years, God has answered that prayer.  Not in a simple way.  Not in giving me what I wanted (i.e. a biological child).  Rather, God has changed my perspective. I experienced some deeper realities about the God I worship. God’s goodness isn’t dependent on God making me happy by giving me what I want. I serve a God who enters into human suffering, who has taken on a body and though innocent, was crucified. And I realized therein lies the beauty of the Gospel: the hope of resurrection.  Not that we avoid all pain and discomfort with a magic safety button.  But that even in the face of loss and brokenness, God can bring new life forth from ashes.  Maybe it’s not the life I would imagine for myself.  Sometimes it’s better than I’d imagine.  Sometimes not.  Either way, I am not abandoned in what feels like defeat. Somewhere as I slowly moved along in these thoughts, I began to know God as good in more than an intellectual way.

This fall I had another moment where I felt time pause as I was praying.  I can’t help but wonder where this journey will take me.  As I was driving earlier this week, I started thinking of the way God has given various people names in the Bible (like Abraham and Paul and others), and typically those names are packed with meaning.  And I asked God to give me a name.  Weird thing.  I feel silly writing about it.  Yes I have a name from my parents, but there’s something powerful to me in being given a name (even nicknames are powerful things).

Here’s the deal.  I’m often wracked with self-doubt, insecurity and self-criticism.  The naysayers that live in my brain are quite obnoxious.  It is crippling.  I also realize that there is no amount of praise from others that will fix this in me; criticism can make it worse, but praise doesn’t make it better.  At best, praise dulls the wound; at worst, praise becomes an addiction.  I need to find within me a place to rest in the knowledge that I have value and am worth loving.  Now that I can trust that God is good (even if I don’t always understand God’s goodness), I think I’m in a better place to trust what God might have to say about me.  And I’m beginning to want to listen to God’s voice about me.  To that end, I’m listening for what name the Spirit will give.

To tie back in with the beginning, I’m hoping the name also helps clarify a few more pieces of the puzzle beyond seminary.  But since the journey of experiencing the goodness of God didn’t happen in just a day, who knows how long the quest for a name will take.  I’m having to learn to focus on what I can see first, and to have patience with what I can’t.  I don’t like it. But, I don’t have any other options right now either. I’m just learning to live with being queasy and uneasy.