But wait, it’s November 29. Huh? Well, today is the beginning of the year in the Christian liturgical calendar. The “Christian Year” walks through the life of Christ, beginning with His birth. Then, the rest of the year through the of November next year leads us through the story of the Gospel.
Liturgical prayer and worship offer us the opportunity to identify with Christ and His story over and over again. It can become the rhythm of our souls as we not only engage in the story itself but are invited to live it. In Advent, we wait for a coming Savior. In Lent (the 40 days before Easter, we journey with Christ just as He journeyed for 40 days in the wilderness, encountering temptation, loss, and suffering. We celebrate Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter as the culmination of the story. We enter into what is called “Ordinary Time” for much of the year as we learn to number our days and serve with Christ.
In this Advent Season, we wait. We don’t rush ahead to Christmas but engage in a pattern of waiting. We identify with both longing and hope. This orients us to the first coming of Christ and all the reasons why He came. And, we are also oriented to His second coming and the eternal realm.
As we wait for things in life, we can get into a lot of trouble unless we know what we are waiting for. We wait for things like a paycheck or marriage or healing. As we wait with hope, we are able to trust and our love grows deeper.
In Titus 2:11-13, we read: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Worldly passions are the result of waiting without hope but grace and hope teach us something. They “teach” us or lead us to say “no” to anything but the real thing.
As we enter into Advent this year, here is my prayer …
May we feel the weight as we wait.
May we see the depths and glory of life with Christ. Waiting has a way of shaping us and forming us into a deeper desire and delight in that for which we wait.
Once a week for the next four weeks of Advent, I’ll be posting a blog called “The Extravagance of Advent.” I’ll be co-writing with my friend, Doug Kelley.
And, if you are reading through “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room” this year. I created a Facebook group for posting questions, reflections, and comments in a community setting. Check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/695166341116258
I invite you to simply pray this prayer today. Pray it throughout the day. In the Psalms, abiding in experiencing, noticing, and delighting in the presence of God is described in myriad ways. Gratitude and thankfulness are clearly keys that unlock the door. (cf, Psalm 100) And, a persistent seeking is highlighted in Psalm 105, “Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His presence continually!”
Continually is an important word. It suggests persistence and regularity. A day set aside for thanksgiving is a wonderful thing and a persistent seeking of God in gratitude is even better! Jesus encourages us to “seek and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7)
Pray this simple prayer throughout the day and keep praying it, or something like it. In Psalm 130:5, we read these words, “I pray to God, my life a prayer, waiting for what He will say and do.” (MSG) Our “lives a prayer” – what a beautiful image … to have a life shaped by prayer. It is simple and yet infinitely deep.
As you feel comparison or complaint or a desire for certainty arise in you, gently set them to the side and return to this prayer.
My Lord and my God, thank You.
I am grafeful because You are good,
Your love never stops, and You
abide with me every moment.
In Your goodness and by Your
grace, may I abide with You
today. Give me eyes to see You in
each moment and ears to hear
Your quiet voice. Amen.
Gratitude calms our hearts. Gratitude says “I have enough and I am at rest.” When we are rest, we are no longer striving … we are quiet in soul … we are able to see all that is around us without demand.
When gratitude seems inaccessible, it is usually because we are on the hunt for more … more than we presently have. As we’ve explored in the previous days, this can show up in comparisons. It is usually a part of complaint. And, it can be present in the desire for certainty. We want to know what is going on. We want to know what is going to happen.
We don’t like doubt or confusion. And … yet, lack of certainty is part of the human condition. While we might not like uncertainty, it is tied to the way God made us in the beginning. In the Garden of Eden, God told the first humans that they had freedom. They could eat the fruit from any tree … except the one called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Genesis 2:16-17) The enemy of God (Genesis 3) approached and suggested that God was holding out on them. He was keeping something from them. They ate, and so started humankind’s quest to grab certainty … to know … to be in control.
The alternative is trust. We were made to live in a trusting relationship with God. The core of our design consists of loving God and saying to Him, “not my will, but Thy will be done.” (Luke 22) Our will is our sense of control and determination. To exercise our will requires having a measure of certainty and knowledge in order to effectively operate in the world. God’s heart for us is that we live in a surrendered kind of way. His desire for us is to release our will and come under His will … His heart, His love, His care.
As we are able to say “not my will, but Thy will be done,” the doubts and uncertainties do not necessarily evaporate but they do not steer the vehicle any longer. Instead, there is a happy surrender, a gratefulness that we can be at rest. Words like surrender can possess a negative connotation, but for those who have surrendered there is a peacefulness that passes all understanding. The striving, the searching, the noise dissipates.
In Matthew 11, Jesus invites us to come to Him, to follow Him and His ways … “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Trying to be certain about everything is not only impossible, it is tiring. There is a way of life and also many ways of religious living that are focused on certainty, but Jesus invites us to trust Him … to follow Him … to watch how He does it. How does He do it? Trust. Surrender. It was Jesus who uttered the words “not my will, by Thy will be done.” It was Jesus who said, “the Son can do nothing of His own accord but only what He sees the Father doing.” What is an “accord?” One’s accord is their will, their sense of what to do, their certainty.
And, the result? A glad surrender … a satisfied, restful trust. It is saying, “I’m not in charge. I don’t know it all and I can rest in my finitude, my limits, my creatureliness.” This does not mean we don’t study or search for wisdom but it means that certainty isn’t my goal. Trust and surrender are the goal.
Do you struggle with a need for certainty? If so, welcome. You are in good company. However, there is more into which we are invited … a life of gratitude that remains after we release certainty as our ambition. And, that gratitude gives us eyes to see the glory of God and His goodness all around.
What will it look like for you to release certainty today? How will you trustfully embrace not knowing?
Gratitude opens our eyes and gives us sight. With a grateful heart, we see what is rather than what is not. Thanksgiving, as an attitude of the heart, is something that cleans the fogginess that can obscure our vision … our ability to see God in us, around us, and in others. But, gratitude can be hard to come by.
One of the heart postures that can create fog is complaint. When things are hard, we often feel complaint arising in our hearts. We can complain about anything when we’re in a complaining mood. A sunny day can be too hot. A beautiful snowfall can “ruin” our plans for travel. A little deeper, perhaps, is that complaint can become a lens through which we look at life. When things don’t happen the way I want them to happen … when things don’t turn out the way I’d expect … when things aren’t fair or just, complaint can be our “go to.” It can be our interpretive lens.
To be sure, there are things that are hard and painful and fearful and unjust. The challenge is that complaint is an interaction with those hard realities of life that is based on me … my perspective, my expectations, my ideas, and my preferences. To drill a little deeper, complaint is usually centered around the perceived loss of my independence … my ability for self-determination.
The solution, however, is not denial or dismissal. It is not acting like hurts and losses are not a big deal. It is not necessarily about “thinking positively.” When things are hard, we have an invitation from God into a kind of prayer called lament. Lament is a prayer that cries out to God with all the emotion and pain that one is feeling: God, how long? Will you abandon me forever? (Ps 13) or My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22) or My enemies surround me (Ps 27).
Whereas complaint focus on me and my loss of independence, lament focus on God and our cries of dependence. God, I need you. I am desperate without you. As the people of Israel moved toward the promised land in the Old Testament scriptures, there were told that it was a land flowing with milk and honey (to put it in New Testament terms: an abundant life). What the people of Israel misunderstood is that both milk and honey were items that were provided by God. Milk was dependent on there being rains that gave the goats plenty of grass to eat so that they would produce lots of milk. Honey was something that would be “found” in trees and places where bees were thriving because of a healthy environment. The land of Palestine was/is a land dependent upon the fickle rains that may or may not come. Milk and honey are symbols of dependence.
As the people of Israel were travelling to this land, they complained about the food God provided each day (the manna). Rather than a grateful heart that came from dependence, they had complaining hearts fueled by entitlement and a sense of what they deserved. A dependent life didn’t feel so good and so they complained. Their complaints were not so much God directed as self-focused. And when complaint was the lens through which they viewed life, they actually told God they wanted to go back into slavery in Egypt because “at least the food tasted better.” (paraphrase from Numbers 11:4-6) Imagine that, thinking that being enslaved was better because the food tasted better. That is what complaint does to us. It colors our perception and spirals our thoughts into darkness.
However, lament, which is invited by God, has a way of transforming us and enlightening our eyes. In Psalm 13, the Psalmist even prays “enlighten my eyes.” It is a prayer of dependence and just a few verses later, it is written, “I have trusted in your steadfast love … I will sing to the Lord.” To be sure, lament is not magic – it doesn’t necessarily offer an instant transformation into seeing sunny skies where clouds are. However, it does transform … sometimes slowly and sometimes more quickly as we take our lives to God in prayer and dependence.
Lament changes us because it enables a shift from independence to dependence which is another one of our “default settings” as humans. We are dependent beings and when we are living dependently, we live freely and lightly. We experience gratitude and grace, and as thanksgiving is on our lips (even through tears and hard times) we see Him. We experience God.
What would it be like for you to release complaint today and instead come to God with a prayer of lament? Lament can be gritty and messy but it is invited by God. He doesn’t ask us to deny the hard things or ignore them but to bring them to Him in dependence and surrender. Whereas complaint centers around being independent, lament deepens our dependence as we place our hope in God.
And, the release and freedom we find in lament leaves us thankful.
Gratitude is a key that unlocks the door to awareness of and abiding in the presence of God. Experiencing God’s presence with us is the default setting of our lives. It is not something that is inaccessible but something we return to again and again as we practice: now, here, this (see part 1). God is always present but we may not have eyes to see all the ways He is loving us and with us, especially when we are in the midst of difficult seasons.
Our blindness and lack of awareness may be because of a lack of gratitude. Gratitude is also a kind of default setting in our lives. When not clouded by other things, we look at a beautiful sunrise and we find ourselves thankful we were able to witness it. Someone helps us and we are grateful. We receive a compliment and we say, “thank you.” With gratitude, we see the fullness of what is.
If it seems gratefulness is difficult to access, might it be that our vision has been clouded? The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” Might it be that we need to release something? To subtract something that is holding us back?
One of the things that we might subtract is comparison. Rather than receiving a sunrise as a gift, we are focused on how we wish we were like someone else. “That person has it so good … I wish I lived in their house … I wish I had their family … I wish I had that job.” The list could go on but you get the idea.
Do you ever find yourself locked in comparison? If you do, you’re in good company. This is a struggle for most of us. We have a need to experience unconditional love and acceptance. We have a need to feel content in our own skin … not having to perform or produce to experience love.
The world around us tells us that we don’t have enough and that we aren’t enough. This message is embedded in the advertisements and conversations that frequently reach us. The idea is that being enough and having enough comes as we measure up to some subjective, unreachable standard. Without the ability to reach what is ultimately unreachable, we rely upon comparison. We look out at the world and reason, “well, at least I have it better than that person.” And when that begins, we are locked into a cycle of comparison. We may have it “better” than some but the inclination to compare extends to everyone and we are left consider all who have it “better” than us as well.
Of course, these measurements are ridiculous because they exist on a scale that is inaccurate and faulty in its very premise. The love and acceptance for which we are designed are not measured by anything external. In fact, this love is unconditional … or, unmeasurable.
The truth is that you are the beloved of God. He loves you with no condition or measurement (Luke 15). He made you and you are His handcrafted piece of art (Ephesians 2:10). Stop there for a moment and consider these truths. Hold these truths in your heart. Let His love for you invade your thinking. You are enough. You have enough. Because of Jesus, you have abundance of life (John 10:10). Not necessarily abundance of positive circumstances but abundance of life. And what is life? The life we long for is love, because God is love (1 John 4).
As you experience comparison, simply release it by remembering that you have all that you need … you are enough and you have enough. Consider again those three words: now, here, this. Now – in this moment, you have enough. Here – in this place, you are with God. This – in these circumstances, you have all you need.
This may feel like a battle at times but as you practice releasing comparison, it becomes easier. Release and then rest in gratitude as you thank God for His love and grace toward you. And, as gratitude is uncovered, you will see His presence with you. Gratitude will unlock what may have seemed inaccessible. Just as comparison can snowball into an avalanche of misery, gratitude can unfold into seeing the infinite ways God is with you and is loving you.
Another name for gratitude like this is contentment.
As we move into thanksgiving week, we may find ourselves not feeling very thankful. It has been quite a year. From the pandemic to racial injustice to job losses to a contentious election, we are likely feeling and experiencing a lot of things and thankfulness is possibly not one of them. We’re tired of hearing the word “unprecedented.” We’re exhausted from relational tension. We’re ready to move on.
“Let’s hurry and get to 2021.” “Put out the Christmas decorations and maybe 2020 will just give up and leave us alone!” The impulse to move on is strong even when we know the truth is that all of our challenges won’t go away with decorations or the turn of the calendar to another year. Two things I know are true:
- The present moment is where we experience love, joy, peace, and patience. We can erroneously believe that love will happen in the future or peace will be present when things change. Or, we desire to return to a time in the past where things weren’t so tough and joy seemed to be abundant. The truth is that all of these things (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness) are the result of paying attention to God now. Jesus encouraged us to abide. To abide is to remain, to stay put. To abide means that we stay where we are … with God. “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for part from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, ESV))
- We can’t dismiss our hurts and frustrations as if they are no big deal. We have to walk through them. In Jeremiah 6:14, we read, “they dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious, ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV) Richard Rohr has commented, “If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it.” This is why we may find ourselves overreacting to a situation or looking for something to explain away the pain. How is pain transformed? Foundationally, transformation happens as we refuse to deny or ignore but instead be honest about where we are.
Thanksgiving and gratitude can act as keys that unlock the door of staying in the moment and walking through our wounds and hurts. Psalm 100 encourages us to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise … come into His presence with singing.” A grateful heart gives us eyes to see that God is with us and gives us courage to walk through pain. How? When we express gratitude and thanksgiving, we are reminding ourselves that “the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
When going through difficult seasons, our impulse is often to find relief when what we really want and need is transformation. As we abide, we are transformed. As we look into the face of God, we are changed: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Thomas Merton wrote, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.” The Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 shares: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” The invitation of God is slow down, stop, and abide with Him as you express gratefulness. When you are experiencing a desire for relief, let that be a reminder that what you really desire is God. There is nothing wrong with wanting relief, but staying with that desire can be a lock on the door of experiencing God’s presence now.
So, let gratitude ground you. Let thanksgiving return you to the present moment. For what can we be grateful? Very simply: that God is good and loving and faithful.
“Life is lived right now, in this moment. That’s an important reminder for all of us, because we tend to think, “If just this would happen, then I would be happy.” When we put a condition on our lives, we miss out on the present moment because we’re waiting for something else to happen.” Br. David Vryhof
Over the next three days, we will look at some of things that can keep us from gratitude: comparison, complaint, and certainty. Today, take a few moments and decide that you will stay where you are … with God. And then, as a desire to get away rises up, simply return to presence … presence to God in gratitude.
Here is a simple way to return to abiding with God … use three words: now, here, this. “Now” – be grounded in the present time (rejoice always). “Here” – be grounded in your present location (pray without ceasing). “This” – be grounded in the present circumstance (give thanks in all circumstances).
When we are struggling, when we are interacting with difficult things, we are often encouraged to “take a deep breath.” Metaphorically, the idea is to slow down, regroup, and get your bearings. This metaphor has developed because it is genuinely helpful physically to take a deep breath. In fact, often, it is not until we physically slow down and take deep breaths that we can metaphorically take a deep breath and regroup.
Our bodies are made in such a way that when we feel stress, a part of our brain takes over (on some level) in which we are pushed into fight, flight, freeze, or numb. The old wisdom was that we would either engage (fight) or run (flight) but now we know that we can also freeze (just shut down) as well as numb (engage in things that will dull or blunt the feelings we are experiencing). When we breathe in deeply, our bodies calm down and we are able to move out of the pattern of fight, flight, freeze, or numb.
Over the last year, our bodies, minds, and spirits have taken on a lot of stress. I know that is the understatement of the century but I also know that today and coming days will fill us a lot of stress as well. Roughly half of the United States will likely be in a place of despair after the election. The other half may have feelings of elation and/or relief. Whatever the case, the stress will again be palpable and perhaps even more so because relational division is one of the most stressful things we can experience.
So, take a deep breath.
Take a deep breath as you consider what is coming and take a deep breath along the way and in the coming days. When you find yourself experiencing stress, breathe deeply. As a spiritual practice, breathe deeply.
On the physical side of things, many have suggested the 4-7-8 technique. Breathe in through your nose (drawing breath for 4 seconds), hold for 7 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8 seconds. Do this several times and notice your body start to calm.
Next, breathe spiritually.
Let me offer 3 R’s. Remember, Receive, and Rest. Remember that God will never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13). Receive that love as all that you need (Ephesians 3). Rest in His love as you let go of fear and anxiety (Matthew 6). Brother David Vryhof offers, “You need not fear any adversary when you know you are unconditionally and forever loved by God. There is nothing that can separate you from God’s love.”
A Way to Practice
First, engage simply in the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Go through this cycle of breathing until you notice that your body is calm. Second, utilize the following statements as you continue to breathe deeply. On the inhale, say the first part of one of the statements below (I remember, I receive, or I rest) quietly in your heart. On the exhale, repeat the second part of one of the three statements. Note: make sure you continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
- I remember … that You never leave me or forsake me.
- I receive … Your love for me as all that I need.
- I rest … in Your love as I let go of fear and anxiety.
This may sound simple and it is! Don’t let the simplicity fool you. It is profound. You will learn to regulate your bodily response to stress and you will deepen the spiritual connection that affects how you will encounter continued stress.
Lord, may we remember that your love is “as high as the heavens” and your faithfulness “extends to the clouds.” May we receive that love as all that we need. May we rest as we release fear and anxiety. Amen.
Coming this fall … new book:
In Welcome Everything, Ted serves as a guide through some of the spiritual contours of a journey through cancer. The story of his battle with both acute myeloid leukemia and Hodgkins Lymphoma is detailed through sharing excerpts from a blog written during two and half years of treatments, surgeries, relapses, a transplant, and a whole host of side effects. Addressing issues that are experienced in a cancer journey as well as any kind of suffering, a hope and an identity securely tied in Christ are themes that run through these pages. Interspersed are chapters of current reflections, looking back at the terrain traversed in these tumultuous years. Not a self-help book or a guide to cancer, this book is a look at what it means to welcome everything, including cancer, as a teacher that can bring more into one’s life that could ever be imagined.
Photo credit: Gina Daggett
Judgmentalism is very frequently a survival strategy. Beneath it perhaps an anger that one is not in control. Beneath that a sadness and grief that can open us to receive from God rather than demand from others.
Do you find yourself in a place of judgement with others? Jesus suggested that we remove the log from our own eye before trying to take the splinter out of another’s eye.
If you find yourself judging (i.e., saying “if only those people would …” or “how can they think those things?”), it is not a sign of righteousness but an invitation to look deeper.
Are you angry? Are there things you have lost that you are grieving? Can you let them go?
Take a few moments and search your heart, with God, and watch your heart melt into His.
There is no if … only since.
Enveloped safe and secure.
Inescapable, His presence.
His presence is indeed His love.
It holds and upholds.
Infinitely stretching in all directions.
Height, depth, length, width.
So, I surrender and rest …
… surrounded and confounded …
by the One who never lets me go.