There was evening and there was morning…

I was asked recently to reflect back on my life and look for the milestones that made my life seemingly worthwhile. The very first thing that came to mind was my children, their births and the subsequent years of raising them up into adulthood. Without a doubt, giving birth to another living being has been the greatest, most wondrous milestone of my life.

The next thing that came to mind were the deaths I’ve attended. Keeping watch at the bedsides of first my dad and then my mom was indeed every bit the milestones as the births of my three children. The rhythm of life…birth and death.

There was evening and there was morning…

The rhythm of days. Each one comes and goes, bringing whatever God wills or allows. An evening, life passing. A morning, new life begins. A day, the time from birth to death. There is a rhythm, a continuity that feels more right to me now in this season of life. I don’t feel the need to push against it, to defy its unceasing flow. These days it is rare that I think or say, “There just aren’t enough hours in this day to get everything done!” Instead I  trust that tomorrow will bring to me more hours in which to do whatever needs doing. Sometimes I even find that what was so important to get done yesterday holds less urgency for today!

There was evening and there was morning…a new day.

As I contemplate this rhythm, I find peace in simply entering into its flow. Of course, the rhythm can be fast or slow. Having a plan for the day is good; however, not being too ambitious and not holding too tightly to that plan is better. It slows the pace so that I can better appreciate the quiet grace of God in the unceasing flow, the rhythm of not just my own life, but life all around me.

In just the right time, Jesus will return and a new rhythm will begin. Until then, I will simply wait and watch, keeping with this God-ordained rhythm–there was evening and there was morning–finding peace and joy in its familiar flow.

Cross-carrying

 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  -Mark 8:34

Lately I’ve been pondering cross-carrying. On the one hand, that concept is not a familiar one within our culture. On the other hand, Jesus said that I need to take up my cross if I am to follow him. So it begs the question, What kind of cross am I to carry? What’s it for?

There are so many crosses to choose from: duty, obligation, penance, martyrdom, suffering, longing, care-taking, shame…and the list goes on and on. But I’m more and more convinced that the only cross I need to carry is the cross to which I nail my false self.

False self…that persona I’ve so carefully constructed over the years, the one I’ve created in response to the expectations of the world I live in–culture, community, workplace, church, friends, family. It’s the mask I wear in hopes that you approve, like, and accept me. It is manipulative and self-protective in that it seeks to control my environment so that my status quo is not disturbed or disrupted.

While I might choose to carry other kinds of crosses, the cross God chooses for me to carry is the one to which I nail my false self.

In his book, The Deeper Journey, Dr. Robert Mulholland makes this distinction:

There are two fundamental ways of being human in the world: trusting in our human resources and abilities or a radical trust in God…You might describe these two ways of being in the world as the ‘false self’ and the ‘true self.’

Dr. Mulholland goes on to point out that when Jesus says we should deny ourselves, he’s not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent. “He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being.”

Jesus is calling for me to nail that false self–the one that’s more about shame than grace–to the cross. It’s not a once and done deal, however. It’s not that easy! The false self is shed in layers, one after another, as I go through life. That’s why I need to carry that cross…the one that’s just waiting for the next abandoned layer of my false self.

What takes the place of my false self, though? What’s my identity as this false self is being stripped away? The Apostle Paul suggests that I am to put on Christ’s identity…

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  -2 Cor. 5:17

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  -Rom. 13:14

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  – Col. 3:1-3

Most days Christ’s identity feels too big, but that’s OK. I trust that God is growing me into it as I obediently and gratefully carry my cross.

 

For or Against?

 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  -Luke 9:49-50

How often have I looked at someone who is not demonstrably accepting or approving of me and assumed they were against me? Nothing specific has been said or done to indicate any animosity towards me, and yet I am suspicious and wary.

Case in point: my church previously worshipped in an urban setting. This particular area is on the cusp of one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of the city and so we were advised to excercise caution. Occasionally I was the first person to arrive at church early Sunday morning and, if I met anyone on the street as I approached our building, I immediately felt distrustful and apprehensive, especially if they did not smile or nod a greeting. While there is a case to be made for caution, my subconscious response ran deeper than that. I assumed they were “against” me. Why? I was not born with that instinct. However, I grew up with a fearful parent whose default response to a stranger was distrust. My apprehension was something I learned.

Jesus teaches a different posture. Jesus says that if someone isn’t against me, I should assume they are for me. That’s a big paradigm shift! As I have worked to un-learn what I was taught, I remind myself when encountering a stranger that I don’t need to lower my head and avoid eye contact, assuming they are “against” me. Rather, I choose to believe that they are for me (or at the very least neutral, which they most likely are!), greeting them with a smile and perhaps a kind word. In the process, I pray that they will know that I am “for” them, too…and in the process maybe our little corner of the world will become a gentler and more gracious place.

Do you subconsciously assume people are “for” or “against” you? What’s your natural instinct? Does it align with your behavior? Is it time for a paradigm shift?

Before I see someone as a problem, may I see him or her as a human being.  –Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, by Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson.

 

Grace, Gift, and Generosity

This week is about grace, gift, and generosity…

Those words spoken by Rev. Peter Matthews during his Palm Sunday sermon settled into my heart yesterday with an intensity that surprised me! For the past few days I have been pondering the irony of Palm Sunday: Jesus riding on a colt, nearing Jerusalem amidst cheers of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, all the while knowing that he was riding towards a gruesome death, called for by the very people who were now singing his praises. I have imagined the anguish he must have felt as he tried to reconcile this praise that was rightly his with the coming crucifixion that was certainly not.

Holy Week of 1988 forever changed my experience of Easter. My life commitment to Christ was still relatively new. We had just moved far from our Kentucky roots, settling in a little town in southern Alabama. In our search for a new church home, we were led to an Episcopal church which was a far cry from what I was used to. I decided to participate in all the events of Holy Week, curious to experience fully the traditions of this new denomination. As I journeyed from the palm-waving praise of Palm Sunday to the somber reflection of Maundy Thursday–kneeling in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to the haunting words and melody of “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” softly sung acapella which provided an apt backdrop for the stripping of the altar and the draping of the cross–I wept with an awareness of Christ’s suffering that I had never before experienced.

As painful as the anticipation I felt in that Maundy Thursday service was, returning to the darkened sanctuary with the black-draped cross for Good Friday itself was heart-wrenching. By this time, I had so entered into Christ’s passion that I was simply wrecked…or so I thought. I grieved and wept, and for the first time I could understood that ancient Jewish practice of putting on sackcloth and pouring ashes over one’s head in an expression of unbearable grief. Saturday’s Easter Vigil brought little relief. That black-draped cross and bare altar overshadowed the baptism of a young woman that evening.

Finally, Easter morning dawned! We headed to church with an anticipation the likes of which I had never before felt for Easter Sunday! I was not disappointed… We entered into a sanctuary resplendent with beautiful flowers and freshly polished brass, the black drape happily missing and the altar covered in starched white linen, the candles lit in welcome. The choir sang a beautiful anthem as the little children in their Easter finery (and I do mean finery–no one does this like southern mommas!) processed into the sanctuary, each with a flower to place on a styrofoam cross wrapped in chicken wire–something quite ugly to start with and absolutely beautiful when the children were finshed with it! The joyful praise, so much richer than those Palm Sunday hosannas, reverberated as we worshiped our Risen Lord. It was then that I was totally wrecked!

Long story, I know. But I needed to relive it in order to see clearly why those words spoken by Fr. Peter yesterday captured my heart. For the past 30 years I have experienced Easter in much the same way as in 1988. Each year I recall the memory of that particular Easter and how it changed my perception of that final agonizing week of Jesus’ earthly life…how it changed me. I’ve entered into the darkness of it in order to fully experience the unsurpassing joy of Easter.

But this year I want to embrace Holy Week differently. I’ve pondered and lamented my sin and the world’s sin and the darkness that Jesus came to illuminate, as any Christian must! But today I want to lay all that aside to remember what this week is really about: God’s incredibly generous gift of absolutely amazing grace! I want to experience all week that unsurpassing joy I typically save for Easter morning!

My prayer for you is that you will open wide your arms, unclench your hands from whatever you are holding so tight, and simply receive the deeper truth that this week–of all weeks–is about grace, gift, and generosity. Amen and amen!

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.

daniel-9

Surprised by Mystery

Several days ago I had the privilege of praying for healing for a woman with a kidney problem. She has been struggling with this for months, and at times it has been quite debilitating. As we began to pray, my prayer partner received a word of knowledge from the Lord that he–God–would heal that kidney. As we finished praying, the woman said that the pain was gone. Last night I received news that the woman had gone back to the doctor and had another ultrasound, which showed the kidney is completely healed.

I was surprised.

That probably sounds strange coming from someone who regularly prays for healing. It feels awkward to admit it! Until, that is, I recognize that the surprise I feel is not rooted in doubt, but in delight.

I do not have any idea why God heals some people and not others. It’s a mystery. I’ve certainly asked God about it, and I’ve read a lot on that subject. I’ve not found a definitive answer, and I don’t believe there is one to be found. (That is the definition of mystery, is it not?) The way I see it, to believe I should have an answer to everything I don’t understand is simply arrogant. Some say that I’m blessed to be at peace with the myteries of God, but I think it’s as simple as knowing about a particular woman in a garden long ago who was tempted by the notion that she could know the mind of God. She gave in to the temptation, and look where that got us!

Personally, I find a great deal of peace in knowing that someone who is bigger and smarter than me has everything under control–the good and the bad. God is not capricious. He is good and he does good. Always. The mysteries will someday be revealed and the very word “mystery” will become obsolete. I can wait.

I believe firmly in divine healing. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve even experienced it myself! Yet I am always surprised when God chooses to heal. Evidence of doubt? Not at all. It’s delightdancing-with-god in witnessing the mystery all over again. So I will continue praying for healing when the opportunities present themselves and joyfully embrace the surprise when I’m reminded of the mysteries of God!

Reflections From a Funeral

Funerals are important events. I’ve been to plenty of them over my lifetime, several during my childhood. Most of those were fun–I got to hang out with cousins I didn’t often see, telling stories from past adventures, stifling our giggles so as not to draw unwelcome attention from our parents. But as I grew up, funerals became occasions for grieving the loss of someone dear, or coming alongside a friend in their grief. Not fun, and therefore something to avoid whenever possible.

Frau auf Beerdigung mit Sarg

Now that I serve as a pastor in my church, I don’t get to avoid funerals anymore. In fact, yesterday I helped lead one. It was the first time I had served in that role, and I found it to be very meaningful.

I was blessed to visit with Diana in the days leading up to her transition. Admittedly, I have only known her for a half-dozen of her 82 years, but in that short time I came to respect and love her. Diana was probably the most grace-filled woman I have ever known. Her son confirmed this in his remarks at her funeral, reflecting that Diana accepted whatever life brought her way with quiet grace. This was certainly true in her last days. My final visit with her, just 48 hours before she passed, she greeted me with her sweet smile and gathered strength to thank me for coming, grace-filled to the end. Indeed, I was told that her transition from this life to the next was one of grace-filled peace.

On the way back from the graveside service yesterday, the funeral director commented that people often question the need for funerals these days. I can understand that–it’s expensive, it requires thoughtful planning, and it takes time away from things we would rather be doing. Moreover, it forces us to face our own mortality. And that is exactly why funerals are important.

As I ponder Diana’s life and death, I remember that my life grows shorter each day, too. I am now much closer to my own transition to eternity than when I first began! And I find questions arising out of that truth…

What am I doing with my life that honors God for his gracious giving of it? Am I living true to my calling? Where am I missing the mark? Am I taking full advantage of this life as training ground for the next?

As I ponder these questions, I know this: I want to be more like Diana, full of grace. Too much I rant and rave and shake my fist at God, to no avail. I want to be like soft clay in the hands of the Potter, that he might cultivate a quiet grace in me that blesses others and allows me to hear God in the stillness (think Elijah, 1 Kings 19:1-16). I want to accept what comes my way with unwavering faith in the God from whom all grace flows.

Everything teaches…even funerals. So I won’t avoid them anymore. Rather, I will seize the opportunity to face and reflect on my own mortality. I will welcome the hard questions and yield to God as he equips me for the good work he has called me to do, both here in this life and in the life to come. Amen and amen!