A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

Scripture Most Evangelicals Don’t Believe

“The board could not reach unity about hiring a single woman to do family ministries.” This sentence was the culmination of a five month interview process with a church. The main components of the position I applied for were adult spiritual formation and pastoral care to families. The search team spoke at length with six of my references to hear stories of my ministry and they grilled me with tough questions for hours. They unanimously recommended me to their board as the candidate called to this position. And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events (for the search team, pastor and me), the elder board rejected their recommendation. The pastor had the unfortunate burden of calling to tell me why I would not be called to serve their church. He told me that, for the elders, it wasn’t so much that I am a woman as it was the fact that I am single.

None of the board members met or interviewed me. Their decision was not based on the Lord’s presence in my life, the fruit of my ministry, my character or my professional qualifications, though I am sure the search team and the pastor gave witness to all of these. They based their decision, it seems, on the belief that there is an incompatibility between the role of pastor and singleness.

This decision reveals an implicit bias widely ingrained in the evangelical community – that being married is best. I believe that because Paul uses a marriage metaphor in an attempt to describe the depth of Christ’s love for the church (see Ephesians 5:21-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3), and because as we interpret and apply scripture we have not understood that there are limits to metaphor, we evangelicals have allowed the Christ/Church marriage metaphor to transform our understanding of human marriage into the quintessential symbol of relational health, wholeness and joy.

The belief in the greatness of marriage has so saturated evangelical culture that our beliefs about singleness are shaped almost entirely by default. Because we see marriage as such a beautiful and whole expression of love, singleness has becomes a less-than, not-to-be-envied, even suspect, way of living. This bias reveals itself every time I visit a new church or meet a new group of believers who, when they discover that I am single, start telling me about their unmarried friends, brothers, cousins and coworkers like eager sales associates for eHarmony. It waves its banner annually when our pastors preach a multi-week sermon series promoting healthy marriage while offering (maybe) one sermon or a two-minute aside about living faithfully in singleness. (This trend is even more problematic when we consider the reality that, according to the 2012 census, singles make up 47% of the adult population in the United States.) We see the slimy underbelly of the evangelical bias toward marriage when believers speculate together about the sexual orientation of friends and family who remain single in their late twenties and thirties and beyond. (Is there a more unchristian practice than this?) And it is our unchecked, unbalanced bias toward marriage that leads even our elders to believe that single people and childless people cannot empathize with and minister to couples and parents.

I can’t help but notice that all of these beliefs and assumptions about marriage and singleness exist in riotous tension with another of Paul’s letters. In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the single-most ignored, if not disbelieved, passage of scripture by evangelicals today. I encourage you to grab your Bible and take an hour to listen to, pray through and study this passage, but for the sake of our current topic, I’ll quote only highlights:

7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do…17Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Paul talks about singleness and marriage in a balanced way, not denigrating either lifestyle, calling them both gifts from God. How many evangelicals do you know, married or single, who really view singleness as a gift?

It doesn’t take an exegetical contortionist to pick up on Paul’s inclination toward singleness. He actually recommends that believers remain unmarried because it allows them to focus solely on pleasing the Lord. He says, “it is good” or kalos to remain unmarried. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that kalos was a word “applied by the Greeks to everything so distinguished in form, excellence, goodness, usefulness, as to be pleasing; hence [to be kalos was to be] beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious…”

What I love so much about this passage is that it reminds us that to marry or to remain single is a choice, and to choose to remain single is a beautiful, admirable thing. By Paul’s testimony, those of us who are unmarried have the advantage of space within our hearts and lives to devote ourselves first and foremost to Christ. The word devoted (verse 34) can be literally translated “sitting constantly by.” What a beautiful image, that being single allows us to sit constantly by Jesus. What a wonderful, perhaps even ideal, context in which to minister to the church.

I know many naysayers would ask me how I reconcile this with Paul’s teaching about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 –“the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife…he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him…” People often read this passage as a job description for pastors and consequently believe that overseers must be men who are married and have children. I believe that Paul writes descriptively from within the culture and context of the early church, not to indicate that he sees gender, marital status and parenthood as prescribed conditions every potential overseer must meet. It seems that the main point of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is that overseers must be people of integrity and proven character. If marital status and parenthood were ‘must haves’ in leading the church, then Paul himself would not have been respected by the early church as the wise apostle and advisor that he was.

A woman recently asked me to be her mentor. She is older than I am, married and has a child. Her husband asked her why she would approach me when I am not married. She told him that she chose me because I am wise. She believes I can help her unpack the message of scripture and help her weave it into her daily life. With a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can and will.

Every day I minister to men, to married people and to parents. Our congregants respect me and seek me out for counsel not because I share the same life experiences they do (in most cases I don’t); they seek me out because they have seen consistent evidence of my character, they know my devotion to God and his Word, and they have seen me live what I preach. Bottom line – they trust me – not because of my age, gender, marital status or how many child I have or have not birthed, but because I am a faithful servant of our God.

Singleness is a good gift from God. It is a way of life that should be respected in the church, if nowhere else. It could be approached as a significant life choice to be prayerfully discerned by young adults and by those following a call to ministry. How many evangelicals believe this? How many single Christians believe this? Unfortunately, we seem to have shaped our regard for marriage and singleness based on cultural influences and our personal experiences rather than the teaching of scripture.

It’s Valentine’s Day, church. I want you to hear and believe this message, as I do: there is nothing deficient in me or my ministry because I am single. With God’s strength, mercy and love, I can do all things. I cheerfully celebrate Valentines Day and every day because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose love for me is whole and fulfilling. I wholeheartedly support and work for healthy marriages and families. Would you do the same for me in my singleness?

Matryoshka Syndrome

Matroyshka-Semenov-Dolls

As a child I played for hours with a matryoshka doll. If you are not familiar with them, matryoshkas are wooden dolls first fashioned in 19th century Russia. Their smoothed wood surfaces are painted with vibrant colors and intricate designs. My doll had a crimson and rose design exactly like the picture above. My childhood delight in the matryoshka was not just about its artistic beauty; the doll was like a treasure box with ten more treasure boxes hidden inside. Each matryoshka has a seam and when I opened mine up, nestled inside was a smaller but equally beautiful doll. I’d lift out the next figure, take a few moments to study her design and then open that one to find another, and another, and another until I got to a baby matryoshka no bigger than a quarter. I’d take them all out and line them up in a row, full-grown to infant, studying the changes in their shiny coats. I imagined them a family of sisters posed for a portrait or perhaps images of a single girl captured at each stage of her development. There was something magical in the metamorphosis before me — the infant whole, her design simple, with every doll down the line growing bigger, her planes and slopes an ever-expanding canvas for the artist’s brush.

Twenty-some years later, the matryoshka is gone from my parents’ home but I thought of it today as I shared coffee with my friend Natalie. Natalie and I were catching up for the first time in several months and as such conversations go, we started off with general updates about our lives but were soon soul-deep in a conversation about the complex decisions and struggles we are facing and the spiritual weight of it all. We discovered ourselves asking the same profound question — what is stopping me from doing the thing that is good for me?

Natalie and I are intelligent women. We can easily identify what we want, what we need and how we can get to where we want or need to be. We agreed that the sticking point is often that we don’t do, that we don’t follow through. We wonder if that’s because we don’t have the courage or the energy to tackle what seem like a thousand matryoshka-like steps to our goals.

I’ve always had an expressive personality. When I was a little girl and I felt something (anything), I felt it strongly. I expressed my feelings in a spirit of freedom and exuberance, my volume and tone matching the fervor of my feelings. But as I grew from a girl to a teen, I received so many messages that said my feelings were too strong and that it was not okay to express my feelings strongly. Ultimately, the message I heard was that my feelings didn’t matter that much and therefore I didn’t matter that much. Inundated with these messages, I began to filter and dilute my expressions and to hold my ‘unacceptable’ feelings within me. At first it was like swallowing a zoo, but the longer I kept my cage closed, the more my feelings settled down. Eventually they diminished from roars to squeaks and moans dull enough to be mistaken for wind passing through branches.

From girlhood my life seemed to move with warp speed and I was suddenly in my mid-twenties in a counseling session talking about the abuse I was experiencing and about body image and some self-destructive behaviors that I felt powerless to overcome. As a competent professional and a seminary graduate, I believed that counseling was an investment in my health. As Corrie sitting in a room with a counselor, my choice felt way more scary than healthy because it meant reopening the zoo and letting all the animals out. I fought the stupid cultural stigma of needing counseling. Those old voices that told me I was making too much of my struggles rose up and taunted me like ghouls. I was taking steps toward a healthier me but I felt weaker and phony. Most days I strode through my work and relationships tall and confident. While counseling affirmed the strengths I had, it also forced me to see and feel the things that I had kept hidden within me for so long. Like when you walk across a sturdy lawn and your ankle rolls in a soft patch, there were now moments in each day when I stumbled upon and sunk into my vulnerabilities. After a few months of sessions it seemed like my life was just one big soft patch and my soul felt swampy — but it wasn’t all bad. It was also healing to have someone listen to my feelings and not minimize what they found. Wonder of wonders, my counselor thought that my emotions were natural, healthy even. With her it was acceptable to have a stale, zoo-full of feelings and it was safe to let them out.

Today, over a creamy chai latte I shared some of my story with Natalie. I reflected on how much I’ve healed and how I continue to grow from the seeds of that counseling. I’ve learned that there is a very healthy medium between suppressing my feelings and letting them control me. Sometimes it still seems a dangerous and scary thing to acknowledge my feelings to others, especially when I need to tell someone they’ve hurt me, but I need to tell them. There is a high cost to denying, diminishing and suppressing my feelings; when I do that, I drown myself in emotional debt.

A few weeks ago I received a series of emails from a man who was disappointed and frustrated by my actions. Knowing that few resolutions happen over email, I called him to ask for his perspective and to share my own. We cleared up some misconceptions and I accepted responsibility as I needed to. The teenage me would have never picked up the phone. The twenty-something me would have called but stuck to the surface and the facts and quickly ended the conversation. But the woman I am today made the call and took another very important step. Toward the end of our conversation, I kindly said that the language and tone of his emails made me feel belittled and patronized. I told him that my relationship with him is important to me but that I felt his method of giving me feedback was hurtful and therefore difficult to receive. I asked him to please call me or come to me in person the next time he has an issue with me. He had very strong response to my feedback but that’s okay. One of the most important things I have learned over the last decade is that in conflict you can’t control someone’s response, you can only control what and how you communicate. Though confrontation and working toward resolution is messy and difficult and not always successful, it is very important that we try our best.

Jesus taught that greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul and mind. He said that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t know how you are wired, but for me it’s very easy to love God. As an individual and as a pastor, my passion is to love and care for others. It’s the “as yourself” part where Jesus and I wrestle. I’ve never been great at loving myself…I guess I just heard too many messages that told me that my feelings didn’t matter and so it wasn’t worth speaking up. But I am trying to love myself better and in many ways I’m succeeding. Being honest with that man and respectfully acknowledging that his words and methods hurt me was not just about me loving my neighbor, it was also a significant expression of me loving myself!

A few years ago one of my mentors asked me if I felt that I had a voice. That stunned me; it was a new question with a devastating answer. In an instant I said no and in the next instant I was saturated with grief over all of the times that I stewed and suffered in silence. As a girl, when my feelings were rejected and I began to stuff them inside — in that abyss of powerlessness — I surrendered my voice. As Natalie and I were talking today, the image of the matryoshka doll popped into my head. For so many years I lived out of the smallest version of myself. I was like a matryoshka frozen in the infant stages; I spoke only with a diminished or diminutive voice. The reality is that I am a woman worth so much, capable of so much more!

Semenov_Traditional_Nesting_Doll_1

How many of us live as a shadow of our true selves? How many of us lead with a shaky whisper when our voices should ring with confidence? Learning to love ourselves makes all the difference. It’s no surprise to me that Katie Perry’s song Roar and Sara Bareilles’ Brave have become huge hits, especially with young girls. It seems like an epidemic, so many girls receive messages that they are worth less than others, especially boys, and that their feelings are not an important or acceptable part of the human experience. Maturity teaches us that these are lies. We are full of worth. Emotions are an important, God-created part of our being. This is so fundamentally true that even women who don’t know or love God are writing songs to encourage girls to find their voices and speak up.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
when they settle ‘neath your skin
kept on the inside and no sunlight
sometimes a shadow wins
but I wonder what would happen if you
say what you want to say
and let the words fall out
honestly, I want to see you be brave”  (Sara Bareilles)

“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
scared to rock the boat and make a mess
so I sat quietly, agreed politely…
I’ve got the eye of a tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me ROAR” (Katie Perry)

Nesting-Dolls-dolls-2282268-353-333It takes a lot of love to heal from the toxic messages we hear. It takes time to rediscover your voice and courage to use it. Maturity born of mistakes teaches us to live large and use our voices without harming our neighbors. This is difficult work, but it’s so important to living an abundant life that it’s worth any cost.

A New Year’s Walk

Today we begin another year, 2014. I started my day with a walk in the January sunshine, still reflecting on the Advent and Christmas realities — they have captivated me anew. Things are in bloom here in Arizona, just as there are spaces opening within me, ready to be filled with new life and wonder. The sky is a brilliant blue. The sun is warm. A soft breeze brushes my skin and fills my nose with fragrances of spring. There is too much beauty and bloom here to capture with my amateur photography skills, but every corner seems to have something to proclaim, so I went back for my camera. As I uploaded the images I caught, I read through the Gospel of Luke again and read the story in the vibrant blooming life all around me. Would you take this walk with me?

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

HEARD

HEARD

Zechariah’s wife became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

favor

FAVOR

Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

OVERSHADOW

OVERSHADOW

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

POSSIBLE

POSSIBLE

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.

BLESSED

BLESSED

His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has filled the hungry with good things…

FILLED

FILLED

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…to show mercy…to rescue us…to enable us to serve him without fear.

FEARLESS

FEARLESS

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

SHINE

SHINE

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

RISING

RISING

There was also a prophetess Anna…She was very old…eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

LOOKING FORWARD

LOOKING FORWARD

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.

GRACE

GRACE

May the Lord bless you with the faith to see his story living in and around you each day. Happy New Year!

Barrenness and the Birth of Hope

The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.

Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!

Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?

In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.

“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)

Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.

woman alone in the desert

Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.

It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.

But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.

Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).

If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.

This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?

As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.

That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.

For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.

I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:

“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”

Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”

People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.

So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!

It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.

Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

Soil-Fertilizer

Advent: All About the Details

Every Christmas season my extended family traveled to my maternal grandparents’ home. Like every family, we had a few traditions. There was, of course, the obligatory ham dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, buttery sweet rolls coated with cinnamon and always some kind of unnaturally colored jello salad rife with fruit chunks and marshmallows. (Just the sight of these “salads” gave me the heebie-jeebies so I learned to serve myself a very small portion, chew once or twice and quickly wash it down with a swig of apple juice.) Though our ham dinner was a feast of smells and tastes (except for the jello salad), food was so abundant in the Ford household that it was almost unremarkable.

I preferred other traditions like presents. We children connived, cajoled, complained and otherwise sweet-talked our way through a multi-year campaign to win the right to open a gift on Christmas Eve. Of course, we each chose the gift that was the largest or made the most noise when jiggled. We always knew if the gift was from our grandparents; those were labeled from Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and even, occasionally, friends like Betty Boop or Strawberry Shortcake.

Perhaps our finest and most under-appreciated tradition was packing our five family units into defrosted vehicles to crunch over the snowy streets of Youngstown, Ohio on our way to Evangel Baptist Church for the candle light Christmas Eve service. We arrived after twenty minutes, the car heaters just starting to thaw tingly toes stuffed in our Sunday-best but winter-worst shoes. We’d enter Evangel, drape our heavy coats on the clanging metal hangers and move into the sanctuary to be hand-shaken, bear-hugged and cheek-pinched into a bashful warmth. The Ford family filled two pews in the front, closest to where our grandmother perched at the organ. We children sat, hushed and squirming in the reverent low light of candles, the silence broken only by the sniffling of our thawing noses.

candlelt1-main_fullThe service was always the same. Hark the Herald sung, the nativity story pieced together like quilt squares from Matthew and Luke presented in monotone by a man in a drab suit with a scarlet or powdery blue tie, my grandmother traveling from the organ to the center microphone to offer another soulful rendition of Sweet Little Jesus Boy. The service concluded as we passed a small flame person to person, one taper candle bowed to its neighbor, turning glossy white wicks to blackened tinder. Once the unison melody of Silent Night drifted into quiet, we extinguished our candles, quietly bundled in our coats and braved the cold again for our return trip to the Ford home.

Our arrival home was like the clanging of a bell, marking a new chapter of life. We went from hushed, taper-lit reverence, to the bustle and brilliance of the kitchen preparing for a party. Wassail was passed into waiting hands as grandma uncovered the frosted marble sheet cake, dotted it with pastel colored candles and lit the wicks with a match. Then, with nearly 20 bodies packed into the small eat-in kitchen, we sang a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, for Jesus.

Twenty years later, I can close my eyes and see those Decembers like cherished memorabilia framed, thick and gold, and hung above the mantel. I wouldn’t change them if I could. But as an adult, and as a pastor, I don’t want to perpetuate only the sentiment of Christmas. This is more than a holiday, it is a holy day. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. I don’t want to scrooge all the merriment, but I do want to focus on the spiritual gifts of this season. I want to cherish the family traditions, but hang my heart on the miracle of what began two thousand years ago when Christ was born.  

For years I’ve read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and skimmed the parts about Elizabeth, Anna and even Mary. Because I’ve always loved babies and Jesus, I skipped to the good part about Jesus being born, about him bundled in something soft to protect him from the hay of his trough bed while surrounded by a cuddly petting zoo. I zeroed in on the fairy-tale moments like the prismic star that led foreigners to the new infant king and to the choir of angels singing in the night sky. But as an adult, I’ve learned something about stories, and about life, that I missed as a child. When reading, it’s the skimmed over parts, the slow parts, the seemingly unremarkable details that build to that unimaginable moment, to the moment of discovery, to a new spark of life within.

It was the smell of cinnamon, my grandmother’s vibrato, the heat of wax sliding onto my fingers during Silent Night, the way the candlelight flickered across my cousins’ faces, the crunch of snow under our tires – all of that led up to the moment were we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s the details that build the arc in any story. I’m a better writer than I was five years ago and a much better reader than I was twenty years ago because I’ve learned to I slow down and pay attention to the details. And that’s exactly how I can enhance my experience of Christmas and my understanding of Christ’s birth.

This month we’ll spend hours planning, shopping, wrapping gifts, decorating, attending parties and baking and that’s on top of our regular schedules. We’ll be like jack rabbits leaping through December at a frenzied pace, zigzagging all over the place in search of a tasty morsel. To keep Christmas about Christ, we have to choose to slow down, to stop, and to settle into the details of Advent.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’m taking walks so I can get away from the distractions in my house. While I walk, I focus on breathing deeply and praying. I’m reading the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew daily, now with an eye for detail, seeking out the snippets that I may have glossed over. Suddenly the bits about Elizabeth, Mary and Anna glow from the pages like taper candles. The stories of these women are significant in ways that I never saw before. These sages of Advent are helping me understand not just the miraculous birth of Jesus, but the grandeur of his entire story.

Christmas is not a story in itself; it is the beginning of a story. We don’t celebrate Advent simply because a baby named Jesus was born. We celebrate because Jesus grew up to travel his land preaching good news to the world-weary. Strangely enough, we celebrate Jesus’ birth because he died, and because through his death he defeated sin and death. We celebrate because Jesus rose again to life and because he ascended to heaven where he lives and reigns eternally. And we celebrate because his story, and ours, is not over.

To celebrate well, we need to begin well. That’s why I advocate for Advent, the season of anticipation that builds to the Christmas celebration. That’s why I’m slowing down and focusing on the details. That’s why I’m listening to the sages of Advent. Join me in looking closely at Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, so we can better celebrate Jesus.

The Parable of the Betta Fish and the Samaritan Woman

I pulled into a local Starbucks, bought a latte and joined my friend Jessica at an outdoor table. After I sat she casually asked, “So how are you?” Her tone did not carry any sympathy — she clearly didn’t know that I got laid off earlier in the week, so I filled her in. Jessica knows my story; she’s witnessed my struggle to find full-time ministry employment over the last three years. She is also a member of the church where I serve as a part-time pastor. She listened attentively to this latest development. Her face showed clear understanding and compassion. When I stopped speaking she said, “So, we have this betta fish named Rosie…”

Rosie

I’m not kidding. That was her response to my news. I blinked a couple of times and waited, wondering how a fish was somehow relevant to my current setback. She went on without preamble.

“We all love Rosie. I know it sounds silly; she’s just a fish, but she feels like part of our family.” (Jessica is married to Dan and they have two adorable little girls.) “Last week I was cleaning out Rosie’s bowl and when I went to put her back in, I accidentally dropped Rosie on the kitchen counter. There she was flopping around on our counter and I was doing my best to get her in my hand but she was too slippery. So I picked up the bowl, put its lid along the top of the counter and tried to push Rosie in, but then she fell all the way to the ground! She flopped around weakly and I thought she only had moments to live. By then I’m yelling for Dan to come help me and my girls are standing close by yelling, “Save Rosie!” “Oh, no!” “Don’t let her die!” I’m so distressed that I’m making all kinds of strange noises and Dan comes running into the room to help rescue Rosie. He calmly gets her back into the bowl and she starts to swim around but I can tell she’s just not right.

I try to prepare the girls — I want to be realistic; she’s just a fish — so I tell them that even though Rosie is fine right now, she could be dead by morning. So we get up the next morning and Rosie is still alive. I caution the girls that she could still die. Every day this week I have come home expecting to find Rosie floating at the top of her bowl, but she’s still swimming.”

And then Jessica’s strange and humorous story became a parable that tolled something in my spirit. She suddenly said, “Corrie you are like Rosie; you’re resilient.”

Jessica spoke with assurance and a smile. I was not so confident. Am I resilient? The fact is that I have gained and lost several jobs and many more opportunities over the last three years. Extended periods of unemployment combined with the regular rejection that comes with pursuing a significant dream have been like an erosion of my soul, motivation and self-confidence. I feel like these storms have stripped me of my heartiness and joviality and I’ve been left dizzy and breathless from the whirlwind of my life.

And then there is the physical buffeting! I’ve gained and lost the same 20 pounds three times. I’ve struggled with anxiety and sleepless nights. I have a new crop of silver hairs haphazardly spiking out of my dark brown waves. When I look in the mirror I see the effects that the disappointments, rejections and set backs have had on me — the story is in the slump of my posture, the slight sagging around my eyes, the delay in my smile. I’m battle worn in ways I never anticipated I would be at this age.

No, I think when I see myself in the mirror, I’m not particularly resilient.

For me the word conjures up images of Arthur and Excalibur, of the Great Wall of China, even the Brooklyn Bridge. I think in comparison that I’m not so strong, so enduring. But Rosie’s story and Jessica’s smile stuck with me. A few days later I looked it up in the dictionary.

Re-sil-ient: adjective

: able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

: able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

Two weeks have passed since I had coffee with Jessica. Three weeks since I lost my job and Rosie flopped around on the kitchen floor. These three weeks have been something of an awakening. Friends have called wanting to check in on me and offer support, knowing from past experience that I might need some extra shoring up. I don’t know who has been more surprised, them or me, to find me coping so well.

With lots of time for introspection, I’ve realized that though buffeted and tossed around, I haven’t been broken beyond repair. As the emotional effects of this recent loss lessen, under my weariness and discouragement I sense a stronger core. I’ve been through great storms of rejection, loss and despair and survived every one. (There’s got to be something of the miraculous in that.) I’m not the same as I once was. I’ve lost my idealism and naiveté about the course of my life, which I understand as a good and necessary thing, but I’m still a positive person. I’ve walked (and sometimes crawled) across the desert of spiritual crisis that comes with the difficulty of following any big dream. Along the way I’ve thought about giving up (many times), I’ve doubted myself and I’ve had some major pity parties. From that self-perpetuating mess I’ve learned to seek the things that lead to life instead of death.

Even the unintelligent betta fish knows to flop about when it finds itself out-of-water. All that flopping is an instinctual effort to somehow find water. Whether it is a puddle, a bowl or a lake — for the fish, where there is water there is life. Picturing Rosie’s struggle on the cold, dry tiles of the kitchen floor, I realize that I’ve taken on her instinct for life. After three years of flopping about, I now spend less time doubting and pitying and more time focusing on positive, true and enduring things. I’m not denying my struggle, but I’m also not giving it more than its due time and attention. I’m trying my best to seek my water source.

Two months ago I attended a large women’s conference. Kanyere Eaton, the pastor leading one of the workshops, had us read a page of self-affirmation. I recently pulled it out again. Here are some of the gems:

I am the beloved of the Lord…Before I cried for the first time, he was intimately acquainted with the sound of my voice…God specifically picked out the spiritual gifts that he invested in me and he wants me to use them for his glory. God has plans for me. The vineyard of my life is his planting. The fruit he calls me to produce has a unique capacity to nourish and enrich the lives of those who partake of it. The vineyard God has given me is mine to tend. It will grow and develop sweet fruit when I make time to nourish it. I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard significant…I am very important to God…My spiritual, emotional and physical needs are important and they deserve to be tenderly addressed. My Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment. The Holy Spirit calls me, even in this season of my life, to carefully, consciously tend the vineyard of my own life. By God’s grace, I begin today.

I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard very significant, but I now I can honestly mark my report card “shows improvement.” Like Rosie, I’m making every effort to flop toward water.

Years ago I regularly practiced examen, a spiritual discipline of daily identifying my most life-giving and life-taking moments. Over the course of time you can line up your records and begin to see patterns, to see clearly the things that lead to life or death. Two weeks ago I bought a new journal just to record my examen findings, an effort to stay near my water source.

journal

Last week I flew to Denver to spend time with my brother and nephews. My 10-year-old nephew told me that his dream is to get a college scholarship for soccer, then to be a scientist and a professional lacrosse player. His silly aunt tried to gently convince him that he probably wouldn’t be able to make a living as a professional lacrosse player; he was adamant that he would. The important thing about that conversation was the beauty on Mason’s face when he shared his dreams with me. He had such hope for the future. Staring at that beauty, I suddenly realized how long it has been since I dreamed new dreams for myself.

The next day I walked into an artisan gift shop and found these round tins with beautifully engraved wood tops. The instructions say to write down my fondest dream, greatest desire, or strongest wish on a small piece of paper, put the paper in the ‘Dreambox’ and place it beside my bed. I’m supposed to hold the box every night and every morning and think on my dream, “believing with all my heart that it is so.” I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in hope and I know I could use some more hope in my life. I bought a Dreambox with the lid design that looks like a rose window. I’m choosing to believe what Pastor Eaton taught me, that my Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment, even in this season of my life.

The Rose Window at All Souls Church, Bangor

In hindsight I can see my resilience, my strengthened core. Able to is the key phrase in the definition of resilience; that’s why Jessica was right in comparing me to her betta fish. Really, I’m just a person with a penchant to throw more tantrums than I do celebrations. God, as my water source, enables me to be strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. God is the author of resilience, the one who makes all things new. This reminds me of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan women:

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.”         (John 4:10-15, NLT)

I’ve learned that much of coping and dealing with life is a choice. I’m in control of very little in my life and circumstances. I certainly didn’t want to be unemployed again, but here I am. I’m faced with choices. Do I let myself sink back into the bad habits of wallowing and tantrums or do I reach out weak hands toward my water source?

Resilience is to be like the Samaritan woman, acknowledging my need for water I cannot supply for myself. It is turning again and again to Jesus when I face hardship and asking, “Please sir, give me this water!”

Resilience is to mimic the floppings of a betta fish, whose only instinct is to seek water, the source of its very breath.

“…For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107:9)

Amen and Amen.

Mercy Misunderstood

Parole board rejects clemency for killer
Columbus, Ohio — A condemned Cleveland killer moved one step closer to execution Tuesday despite a rare plea for mercy from the prosecutor overseeing his case and support from nearly half of a board that previously voted unanimously against him. The Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 to turn down a request for clemency for death row inmate Billy Slagle, sentenced to die for stabbing a neighbor 17 times almost three decades ago.  (The Arizona Republic, Wed. July 17, 2013, pg. A2, emphasis mine)

Mercy is a short word, widely misunderstood and sometimes wildly misused. Exodus 34:6-7 says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Mercy is one of the fundamental expressions of God’s character. As such, it is critical that we know what mercy is and what it is not.

The clip from The Arizona Republic is just one of many recent media examples of how we in the 21st century mistake clemency for mercy. Clemency is a power of certain public officials, like the governor, president or a judge, to lessen the punishment of a prisoner. On July 9th of this year a Florida man named Marshall Gore was 25 hours from death by lethal injection when a judge stopped his execution. Though a jury had found Gore guilty of murder, the judge felt his sentence did not take into account certain facts, so Gore remains alive. That’s clemency and it’s a pretty big deal, but it is NOT the same as the mercy we have received from God.

Imagine yourself a criminal. You are tried and found guilty of breaking the ultimate law, God’s law. Your sentence is death and now you live on death row waiting for your execution. Mercy is not just God lessening your penalty from death to life in prison. Mercy is God sending his only son to die the criminal’s death in your place. Mercy is God smashing the chains that bind your hands and feet, shattering your cell door from it’s hinges and crumbling the prison to ash. Mercy is God setting you free forever and then welcoming you to live eternally in his kingdom.

God is merciful, gracious and abounding in love, so never mistake mercy for clemency. Mercy is so much more!

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10

Don’t Just Pray – Part 2

“Just pray about it.”

We’ve all probably been on the giving or receiving end of this bit of advice. Usually we hear it after we pour out a steaming hot mess of things like doubt, fear, confusion or anger. We take the risk of being vulnerable with a trusted friend or mentor, we expose the mess of our lives to someone we hope will listen, who may have some new, wise guidance, and then their response is, “just pray about it.”

On the one hand, this is fantastic advice. The evidence of the power of prayer in the Bible is as bright as thousands of bulbs that light the Rockefeller Square Christmas tree each year. Open, honest and bold communication of the faithful to their heavenly Father often leads to divine intervention. Do you recall the story of a woman named Hannah in the Old Testament? Her anguished prayers caused God to act.

Samuel 1:13 says, “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” Her prayers were so fervent that when the priest Eli saw her, he assumed she was drunk and rebuked her. Hannah faces Eli and corrects him saying,

“I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (vv. 15-16, NIV)

So corrected, Eli speaks this blessing over her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” Hannah prayed and God “remembered” her (v. 19) by opening the womb he had previously closed (v. 5).

Because of prayer a barren woman conceived and birthed a son.

God Answers Hannah's Prayer for a Son

This is not an isolated incident. In the Bible, prayer regularly prompts change; it brings resolve, stops plagues and leads to miraculous acts of remembrance. Prayer, literally and metaphorically, leads to life.

Prayer is a direct line of communication with the Creator and Sustainer who out of compassion and love, continuously pours out blessing on his people. As such, prayer is something we should do regularly, eagerly, expectantly and most of all, reverently. But too often we approach prayer the same way we do an ATM.

When I need cash, I go to the ATM, insert my card, make a few simple demands at the push of a button and, voilà – out pops my money! We all know better than to liken God to an ATM, so why do so many of us use prayer like a debit card? Don’t we often speak words of prayer hoping we ‘push the right buttons’ and then wait to receive the ‘cash’ to which we are entitled?

Don’t misunderstand me – there’s nothing wrong with expecting great things from prayer! But spiritual things are seldom as simple as taking money from an ATM.

What I didn’t mention earlier about Hannah is that she prayed for a child for years. Hannah was overcome with grief. Like many grieving people, she lost her appetite and probably that healthy glow people call a luster. Hannah wept and she prayed. She prayed and she wept. The Bible says this went on “year after year” (v. 5). While Hannah grieved, her husband’s other wife  (who had many healthy children) taunted Hannah cruelly for her barrenness.

Prayer is powerful. It prompts God to compassionate and merciful action on behalf of his people, but in Hannah’s story we learn that the effects of prayer are not always prompt. That is why it can be so disheartening and insensitive to tell an aching soul, “Just pray about it.” If this is all we say before we walk away from a friend, he or she may feel that we’ve minimized their grief or been deaf and blind to their desperation.

For those who haven’t been utterly ravaged by time and circumstance, for those who still have enough hope to cling to the promises of prayer, the expectation of prompt results carried by the phrase “just pray about it” may be the nick that severs their connection to hope or even to God.

If you have a desperate need or desire and have been waiting and praying for days or months for fulfillment, how strong is your hope? Can it bear the weight of silence or the terrible agitation that grows as time beats through your veins and nothing happens?

What if your season of need stretches into months like Hannah’s? What will your faith be like then? What will you need from your friends? Just prayer, or prayer and…something?

Prayer is an awesome thing but when we are caring for aching people, there are things that complement prayer and bring consolation. Don’t just pray and walk away; your friend does not have that luxury – they are in a sense held captive (think slavery) by their need. They cannot conceptualize life or their future without that thing for which you may casually pray. Instead of just praying, consider these:

  1. Pray and pour out your soul – Too often prayer is an exercise of suppression rather than passion. There’s no need to hide or hold back our feelings from God because he sees everything in our souls. The good news is that it’s safe to confess it all to him. Let yourself be emotional as you pray. Hannah let even the nasty stuff like bitterness and anguish pour out of her soul. It’s only when we pour out the nasty stuff that we make room for God to fill our souls with consolation.
  2. Pray and listen – Don’t think prayer ends when you stop speaking. Make time and space to listen into the silence and stillness for the voice of God. Don’t rush off; stay rooted in your seats, be still and know that God is in this with you.
  3. Pray and wait and pray again – Hannah prayed the same prayer for years. Years! She’s one to emulate. If someone shares with you their requests, keep praying. Go back to them next week, next month or next year and get an update. Pray again. Listen with them. Wait with them. Pray again. In this way you bear one another’s burdens.
  4. Pray and lament – Lament is not just emotional prayer. To lament is to cry out to God against the things that should not be – against injustice, cruelty and abandonment, hunger and despair – against anything that falls short of God’s character and provision. The Israelites lamented throughout their history and God remembered them, which means he acted for them.

Out of respect to people like Hannah, I must acknowledge a very difficult truth before I close: prayer will not always lead to the things we so desperately seek or expect. God may not give us what we want, even if we are faithful and in a sense ‘deserving.’ And there will be times when it seems that God gives no response to our prayers. (This is one of the mysterious things about God that makes everything in me go quiet.)

But these things do not mean that our prayers are empty or pointless, nor are they signs that God does not love or bless us.

I have many friends who are haunted by infertility. Unlike Hannah, some of these faithful women will never conceive or welcome a healthy child into the world. I hate that this is their reality. I don’t know what their desire or loss feels like but I certainly do pray with and for them. But I don’t just pray.

I pour out my soul with them. I listen into the silence with them. I lament their empty wombs and their grief. I wait for God to move. I expect God to move. I call upon God to do something that matches his wonderful character. I pray and wait and pray hoping that somehow, and in some way, God will make all things new.

Don’t Just Pray – Part 1

I often cringe at the strange things we Christians say and do in the name of Jesus. You’ve probably seen a bumper sticker that says, “Honk if you love Jesus.” That’s the kind of thing that makes me roll my eyes. Last week on my commute I passed a car with this message stuck to the bumper, “Any fool can honk. If you love Jesus, do justice.” This second sticker made me so happy I almost honked!

There’s something new that has been bothering me lately. Everywhere I go these days I hear believers praying the word just. With this word I’d expect insignificant requests. The word just makes me think of a young child whining to his parents, “It’s just an ice cream cone” or, “I just want my toy back.”

But it seems that everywhere I go I hear Christians praying like this —

“God, would you just fill us with your Spirit so we can…”

“God, will you just heal my mother’s cancer…”

“God, I just ask that you would fix this marriage…”

“God, I just need you lead me toward the right job…”

Only worshippers of a powerful, attentive and personal God pray for big things like God’s presence, miraculous healing, and rescue from untenable circumstances. So why do so many of us litter our prayers with a word that, in this context, means only, merely or simply? Why are we praying for mighty acts using limp language?

Now, if we were to say – “Lord, be just and topple the drug lords” or “God, pour out just acts for those who cannot protect themselves,” – I’d not protest. Unfortunately, our just prayers minimize and contradict the content of our requests.

Imagine being granted a private audience with the President to request funds that would alleviate a major problem in our city. Knowing this is a significant opportunity, you prepare your pitch carefully. Would you go before the President and say, “Sir, we don’t need much to fix our city, just one hundred million dollars”? I imagine not.

So why do we go before the God who has promised to provide for us in our need, the Almighty God, and ask him to just do this or that?

Why do we go before God with our hands stretched out to receive but our language tentative?

Ephesians 3:10-12 says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (NIV, emphasis mine)

What we’ve translated as freedom is a Greek word that is a freedom of speech. It means to speak openly and frankly, without ambiguity. It can also be well translated as “boldness” or “assurance.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, emphasis mine) When he ascended to heaven Jesus left his friends in charge of spreading the good news he had shown them. He gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide, convict and inspire them along the way. These friends had no need for a Moses to speak for them or a high priest to be their intermediary. These friends were the beloved children of God with direct access to their Father.

We are they who are charged to take the gospel to the world.

We are they who have direct access to the God who can heal every disease with a word.

We are the heirs of the God of creation and redemption, the God of miracles.

Our prayer should flow out of our identity. There is no need for us to just ask for anything. Friends of Jesus should pray boldly, not weakly. Beloved children of God should pray intimately, with assurance, not with lazy language.

If you are a friend of Jesus, a child of God, then don’t just pray.