The Battle on Two Fronts

My husband and I went out for breakfast this morning to celebrate his birthday. As our slow_down_sign_reed_college_portland_oregon_2013conversation drifted to his recent retirement and the changes we are experiencing, he commented on how nice it is to be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on a weekday morning, having nothing he has to rush to do. As I thought about his comment, I became increasingly aware of my own state of being. I was revving up. We had finished our meal, and I was physically preparing to rush on to the next thing. Except, there wasn’t a “next thing.”

It seems to me that my body is hard-wired to rush. It’s not that I have a lot of nervous energy…I’m not a leg-jiggler or a foot-tapper. I don’t drum my fingers. I’m not even particularly energetic. But my body is always poised to move on to whatever is next on the to-do list.

As a wife and mother,  a homemaker, a businesswoman-turned-pastor, I have been busy the majority of my life. I learned early on that time management was essential to successfully juggling my varied roles and responsibilities. My days were for the most part carefully planned to maximize every minute so as to accomplish not only what I needed to get done, but also have time for what I wanted to do. It was not uncommon for me to pack more into a day than was feasible to do. I’ve conditioned myself to be productive, and to be productive requires being on the move.

My life has changed significantly in the last six months. I quit my marketplace job to spend more time in ministry. After two years of providing care for my mother, she suffered a stroke and died. Subsequent weeks were spent tying up the loose ends of her affairs. Then my husband retired, and the holidays were upon us. With the whirlwind of activity behind us, we are settling into a new routine, a slower pace. Time to relax over a leisurely meal, or go to a movie in the middle of the day. The problem is that my body doesn’t know how to do that. I feel as though I’m fighting a battle to make myself slow down. That’s the battle on the physical front.

But the battle is also being fought on another front, a spiritual front. All this busyness I’ve prided myself on over the years has also conditioned my spiritual self to stay on the move. I devoured books, yet couldn’t really tell you what I’d read. I would have a revelation from scripture, but wouldn’t remember it days later. Rather than take the time to process what I read and perceived, I was rushing ahead to the next spiritual thought or epiphany. Now I am learning how to sit quietly and listen–really listen–for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Solitude is becoming something I desire regularly.

Equally important, I am learning to be still and truly listen to others. Just as I rushed physically from one thing to the next, I also rushed conversations. The temptation to think about how I wanted to respond or simply being impatient to move on to another topic meant that I often didn’t give attention to the other person’s words, much less to what might be hiding behind them.

I’m learning that it’s impossible to be attentive to the present moment when the body and the spirit are persistently rushing on to the next thing on the to-do list or on to the next thought. This business of slowing down is hard though! The battle against pushing forward, refusing to idolize both physical and spiritual busyness, is intense.

The lesson that needs to settle deep in my spirit is this: What’s next is not guaranteed. Only this moment is real. To rush past it is to lose the battle and forfeit the opportunity to experience God in the here and now. And so each evening I thank God for all the blessings of the day, the ones I caught and the ones I missed, asking him to reveal those overlooked blessings so that I may be consciously grateful for them, too. My prayer is that this tool–this examen at the end of the day–will help me win the battle of being fully present on both fronts, physically and spiritually. Amen and amen.

 

Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

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Loved

A last minute gift to buy…

Presents to wrap…

Christmas cards begging for their addresses…

That special someone’s favorite Christmas cookies left to bake…

Yes, ’tis the season, all right. Perhaps you are calm, heart fully prepared for Christmas. What a blessing!

But perhaps, like most people I know, you are caught up in the flurry of activity that consumes us this time of year. Even when we know we are missing the point, many of us can’t find a way to escape the frantic demands our minds place on us as we strive to create the picture-perfect Christmas for those we love.

Having lost my mother to a stroke just three months ago, I have been in an emotional fog. I’ve felt grief and loss, of course, but also anger and fear and confusion–and little pinpoints of joy here and there. The swirl of emotions was wearying and I couldn’t seem to escape it, so I sought out the help of prayer ministers. As Mary prayed with me, she shared her sense that I have been struggling to “put the pieces together” as in a puzzle, but that what God desired was for me to STOP and allow him to simply hold me and love me. In spite of the demands of Christmas–all that was yet to be bought, wrapped, addressed, and/or baked–I stole away for a day. I retreated from all the activities and preparations, escaping to my favorite quiet place where there was nothing to do other than receive the love God was offering me.

In the story of Mary and Martha recorded in chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel, we find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is quite busy in the kitchen. If you know the story, what has probably come to your mind is the contrast between obedient Mary and distracted Martha. It is every Christian woman’s challenge, is it not? At some point or another we have to deal with the sting of conviction that those words bring. But I digress… Setting aside whatever angst we may feel about that story, I would invite you to see Mary healingtouchsimply allowing Jesus to love her. Perhaps He has one hand resting on her head as she sits quietly in His presence. Now see Him extending His other hand to Martha, inviting her to stop her scurrying about. See Him creating space for Martha to also sit with Him so that she might simply receive His love, too. Now picture yourself in Martha’s place.

In the whirlwind that may be swirling within you and around you as you make your way through these last days before Christmas, I pray that you will retreat from the busyness, from the wearying swirl of emotions…escaping to a quiet place for as long as you need, until you, too, experience the love of God wrapping around you, calming and comforting you as nothing else can. Then your heart will be ready to share the Gift you have received: the love of Immanuel, God-with-us.

May your Christmas be blessed with the joy and love and peace of Christ.

Rituals and Christmas Lists

Black Friday…Cyber Monday… Our Biggest Sale of the Season… on and on it goes, this gift-giving frenzy that characterizes an American Christmas.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those anti-gift-giving rants that invariably pop up every year. I happen to love gift-giving! OK, yes, and gift-getting, too!

However, reading Isaiah 1:10-20 this morning has reminded me how we can get so caught up in the ritual that we completely lose sight of its purpose.

For at least the past decade, my family has employed Christmas lists. They used to be written on paper, then copied and shared. When email came along, we began sending them electronically. This made life simpler because we could also share what we were giving each individual (except the gift recipient, of course) to eliminate wasted time standing in long post-Christmas gift return lines. Then Amazon developed Wish Lists, making it even easier to create our magnificent gift registries, share them with each other, let Amazon keep track of purchases by simply taking the item off the list once it wasamazon-gift-list purchased, and–the ultimate convenience!–now Amazon even allows us to add items to our list that are not found in Amazon’s vast warehouse! Perfect, right?

 

It was really fun for a while, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it the past couple of years. I have become so caught up in this path to gift-giving…so enamored with the tool for facilitating gift-giving…that the method has supplanted the underlying reason for the action itself. The giving of a Christmas gift is meant to represent my love for the person I’m giving it to, and the gift should be a result of thoughtful consideration.

Back to Isaiah… The prophet exhorts us to hear the Lord’s rebuke to the Israelites, who have become so enamored of the rituals of worship that they have completely forgotten what the rituals  are intended to do: remind us of the One we worship, why we worship Him, and what He most desires from us and for us.

I worship in the Anglican tradition, which has plenty of rituals. I’m grateful that we are encouraged to make use of those which are helpful in our worship rather than become a slave to any of them. When we process in for worship, the lead person lifts up a cross. As I follow behind it, I’m reminded that I follow the risen Christ. When I make the sign of the cross, I do it because at that particular moment in the worship service I’m reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for me, or of the mystery of our triune God. After the offering is collected, the priest lifts the basket heavenward as we sing, and I am reminded that all things do come from God and with grateful hearts we give back a portion of what’s been given to us. All of these rituals are designed to help me remember and reflect on God’s goodness, to foster a humble purity of heart for worship and obedience. This is God’s desire for me and from me, so that I will be fitted and ready for the day when the rituals will no longer be needed because the Kingdom has come in its fullness and worship is the continual reality.

Whatever rituals you may use in worship or in celebrating Christmas (I’ll leave you to ponder which might need attention!), take a little time this week to consider whether they are achieving their intended purpose or whether they have become more prominent than they were ever meant to be. If the latter is true, don’t resort to drastic measures. Rather, allow that awareness to guide you gently back to a proper perspective.

I think I’ll take a little break from Amazon Wish Lists and shop locally for one or two gifts that will be a total surprise!

 

Grief: A paradoxical gateway to gratitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Along with the expectation for turkey and pumpkin pie is an even greater expectation of a heart bursting with gratitude. Some years that feels like a lot of pressure. This year is one of them for me.

I spent yesterday retreating from the busyness of the world, choosing to spend the the day in silence and solitude at my favorite retreat center. The day began with frustration and disappointment, but I shrugged it off as I made the 30-minute drive, happy to enter the quiet beauty of the center. I settled into a favorite chair with my Bible and my journal, prepared to encounter the Lord in whatever way He chose to present Himself. I was surprised to see what first flowed from my pen onto the page of my journal…

Thanksgiving is two days away…and I am here to grieve. Perhaps so that I can be truly thankful in two days.

Seriously, I had no idea that was what the day would hold.

I miss my Mom. I understand now how she came to be the person I often didn’t like, and my heart feels tender now towards that woman. The life she lived was not easy, and she didn’t have Jesus to lean on. (I am so grateful for you, Jesus!) I wish I could tell her that I understand now. I could be kinder and gentler and less angry now. But it’s too late. Nevermind that I had to experience the loss in order to arrive at this plac of understanding. Perhaps I need to be grateful for that, too–but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

I miss youth. I’ve never wanted to be a person resentful of the aging process. It’s inevitable, so what’s the use in fighting it? But I don’t like it, nor do I want it really. My body doesn’t move as fast or as easily as it used to. I can’t see as well or think as fast. I want to welcome that as a green light to slowing down the pace of life a bit. But, truth be told, I am afraid of feeling useless.

I grieve unmet expectations. I have never been one to dwell long on regrets and I don’t want to start now. But I realize that I have precious few years left, and I don’t want to get to the end of them and be sad that I let opportunities pass by. There is so much of this world that I want to see and experience, and not nearly enough time left.

I’ve always loved the change of seasons, but today I grieve the end of warm sunny days. Winter is upon us. Lord, please don’t let it settle in my heart, too.

And the Lord graciously answered. I wept (honestly, I wailed!) until I had no more tears…and I didn’t apologize for it, not to God or to myself.

Then I went for a long walkdsc_0054-2 where I encountered beautiful fall color in the midst of the dull brown of approaching dsc_0122-1winter, admired the beauty of a bright red cardinal, and sat with a turtle slowly making his way through the fallen leaves. I took a nap. I sat in the afternoon sun, wrapped in a blanket, on a gently rocking porch swing and finished a really good book.

And at the end of the day I wrote…

I feel better, I think; ready to face home again. Maybe ready to be grateful as Thanksgiving arrives. It’s been a good day. Thank you, Lord, for listening while I poured out my grief, for collecting my tears in your bottle, for gently wiping my face dry. Thank you for legs strong enough to carry me down the trail and back up again, and for a camera that helps capture that which my eyes don’t see as well as they used to. Yes, it’s been a good day and I am grateful.

There’s something about grieving that opens our eyes and our hearts to gratitude. If you are struggling to be grateful on this day before Thanksgiving, perhaps you need to grieve a little…or a lot. Do it. And I will be praying that you, too, find it to be an unexpected gateway to gratitude.

 

 

Forgiving God

Forgiving God may well be the first step in trusting him.

Does God need my forgiveness? Absolutely not! That would imply that God has done something wrong. He is God–incapable of doing anything wrong.

Do I need to forgive God? Probably. We all experience disappointment in life, and sometimes we blame God for it. Of course the blame is not his, but he is generous and so full of grace that he allows the blame to rest on him. For a while, anyway.

At some point, however, I am blessed if I realize that it’s not God’s fault that I am disappointed. It is mine. I most likely decided that I knew better than God, and so I did what I wanted to do–what I thought was best–rather than what God says is best. That means those consequences I was so mad about were absolutely my fault, not God’s, and it’s really me that needs forgiveness.

If I can see that God was right and I was wrong…

If I realize that he is so full of grace to allow me to blame him for my stubborn decision to have it my way in spite of his warnings…

If I repent of ever thinking that God needed my forgiveness…

If I ask God to forgive me…

If I accept God’s forgiveness…

I just might learn to trust him more fully.

Interestingly, this process repeats itself throughout the life of any Christ-follower. It’s how our faith grows.

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Jesus and Me or The Bride of Christ?

Christians who rail against the Church have a real problem. They may claim to try their very best to love as Jesus loves, but they are missing one very salient point.

Know what Jesus loves above all else? (Well, with the exception of the Father, of course!) THE CHURCH!

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. – Ephesians 5:22-33 (emphasis mine)

 

There are endless discussions about this passage as it relates to husbands and wives. We can get so distracted by that aspect that we totally miss what Paul is saying about Christ and the Church. (In case you are wondering, I capitalize the “c” to indicate the universal church, rather than individual denominations or gatherings.)

Yes, Jesus recognizes and loves each of us as individuals. Of course He does! But His love is not limited to individuals, and it certainly is not limited to any one individual. “Jesus and me” is true, but it is not complete…it is not the end of the story. In an effort to help others understand that Jesus died for their sin, I think our evangelical subculture has created a class of believers who are so consumed with how much Jesus loves me that we can easily dismiss the fact that Jesus died to save THE CHURCH, as Paul clearly states in Ephesians 5:23 above. Yes, He died for me personally, but that in no way invites me to dismiss the larger reality that Christ gave Himself up for the Church.

You may be forming an argument that the Church is made up of individuals. It most certainly is. And, you may be thinking, each individual is of undeniable worth to Christ. Absolutely true. But Christ has a much more holistic view than we do! He loves the Church as a whole, as one body. That means all of us together, as well as separately. In fact, our togetherness is more important than our separateness.

This is born out in the scriptures again and again. For instance, how many of the letters included in the New Testament are written to individuals? My temptation may be to read them as though they were written exclusively to little ol’ me, but the fact remains that they were written to groups of people gathered together into churches.

So the next time the temptation rises up to bash the church–to decry its imperfections and shun participation in it–let’s remember that it is our individual flaws that make her what she is, and that Christ died to save her. Only in our togetherness can we become the holy and unblemished Bride of Christ, whom Christ loves above all else.

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