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

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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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.

Driving Out Fear

Fear, for me, starts out like a well-meaning roommate.  “Are you sure you really want sit there?  That really doesn’t seem sturdy?”  or “Are you sure you really want to turn on that light?  It might be too bright for your eyes.”  My inner fear wants to know if I can handle something, and lets me know the possibilities of failure with each choice.

As I start making decisions based on fear (because sometimes fear seems like it makes good, rational points), I notice that my friendly roommate offers increasing suggestions about all aspects of my life.  Soon my “friendly” roommate Fear has taken over the whole house, while I’m cowered in a dark corner of myself with barely any mental room to breathe.  The helpful suggestions led to a hostile takeover of my entire life.  And now, I have to take back my home.

Perfect love drives out fear.  At least, this is what 1 John tells me. John argues that love drives out fear because fear is about punishment.  Love doesn’t punish; love disciplines, but it doesn’t punish. Discipline is about training for relationship; punishment is about retribution.

As I’ve learned this year in my own battle against anxiety, I’ve not been made perfect in love yet. I fear. I am anxious.  I fear people not finding me cool enough, or “holy” enough (whatever that means) for ministry.   Am I really a leader?  Am I a good one?  Does what I do actually make a difference somewhere?  Or are all these words and actions poured out into a vacuum? I feared sitting down to write today – feared not making sense, not having wisdom, not having something to say that might matter for anyone other than me. (Note:  I know these are not ultimately helpful questions because they continue to focus me inward.  There’s never enough human affirmation to fill that gap; I know it has to come from someplace else.  But, they are still significant questions that pop up for me.)

As we look toward adoption, I fear that people will think less of me because of choices my child(ren) might make.  I’m now afraid of what my child(ren) may do to lash out at themselves, peers, my husband, or me; more than that, I’m afraid because I don’t know yet what my responses to those situations will be.  I’m afraid of not being a perfect parent (though intellectually, I know no one is).  I’m afraid that while I’m longing for connection in community that this whole adoption process will set us outside the circle of our friends.  I’m afraid that all these roads are the ones that God is actually calling us toward.  Beyond all these things, I’m afraid that at some point on this year’s journey I’m going to fail God’s calling on me, and that somehow God will be disappointed in me.

In each of the scenarios I mentioned,  I’m waiting on punishment.  I wonder if I’ll be judged, found lacking, and condemned.  And that’s where fear creeps in.

The point isn’t that I become perfect to avoid punishment.  The point is that I learn to rest in the love which drives out fear of punishment.  God always welcomes me.  Always.  I, in my own stubbornness and stupidity, may not always welcome God.  God’s welcome may not always be gushy and obvious; sometimes God is silent.  But God, in spite of my failings, has never ousted me. About this experience of God’s affirmation Henri Nouwen writes,

This experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others.  This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions and to act creatively even when we are laughed at and rejected, even when our words and actions lead us to death (The Selfless Way of Christ, p. 58).

And to this end, I was struck by Philippians 4 this summer as I translated it from Greek for my summer class.  Paul tells the Philippians not to be anxious.  To which I think, “easier said, than done,” Paul.  And he goes on that instead of being anxious, in everything the Philippians should present their requests to God.  He tells them to pray about what makes them anxious.  In their praying, the peace of God will rest on them.  Paul does not make God a wish-granting genie. Paul doesn’t say anything about God even answering their prayers as they asked (Note: I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayer; I’m saying that in this instance, Paul is focused on the peace that God will bring).   Instead of mere wish fulfillment, God brings peace — peace that transcends all understanding.

By praying, I place myself in God’s hands.  And being there, I experience the warmth of God’s affection for me.  From that place, fear has no room to sprout.  If I can find ways of staying in intentional communion with God, then Nouwen’s words begin to ring true.  I no longer need to fear the judgment of others because I am in the Father’s hands.  The laughter and rejection (while they sting) need not hold me hostage because no one and no thing can separate me from God’s love.  I need not prove myself useful, spectacular and competent to others because I’ve already found identity and security in Jesus.    It is entirely possible for me to live out a space of rested calm – even when it makes no sense.  What J and I are about to embark on this year seems absolutely crazy to me!  And while I’ve feared things going wrong on the journey, I also have a concrete sense of peace that we’re walking on a trail that God has paved for us.

Peace tends to be so much easier for me in the summer when I’ve got more time to be a hermit – to curl up with books, journal and Bible just for me and because I want to do it.  The challenge for me will be in maintaining this during the year.  Seeking out solitude (and not feeling guilty for it) needs to be a bigger priority for me this year.  Otherwise, the fear and anxiety always wins.  And it’s past time for fear to get out of my house.