On Worry

I’ve written about trust in the context of faith before, but this morning I want to revisit the subject, because I need to feel that trust right now. This is a time of great trial in my life, and great upheaval, and it is easy to dwell on the past, and on my mistakes. What could I have done differently, and what will happen now? I know intellectually that worrying will bring me no peace, but my heart is at war with my mind.  Even though I have faith that the Lord will see me through, I am also troubled by doubt fueled by heartache. What does my future look like now?

A song lyric by The Killers has been rattling around in my head, from the song “Dustland Fairytale”: “God gives us hope, but we still fear what we don’t know;” (Flowers).  This describes my current state well, I think. I believe that this trial is important to my life, and that through God’s love I will endure it, but I am afraid. Part of my heart rejoices in God’s gifts of life, love and hope. But mostly I am sadder than I have ever been. I feel broken and halved. I am worried that I will never be happy again, even though I know that God will not abandon me to despair as long as I have faith.

I came across this passage in Matthew a few days ago, and I repeat it to myself sometimes: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). It has become a mantra of sorts, a shield against sorrow. But my faith is still young, and my pain is still heavy, and my battle against that pain is still a constant toil.

I also take some measure of comfort in “My Lighthouse,” by Rend Collective. It’s an upbeat, folksy number, sung with great joy and gratitude.

Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Oh, you are the peace in my troubled sea.

In the silence, you won’t let go
In the questions, your truth will hold

My lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness, I will follow you
I will trust the promise;
You will carry me safe to shore.
(Rend Collective)

Easy to say, and easy to sing, but far more difficult to adopt right now. I am raw, and hopelessness encroaches upon me. Today, above all other days, I need to practice faith. And then tomorrow above today.  And then again.

Prayer:

Lord, let me have the trust that you will see me through my most difficult times.

On Church

Today I attended a church service–virtually.

I never really noticed that word before: “service.” I knew they were called services, but I don’t think I ever thought about it. The reason it’s called a service should have been obvious, but like I said, I don’t think I ever really thought about it. It was just a word. That was what it was called.

In the traditional sense, it’s not unlike a dinner service.  There’s music, there’s a starter course–perhaps communion–followed by a main course: the message.

But I also think that perhaps in my estimation, there are other reasons to call it a service. The pastors have been called by God into service. Their sacred duty and privilege is to serve their flock in Christ’s name, and to serve their community at large.  They are our modern-day apostles, called to be messengers and ambassadors for Christ.  In a very real way, they are both serving God and servicing us through their testimony.

In yet another way, Church calls the flock itself into service. Often, the message itself is a missive of faith and service.  How can an individual serve the Lord?  How can he or she serve the community, or the flock itself?

Pastor Mark Leuning, of theSprings, spoke today about the faith and trust required to put the Lord first above our own needs.  He called to out a passage from Deuteronomy, chapter 26, verses 10-11: “and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me. Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.”

I have never tithed.  I have never belonged to a church to which I could tithe.  When I was a young boy, my grandparents would give me a small bill, perhaps a five-dollar bill, or a couple of singles, to put in the offering.  When I was older, I stopped attending church regularly, and certainly never long enough to join up. The concept of tithing was foreign to me. Of course, I do understand the concept of generosity and putting yourself before others, but I honestly did not think of giving to the Lord in this way.

Oddly and coincidentally, I tithed this morning before the service.  I woke up in a hurry, but I said a prayer, and I checked the church’s website to make sure I knew what time the service would start and that I had everything I needed to ready for viewing. I saw a “give” button on the website, and I was simply compelled to push it.

When I did, though, I had to do some mental math.  How much should I give? How much do I have to give? What will be left over when all my other obligations are fulfilled? What can I afford?

The message of Pastor Leuning’s sermon this morning was that I did the math in reverse. Giving to the Lord, and in the service of each other, should be sacrificial in a way that changes the life we lead. By giving sacrificially, we open ourselves to the world, because that spirit of sacrifice and generosity begets an attitude of gratitude, and that gratitude begets a spirit of generosity. Then, we trust that the Lord will take note of our celebration and sacrifice, and will provide a way forward for us.

Generosity has lately been difficult for me. The word Pastor Leuning used was “grubby,” and that’s the right word. I am ashamed to admit it, but I’ve written it in this space before. I have been selfish. Now I want to be called to service.

Prayer:

Father, please, please bring my heart relief right now. I ache.

A Prayer for Today

Good morning Lord.

Thank you for your grace, love, and understanding.

Thank you for entering my heart.

Thank you for inspiring me to seek the best version of myself–the version of myself that you had always planned for me.

Thank you for my pain, so that I know I am still alive.

Thank you for your wisdom, passed to me through not only your Word, but also through people I hold very dear.

Thank you most of all for sending your son to us, and for his unfathomable, astounding sacrifice. And thank you for helping me to see that I can be worthy of that sacrifice.

I ask you today to be with me, to grant my path clarity, and to speed me along my way. Be close to me, and wrap me in hope and love.

Amen

On Practice

It occurs to me that there are two ways to read the word “practice,” as written by Paul and Timothy in the book of Philippians:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:4-9)”

First, there is the surface. To “put it into practice,” literally means “apply it.” Simple.  Just do it. Here’s how to live: take what we have told you today, and Get. It. Done.

Another way to read it is with the more colloquial, modern sense of the word. To repeat an exercise over and over and over again until it is second nature; do it until you can do it without thinking. Play the guitar until you can play it in your sleep.  Plane wooden boards flat until you can do it swiftly and without hesitation.

The first definition is what we should strive for in theory. Love each other as yourselves. Walk humbly before the Lord. Be merciful in all things. Do these things, and the Lord will be with you.

In practice (see what I did there?), the struggles to overcome my humanity and chains to imperfection are much harder to overcome.  So I must practice these skills of the heart and soul to surmount my shortcomings. Repeat kindness as a skill until I am good at it. Worship until I can do it without hesitating. Forgive a slight, and if I cannot, try again until I get it right.

I am still very new to this, and I had never prayed regularly before (occasionally, at best). I am still clumsy and slow to find the words to express my heart. There is no wrong way to pray to God if you do it in Christ’s name, but the point is that only through regular practice will I become more comfortable with prayer. For me, there must be diligence involved. Try it, and then try it again. Even in the act of opening my heart to God there must be practice; it won’t do to simply say words without a spirit-filled heart of faith. And sometimes that is hard. I am humbly imperfect, and thankful to be so.

So when I write that I am a practicing Christian, I mean it in both ways.

Trust Without Borders

I was moved by a new song this morning.  Well, it’s not really all that new.  It’s just new to me.

The song is “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United off their 2013 album Zion.

The lyrics of this song are truly inspired. So, too, is the melody. I wish I’d known the song sooner. Many of these lyrics are sweet and moving, but I was especially touched by the bridge, which reduced me to a pool of tears:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

That first line called to me deeply. I long in my heart to trust.  To trust God’s plan, to trust my fellows on this earth, to trust that I am safe in God’s arms. The idea of trusting wholly, with my arms wide open, and without borders, inspires me. Being closed off to trust and love has been putting torque on my heart that I didn’t even recognize. It has been there so long that I have simply learned to live with it, and I normalized it. Even in the past, when I have trusted others, I believe that trust had limits. I am ashamed to admit that I probably only trusted when it was convenient, or easy. I don’t want to live that way anymore.

The second two lines together are a rejoiceful resignation to God’s will and a trustful faith. To say simply that I will go where called, and by my faith in his grace my feet will find purchase calls to mind the story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water:

“‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’
‘Come,’ he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him…” (Matthew 14:28-31)

The story teaches me two things.  First, if I have faith and trust in the Lord, all things are possible. Secondly, I know that even though I am human and I will falter, the Lord will be there to grab hold of my hand should I waver.

I want very much to give such trust completely, both to the Lord and to my fellows.

This week has been a trial in my life, but it has also been a time of great joy and relief. I have found it in my heart to welcome God, and his son Jesus Christ, into my life. It was remarkably easy, as though I had been preparing for that moment my whole life, and I needed only to give myself over to His love. It came as though I had been drowning in the dark sea, and for the first time I broke the surface of the water to breathe. It came as though it was supposed to happen. It felt like something I should have known all along.

It felt as though it was God’s plan for me. I trust that.

This verse from Romans encompasses both how I feel at this moment, and how I want to feel every day for the rest of my life: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, now is a time for deep trust. I ask that you guide me with your sovereign hand, and I know that as I lean on you, you will not falter.

On Inspiration

These verses spoke to me deeply when I read them this morning, and I think they summarize some of the themes of this week.

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:3-8)

Two of my deepest flaws, as I’ve mentioned before, are pride and arrogance. That is why verse three caught my eye to begin with. I originally thought that humility had to come before faith, and so I humbled myself.  I still believe that’s true. But I wonder now if, as Paul said, humility also comes with faith. In order to accept God into my heart, I had to first be humbled. Then, when God entered my heart, I was humbled by my faith in him. It’s a beautiful thought.

In verses four and five, Paul speaks eloquently about community. He says we are all different, and yet we are all united under Christ. We are many and we all serve each other, and serve the Lord as one. Another struggle in my own life is accepting myself as part of a community, and accepting a community as part of myself. I must step out of that shadow, and find a community of light, as is part of God’s plan for me. That community will be made more whole by me, and I will be made more whole by it, and together we can serve the Lord better for each other.

Verses six through eight are a call to action, and they offer me hopeful encouragement. Though I am humble before God, I also yearn to find my gifts, and discover how to use them to seek and serve Him. Is mine simply to love? To serve? to lead by example?

Over the last week, I have felt compelled to write. I have always been a writer in my heart. When I was young, and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” I would usually say that I wanted to write books. Written words have always held magic for me. That’s why this space exists. Perhaps there are readers, and perhaps not. It’s equally likely that I am the only person that will ever read this, and that’s okay. I’m writing it for myself and God, and to myself and God. If that is the extent of the audience, then by his grace that is the greatest audience that anyone could ever hope for.

But still, I wonder if my words are impelled by something greater? Was I inspired by something low and human, like my own vanity? Or is something greater driving me? Is this my service? Time will tell, and I will continue to seek. And, as long as I find myself compelled to do so, I will continue to write.

Prayer:

Father above us, Father among us, Father in our hearts, I ask that you untie my restraints and inhibitions with your love, that I may find a place in a community of those who love You even more deeply than myself, so that we may worship you together, and lead each other by example.

Be Compelled!

Be compelled!

We must be alight with life, and mindful to find joy every moment, because every breath we draw is a gift.

Not every week, not every day, not every hour.

Every single moment.

Breathe with gratitude and with a joyful heart, and do not be afraid. Be compelled.

 

Prayer:

Lord, show me my own heart, and compel me to strive to grasp this gift of life with every single breath.

Anger and Outrage

Anger is such a quick path to emotion, and it can be intoxicating. I myself have been quicker to anger than to patience and understanding, and in particular that anger is often directed towards strangers. It can be addictive. It can feel cathartic to rage and rail against someone that cut you off in traffic, or someone who showed you a moment of rudeness. But the person I hurt the most with my quick anger is myself. Myself and my Lord.

Anger can also be a habit. We swear in unbecoming language, we seethe, we grit our teeth against each other and against the world, and we do it so often that it becomes our first natural reaction to minuscule hardships. I might snap at the quickest interruption in my day. Any perceived slight becomes a source of indignation at the least, and rage at the worst. Frustration begets frustration. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. (Thank you, Yoda.)

I have been guilty of feeling right and righteous for my own personal reasons, instead of being upstanding and righteous before God. I have thought that my intelligence and discipline gave me the right to feel anger towards my fellows. And that anger was a cloak pulled over my heart; perhaps I thought it was a shroud protecting me from the world, but in the end it was keeping me from my own life. Two verses come to mind:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

and also:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

There are times when anger is unavoidable. I am human, and I have my limits. But I believe that if I am aware of my own limitations, and know that every other human is likewise limited, I will be quicker to listen and to forgive than I will be to hastily judge in outrage. Taking every slight personally can only lead to darkening my heart. Instead, I will endeavor to stay my tongue and accept that slights by those who cross my path are inevitable, as are my own mistakes in their own lives. I will renew my commitment to patience every time I flash to anger without true cause. Would I want to be treated with that same anger, if the fault were mine? Of course not.

The answer is that simple.

God’s forgiveness is a beacon, and an example which I should strive to reflect. I want my soul to be on fire, but with love, and not with anger. In a life where every moment is precious, I have time only for joy, and no time at all for misplaced rage.

On Grace

One of the things that has been most difficult for me to reconcile spiritually is to accept that I am worthy of the love and forgiveness freely given to me by God and Christ. When I was reading a bit, I came across this, from the book of Ephesians, which made it a little more clear:

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved . . . For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:4-5,10)

Because I have been blind for so much of my life, it is easy to become dejected and ashamed.  I cannot even begin to count my weaknesses, sins, and ill pursuits. I am laid low and humbled. But, still, God is my deliverer. Christ is my great champion. In spite of my flawed humanity, I am beloved in ways I can hardly grasp with my feeble mind.

That is grace.

The aforementioned verse in Ephesians gives me some insight I hadn’t considered before, at least not in depth. By my reading, I am worthy simply by virtue of being God’s own creation.  If I rethink the language I use to consider my own part within God’s plan, the answer is made clear to me. It is simple to think about being created by God. It is simple to think about being created in Christ.

What I had never really thought about, though, was being created for God, and his will. My task is already laid out in front of me–and has been since I was envisioned–and I only need to seek God’s guidance to find it. Because of God’s plan for me, and his love, I have only to ask to be made worthy, because the best version of the life he has planned for me is worthy of His love.  Through Christ’s sacrifice and his own forgiveness, God has given me everything we need to find my worth in His eyes.

Natalie Grant also inspired me to understand my worthiness with her song “Clean.”

There’s nothing too dirty,
that you can’t make worthy,
you wash me in mercy,
I am clean.

Oh, I am coming alive
with joy and destiny
’cause you’re restoring me
piece by piece.
(Natalie Grant)

That foremost stanza of the refrain is comforting to me. Even though my failures and limitations are deep-rooted, and I struggle with them mightily, it’s a great comfort to remember that through God’s infinite power, and Christ’s sacrifice, forgiveness and worthiness are within my grasp.  God’s mercy washes us clean.

I’d like to end this post by trying to capture my feelings in a poem.  This is my first attempt at spiritual verse, so please be gentle:

Like a grain of sand on an infinite beach
I could feel alone or unworthy,
but I am awash with the warm light of your love.
For though I am but a single, tiny stone,
Your radiating glow is my home.

During the dark night, when the cool tide rolls in,
I may feel cold and bewildered.
“Where have you gone?
Why am I forsaken?” I might cry
for I am but a low grain,
and I might forget that you are there.
You watch me, even then,
when you are furthest from my mind.

That cold tide is a boon, I think,
For when day returns, and I feel the warmth again,
my gratitude is doubled and renewed;
You shine on me even though I doubted you.

Prayer of the morning:

Father above us, Father among us, Father in our hearts, Your grace is our salvation, and our peace in times of unrest.  We are strengthened in the light of your mercy.