Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Where I Want to Nest

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, 
where she may have her young—a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.” 
Psalm 84:3

That's where I want to want to nest. Near the altar of my King. To be near my God.

But that's not where I find myself most of my days.

We've been house hopping for the past two months, blessed to stay in the beautiful homes of gracious friends. But also feeling weary of living out of suitcases, of trying to remember where we put certain items. And then attempting to leave homes just the way we found them. One of the worst feelings is discovering a scratch or stain or break as we're preparing to leave. Was that here when we got here or is this something we did???

Last week I found a book on the bookshelf of the house where we are currently house-sitting by one of my favorite authors, Ruth Haley Barton. The title really resonated with me, Invitation to Solitude and Silence. That's been a growing desire for me in this hectic summer season of our active boys being home from school, along with the unsettledness of moving all around. As I dug into the richness of this book, I was struck with the way she differentiated between a desire just to get time alone and a desire to connect with God.

Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself. Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine.”

This helped me to see that probably most of the time I think about silence and solitude, I'm just craving some down time to recharge. Not desiring real communion with God. Because drawing near to God also means taking a closer look at myself. And I'd rather pretend that everything is going just fine instead of examining the ugliness and sin in my heart. I don't really want to see the stains and scratches and broken places that I wish weren't there. Is that what I really look like???

The following is an excerpt from my favorite chapter in her book called "Pure Presence," with an introductory quote from Parker Palmer:

Solitude eventually offers a quiet gift of grace that comes whenever we are able to face ourselves honestly: the gift of acceptance, of compassion, for who we are as we are. As we allow ourselves to be known in solitude, we discover that we are known by love. Beyond the pain of self-discovery there is a love that does not condemn us but calls us to itself. This love receives us as we are.” Parker Palmer

To stay on the journey into solitude and silence now is to stay with the experience of seeing ourselves as we are in God's presence, as challenging as it is. In solitude we stop defending against the reality of our condition, we give up our attempts to control the outcomes of our journey because we can finally see it is quite beyond our ability to control. We let go of our attachment to the pieces of ourselves that we have allowed to define us. We endure the storm created by the old self as it frantically tries to maintain control.

During this part of our journey we may also experience grief as we begin to see all the ways we cut ourselves off from the love that our heart longs for. We may become aware that the pain we have experienced is not merely the result of evil “out there” but also a result of sin and brokenness that have hardened in and around our own heart.

While these patterns may have developed in reaction to very real traumas and enigmas, they do not serve the journey that God is inviting us to now. We need to take responsibility for having allowed these patterns to shape our lives and responses to others, so that we can choose a different way within the intimacy and safety of our love relationship with God. 

Accompanying this self-awareness is a desperate desire for healing and communion that is painful in its intensity. To truly see, with the eyes of the soul, our need for transformation at the very core of our being elicits a longing that is beyond words. This part of the spiritual process is so demanding that we may be sorely tempted to turn back. The problem with this possibility is that there is no place to go back to once we have seen ourselves for who we are, enslaved to patterns of relating and being and doing that are ultimately antithetical to the life we are seeking.

Where do we go once we realize that we have been living in bondage and we have glimpsed the way of freedom? The only real option is to face it bravely, knowing that truth-seeking will ultimately lead us into freedom. This is all we can do. It does no good to try and fix what we see. It is cowardly to blame others for what we see. And denying what we see just puts us right back in the mess. The only thing we can do is keep our whole selves turned toward God even as we endure the grief and unsettledness that seeing brings. 

But if we are faithful to the seeing, to the grief, to the letting go...if to the best of our ability we cease striving, stop kicking and fighting...if we release our grasping and clinging...

All of a sudden it becomes very quiet.

At first the quiet may feel like just another place of emptiness. We may even feel a sense of dread or fear that we are going to be judged or punished for parts of ourselves we have now brought into the light of day.

But if we stay in this moment, eventually—like Elijah—we begin to notice that this silence is qualitatively different from the emptiness we experienced before. The silence that comes after the chaos is pregnant with the presence of God.

Like Elijah, we may be surprised that at a point of painful self-awareness God does not chide us or scold us or give us a motivational speech inspiring us to pull ourselves together and get back at it. No, in Elijah's willingness to be there as he was—open and raw and receptive—and in our willingness as well, God grants a most powerful experience of his loving presence.

The silence is unlike all other silences, for it is full of a presence that makes itself known as a subtle stirring in the soul, a gentle blowing, a quiet whisper...

It takes time and experience to recognize this God who reaches out and seeks to communicate and commune with us. Who knows what it was that caused Elijah to recognize God's presence in the sound of sheer silence? But the fruit of Elijah's willingness to remain open to God in the midst of inner chaos created by self-knowledge was that he came to understand through experience that he was loved and valued just as much when he was alone and exhausted and not performing very well as he was when he was standing on a mountaintop calling down the fire of God in front of heathen prophets and fickle followers.

When Elijah experienced “the sound of sheer silence” that was full of the Presence of God, there was no need for words or any kind of cognitive response. He wrapped his face in his mantle—a sign of absolute reverence—and he went out and just stood in that Presence and let the Presence wash over him.

I know of no better response.

Let me nest near your altar, O God


Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the theme of "Nest"
Photos credit: Jenny Prosser

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Super Lucky

“Super lucky,” Daniel exclaims when the TV camera zooms in on the champion in a close swimming race. He has especially enjoyed all the coverage of “lucky” Michael Phelps. Maybe luck plays a small part in Olympic victories. But mostly, I tell Daniel, the medal winners make their way to the podium because of years of practice and lots of hard work. They win because they are the fastest, the strongest, and have the most perfect performance.

As we watch the Olympics, we celebrate with those who win, especially the surprise champions like Simone Manuel, while our hearts break for those who suffer disappointment like Missy Franklin. 

This video from the past of Derek Redmond in the 400 meter final at the 1992 Olympics is powerful. Showing an amazing father who supported his devastated son across the finish line.

The father's acceptance and support reminds me of a page from Daniel's workbook last year:

His teacher wrote at the top: “Daniel completed with support. Hard time focusing. 100%”

That feels like a pretty good summary of many of my days. “Jodie completed with support. Hard time focusing. 100%.” These words might even be said about me when I enter into heaven.

Unlike the Olympics, whether or not we receive the ultimate prize at the end of our lives is not about perfect performance. But about Jesus. The Perfect One who ushers us in. Limping and broken and imperfect as we are.

Today I read about the Levites and Hezekiah who killed the Passover lambs and prayed for the people who were not ceremonially clean at that time. And God accepted them, not because of what they themselves had done but because of what someone else had done for them:

Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves,
the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean
and could not consecrate their lambs to the Lord.
Although most of the many people
who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves,
yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.
But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying,
“May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—
the Lord, the God of his fathers—
even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”
And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
(2 Chronicles 30:18-20)

How much more so, Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice as the Passover Lamb for all who call on His name:

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being,
sustaining all things by his powerful word.
After he had provided purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven...

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels,
now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death,
so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God,
for whom and through whom everything exists,
should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.
So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers...

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity
so that by his death he might destroy him 
who has the power of death—that is, the devil—
and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death...

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way,
in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God,
and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
(Hebrews 1:3, 2:8-11, 14-15, 17)

Maybe, using Daniel's words, we can say that God's Grace, 
through Jesus' sacrifice, makes us all “super lucky.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

All the Peoples of the Earth

The grace of God was never meant to keep people out. But to bring people in. How easy it is as “insiders” to see those who are different as “outsiders.” Us and Them. Good and Bad. Right and Wrong. We tend to build walls around ourselves and stay safe inside with those who look and think and believe like us. Without even realizing it, we can live in a bubble in an attempt to protect ourselves, and develop a sense of superiority. Unless we are intentional to live a life of inclusion, we will likely default to excluding others because of a myriad of differences: religious background, skin color, ethnicity, social status...

One day long ago Solomon prayed about Inclusion:
As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel
but has come from a distant land because of your great name
and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—
when he comes and prays toward this temple,
then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you,
so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you,
as do your own people Israel,
and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”
(2 Chronicles 6:32-33)

In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller explores the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 (which he thinks would be better called The Tale of Two Sons). He writes:

“The targets of this story are not “wayward sinners,” but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them.

Jesus' purpose is not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories. Through this parable Jesus challenges what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, sin, and salvation. His story reveals the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, but it also condemns the elder brother's moralistic life in the strongest terms. Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost, both life-paths are dead ends, and that every thought the human race has had about how to connect to God has been wrong.”

Our Grace Group discussed this passage and Keller's book a few weeks ago and reflected on how we can all relate to the older brother in the story. In his pride. Self-righteousness. Sense of entitlement. And his anger when his father threw a party for his disrespectful, wasteful, sinful younger brother. We were all struck that the word Prodigal doesn't actually mean “wayward” but “spending everything one has.” Keller titled his book The Prodigal God to highlight the father in the story who, in unconditional love, spent everything he had. He chose to extend extravagant mercy to his undeserving younger son, while his unmerciful older son stood at a judgmental distance and refused to enter into the joy and celebration.

In Romans 2, we see that judgment doesn't help others or ourselves. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, so you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?” (v. 1-4)

Last month Jonathan Cleveland from Pulpit Rock Church gave a great sermon based on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard about the generosity of God. His challenge was that one of the best indicators of our spiritual health is how we respond when someone who is undeserving receives the mercy of God. When others don't work as hard as we do. Aren't as good as we believe ourselves to be. 

Who are the undeserving people in your life? What words would you use to describe them?

Do we want them to receive what they deserve or what they need? How do we feel when they receive God's mercy?

Do we see our God as a God of Grace or a God of Works?

Are we willing to identify our older brother tendencies and realize that we need God's mercy just as much as those we label undeserving? 
Are we willing to allow God's kindness to lead us to repentance?
Are we willing to drop our stones and extend the hand of mercy, like Jesus did?

One of our family's favorite songs is Jesus, Friend of Sinners:

"God, let our hearts be led by mercy. Help us reach with open hearts and open doors.
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours."


 Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the theme of Get Ready. Because in preparing to cross cultures to reach and serve "the other," I think it's important to look into our hearts to see if we have hidden superior attitudes to those who are different than us.


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