Being a Prayer Novice

With that in mind, take a deep breath and relax. Let any pressure you feel about prayer or being spiritual roll off of you.

It does not matter if you are a brand new Jesus follower or if you have seen God work great miracles over decades. The difference between the two is microscopic when compared to the vastness of God. It’s like a grasshopper comparing itself with an ant. However, when you set both next to an elephant, the differences in size fall away. 

Sometimes, we compare our prayers to those who seem so comfortable praying, using the right words, while referring to Scriptures and expressing themselves with passion and confidence. I remember praying with a few people years ago and voiced a short, somewhat tentative request. After we said our “amens,” a guy in the group corrected my theology regarding my prayers. He told me that my prayers did not quite reflect what God was all about. I guess he was the grasshopper.

Even if I am a grasshopper prayer-er, what difference does it make? Why comparison myself to others when we are trying to connect with the maker of the universe? Why take pride in my prayers when we are talking to the One who cannot be fully comprehended? 

When it comes to prayer, there are no experts. We are all novices trying to express the true voice of prayer in the midst of so many distracting false voices. We are all like toddlers learning to walk, as every prayer is a stumble forward into divine mystery. Every encounter with God is a venture into something that we cannot fully comprehend.

Henri Nouwen stated in one of his last books, 

“Prayer, then, is listening to that voice—to the One who calls you the Beloved. It is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. I’m not what I do. I’m not what people say about me. I’m not what I have. Although there is nothing wrong with success, there is nothing wrong with popularity, there is nothing wrong with being powerful, finally my spiritual identity is not rooted in the world, the things the world gives me. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. Whatever we do, we have to go back regularly to that place of core identity.” 

The true voice of prayer brings us back to the place of hearing God’s true voice about our core identity. This is the message that we will not hear from the daily grind of the world, where we learn about how we must perform for our self-worth. We try to find life by seeking the false voices of power, prestige and possessions, the three great obsessions of our culture. 

The false voice of power tells us that we can get life as we gain control over our situations and others. We look for ways to advance in authority and power to hold sway. Those with the most authority have greater value. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not “Blessed are the strong and powerful.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

The true voice of prayer leads us on a path of giving up the pursuit of power, one that gives us permission to be weak instead of trying to cover up our limitations. On that path we hear the true voice saying, “My beloved, you are accepted just as you are.”

The false voice of prestige whispers that we need to be someone worthy of other’s attention. The people that matter have the public eye, or at least that seems to be the case. But prestige is only a limp replacement for what we long for in the core of our being. I love how The Message translates this passage by Paul:

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The true voice of prayer leads us on a path of love that frees us to seek and see God. There we hear the true voice saying, “My beloved, you are loved with a love that cannot be greater.”

The false voice of possessions also challenges this path of connecting with God. Our culture tells us in more ways than one that those who die with the most toys do actually win somehow. We buy, we collect, and when we cannot buy and collect we wish we could. More is never enough because we are told that those who have the most matter the most. 

Go back and read Paul’s words again about weakness, being nobodies, and being chosen by God to receive his love. 

The true voice of prayer frees us to let go and find treasures in another place than in possessions. We hear the true voice saying, “My beloved, you don’t need more. You don’t need to attain more. You don’t need to press more. I will take care of you.” 

We are all novices, learning to express our true voice to God and hear God’s true voice to us. It’s a journey that we can never complete because God infinite love for us is, after all, infinite.

Photo by Eka P. Amdela on Unsplash

Prayer as Contemplation

We know that seeing and joining in on what God wants to do involves prayer. But I’ve also found that prayer can be a very frustrating experience. How many times have I prayed, “God what do you want?” only to walk away with no answers.

Regarding this, I was taught all kinds of stuff about unanswered prayer, but when I am met with silence with my question about what God wants to do, none of that talk about unanswered prayer proved helpful. If God is at work in the world, and God is at work in my life, then God must be speaking. The prayers are not unanswered. I just needed to learn to pray differently.

Years ago, Shawna and I were walking through a lot of questions. Our jobs were in transition, we were building a house, we were new at being parents, and we had another on the way. We took a week off to get away and pray, specifically asking if we should close on the house or move in a different direction. We would go for walks, talk, and think through our situation. We desperately wanted to find God’s wisdom.

One day, I was walking alone, while pushing our one-year-old son in a stroller. All I could hear was God saying, “Trust me.” I wanted concrete direction about some big decisions, and these words did not measure up to my expectations. I just jumped past those words and kept praying, trying to figure out what God wanted from us.

In retrospect, after almost two decades of walking with God, those were the exact words that I needed to hear. Even though they did not provide specific answers to our immediate questions, they did speak to us about what God wanted to do in our lives. I thought I knew how to trust God, but I really did not. I knew how to do things for God—as I knew what it meant to be obedient—but I did not know how lean into his life, how to put my weight upon the Spirit’s presence. In other words, I knew how to trust like a servant or employee would, but I did not know how to trust as God’s friend.

Part of this trusting as a friend of God is the invitation to pray, to be with God. I had been taught to pray like God’s worker, to put effort and discipline into my prayers. I had prayed through ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), through the parts of the Lord’s prayer, and through the stages in the Tabernacle. I had practiced praying for an hour a day, I wrote out my prayers for a few years in a journey, and I prayed the prayers found in the Scriptures. I even prayed the Prayer of Jabez, hoping to find blessings so that I could bless others. However, I found that I had put my trust in the fact that I was praying instead of putting my trust in God. I was putting my weight in my prayer efforts, not leaning on the personal presence of God. As a result, I had turned prayer into a way to fulfill my contract with God. I did my prayers, and God should provide the answers. If I learned to pray the right way, then I would be able to figure out what God wanted. If I followed the right prayer formula, then the floodgates of heaven would burst open.

This made prayer a burden. And honestly, it just did not work. God does not want to be treated like an employer who manages the budget and disperses funds to his best employees. He wants relationship. I thought I was seeking God to figure out some life questions so that I could do what he wanted me to do. Instead, he wanted me to learn to trust him on the path, and this meant that I needed to be reshaped in how I talked with God.

I had to learn that I needed to quit trying to figure out a prayer formula. Instead, I had to give space in my heart to be with God, and allow the Spirit to foster connection with the Father. To explain this, I offer a few quotes from Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar where he writes about prayer as contemplation.

“Prayer is dialogue, not man’s monologue before God. Ultimately, in any case, there is no such thing as solitary speech; speech implies reciprocity, the exchange of thoughts and of souls, unity in a common spirit, in common possession and sharing of the truth.”

“The better a man learns to pray, the more deeply he finds that all his stammering is only an answer to God’s speaking to him; this in turn implies that any understanding between God and man must be on the basis of God’s language.”

“Whatever could we say to God if he himself had not taken the first step in communicating and manifesting himself to us in his word, so that we have access to him and fellowship with him?”

“Prayer is a conversation in which God’s word has the initiative and we, for the moment, can be nothing more than listeners. The essential thing is for us to hear God’s word and discover from it how to respond to him.”

“In contemplating the scripture we learn to to listen properly, and this listening is the original wellspring of all Christian life and prayer.”

God spoke to us through Jesus and Jesus spoke to the Father on our behalf. Now the Spirit comes to speak through us in Christ to the Father. Prayer is not my work. It is the way we slow down enough to give room to the Spirit to pray through us. Many times we don’t have words; all we have are groans. (As we have read in Romans 8) We yearn and hunger for more, longing for something that don’t fully understand. Other times, we know what we want to say, and it is clear what God is saying back. Most of the time, we live in between these two places.

The practice of contemplation, of reflection on what God has done and said, can provide us with words to give expression to our dialogue with the Father. God is the initiator to our prayers. God is the communicator who begins the conversation. And many times, God even stirs up our side of the dialogue, helping us to see how to pray. When this occurs, we are simply entering into what he is saying. We begin by slowing down enough to contemplate his words to us, receiving them into our souls, and then trying to express them back to him, even if we are fumbling as we do.

This is far from trying to find the right formula to pray the right way. We don’t know how to pray the right way. We have our reality that we can offer honestly. In this honesty, we can listen and trust, walking forward with the hope that the Spirit is with us, doing more than we can see. Prayer as contemplation is the expression of a free relationship that is a gift of the Spirit where we can bring all that we are to all that God is, and then allow what we offer to be taken up by the Spirit and turned from our muttering into something beautiful.

In this way, our eyes are opened to see what God is doing, and it always come in a form that is different from what we expect.

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

Listening to Desire

A few years ago, I was seeking God’s direction on a piece I was writing. This experience relates to the question of practices that help us see and join in on what God wants to do. As I prayed, I was impressed with the words “Trust your heart.” While I knew the implications of these words as it was clear how to proceed, these words actually caused me to rethink how I viewed my “heart.” The words “Trust your heart,” prompted two things in my head. First, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). And second, the song “Listen to Your Heart” by Roxette from the 1980s. Since what I felt in prayer sounded more like Roxette’s lyrics than this verse from Jeremiah’s poetry, I had to wrestle with a few things. 

There seems to be two extremes on a spectrum of thought. The first begins with the doctrine of universal sin, which in its most basic form means that we can in no way trust our hearts. At a basic level, we are unable to enter into a self-help program and get ourselves out of that pattern of sin. With this, all orthodox Christian theologies agree. However, we add another layer which assumes that the human heart can never be trusted because it is caught in a condition of being controlled by sin and is “deceitful above all else.” Why then listen to our hearts since we cannot trust our own yearnings? As a result, everything that we naturally desire or naturally want cannot be from God. If we have a desire to enter into a specific vocation, our natural response should be to distrust that desire. If something is fun or joyful, then we should opt out of it. This thinking is based in a totally negative view of personhood.

The other end of the spectrum takes a totally positive view of personhood. It assumes that we need to listen to the desires of our hearts, that we need to pay attention to the longings within us and that we need to wake up to the hidden aspects of our inner self that we cover up with things like people pleasing and money making. In this stream, there is little talk about things like sin, deceitful hearts, or our how we might deceive ourselves. This can lead people to simply do whatever they want, which often means that they take the path of least resistance.

If we read Jeremiah 17:9 within the context of the entire chapter instead of pulling it out and quoting it to support what we already assumes that it means, we hear YHWH speaking through Jeremiah to the Israelite people who have been hardened by patterns of sin. In this one chapter, this is the third reference to “heart.” In verse one it reads “Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars.” Then in verse five we read, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.”

These three references to the “heart” are not prose that form a logical argument. They are stanzas within poetry that offer word pictures meant to open the eyes of God’s people to rightly see and understand why they are in exile. Jeremiah 17 speaks to a people whose hearts had been trained by deceitfulness and sin, which means that they could not even know their own hearts. They were out of touch with the core of their beings. God’s people had been practicing sinful ways for so long and so much that it was engraved with an iron tool.

The continued practice of rebellion, sin, and self-fulfillment shapes the heart. We assume that these are the desires of the heart because it’s what we want when we live apart from God. But these are the shallow desires, or shallow whims of the heart that control actions.  Of course, we know what these shallow whims look like in our culture today. We have heard them preached against many times, things like sexual immorality, theft, unfaithfulness to church, selfish desires, anger, drunkenness. The Apostle Paul had quite a few lists that spoke against such things. Shallow whims also come in other forms, including: pleasing other people, job security and financial stability, success in the eyes of rivals, and duty and obligation to the way everyone does things. Shallow desires also come in forms like relief from pain through comfort food, drug use, empty entertainment, or co-dependent intimacy. 

To combat these shallow whims, we are often taught to squelch desire. We are told that passion is something that should be set aside. Our yearnings should be doused. Any fire, any burning, anything that stirs us up must be calmed. The shallow whims are what the New Testament calls “desires of the flesh.” And so much of our teaching focuses on not giving into the flesh that we end up not ever trusting anything that might arise from our own hearts.

C.S. Lewis said, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” The problem is not desire and passion. The problem is that we have not learned to understand how desire really works.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”

C. S. Lewis

There is a deeper place in the heart where our deep desires reside, a place that we rarely have the time to go. We need to pay more attention to how we can  “listen to our heart”, how we can unlock those rooms of our hearts and find our deep desires. Jeremiah who also wrote God saying to his people, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jer 31:33). If we are ever going to get in touch with the law that the Spirit is writing on our hearts we must go deeper than what we are NOT to do. We must go deep to the point of listening to the deep desires of our hearts. 

Jeremiah 31 is speaking to the deep desires of our hearts, those that go to the core of who God created us to be. There we find that the Spirit of God is writing God’s ways within us. As we follow the Spirit, we train our hearts to speak to the deep desires that we often cover up with shallow whims. It’s here that we find that our deep desires cry our for things like friendship, community, laughter over meals, freedom to love and be loved, and non-violence. It’s also here that we discover our unique contribution to the world, one created and formed by God. Here we find what we can offer to others in our vocation, not because we must, not because it makes the right amount of money, not because it is pleasing to others, but because it longs to burst out of us. 

Getting in touch with the deep desires is about finding our passions, our longings, and our joys. It’s about allowing that which we would die for to arise freely from within and then giving our whole being to that. The voice of the heart will not speak quickly because most of us have trained that voice to stay quiet and shut away in a nice safe place within. Nor will the voice of the heart come out with a great boom or a loud yell. It will not compete with the frenetic noise of our world. It’s too valuable to come out like that.

Instead, the voice of our heart speaks as the Spirit leads us to open the door of our true and honest self. It comes out as we unlock what we really think, what we really believe, what we really feel. Sometimes, that involves the unlocking doors of pain, frustration and loss. Sometimes it involves opening doors of fear, hatred and failure. Behind these doors are the things that we tell ourselves not to feel or think. But in those same rooms are hidden desires, deep desires that line up with who God has made us to be. There the Spirit is already at work, pulling away the stuff that covers those desires up.  

Listen to your heart! To the deep parts of your heart! What do you hear?

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

What Does God Want to Do?

In the opening scenes of The Two Towers, the second entry into The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the story begins with an unexpected twist. In the first movie (book), we are introduced to a group of nine who volunteer for a specific task. They have a concrete, intentional mission: to destroy an evil, powerful ring and they set out toward the one place where the ring can be destroyed. But at the end of the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, they are attacked and the group is split up. One is killed, two hobbits head off one direction to destroy the ring, two hobbits are captured, and three expert fighters are left standing wondering what to do next. The plan is not working. In fact, one might say that the plan had failed.

This is where the story twists. Logic, strategic planning, and good leadership would say that the three strongest fighters need to remain focused on the primary cause, that of destroying the ring. Instead they chase after the two captured hobbits. Now if you have seen the movies, you know that these two hobbits were not good fighters, they were more than a bit irresponsible, and they were tag-a-longs who did not even understand what they were doing when they volunteered for the mission. So here we have three heroes going in the opposite direction from their original purpose and chasing after two hobbits who were not equipped to contribute much to that purpose. 

If this is not a picture of our journey with God, then I don’t know what is. You set out with the best of intentions. Then things happen. Life happens. Sometimes it’s negative stuff that we might attribute to an attack from Satan. Sometimes it’s just the normal stuff of life. We find our path less than straight. Instead of going in the direction we planned, we find ourselves putting our energy into something else. Instead of progress toward our goal, we find ourselves taking two steps back. 

Failure, death, the cross. We expect God to work through our successes, but we find that death and struggle is the place for the God’s work of deep change, the kind that realigns our being to our intentions. We set out thinking we can advance the way of Jesus, a vision that God has given us. But God takes us all the way down into death in order to experience the reorientation of our being around the way of Jesus. 

As leaders we have to learn to give people the space for God to do this work. This means that our job is to go to the cross. 

Deep Change

Following God never takes a straight path. The path of relating to God is always full of mystery. We assume that we know how each step should advance us along a path that would lead us closer to what we think is our calling and destiny. The three warriors, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli thought they were going forth on a direct course to destroy the ring, but they found themselves running across fields and up and down mountains seeking to save two small hobbits who had to that point in the story done nothing but bungle things up.

When you get to the end of the entire Lord of the Rings story you see how what looks like a wasteful diversion for Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli is actually the path that would lead them to climax of the story. Without the diversion, without the mystery, without the unexpected twist that comes through failure, there is no story at all.

When people venture out on the journey, we begin with what is visible: the behaviors, the beliefs and the ways of belonging that inform what it means to be the people of God. This is what is assessed and measured, like the top of an iceberg. But if we focus on this part, of the Christian life, we are actually focusing on the smallest part of it. 

Beneath the water line is the need to change our practices. This has been the primary focus of this class. Here we are choosing to invest in patterns that will shape how we live. Dallas Willard wrote about this as a process of developing an VIM, a Vision for being formed into the image of Christ, the Intentions to commit to that Vision, and the Means to put those practices into the place. Walking with Christ won’t just happen. We need to develop a VIM into order to build these practices into our lives. 

But there is a deeper level to the iceberg, that of our core being. Here we experience change that can only be described as death.  Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). In order to for the seeds within us to activate and grow, we must die. This means that we must make space for people to “pick up their cross daily and follow Jesus.” (Luke 9:23). 

By this I do not mean some kind of self-deprecating guilt that highlights how we are unworthy and that we are scum-filled sinners. Nor is this a reference to the need to see our guilt as a part of a conversion experience. This is about the reality that we all face in life that the resurrection life comes on the other side of the cross. Victory comes on the other side of coming to the end of ourselves. Flourishing is a gift that we realize as we work through failure. Those who embrace this reality and allow others to fail will create space for people to go to the cross and receive the resurrection. 

But those who don’t end up like Judas Iscariot, stuck in the fact that things did not work out like they wanted them to. They embrace a death that keeps them in death. We experience this when we avoid the cross, when we avoid the reality of failure and we try to control our way to victory.

Refuse to Fix

When we face struggles in life, whether personally or relationally, our natural tendency is to find a way to fix things so that we can get back to normal. We don’t want to endure the pain that comes with the struggle. We don’t want to fail and as a result we try to fix the situation. We seek advice or come up with a solution that turns things around quickly. 

Our fixing gets in the way of what wants to do. We need to go all the way to the cross with the situation. We don’t need someone who will save us from the struggle, thereby interrupting the deep change that the Spirit of God wants to bring about. We need people who are going to walk with us and point us along the path that will connect them to Christ in the midst of the struggle. Bonhoeffer put it this way:

“Spiritual love will prove successful insofar as it commends Christ to the other in all that is says and does. It will not seek to agitate another by exerting all to personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one’s life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time. It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them. It will respect the other as the boundary that Christ establishes between us; and it will find full community with the other in the Christ who alone binds us together. This spiritual love will thus speak to Christ about the other Christian more than to the other Christian about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of the other is completely tied to the truth found in Christ.”

Jesus is leading us to the cross. This is where the deep change to our being occurs. 

To the Cross

The only way I know how to explain what I’m talking about when referring to deep change is to offer an experience. About a ten years ago, I was working with a church in Washington. I had sat in a recording studio for a day and a half, filming 24 segments of teaching. I was emotionally spent and exhausted, but I still had two days of work to do with this church. On top of this, I was experiencing a time of great failure. My wife and I had made some major life changes that were not working out. My business was not getting off the ground. More than anything I was coming to terms with the reality that I am not the center of the universe. I know that this sounds ridiculous, but I began to see how much of my spirituality had been shaped by messages like “How I can be happy,” “How I can be saved,” “How I can be a great spiritual leader,” or “How I can make a difference for God.” 

At the end of this recording session, I told the project director that I needed to go for a walk. I ventured into the the prayer garden located on the church campus where I noticed a labyrinth. A labyrinth is designed to create a path so you can pray as you walk through a maze. At the center of this particular labyrinth was a cross. And while ultimately, we are in this journey together, there will be times when the individuals that you lead must go to the cross alone. 

So I ventured through the garden toward the opening of the labyrinth. While I had read a lot about praying through a labyrinth, I had never done so myself. When others told me about how things come up within you that you don’t expect when you pray this way, I had no logical framework for understanding them.  I had walked and prayed many times. What’s the difference? But as I neared the entrance, which at first I could not locate, I found myself not wanting to step in. I wanted to just keep walking and get back to work. It was not that I was afraid of meeting with God or that I was full of pride and self-sufficiency. I was so tired that I had no pride left. I had gotten to a place of having nothing left and at that point I realized a core fear. I was afraid that meeting with God would be less than what I expected, that he might not even be there to meet with me.

I find it easier to try and follow God without depending upon the presence of God. It’s easier to do Christian stuff without a trip to the cross. After all, we know what God wants us to do. We’ve been taught to evangelize, to feed the poor, to love our neighbors. There is something within all of us that resists the daily journey to the cross. I’ve heard preachers confront this mentality all my life by telling us that we are selfish, self-sufficient, and self-deluded. And while these things are a part of our resistance to movement toward the cross, I’ve found that they are only the facade to much greater fears within that keep us from letting go.

Mine was a fear that God might not be there to meet with me. My Bible teaching about how God will never leave me did not matter within the core of my being. This was not about logic. This was about my deep experience of God. What I assumed was pride was actually a deep illogical fear. I learned something new about myself and what often keeps me from the relational way of God.

Walking to the Cross

I finally entered the labyrinth. As I walked, I realized something deep was going on inside me. All my logical walls were trying to go up: Why would walking through a labyrinth help me open my heart to God? But I pushed aside logic and walked. With every turn through the maze, more things arose within me. Within ten steps, I was pouring out my heart to God. I was recounting pains and disappointments, frustrations and even bitterness. I yelled. I screamed. I cried. I saw my failure—both things I had done and the things done to me—flashing before my eyes. As I walked toward the center which was marked by a cross, all this stuff was coming up in me that I needed to release at the cross, things that I did not even realize were weighing me down.

This experience reminds me of Jesus’ words about discipleship in Luke 9:23-24: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Admittedly, I’ve heard this passage quoted hundreds of times. I’ve even preached on it. But it came to life in me. The words “deny self” gained new meaning. This was not about me loosing my identity or denying that I had something to offer to God and the world. This was not about some kind of platonic version of “all God and none of me.” 

This was about the pulling back of the false me, that which covers up who God made me to be. It’s the denial of things like performing for others’ approval, fighting to attain security in this life, putting hope in self-reliance and fearing failure. As I walked and poured out my heart to God, I recounted the journey of the last year and how God has brought incredible inside-out transformation. Deep questions of the soul that strip bear all the false pretenses, even the good false pretenses. 

I was seeing how the failures were pulling back the things that were coving up the real me. I was seeing how I had hidden myself from being loved and loving others. I was seeing how I was trying to lead out of performance and trying to fulfill others expectations for me. I was tired of trying to make community and mission happen. And I saw how little I was able to actually do to make it happen. 

At the Cross

“… take up their cross daily …” —Luke 9:23

Jesus said that those who would be his disciples—those who would be shaped by his life—would develop a way of cross carrying. When I was praying through the labyrinth, I came to the center which was marked by a cross. At that point, I stopped and just gazed at the cross formed by rocks lying on the ground. Here is where a great exchange occurred in my encounter with God. All the pain, disappointment, failure that I was experiencing and had arisen within my soul as I prayed through the first half of the labyrinth fell off me. It was like I had a new freedom to let go of tons of stuff that had been weighing me down. 

In exchange, I was given more than “new life” or “abundant life” which is often the focus of conversations about the exchange that occurs at the cross. I was given a cross of my own to bear, one of sharing in the life of Jesus, for the sake of the world. My imagination about my calling took on another level of meaning as I stood at the cross. I was captured by a new way of being. I’m not called to make the church bigger and better—although that might be a legitimate result. I’m not called to make my ministry bigger and better. I’m called to take up my cross, the specific one which Jesus has given to me so that I can contribute to a “for the sake of the world” kind of life.

Of course, most of us state that we follow Jesus and minister for the sake of the world. But I’ve had too many conversations with other ministers where our words gave away our true motivations. We were ministering for things like:

  • For the sake of growing “my” church
  • For the sake of the advancement of my ministry
  • For the sake of people’s praise
  • For the sake of “getting our theology right”
  • For the sake of being “missional”
  • For the sake of ________________

When we take that approach, we carry burdens that are not ours.  We are so focused on ourselves and what we produce that we miss that God wants to reform our hearts so that we can freely love the world. When we release these at the cross, we receive in exchange a freedom to love for the sake of God’s redemption of the world.

In the Tomb

After walking away from the cross at the center of the labyrinth, I began to reflect on the death I had experienced.  In some ways, this is like a tomb experience, one that comes after death but before the resurrection. It is a time of silence, of waiting, of isolation. You see, there is a lot of noise at the foot of the cross, and even more on the journey toward the cross. But once we have set that which weighs us down at the cross, the next part is not usually the experience of joyous victory and exaltation. I’ve found that after I die to something and give it over to Jesus that which follows is a haunting loneliness of waiting for the resurrection. 

I’d rather go immediately to the resurrection part. Resurrection victory is the stuff that will preach. However the time of the haunting loneliness that follows the death forms us for resurrection life. When we try to jump straight to the victory part, it’s to easy to relapse to the old patterns, the old stuff that we laid at the cross.

For instance, let’s say that in meeting Jesus at the cross, you realize that you need to die to the approval of others. To walk in resurrection victory would mean that you are not concerned about what people think about you. However, if your life has been shaped by decades of living for the approval of others, then your thought patterns, your actions, and your feelings have been formed by this search for approval. You may very well have given it over to Jesus, but the next step is to learn how to develop new ways of thinking, acting and feeling that are not dependent upon others’ approval. This “tomb” experience can feel very lonely. All of the things that you have depended upon the past are not there to lean on. And the new patterns are undeveloped. 

In the tomb, we loose control over how the resurrection will occur. We know that we are dead to the past, but we have not yet fully entered into the new freedom. In this no-man’s land, we experience the formation by and of the Spirit. Notice the emphasis. This is the time of transformation by and of the Spirit, the mysterious inner working that is done in us, not that we make happen. This is not a control experience where I activate God in my life to enter into resurrection victory. My part is simply to allow the Spirit to work by make room for the Spirit to develop in me new capacities to walk out of the tomb and into the victory of the resurrection.

This often happens as we develop new habits. This is one of the ways that we participate in the re-formation of the Spirit. Research has demonstrated that it usually takes about 66 days to develop a new habit or routine. It takes lots of repetition (and failure) to get new practices into our gut to the point that they become second nature. 

Out from the Tomb

As I was praying through the last few steps of the labyrinth, I found that I did not want it to end. I slowed my pace. I felt myself wanting to sit down and stay there for a bit. I had responsibilities that needed addressing. Staying put was not an option. Even still, I wanted to escape, to avoid those responsibilities. I wanted to enter into some kind of romantic experience with Jesus and just let him continue his work of inner formation of my life.

I realized that it is easier to remain in the tomb with Jesus than to walk with him in the real world. It’s easier to escape into our private encounters with Jesus than it is to actually live resurrection at work, with our families, as we talk with neighbors or as we do the mundane stuff that pulls on us everyday. I think this is one of the reasons why we so easily separate the sacred from the secular. A labyrinth experience is a sacred thing. Worship on Sunday is a sacred experience. Small groups are God things where we do God stuff.But when we walk out, we enter into the world of the secular. It’s not always clear how the sacred weaves into all of life. It’s easier to do the secular stuff and try and find “our best life” in the midst of the secular and then wait to return to get our spiritual fix. 

I wanted to hold on to my encounter with God, but if I had done that I would have left my experience of Jesus in the tomb until I could return. A labyrinth has an exit. We enter the labyrinth prayer (or whatever way you might pray) to encounter God, to let go of baggage, to allow the Spirit to transform us and prepare us, but ultimately the labyrinth opens up into the world. Jesus is moving by the Spirit in the world all around us. We pray to have our senses trained so that we can become fully aware of what Jesus is doing and join in.

At the opening of the labyrinth, I realized that it’s a lot easier to remain stuck in our questions, in our hangups, in our unknowing, in our inabilities, in our self-doubt—all the stuff that we have to deal with in the loneliness of praying in the tomb than it is to take a risk and walk the journey with Jesus on his mission. We fall in love with the darkness of the tomb and wait for some kind of enlightenment experience that will miraculously pick us up and lead us into the resurrection life. Jesus was risen from the dead by the power of the Spirit, but once the rock was rolled back, he had to put one foot in front of the other. The same is true for us. The rock is rolled back. Resurrection life has been gifted to us. Will we walk out and join Jesus in what he is doing in our world?

Embrace the Cross

The goal of farming is to harvest food that can be eaten. But the work of farming is unlike any other work that I’ve experienced. For over twenty years, I’ve been involved with publishing. When a new book (or now an e-book) is completed, I know what I produced. Likewise carpenters make houses. Brick-layers make walls of brick. Factory workers make a product.  At the end of the day they can look at the fruit of their labor and say “I made that.” But the work of a farmer is different. They don’t make anything. They don’t produce anything. Even at harvest time when they take their crops to market, they cannot look at the grain they sell and say, “This is the product of my hands.” There is nothing that they can do to make a seed of wheat grow and turn into a wheat plant and ultimately produce fruit. 

A farmer’s work is indirect work. While farmers don’t directly make a seed turn into fruit, they do facilitate the conditions that help that seed germinate, grow, flower and produce fruit. They prepare the ground, plant the seed, protect the plants from weeds and pests, and they water the plants (if they have irrigation equipment). All of this work is about creating an environment where life can come from death. 

All of the fruit that will be harvested is already present when the seed is planted. The farmer can do things that help the seed live up to its potential, but the reality is that the farmer cannot do anything to make that seed what it is or make it more than it is. A farmer must learn to depend, to wait, and to trust that over time, the fruit will come in season. 

When we are allowing the Spirit to lead us to the cross, to deep change, we need the imagination of a farmer. We cannot make resurrection life. We can change our intentions to line up with that vision. We can align our lives with others who are committed to the same thing. But we must realize that everything has already been activated by the seeds of life planted in each of us. 

However, that seed only produces new life through death, which means the path toward the future of what God wants to do is not something that we can make happen through some form of a spiritual strategic plan. Going to the cross, as illustrated by my praying through the labyrinth, entails a basic three-step process:

  1. Letting Go
  2. Being Present
  3. Letting Come

When we let go, we are releasing the past and how the past can control our future. As we are present in the moment, we are showing up honestly to ourselves and before God. When we let come, we are allowing space in our lives for the Spirit to bring us into a space of fulfillment and peace, the kind that can only be called a gift. 

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

The Practice of Keeping Sabbath

I grew up on a farm and if you know anything about farms, there is never NOT work to do. But every Sunday, my father would take a day of rest. We did not do farm work on Sundays. I assumed that this was about reverence and worship of God, about going to church and attending spiritual activities. But when you read the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath is about work stoppage, not about worship. Walter Brueggemann states: “It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being” (Journey to the Common Good, 26).

The Israelites had been schooled in the way of anxiety. The Sabbath was God’s strategy to break what they learned and teach them a new way. As I think about life today, the word “anxious” seems appropriate. And I’m not sure that being a Christian diminishes the effects of the anxiety of our world. Too often the patterns of anxiety shape and mold us and then we try to lay God on top of that, even asking God to help us do the anxious life better.

In a day dominated by anxiety and fear, the people of God demonstrate that the line up with God by “stopping their work.” By resting. By demonstrating trust. By putting hope in the one who breaks into the world to do what we can not. This is far beyond some optimistic dream that things will get better if we keep doing what we are doing, building upon today’s reality for a better tomorrow. Sabbath trust. Sabbath hope is the practice of stopping to see that God is coming into our reality with his reality.

The writer of Hebrews wrote about rest in an oxymoronic way by saying: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

Honestly, I’ve been puzzled by this passage for years. I’m one of those type-A, goal-setting people who bites off way more than he can chew. Then, after all the work, all I want to do is veg in front of the TV.  Work or rest. That’s my tendency in life, and that’s how I tried to understand this passage. Obedience to God is work. Ministry is work. Serving the poor is work. Reaching unbelievers is work. Conducting worship services is work. Preaching is work. Then, after I’m exhausted from all of the anxiety, I rest. The work comes first and then the rest. Then it is time to get busy doing it all over again.

This is a way of life that we have learned from modern Western culture. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher who traveled America in the 1800s to observe our culture in its early stages of development. He wrote, “[Americans] are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position that they occupy. … They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it. … One usually finds that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything that Americans do.”

Translated into today’s lingo, the American Dream is about squeezing more work into less time so that we can get more and more. This mentality even penetrates the church. We work and work in order to do more for God, even finding ourselves exhausted because we are running all time the time for the sake of God’s work. Corrie ten Boon, the author of The Hiding Place, wrote, “If the Devil cannot make us bad, he will make us busy.” (Swobota, 44)

Brueggeman challenges this notion in his book Sabbath as Resistance saying, “There had been no Sabbath in Egypt, no work stoppage; no work stoppage for Pharaoh who worked day and night to stay atop the pyramid. There had been no work stoppage for slaves, because they had to gather straw during their time off; no work stoppage of anybody in the Egyptian system, because frantic productivity drove the entire system. An now YHWH nullifies the entire system of anxious production. … The limit is set by the weekly work pause that breaks the production cycle. And those who participate in it break the anxiety cycle. They are invited to awareness that life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to threat and competitor. And as the work stoppage permits a waning of anxiety, so energy is redeployed to the neighborhood. The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighborliness. The latter practice does not produce so much; but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project” (27-28).

Practicing Sabbath is so much more than taking a day off because we are so tired from all of our anxious work. And it’s far more than taking time off from our secular anxiety so that we can take on spiritual anxiety by overcommitting ourselves to the agenda or organized religion. 

Sabbath is about resting before we work, not after it. It’s about entering into God’s rhythms so that we can enter into work in an unanimous way. We rest first so that we can see that God is at work ahead of us and beyond us. We rest so that we can see what God wants to do the we cannot do, no matter how hard we work or how anxious we are to see it come to pass. 

God’s work to redeem the entire world, including the work he wants to do in us, begins with God. 

Photo by Jan Padilla on Unsplash

The Practice of Lament

One of the key spiritual practices for seeing how God has been with us on the journey in the past is the practice of lament.

The Call

The journey of following God will be marked by rainy days, rainy seasons, and sometimes even rainy years. When you are in those dreary times, all you can see is rain, grey and nothingness. The sun is nowhere. But those days are part of the journey. The dreary seasons teach us that walking with God is not about stepping from one triumphal act to the next triumphal act. Life with God is not a ladder of continually ascent.

Walking with God includes ups and down. We learn much in suffering. We are transformed in those valley times. Many times we are told just “get over” the dreary days, to rise above them as if they don’t exist. Basically this means that we tell those in bad marriages to smile and move on. To those mourning the loss of a child, we tell them that there is more important stuff to do than to feel their deep sense of loss. To those who are failing at their job, to get “back on the horse” and try again.

But when we do this, we miss the fact that God is sitting with us in the darkness. He is walking with us in the valleys. In the pain, in the failure, in the loss—that’s where God is. He is not waiting for us to get our act together so that we can walk out of the valley and up the mountain where the “real” action is. The fact is that the real action may very well be in the rain. We so often fall victim to the lie that the primary goal is to get out of the rain and get in the daylight, that we can be triumphant and successful no matter what. If that’s true then Jesus was a huge failure and the cross was a mistake. If that’s true then the Old Testament prophets missed the point. If that’s true then the Apostle Paul was really dumb (his ministry ended in a Roman jail after all).

God meets us with his kind of light in the midst of the darkness. It may not be obvious to others. Most of the time, it has taken me a while to see get to the place where I can see that I need to lament. We are just not accustomed to walking with God in the tough stuff. Lamenting usually only occurs after we have been walking in the pain for a bit.

Why We Don’t Lament

The Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

“My judgment is that the cultural temptation to triumphalism that has beset the church was powerfully reinforced by the scholastic catechism tradition that took God as ‘omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.’ Thus, self-sufficient selves in communion with an all-managing God has no room for lament, and that theological premise is now powerfully replicated in so-called praise hymns, in which ‘never is heard a discouraging word.” (Walter Brueggemann, Disruptive Grace, 180).

The point is that we have a limited ability to practice “lament” according the biblical tradition because we believe in an all-controlling, triumphalistic God. And because he is managing everything from on high, any attempt to cry out to God in lament does no good. In other words, God intended for human trafficking to happen. Or he planned for us to have bad marriages. So we are happy Christians who don’t see or feel the pain of the world for what it is.

In contrast, Jesus taught us, “Blessed are those who mourn.” This is the most paradoxical of all the beatitudes. On the surface it makes no sense whatsoever. If a synonym for blessed is “happy,” as some translations put it, and mourning is associated with unhappiness, then in some ways Jesus is saying “happy are the unhappy.” At the very least, we must admit that Jesus’ way of seeing happiness is absolutely different than the common ways that we view it in our culture. 

God himself knew the practice of lament. We read this in the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Over what was he weeping? Lazarus’ death? The fact that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead? That his followers did not have faith? I’ve heard all of these reasons given in various sermons and while any of them might be true, I think there is something that lies beneath. He wept at the reality of death itself, not just the fact that there is a death to our physical bodies but that the ways of death pervade our day-to-day routines. He wept because he saw the reality that most people rejoice over the things that are death covered with a mask. 

The Jewish people knew what it means to lament, to see reality for what it is and to long for deliverance, to cry out to God for the kingdom to be made manifest. This is not just mourning because we don’t get our way or because something does not work out. This is about seeing the truth of the world and lamenting about it. 

What We Do Instead of Lamenting

Instead of lamenting, we typically do one of two things. As a primary option, we whine, we complain, we blame, and we rant. Ultimately, instead of lamenting we play the victim. 

A second option is usually offered up as the right one. We try to make to make lemonade out lemons. We try to make every day a Friday. We are told to look up when things are looking down. Sadly though, we are actually trying to make things out to be better than they really are. We refuse to enter into the pain of reality, so we do things like make excuses, we work, we laugh, we medicate, we entertain ourselves, we cope. And of course, we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, put a smile on our faces and get back to ministering. We do anything to keep from entering into the pain of reality. Honestly, too many times, we think we are focusing on our Circle of Influence when we do this. 

The spiritual practice of lament can helps us see that we can NOT fix things. It causes us to break the pattern of complaining and whining. It shapes us to depend upon God like little else. Yes lament is painful. It causes us to question everything. It rips us up from the inside in ways that most of our friends cannot and will not ever understand. 

The Psalms Help Us Lament

The Psalms can help us pray when we need to cry out in lament. The basic structure of the Psalms of Lament is:

  1. Address to God
  2. Description of complaint
  3. Request for God’s help
  4. Expression of trust in God

Here is a list of those addressed by individuals in the Psalms:

Those written as corporate Psalms of lament include:

Reframing Our Inherited Image of God

As we develop spiritual practices that help us look back on our journey, one that has proven helpful for me is to name the mental image of God that shapes how I see who God is and how God operates in the world. This is not a one-time thing that we do and move on. The world has corrupted how God is pictured, and we are bombarded with false images of God that undermine the reality of his revolution in Christ.

Everyone has an image or a picture of God that has been passed on to them from previous experiences. For me, the primary picture of God that I grew up with was that of a God of power. God’s omnipotence was the primary starting point through which I imagined God’s character. Yes, God was caring and he loved me, but God was ultimately all-consuming power and this served as the foundation for how I related to him.

This meant that my relationship with him began with fear. If God was pure power then I had better line up and do what he wanted me to do or I could become a victim of his wrath. You see, my picture of God started with the stores of the Old Testament where the authors depict God as driving his people with the backside of his hand through awe-inspiring (and even scary acts).

The image of God that we have in our brains (which we have inherited from our experiences of the past) creates a stronghold in our brains. It controls how we relate to God. A stronghold is a primary thought structure that serves as a false lens through which we see and interpret the world in such a way that what we see is distorted. I had a mental stronghold about God’s power to such a degree that it distorted how I pictured God’s character. I could not understand his love because God was POWER.

Paul wrote about stronghold saying, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:4-5)

A stronghold serves as a filter through which we see everything. It’s like a pair of glasses that interprets how we see things. It is a belief that may actually have some degree of truth to it, but it has been elevated to the level of ultimate truth. God is powerful, but the power of God is not the ultimate truth of God’s character. And because I gave it a place of ultimacy, this stronghold distorted the way I saw God and the world.

Dealing with strongholds is not an academic exercise. It’s not something we do because we know the facts about who God is, as revealed in Christ. It is helpful to know these facts, but shifts in how we see God most often come through “Aha” moments.

When Shawna was pregnant with our first child, we had many friends repeat the exact same words to us: “Everything is going to change.” We had been married for almost five years, and we had become accustomed to life as DINKs (double income no kids). I would scoff at the comments about the change coming our way, but the change has been larger and more comprehensive than I could ever imagine.

One of the first things that changed with the advent of Deklan into our lives was our sleep patterns. No longer was sleep a luxury that we could practice whenever we desired. We had a little baby in our house that required feeding every three hours, and he let us know about it. 

During that first month, I was up after his feeding at about 2 a.m.  I was tired, but he had the hiccups and could not sleep. My sleep habits were in shock. My body cried out for rest, but there was something within me that kept my body awake. It was something bigger than the physical need for sleep. This was my son, and he required care.

As I walked around in the dark, a phrase resonated within me. I think it was in a hymn that I grew up singing as a child. Rattling in my head were words, “He does not sleep, nor does he slumber.” Later I looked up this verse in Psalm 121 were it reads, “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

As I reflected, I realized that I had assumed that God’s lack of need for sleep was based on his omnipotence, that he does not need sleep. I thought that his wakeful attentiveness was a part of his awesomeness and power because he is God (or Gawd, as some who like to emphasize his awesomeness say). 

That night I was awake for one reason, and it had nothing to do with my abilities or my power. It only related to what I felt within me for my son. I had the ability to be awake and tend to his needs because I was deeply loving him, one that was changing me from the inside out. Then I realized that God’s attentive wakefulness is fueled by his love for us. He is motivated to care for us by his passion for us, not by his inherent power. 

The change going on within me was also changing my view of God. I realized that I had been seeing God through is power and assumed that his love was a product of his power. Then I began to reconsider this. Maybe his power was a product of his love. God’s omnipotence is a product of God’s endless love. I had the power to care for my son, and subsequently forego sleep in caring for Deklan that night (and our other three children subsequently) only because I love them in a way that I never knew possible. That love instilled abilities in me that I did not know were possible.

Psalm 121 seems to confirm this, although it does not use these exact words:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

       where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD, 

       the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip— 

       he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel 

       will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you— 

       the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day, 

       nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm— 

       he will watch over your life;

the LORD will watch over your coming and going 

       both now and forevermore.

You can read this through the filter of God’s power and therefore see this as a Psalm of God’s power to help his people. From the power perspective, it is about God’s glory and God’s nature. And this is exactly how I had seen God. But the problem with this perspective is that God was simply a distant figure in Heaven, who while awesome and mighty, was simply a tyrant who “deserved my affection and worship.” It was hard for me to see God’s love because I could only see his power.

Power or awesome ability does not necessarily result in love. Something or someone that is great or awesome can be so without love. But God’s greatness and power is one that is defined by love. His love defines his power.  God is our help because of his love.  He watches over us because of his deep abiding passion for us. 

And because we are in need of so much help and watching over, God, our Father, never gets a break. It is a 24/7 thing. His love fuels his attentive wakefulness. Wow!

The specific practice that we can intentionally adopt is that of naming how we have been taught to see God and how that compares to the image of God revealed by Jesus.

Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

Remembering Your Identity: A Practice for Receiving What Has Been Done

We are looking at practices that help us look back at what God has done, and the journey that we have traveled to this point. One of those is meditating on our identity of who we are as those who belong to God. This is about who you are not what you do. I am including a list of the “I am” statements at the end of this post. These are declarations of our identity compiled from the Scriptures. As a precursor, I want to provide some insight into how our identity works. 

Identity as a Gift

My father was a fireman for 32 years in the Dallas suburb of Garland. When he arrived home after his 24-hour shift, I’d ask what went on at work. I wanted to know how he had saved the day. He’d often respond with something like, “Well, we chased the ambulance a few times.” (Firemen would follow the ambulances to assist on many cases.) Or he’d briefly talk about a small house fire or a car accident. On most occasions, he’d say that they didn’t have any runs at all, that they had a few inspections, performed some drills, or did some maintenance work on the fire equipment. As a kid this seemed rather mundane.

Then there was the day when I was ten when my Dad made the news. He had walked into a burning house and scooped up a child from a crib and carried him to safety. On that day, my chest stuck out because my Dad had grown about six inches. He was a hero.

The conversation when he got home is burned into my memory. I asked, “What was it like?” He responded with something like, “There were eight other firemen at the fire who would have done the same thing. It just happened to be me checking that room. It’s just what we do.”

This was not at all what I expected him to say. I was looking for some kind of exposition on what it felt like to save a life and be the hero. But without any thought or reflection, he simply conveyed, “It’s just who I am.” Having his name in the paper or mentioned in the news meant nothing.

As ten-year-old boy, I did not get the significance of his words. I must admit that it has taken me a few decades to understand his response. I was looking at firefighting with an eye to the spectacular. I only saw the action in the heat of the moment, with firefighters going forth to save the day, performing heroic activities to get the job done.

My Dad’s point of view was radically different. He saw firefighting as a way of being, as something that had been given to him. His action sprung out of his core. His heart, will, and mind had been formed (discipled) in such a way that he performed the actions as required by the situation. There were a myriad of firefighting practices that had shaped his ability to live into this gift so that firefighting actions became second nature. To me these second nature actions were spectacular. To him they were woven into his way of living. He didn’t just fight fires. He was a firefighter. It shaped his identity, and he did his work out of that identity. The difference is subtle, but monumental.

Participating in the Gift

The Bible tells us about our identity in many places. For instance, we are told that we are “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This is a statement about our nature. It’s like a name that has been given to us not because we have done something. We did not make it happen. It is a settled fact. It is already an established truth. My Dad was a fireman. It was a mantle that was given to him. At first, it was a job, a position. But after years of being present in that role and living into that gift, he took on that identity. It was just who he was because he participated in it. 

The word for “participants” in this verse could also be translated as “sharers” or “those who have been included in.” Imagine it as if you are a child that has been adopted by a wealthy family. You are a full participant in the life of the family. Your name has changed. You can go anywhere in the house. You have a seat at the table. And you don’t have to earn that seat. It’s a gift.

By definition, the deepest truth about you is this: You are a participant in the life of God. This means that you share in the complete love that the Father, Son and Spirit have for one another. You have a seat at the table with God.

Greg Boyd puts it this way: ”We are not just recipients of the love of the Trinity—we are participants. When the Father incorporates us into the triune fellowship by placing us in Christ through the power of the Spirit, this doesn’t just change how God views us and relates to us. It changes who we really are.” (Repenting of Religion, 41)

If you are like me, we know something is wrong. We don’t feel like this is true. And we all see things about our lives that are not the way they are supposed to be. Even while you are reading this there are probably things that come to mind as evidence that this is not true.

Paul referred to this as the struggle with the “old self.” Ephesians 4:22-23 states: ”You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Our identity of being a God participant becomes manifest in our lives as we put off the old self and put on the new self. The old self has been crucified with Christ. It is in fact “old” and dead and our new identity is truly our identity. However, the old lingers. And if we fail to put off the old self, it will stand in the way of our ability to live out our new identity. The old self will continue to shape how we live, how we think, and how we feel.

The Old Self and Being Loved

What’s the source of our identity? What is the root of our being? What is the ultimate being of our life? What is the ultimate cause of our being? These are questions that are raised by the philosophical discipline called ontology. Rene Descartes asked these questions and came up with cogito ergo sum which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.” He determined that his ability to reason is the source of his being. As I’ve reflected on how we do life today, I think there are many other options that lie at the source of our being. While most of us don’t think about these things in what we might call an ontological way, we all live according to a certain ontology. For instance, 

I feel, therefore I am.

I have fun, therefore I am.

I work, therefore I am.

I have power, therefore I am.

I make money, therefore I am.

I possess, therefore I am.

All of these are examples of the identity of our “old self.” I’m sure we could add to this list. For those of us who follow Jesus, we might add something like, “I love, therefore I am.” We get our identify out of the fact that we love God and others. We try to do life as Jesus did life. However, there is a problem with this. It assumed that the “I” is the source or the cause of “my” being. Paul said that we are to “put off” these, to shed them because they are not true to our being. 

Allow me to quote from the great theologian John Zizioulas on this. It’s a bit dense, but worth the effort: 

“Beings exist as particular, therefore, only as gifts of the Other, who grants them an identity by establishing a unique relation with them. In this kind of ontology, in which the Other and not the Self is the cause of being, we not only leave behind the Cartesian ontology of ‘I think, therefore I am’, but we also go beyond ‘I love, therefore I am’, since the latter still presupposes the Self as somehow causing being (by love). The proper way of expressing the ontological character of love in an ontology of otherness would rather be: ‘I am loved, therefore I am’. Being is a gift of the Other, and it is this very gift that constitutes love; if love does not grant or ’cause’ a unique identity, it is not true love; it is self-love, a sort of narcissism in disguise.” (John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 89)

God’s love flows toward you in a way that has never been given to another person in the history of the world.

I am loved, therefore I am. And to be loved is to be loved in relationship. This means that my identity is a gift that arises out of the relationship with the Other. And this means that I’m uniquely loved because my relationship with the Other (God) is different and distinct from the relationship the Other (God) has with anyone else. God’s love is universally great, but God doesn’t love us all the same way. 

This is not universalized love. This is particular love. God loves you uniquely, and thereby you are uniquely you in that relationship. Your identity is not some kind of theory that can be applied to all people. While my father was one of many firemen who could have all saved that child, no one could have done it like he did. No other person in the world can be the child of God that you are to God. God’s love flows toward you in a way that has never been given to another person in the history of the world. You are loved by a God who knows you and expresses that love to you where you are. This is the foundation of your identity. 

I Am Declarations

Here is that list of “I am statements,” biblical declarations about our identity because we have been adopted and saved, loved by God. Read through them slowly. Ask the Spirit to speak to you as you do. If one stands out to you, stop and meditate on on it. Ask the Spirit to bring this truth to light. 

I am blameless and free from accusation. (Colossians 1:22)

Christ Himself is in me. (Colossians 1:27)

I am firmly rooted in Christ and am now being built up in Him. (Col. 2:7)

I have been made complete in Christ. (Colossians 2:10)

I have been spiritually circumcised. My old unregenerate nature has been removed. (Colossians 2:11)

I have been buried, raised, and made alive with Christ. (Colossians 2:12,13)

I died with Christ and I have been raised up with Christ. My life is now hidden

With Christ in God. Christ is now my life. (Colossians 1:1-4)

I am an expression of the life of Christ because He is my life. (Colossians 3:4)

I am chosen of God, holy and dearly loved. (Col. 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4)

I am a son of light and not of darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:5)

I have been given a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

I have been saved and set apart according to God’s doing.(2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5)

Because I am sanctified and am one with the Sanctifier, He is not ashamed to call me brother. (Hebrews 2:11)

I am a holy partaker of a heavenly calling. (Hebrews 3:1)

I have the right to come boldly before the throne of God to find mercy and grace in a time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

I have been born again. (1 Peter 1:23)

I am one of God’s living stones, being built up in Christ as a spiritual house. (1 Peter 2:5)

I am a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a People for God’s own possession. (1 Peter 2:9,10)

I am an alien and stranger to this world in which I temporarily live.

(1 Peter 2:11)

I am an enemy of the devil. (1 Peter 2:11)

I have been given exceedingly great and precious promises by God by Which I am a partaker of God’s divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)

I am forgiven on the account of Jesus’ name. (1 John 2:12)

I am anointed by God. (1 John 2:27)

I am a child of God and I will resemble Christ when He returns. (1 John 3:1,2) 

I am loved. (1 John 4:10)

I am like Christ. (1 John 4:10)

I have life. (1 John 5:12)

I am born of God, and the evil one…the devil…cannot touch me. (1 John 5:`8)

I have been redeemed. (Revelation 5:9)

I have been healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

I am the salt of the earth. (Matthew 5:13)

I am the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)

I am commissioned to make disciples. (Matthew 28:19,20)

I am a child of God. (John 1:12)

I have eternal life. (John 10:27)

I have been given peace. (John 14:27)

I am part of the true vine, a channel of Christ’s life. (John 15:1,5)

I am clean. (John 15:3)

I am Christ’s friend. (John 15:15)

I am chosen and appointed by Christ to bear His fruit. (John 15:16) I have been given glory. (John 17:22)

I have been justified…completely forgiven and made righteous. (Romans 5:1)

I died with Christ and died to the power of sin’s rule over my life. (Romans 6:1-6)

I am a slave of righteousness. (Romans 6:18)

I am free from sin and enslaved to God. (Romans 6:22)

I am free forever from condemnation. (Romans 8:1)

I am a son of God; God is spiritually my Father. (Romans 8:14, 15 Galatians 3:26; 4:6)

I am a joint heir with Christ, sharing His inheritance with Him (Romans 8:17)

I am more than a conqueror through Christ, who loves me. (Romans 8:37)

I have faith. (Romans 12:3)

I have been sanctified and called to holiness. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

I have been given grace in Christ Jesus. (1Corinthians 1:4)

I have been placed into Christ, by God’s doing. (1 Corinthians 1:30) 

I have received the Spirit of God into my life that I might know the

things feely given to me by God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)

I have been given the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)

I am a temple…a dwelling place…of God. His Spirit and His life dwell in me. (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19)

I am united to the Lord and am one spirit with Him. (1 Corinthians 6:17)

I am bought with a price; I am not my own; I belong to God. (1 Corinthians 6:19,20; 7:23) I am called. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

I am a member of Christ’s Body. (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 5:30) 

I am victorious through Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57)

I have been established, anointed and sealed by God in Christ, and I have been given to the Holy Spirit as a pledge guaranteeing my inheritance to come. (2 Corinthians 1:21; Ephesians 1:13,14)

I am led by God in triumphal procession. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

I am to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved

and those who are perishing. (2 Corinthians 2:15)

I am being changed into the likeness of Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:18 

Since I have died, I no longer live for myself, but for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:14,15)

I am a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

I am reconciled to God and am a minister of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18,19)

I have been made righteous. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

I am given strength in exchange for weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ

lives in me. The life I am now living is Christ’s life. (Galatians 2:20)

I am a son of God and one in Christ. (Galatians 3:26, 28)

I am Abraham’s seed…an heir of the promise. (Galatians 3:29)

I am an heir of God since I am a son of God. (Galatians 4:6,7)

I am a saint. (Ephesians 1:1; ! Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2)

I have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. (Ephesians 1:3)

I was chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and

am without blame before Him. (Ephesians 1:4)

I was predestined…determined by God…to be adopted as God’s son. (Ephesians 1:5)

I have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)

I have been redeemed and forgiven, and I am a recipient of His lavish grace.

I have been made alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:5)

I have been raised up and seated with Christ in heaven. (Ephesians 2:6) 

I am God’s workmanship…His handiwork…born anew in Christ to do His work. (Ephesians 2:10)

I have direct access to God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18)

I am a fellow citizen with the rest of God’s family. (Ephesians 2:19)

I may approach God with boldness, freedom, and confidence. (Eph. 3:12) 

I am righteous and holy. (Ephesians 2:24)

I am a citizen of heaven, seated in heaven right now. (Philippians 3:20 Ephesians 2:6)

I am capable. (Philippians 4:13)

I have been rescued from the domain of Satan’s rule and transferred to the kingdom of Christ. (Colossians 1:13)

I have been redeemed and forgiven of all my sins. The debt against me has been cancelled. (Colossians 1:14)

What You See Changes Everything

As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”

The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” –Luke 10:38-42

If you had lived in the first century, you would have been expected to act in certain ways depending upon your status in society. In some parts of the Middle East, up to 80% of the population were categorized as slaves. As a result, most people were excluded from privilege and position in society. Children had a role that society defined for them, one that cast them aside and treated them as less than human at times. And then there were women. They were limited to that of the kitchen, raising children, and taking care of the home.

The culture also determined who could and could not “sit at the feet” of a teacher. Men could sit under great teachers and listen to their ways, but women were excluded from this. In our day, we don’t immediately see the problem with what Mary was doing, but if you had been reading this passage in the first century, the men and the women in the room would have been enraged by her audacity. She did not belong in the room when someone like Jesus was teaching. 

Most first century readers would have agreed with Martha’s response. This after all was the culturally-defined thing to do. Jesus’ response was radical and unexpected. He not only endorsed what Mary was doing, but also he challenges Martha’s actions. Mary chose the better thing, while Jesus rebukes the box that the culture has put around Martha.

This is much more than a statement about the cultural roles of men and women. This is a statement regarding Jesus’ authority over all assumed cultural norms. This text refers twice to Jesus as “Master” which is the word kurios in the Greek. This is most often translated “Lord” and in the New Testament literature is a title referring to the one who has ultimate authority, the God of the Old Testament. In other words, Mary saw to the one who had the right and the power to establish new ways of being and operating even when it flew in the face of common practices.

For the most part, the issues around roles and culturally defined jobs that we face today vary from those of Mary and Martha. But there is something that still reigns in our culture: Just as Martha assumed that she had to perform according to the culturally-defined roles in order to be accepted and loved so do we. While the roles are different, we are still called upon to “perform” for our acceptance. Martha was doing the best she could do to create a space for Jesus her “Master” (“Lord”). However, Mary was listening, absorbing, and gathering life from Jesus’ words and presence.

Many have interpreted this passage as a call to live like “Mary in a Martha world.” This misses the key point. It is not that we are to be more contemplative and less active in our daily living. Nor is it a moral lesson that we are to receive from Jesus first so that we can then go out and serve as he tells us to. Martha was simply doing what the culture had told her to do all her life. Mary was just simply captivated—even enraptured—by the face of Jesus.

If this story is an instruction for us to become more contemplative or if it is intended as a morality lesson so that we can be told by God what to do next in our everyday lives, then Jesus is no longer the Master of the text. Contemplation and rest become something we perform as it is something we control. Mary was not in control. Jesus was. He was the one who set the parameters.

What Mary Saw

I surmise that Mary didn’t even realize what she was doing. She did not set out to break the cultural norm. Nor did she intend to frustrate her sister Mary. If she had seen a picture of what was going on that day, she would have been appalled at herself. When Martha addressed Jesus, I envision Mary hopping up to get to fit the role she was “born to perform.” She was caught up in the moment of seeing Jesus for who he was because she saw something that most were missing. After all that is the way she had always received approval and acceptance.

Now I could explain what occurred to Mary that day by citing Scriptures about how we are already loved by God, about how we have been accepted by God even while were in rebellion against him. We could make statements regarding the radical grace and love of God and how these truths free us to sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary. But there is a problem with this. If I develop a theory of grace that makes me more like Mary, then grace is dependent upon my understanding of it. Grace is not something that I can understand or control. It is not something that I can possess or have. No matter how much I can quote scriptures about the love and grace of God, it is still too wild to capture with mere words. This does not mean that we should not seek to know what the Bible says about God’s grace. We should. But when we depend upon some kind of didactic argument for communicating God’s approval, we might be able to answer questions on a theological exam correctly, but we miss out on something much greater.

God’s grace is only known through an encounter, the shock of the unexpected. It is hard for us to imagine just how shocking Mary’s actions were. If you were in college, it would be like a freshman sitting in on a seminar with four or five Ph.D.s who are asking questions of a Nobel Laurette. And not only that, the Laurette embraces that freshman and answers his questions just like those of everyone else.

Or imagine if you were an aspiring young film director and you went to a presentation on film making by Steven Spielberg. Afterward, you had a pass with about 20 other experts in the field to have lunch with this master. Then you realize that your seat is only two down from him. As people ask intelligent question of Spielberg you realize that you are out of your league. You don’t fit in. You are a novice and you remain silent listening to all that is going on. Then after the meal, Steven looks at you, asks your name and wonders if you would be willing to accompany him in his limo back to the hotel. Everyone looks at you and wonders who you are. But they realize you are a nobody. You have done nothing in the movie industry. And you did not say anything of any significance. The fact is Steven just choose you to share some time with. This is the nature of the surprise.  This is grace. It cannot be explained very well. In fact, any theology of grace cannot compare to the encounter of Grace. Mary could not explain what occurred to her that day. She could only tell the story. She had an encounter with Jesus, not a theology of Christ.

What Martha Saw

Jesus goes beyond affirming the actions of Mary and thus challenging the cultural norms that only men could sit at the feet of religious teachers. He rebuked the cultural pattern that was controlling Martha. Martha was playing her role, performing her way into approval. She was doing what all expected her to do as the host of Jesus that day. While the story provide details about how was present that day, it is likely that there were others in her home listening to Jesus. Maybe some of the twelve disciples or Lazerus, Mary and Martha’s brother, were lounging and interacting with Jesus. I can imagine someone asking, “Jesus, why exactly did you tell the story of the Good Samaritan like you did? I don’t get it. Can you explain it more?” Maybe someone asked, “Jesus, will you teach us to pray to the Father like you do?”

In the midst of these questions, Martha was running around trying to prepare the meal, set the table, and make sure it was all in order. The harder she worked the more worked up she got. She would only see the things that her culture told her that she should be doing.

Martha’s eyes were blinded by cultural expectations.

Then after Martha challenged Mary’s actions, Jesus seized the moment to make the point. (Isn’t this exactly what Jesus always does? He does not look for spiritual moments to teach people. He teaches people his ways in the midst of the normal everyday stuff of life.) While those sitting around listening to Jesus were asking all kinds of spiritual questions, his most important point is made to the one in the house who has the least interest in what he is saying.

It important to recognize what Jesus does not say. He does not tell Martha to become like Mary, to take on Mary’s actions, or even to quit what she is doing. He just makes a simple observation: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

In three lines of text, Jesus has just blown up her world. He has dismantled that upon which she had established her identity. 

In the same ways, our culture tells us how to perform for approval. The Master has the right to establish new norms as a part of his kingdom. This is the beauty. But this beauty will always revolt against something, and Jesus revolted against the pattern that controlled Martha. Today, Jesus revolts against patterns of the culture that dictate how we are to perform for approval.

We fuss and fret and get worked up over things that Jesus would classify as nothing. What are these nothings? For some it is money, cars and the kind of house they own. For others, it is who their friends are. Others get caught up in how much they know or the degrees they have hanging from their walls. Prestige, status, job titles, office size all are nothing.

And if you think these nothings have remained outside the walls of the church, you are gravely mistaken. The fretting of Martha has been so woven into the church that it has become the norm rather than the exception. Those committed to the service of others are so often caught up in doing good stuff that it consumes them. The needs of this world never go away and those with a passion for God and love for people can get worked up over the work that must be done. As a result, performance takes over and people become consumed by the needs.

The ends of God can only be done by the ways of God. We cannot produce God’s ends through whatever means might work. Fretting and worry is never God’s first option for us, but so much of the time the culture of the world defines the culture of the church so much so that fret takes over.

Seeing Jesus

Mary chose the better way. She understood something that she most likely did not know how to articulate. At this point, it is quite tempting to provide a list of three ways to be like Mary, but Luke does not offer such simplistic instructions. He just tells us the story. Mary got it. Martha did not.

If Jesus confronts us with the constant frenzy that faces us everyday, if he stands against our culture and calls us to be different in a world that lines up like lemmings of sameness, to what is he calling us?

The revolt against the sameness in our culture will not come from our actions. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the will-power to make such a revolt happen. And even if I did, I would only change my actions and outside in type change does not work. Change only occurs in my life when I listen to an alternative story, and I can only hear that different story when I see a different face.

Mary saw. And then Mary listened

She listened to Jesus tell her a story that drew her in, stirred her imagination and gave her an alternative point of view. Mary focused on the one who had captured her imagination and this caused all the demands of life to take a back seat. She set her eyes on the one that mattered, “the author and perfecter” of our faith, as the writer of Hebrews put it. 

This changed everything. 

As we are looking back on our journey, think about where you have been placing your gaze. Think about the last week. Here are some questions for you:

  • How have you fallen into the into the trap of Martha?
  • What have been the results of this “Martha” activity?
  • How has Jesus been with you waiting for you to see him?
  • When you have you seen him? 
  • How have you stopped to focus and listen to him?
  • What have been the results of this “Mary” activity? 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

A Practice for Looking Back: The Examen

The Examen was developed by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) as a guide to help those within the Society of Jesus (The Jesuits) understand where God has been with them in their daily lives. It operates with the assumption that God is always with us, walking alongside us in the midst of what we might call “secular.” We just don’t often develop the eyes to see how God is the midst of the mundane stuff that we do everyday. 

St. Ignatius taught that relating to God on God’s terms meant that we have to learn to find God in all that we are doing so that we can freely join him in that activity. The Examen is a practical way to do this, and it only takes about 15 minutes and is broken into 5 steps. Here they are:

Preparation

  • Be Still: Create a space where you can be alone for 15 minutes and pay attention to God. 

Part 1: Present yourself to God’s Presence

  • Bring the fact that you are in God’s present to mind and confess that you are God’s child. 
  • This activity can be done as a way to see God during different stretches of time: a day, a week, a month, a year, etc. Choose the time for this activity and then acknowledge God’s presence with you on that part of the journey. 

Part 2: Give Thanks

  • Recognize where God has offered gifts to you. 
  • Pay attention to what you have received freely and what you have resisted. 
  • As you see all the things that have been gifted to you, take time to allow these blessings to seep into your soul. Then offer thanks to God for them. 
  • Part 3: Ask the Holy Spirit to Open Your Eyes
  • Submit yourself to the Holy Spirit so that you can see what you would not normally see.

Part 4: Review Your Journey (The following will focus on a day, but you can change day to whatever stretch of time you are focusing on.)

Review Your Whole Day

  • Notice the details
  • Where did it occur. What was the context?
  • How did you act?
  • What were your motives?
  • What did you feel?

When did you struggle?

  • Where did you not feel at your best?
  • Where was there a barrier to God’s presence?
  • What depleted you?
  • How did you respond to struggles?
  • How did you fall short?

When did you love?

  • What energized you?
  • Where did you experience answers to prayer?
  • Where were the place when you received God’s presence?
  • When did you give love?
  • What did you feel in those times?

Part 5: Notice Unexpected Experiences of God’s Presence 

  • How were you blessed by others?
  • What are you feeling in your body?
  • What occurred that caused you to experience a sense of wonder or awe?
  • Did you feel a sense of surprise or a shift in your thinking?  

Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash