Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thy Will Be Done

Habakkuk’s complaint: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”. . .
The Lord’s answer: “Look among the nations and see; wonder, and be astounded.  For behold, I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
- Habakkuk 1:1, 5

"And if things are terrifying," Pauline put in, her eyes half closed and her head turned away as if she asked a casual question rather of the world than of him, "can they be good?"
He looked down on her.  "Yes, surely," he said, with more energy.  "Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?"
- Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
- 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

As I’ve prayed about and asked about and learned about and witnessed prayer, it’s become clear to me that the only way prayer makes any sense is if two things are held to be vital and unchangeable:

God is completely sovereign, and God is completely good.

I know, this isn’t new. People have wrestled with the tension in it for millennia: If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He stop horrible things from happening?  If He lets them happen, then how can He be good?  Shelves of books have been written about these questions by people much wiser than I.  I know I can’t resolve them here, and it’s not really the point of this post. 

The point of this post is to stop, and take a breath, and just sink for a moment into the glory contained in these to two truths.

God is completely sovereign, and God is completely good.

Too often I think we’re tempted to cheapen goodness by making it merely about comfort or happiness or the absence of pain.  Actual goodness, though—at least as I understand it in the Bible—is more about things being and doing what they were created (or in God’s case, exist) to do.  God exists to be glorified, and we exist to give Him glory. 

And in this world—now that it’s broken—sometimes His glory comes through terrible, painful, baffling things.

I don’t mean to say that these terrible things are themselves good.  We can point to endless things—starvation and disease and genocide and abuse and corruption and messed up relationships—which are manifestations of how broken and profoundly not-good this world is since humanity sinned.

No, what I mean instead is that to know that God is both completely sovereign and completely good is to acknowledge that He brings about good—genuine, deep, Himself-glorifying Good—through these things in a way that they couldn’t otherwise come.

I’ve erased this post dozens of times (literally—I started writing it more than a month ago) because it feels almost offensive to say that aloud.  I think of those who have suffered greatly—those dear to me—and picture them hearing those words as a slap in the face or a trite, bad-sympathy-card minimization of their grief.  I hope what I say here isn’t taken that way.

I don’t pretend to understand why God lets things unfold the way they do, or why sometimes He answers yes and sometimes—even to our most earnest and selfless and good-seeming prayers—He answers no.  But I think everything about prayer—about faith—changes when you realize how much richer and more substantial it is than just focusing on what you want and believing (or at least trying to believe) that if God is good then you’ll get it. 

So often people act like that’s what faith is: “believing hard enough.”  I remember as a kid, praying for someone who was terminally sick.  I prayed earnestly, knowing—knowing, for sure—that God was capable of healing that person, but struggled (guiltily) with the nagging belief that He likely wouldn’t.  And He didn’t. The incurable condition remained uncured.  Was that a lack of faith?  Would it have made a difference if in my prayers I had managed to believe, without reservation, that God not only could but would heal that person?

Maybe—there’s still much I don’t know or understand about prayer.  I don’t think so, though.

I don’t think so, because I think to say that makes the power of prayer all about me, as if I can control God through the sheer force of my will.

And I don’t think so because I think faith, in the context of prayer, is about trusting so fully in who God is—in his character and power and promises—that whether the outcome of a situation is what you wanted and hoped or not you know He is still that God.  That He is still worthy of all praise.  That He is still completely sovereign and completely good and—somehow—the answer He gives is for your good and for His glory.

For us to equate faith with “believing really hard that whatever you’re praying for will happen” is not only a mistake, but—think about it—outrageously cheeky. 

God promises many things to His people, and I think that in prayer we can (should!) claim these promises—these truths—with unflinching boldness. God will provide, God will equip, God will protect, God will guide, God will remain faithful.  But to assume that I—a finite, sinful, self-absorbed human, stuck on this narrow timeline and in this physical world—know exactly what the fulfillment of those promises must look like is really rather absurd.  I mean, talk about conceit.

The familiar “. . .but your will be done” isn’t some kind of cop-out phrase to tack onto the end of a prayer, so you have something to fall back on when you haven’t believed hard enough and what you prayed for doesn’t happen.  It’s at the heart of praying in faith.  It’s saying, “God, I believe that you are who you say you are.  You are sovereign, and good, and promise to provide, and I believe your promises.  From my human perspective, X looks good and I’m asking for it.  But I know that your thoughts and ways are far above my thoughts and ways, and more than I want X I want your will to be done and for you to be given glory.  I want X, but I know that if you don’t give me X that you are still good and still sovereign and still providing, just not in a way that I understand yet, or maybe ever will understand until I see you face to face.” 

Praying in faith is super hard, but not because it’s about mustering up enough belief in miracles that the strength of your conviction somehow brings them to pass.  It’s hard because it’s humbling, and dependent, and submissive, and forces us not only to accept but to expect that painful and inexplicable things will be part of our lives.  It’s hard because it makes us admit that prayer is not really about us at all.

That said, though, the truth—the glorious, gracious, we-don’t-deserve-it-at-all truth—is that since God can do anything—since He reigns over every speck of this universe, down to the molecule, the atom, the quark, the whatever-is-smaller-than-a-quark—and is also good—also loves each one of us like there’s only one of us, down to the very deepest middle of our selves and has mercifully chosen to work things for our good even though we’ve sinned—we have every reason to rejoice!  God not only knows what is very best—for us, for those around us, for everything He has made—on an incomprehensible, eternal scale, but He is capable of bringing it about.  It means that when we are struggling through profound, mystifying pain (which we will, on earth), that we needn’t despair.   It means that when we ask for something and He answers no, that (in a real and deep way that isn’t at all the cliché I’m afraid it sounds) He’s doing something better that we just can’t see. 

There is still so much I don’t understand about prayer and faith and how good comes through bad and why some prayers are more powerful than others and how prayer affects the spiritual battles going on around us.  I don’t know how or for what I ought to pray—I’m so grateful that the Holy Spirit intercedes, and that God is a patient teacher.  But this I do know:  We need to be praying. 

I’m convinced it’s as we pray that He teaches us to pray—that as we’re transformed into His likeness and our desires align more with His and our eyes see more what He sees and our ears are quicker to listen, that our prayers grow bolder and stronger and at least more how they ought to be.

All of creation groans under the curse of sin.  One day it won’t anymore (let that moment come soon!), but in the meantime—amazingly—we have a God who loves us, and grieves with us, and remembers that we are made of dust.  He knows that living here is hard.  It’s hard, but it’s never pointless, and we aren’t left here alone.  He not only allows but—even more amazingly—He wants us to come to Him, to listen to Him, to tell Him things, to ask for things.  He wants us to pray. 

So, let us do it!  Go to Him, and listen, and tell, and ask.  Pray without ceasing.  Pray for things that seem impossible.  Pray, and encourage one another to pray, and remind one another who God is even when life hurts and prayers seem to be unanswered—He is sovereign, and He is good, and is doing something far beyond what we can ask or imagine.

Not our will, but His be done. 

Thou Incomprehensible but Prayer-Hearing God,
Give me a heart frameable to thy will, that I might live in prayer.
Let me know that the work of prayer is to bring my will to thine,
that when I try to bring thy will to mine it is to command Christ, to be above Him, and wiser than He—that is my sin and pride.
May the matter of my prayer be always
wise, humble, submissive, obedient, scriptural, Christ-like.
Give me unwavering faith that supplications are never in vain, that 
if I seem not to obtain my petitions I shall have larger, richer answers.
Amen.
(adapted from The Valley of Vision)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Morning Needs

O God, the Author of all Good,
I come to thee for the grace another day will require for its duties and events.
I step out into a wicked world,
I carry about with me an evil heart,
I know that without thee I can do nothing,
that everything with which I shall be concerned, however harmless in itself, may prove an occasion of sin or folly, unless I am kept by thy power.
Hold thou me up and I shall be safe.
Preserve my understanding from subtlety of error,
     my affections from love of idols,
     my character from stain of vice,
     my profession from every form of evil.
May I engage in nothing in which I cannot implore thy blessing,
     and in which I cannot invite thy inspection.
Prosper me in all lawful undertakings, or prepare me for disappointments.
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with food convenient for me,
     lest I be full and deny thee and say, Who is the Lord?
     or be poor, and steal, and take thy name in vain.
May every creature be made good to me by prayer and thy will.
Teach me how to use the world, and not abuse it,
     to improve my talents,
     to redeem my time,
     to walk in wisdom toward those without, 
          and in kindness to those within,
     to do good to all men, and especially to my fellow Christians.
And to thee be the glory.

"Morning Needs," a Puritan prayer from The Valley of Vision

Monday, April 21, 2014

Uplifting Letters of Hope (BBC News)

This week, the BBC ran this story about Somali refugee children in Kenya encouraging Syrian refugee children in Jordan.  Kudos to whoever organized and funded this! There are more letters and photos in the article.







Thursday, April 3, 2014

Applause

Should all the poor know my name, 
And all my gentle mercies every heart proclaim
Should by my own two hands all this world be changed, 
This truth will yet remain:
My only victory is Jesus! His life and death and resurrection!
- Justin McRoberts, “My Only Victory”

I first read Jeremy Taylor’s nineteen points on humility* in my high school small group. I remember it so distinctly: sitting there, growing increasingly chagrined as I realized every example of pride he provided was visible somehow in my life. In fact, I pulled out my copy today to see if my memory had exaggerated, but no—every single section has underlines and notes to myself inspired by my smitten conscience.

Every section, that is, except one.

Ah, point twelve. I remember how glad I was to find it—a brief reprieve for my soul as I squirmed through the other eighteen.

Twelfth: Do not entertain any of the devil’s whispers of pride, such as that of Nebuchadnezzar: “Is this not great Babylon, which I have built for the honor of my name, and the might of my majesty, and the power of my kingdom?” Some people spend their time dreaming of greatness, envisioning theaters full of people applauding them, imagining themselves giving great speeches . . . All of this is nothing but the fumes of pride . . .

“Here at last!” I thought. “Fame. One I don’t have to worry about. Thank God for introverted-ness—I’m off the hook.”

My sinful self, however, is crafty.

It knows that outright fame is not the lure for me. Were the devil to dangle forbidden fruit in front of me, promising celebrity or publicity or far-reaching influence as the prize if I’d only eat, I don’t think it would even count as a temptation. My introverted heart would naturally balk and I’d gladly turn him down. (Although I’d probably feel sort of smug about so easily “resisting,” so I guess he’d still get a point. Darn.)

Here’s how crafty that fallen man inside me is: Over the years I’ve increasingly seen in my heart a desire to be famous for (get ready) not desiring to be famous

I don’t crave the spotlight myself—that’s usually true enough. But I want people who are in the spotlight to admire and discuss and point out my lack of spotlight-seeking and how awesome my selflessness, humility, wisdom, [fill-in-virtue-of-your-choice-here] are. I don’t even really care if my name is mentioned. In a twisted way, my pride could be even more gratified in anonymity. As long as (in my fantasies) people are nodding admiringly, and as long as I know they’re really talking about me, it’s enough.

At it’s root (and, let’s be honest, only barely disguised), it’s exactly the same as Taylor’s twelfth point I so eagerly excused myself from in high school. I do dream of theaters full of people applauding me—I’m just not on the stage myself to blush and stammer in front of them. In my dream I'm unseen, but basking in the applause just as much.

I struggle with this—with wanting to live a life that other people admire while not looking like I want their admiration—every single day.

God has spent years loosening my grip on all sorts of things I grasp at to define who I am and why I matter. Almost always, I persist in using other humans as my reference point for that: Who I am in the midst of the billions of other people around and before and coming after me. Why I matter to them, or don’t, or should, or shouldn’t. Why I matter to God, or don’t, in comparison to them.  

He has shown me—as even this blog can attest—again and again and again that He is sufficient for me. He has reminded me that I don’t have to prove myself to Him, or to do something extraordinary to get Him to notice me or use me or want to keep me around. And He has reminded me that since I matter to Him, then it really doesn’t matter whether people are applauding.

I am free to be bold, to throw myself into the wave, to risk—in obedience to Him—what earthly eyes would see as failure or humiliation or unimportance or loss. Free to see that everything earthly I have earned or accomplished is in fact already loss, and in that truth to rest—to breathe without the pressure of having to do and accomplish more and more and more.

There is so much freedom available to me. Yet I perversely persist in re-shackling myself to the fear of man and desire for human validation. Humans, in all their frailty and imperfection. Humans, who are nothing but a breath—here, then gone. I remind myself again that that famous question is meant to be rhetorical: What can man do to me? The answer: Nothing. People—their applause or disapproval or misunderstanding or criticism—can ultimately do nothing to you when you belong to God.

Of course, as we walk (sometimes trudge) through this broken world, what people think seems to matter a lot. How we compare feels important. Words can grievously wound.  Hooray, then, for a God who knows that, and comforts us and is patient with us and heals us and—even if it feels oh so slow—transforms us so these things matter to us less and less.

Living here, trying to listen and figure out what God is leading me to do with my time and energy, when to wait and when to act, seeing increasingly that I’m not as visibly needed or important as I expected to be (even if I hadn’t quite admitted those expectations to myself), I hope that transformation happens ever more quickly.

Grant me never to lose sight of
the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace.
(from "Continual Repentance," The Valley of Vision)

-------------------
* Excerpted from his "The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living" in Richard Foster's Devotional Classics.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Perspective

I recently found out that my health insurance is going up ten dollars a month.  Uuuuggggggh.  I groaned.  I griped.  I felt my stomach tighten slightly with stress, that I would have to re-shuffle my budget again.  All those ten dollar increases here and twenty dollar increases there add up.

That afternoon, I stopped by my neighbor’s house.  They recently had a death in their family, and I wanted to check in on them.  I had also heard they might be running low on food. 

They weren’t low on food.  They were out of food, other than some rice.  As a friend and I helped them fill out a food stamps application, it came out that between all five members of the household—counting loose change from pockets and crumpled dollar bills—they have just over $87 to their name.  Total.  No bank accounts, no assets.  Only one family member works, and he brings home less in a week than I sometimes make in a single day.  Their electricity is going to be cut off this week unless they find a way to pay their overdue bills. 

… Somehow, a ten dollar increase—and that on a service I’m blessed to have in the first place—doesn’t seem worth complaining about.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Make Welcome

You should check out this awesome craft cooperative started by these awesome people in Charlotte: www.makewelcome.org

Okay, they all happen to be friends of mine.  All bias aside, though, it really is a great group of people meeting a felt need in this community, and showing so much love in the process.  I get asked by students and neighbors all the time whether they can join the group, which now has a waiting list due to space and sewing-machine-access limitations.

Pray that it continues to grow into whatever God wants it to be...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Photos - Fall and San Diego

A couple weeks back, it was one of those amazing autumn Saturdays that begged to be photographed.  It wasn't hard, fortunately--all of these photos were taken on the walk between my house and my Saturday coffee shop haunt.






Then last week I was down in San Diego, visiting one of my dear friends. I got to put my feet in the Pacific (sorry, the Atlantic just isn't the same), hang out in an unexpectedly spectacular cactus garden, and soak in the contrasts of sea and stone and trees all along the coast. Probably a hundred times I found myself wishing I had my real camera with me, but I tried to get at least a few decent shots with the camera on my phone.










The rest of the shots from both sets are on my flickr site.

(And yes, I do plan to write blog posts again, I promise!)