Category Archives: blog
And then we wait.
The work is done, and now we wait in humble, enduring trust.
On this Saturday, it is quiet. The intensity of Friday is no longer. The quiet, mixed with the lingering questions, provides a different kind of intensity. Saturday may feel a bit dark. The suffering of the wilderness is a companion of sorts, and then the quietness of waiting companions in a different way. Over the centuries, one of the most significant descriptions of silence and waiting is dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul is an experience of forsakenness. We may hear echoes of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)
A dark night of the soul is not the suffering itself but the silence that is present as we wait for something new, something unrevealed. The silence can be deafening unless we are able to rest into it, knowing that the pattern of death to life is surely at work. For the people of Israel, they understood there was a destination. They still struggled. For the disciples on that first Saturday between cross and resurrection, there was apparently a measure of disbelief. The disciples from Emmaus made their preparations to head back home. (cf. Luke 24:13) The eleven gathered together and had hardened their hearts. (cf. Mark 16:14)
As we walk through our own wilderness, we may find ourselves in a place of disbelief … even hardening our hearts … struggling to keep an open, trusting heart. In these moments, we may become aware that we have been trusting our own understanding rather than trusting God Himself. We want to know … to grasp what is happening! On Saturday, we know very little, if anything at all. We are invited to pray a prayer like “I don’t understand you, but I trust you.” (Basilea Schlink)
In Psalm 22, the words that follow the cry of feeling forsaken are these: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”
Pausing here for a moment: in the darkness of Saturday, can you let go of understanding and move toward trust? Don’t move along too quickly. Feel the weight of not knowing and rest in the One who does know … the One who holds your life. Can you sit with that word “yet” from Psalm 22? This leads us into a freedom in the empty space that makes what is coming even more profound.
Jacques Philippe, in Interior Freedom, suggests: “It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us, or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free! To achieve true interior freedom, we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on.”
On this in-between day, reflect on the ways that you are in-between … incomplete … unknowing. You are in this place because something has died. You have been led to stop fighting, stop avoiding, stop resisting. Now, you accept the emptiness because it means that God has graciously allowed death. As you prepare today for resurrection, remember that resurrection is meaningful because something has died. Hold onto that hope in order to fully experience the hope of Sunday.
Thomas Merton wrote, “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there … we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.” Today, we wait at the edge of the dance floor in trust and in hope, and tomorrow we dance. Perhaps, we tap our foot a bit even today as we know what is coming.
Question for reflection: today, simply reflect on where you are in the movement from “death to life.” What is it like to be in the in-between? In this space, can you pray: “yet you are holy?”
Prayer: “God, I so much want to be in control. I want to be the master of my own destiny. Still, I know that you are saying: ‘Let me take you by the hand and lead you. Accept my love and trust that where I will bring you, the deepest desires of your heart will be fulfilled.’ Lord, open my hands to receive your gift of love. Amen.” (Henri Nouwen)
“… that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
Friday … the most horrific day in human history as God in human flesh was brutally crucified. Yet, this Friday has been called good. Good … a word that is often flippantly thrown around to modify any number of things. And yet, that Friday was good. It is was good in the most true, pure, solid, holy way possible.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
His love for us displayed perfectly. And at the same time, this day was devastating for those first followers of Jesus. They were disoriented and displaced in the depths of wilderness. Confusion, doubt, despair, loss, and fear all mixed together. As we refuse to run from the suffering, we find ourselves in a waiting space … a liminal reality in which is can be difficult to know if it is day or night. The invitation in the desert season is trust which leads us to stay in that liminal space. This is what Paul refers to as “endurance” in 1 Corinthians 10. As we wait, we remain present and stay open to the work of God.
While the questions may be fast and fierce, we wait with God in trust … knowing that He is at work when we can’t see it. Even though they were told that this would happen, the disciples couldn’t piece it together. It was too much. It couldn’t fit into any of their categories. There was nothing about love, peace, and hope that seemed to connect with their Rabbi and Lord hanging on a cross. While we can see the whole picture in retrospect, it wasn’t so clear in the throes of such suffering. And so it is with us in our wilderness. Because we have the cross and resurrection as the center of faith, we can borrow from this paradigm to fuel our trust. Death to life (cross to resurrection) is the pattern. It is how God works.
Of course, we think: can’t there be an easier way? This was, of course, Jesus’ question in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. (Luke 22:42) Anne Lamott suggests: “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” Staying in the hurt, confusion, and pain allows the space for a shaping … a transformation. As we stay in the pain that our crosses produce, we are able to see the grace and provision of God.
When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus in John 3, He said something that draws upon the forty years in the wilderness: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (vs. 14–15) While it might have been a bit opaque in the moment, Jesus was clearly connecting the bronze serpents of Numbers 21 to the cross. What was happening in Numbers?
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (vs. 4–9)
Grace in the wilderness. Provision. And it required a trusting look – what Jesus calls belief in John 3. Can you believe that God is at work in your worst moments? Can you trust that what looks like the worst thing imaginable will soon be called good? Can you trust? Death always leads to resurrection. Always. Every time. Without exception.
In Christ, Sunday is always two days away. We experience losses (deaths) in this life that God uses to transform us in deeper and deeper experiences of His love. And, when we experience our ultimate death, God uses that to transform us as well. This is why the Apostle Paul can say that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8) When we settle into that reality, we are free. We are free to experience the pattern of death to life over and over again. And so, even in the pain and uncertainty, a little smile may emerge because of the knowledge that God is doing what He does.
The gospel writer John, who was also one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, referred to Himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. (John 13; John 18; John 19; John 21) Certainly, Jesus loved all the disciples, but John’s identity as the beloved had been shaped so deeply that this is how he saw Himself. It is significant to note that when all the other disciples scattered as Jesus was arrested, tried, and taken to the cross, John endured … He stayed … He remained. He stayed in the pain and He experienced the love of Jesus in more profound ways than anyone else. His first New Testament letter is rooted in discussing the love of God. He wrote the statement: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) He is love, and this is our trust in the wilderness.
It is His love that transform a disastrous Friday into a good one. Will you look at the cross and let it encourage you to endure? He is at work even as our world falls apart.
Question for reflection: how is God stirring your heart? What is He inviting on this Good Friday?
Prayer: Lord, as I look at the cross, I trust that just as the serpents in the wilderness were transformed into a healing agent, You take it all and transform it into healing and life. I look to the cross and believe. I know that in Him is life. Amen.
“but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
The overall temptation in the wilderness is to escape, to run, to get out. It is a natural instinct, but as we have seen, God desires to be with us in the wilderness and He has His good purposes for how He shapes us in the desert. When frustrated, it is indeed tempting to say: I’m done. I’m out of here. At that point, we experience the temptation to manufacture a way of escape.
It is a grace when we begin to notice our impulse to escape. At that point, we have an opportunity to stop, slow down, and notice how God is at work and what He is doing. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, we are encouraged that God provides an escape as well, but the escape is from the temptation to escape the situation, not the situation itself. This brings us back once again to a concept we explored earlier in this Lenten journey: it is not about getting out, but trusting God in the wilderness. In the mysterious depths of God’s love, giving us an escape hatch from the situation is much less loving than giving us an escape from the temptation to escape. The point of being rescued from the temptation is that we would be able to endure … remain … hold fast.
As we come to this final day before Jesus would be crucified, the temptation to escape was perhaps never more heightened. But rather than run, Jesus kept walking step by step, being led by the Father. How He interacts with those around Him speaks volumes about the nature of the “escape from temptation.”
The first words of the description of this final night are often skipped over but notice the profound nature of what is expressed: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) He loved them to the end! Consider that for a moment. Rather than being self-focused and self-protective, He loved. Don’t miss the reality that Jesus existed in human flesh and was facing a gruesome death … and He loved them to the end. For us, the reflex under stress is usually to retreat, regroup, and devise a strategy for survival. Jesus walked toward His death with love. We are invited to follow in those footsteps.
The “escape” that God provides is not a strategy built around survival but love. Rather than retreating inward, we are invited to move out … to move into love. Jesus was immersed in the love of the Father which then directed His “strategy” for moving through the most challenging day of His life. As we “die before we die,” we are freed to leave the details of our earthly existence to good purposes of the Father rather than pouring ourselves into survival strategies. As we consider the movement this week of “death to life,” we begin to see that survival mode is a kind of death and as we release it we are ushered into life … a life defined by and directed by the love of God.
Jesus clearly expressed this love in washing the feet of His disciples as they moved toward the Passover meal together. Imagine: on the most difficult night of His earthly existence, He stopped, stooped, and served. He entrusted all of Himself to God the Father and loved others to the very end.
Then, in the context of this meal – which He clearly connected to His impending sacrificial death – He shared that all of His disciples would fall away. How He handles this is another staggering expression of love. He isn’t angry but simply says, “Don’t worry; I’ll see you in Galilee.” (Matthew 26:30-32) He wanted to prepare them and let them know that He knew and would still be there for them. He displayed incredible grace and provision even as He shared with Peter that He knew Peter would deny Him. He was preparing them all and considered them before Himself. As we entrust ourselves to God, we are freed to love. And so, this is the “escape” from the temptation to escape.
Finally, the dinner itself is a testimony that the way of the cross is the way of love. Ann Voskamp makes the observation: “On the night Jesus was betrayed — He gave thanks.” She goes on to say: “On the night when the prodigal sliced open your heart, on the night when you lost your job, when your person slammed out the door, and the toilet stopped flushing, and the dog gagged and puked all over the back mat, on the night when it looked like the dawn would never come again — there is always a choice, and why not choose what Jesus did? Because when Jesus had to fight through dark, staring right into the most impossible situation of the Cross — what does He do? Out of a universe of supernatural options at the tip of His fingers — what does Jesus do? On the night when Jesus was betrayed — He gave thanks. If Jesus can give thanks in that — you can give thanks in everything.”
Sit with that for a few moments. How does “dying before you die” free you to love and give thanks? What is stirring in your heart and mind as you consider Jesus’ steps on this Thursday night before the crucifixion?
Episcopal brother James Koester summarizes the invitation: “The way we are invited to walk is not an easy one. It involves towel, basin, and water. It requires us to bend, to stoop, and to kneel. It involves cross and nails, thorns and spear. It requires us to die. It involves tomb, and grave clothes. It requires us to lay everything aside, even our own lives. But for those who follow, it is life, and peace, and joy.”
Question for reflection: how is God shaping you and speaking to your heart?
Prayer: Lord, here I am in the middle of the wilderness and I notice my instinct for survival and self-protection, and I also notice my desire to follow the way of Jesus. Strengthen me through the Holy Spirit to release self-preoccupation and receive the grace to walk in love, to give thanks, to serve others. Amen.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
As we come out of hiding, we are invited to be a “house of prayer.” (Luke 19:46) Our lives are designed to embody prayer as a way of life. It is our identity, our calling, our joy. And yet, the intimacy and emptiness of the wilderness way of the cross may confuse us.
The temptation is that we might resist or avoid the releasing and letting go required for following Jesus to the cross. As we consider the cost of taking up our own crosses, we can be tempted to look for an easier way. We may find ourselves drawn to the fruit of a life in Christ, and yet not sure if we really want to lay down our lives. For most of us, we’ve spent years constructing a life that we perceive will keep us safe … and that all falls apart in the wilderness. As we begin to stabilize in a wilderness season, we find ourselves drawn to move into the fullness of a humble, surrendered, dependent life, and yet the temptation to return to those old strategies of protecting ourselves may become quite fierce.
It’s not that the temptation is necessarily stronger, but we are aware like never before and it seems more significant. The choice is laid out before us.
Peter was confronted with this same choice as He walked with Jesus during this final week. Previously, Peter boldly expressed His desire to follow Jesus and leave everything behind. (cf., Matthew 19:27) He also expressed some misunderstanding when he “rebuked” Jesus and said, “This shall never happen to you.” (Matt 16:22) During that week, as the pressure to fully embrace the way of the cross mounted, we see Peter resisting and avoiding. He resisted as he cut off the ear of the Roman guard (John 18:10) even though Jesus had told him that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected (Luke 9:22). Peter avoided the issue as we read that he followed at a distance (Mark 14:54) which then led to a denial that he even knew Jesus.
Are there ways that you are fighting against the forces that threaten your safety? Are there places where you are following at a distance?
Perceiving that our ways of existing in the world are threatened by the cross is both a necessary discernment as well as a normal experience. If we don’t feel that threat, we probably aren’t paying attention. Jesus made it quite clear, but it often only reaches to the depths of our heart when in the wilderness and face to face with the loss: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24–25) Certainly, Peter felt his way of life slipping away as he saw the guards coming after Jesus and as he was confronted by the crowd. And this is where the temptation comes in.
If it will cost us something, we are tempted to look for an easier way. The statement that there is no temptation that has not been common to man is meant to encourage and also to humble. These temptations are normal and something we can expect. Discerning the presence of avoidance and resistance in our spiritual journey is vital. Otherwise, we may find ourselves swept off the path without even realizing what is going on.
Avoidance tends to be a bit more passive and shows up in a lack of honesty or a lack of awareness of our internal world. We end up staying in our heads and ignoring our heart as a way of ignoring the cost of following Jesus. We might employ avoidance in order to not deal with the very real pain we’ve experienced or are experiencing. Part of the temptation of avoidance is that we may cloak it in the religious garb of platitudes (“God is good … all the time” or “I just need to trust“), of correct theology, or of right behavior.
Avoidance often has particular expressions based on our temperaments and giftings. We may feel the need to avoid anger, needs, failure, ordinariness, emptiness, doubt, pain, weakness, or conflict. Can you see yourself in any of these things? Are you willing to ask the Lord to search your heart? How do you perceive these kinds of avoidance “protecting” you from the suffering of taking up your cross?
Resistance is the more active expression of the temptation to deny the suffering of the cross. We flat out say “no” or we refuse to engage in the kind of deep soul work that is necessary in the desert. Again, we might wrap our resistance in optimism (“everything is fine”), moralism (we go to behavior modification), or spiritualizing. Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau observed: “The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.”
In any kind of avoidance or resistance, we are asking: how do I stay safe? When we ask that question, we are actually trying to be safe from having to follow Christ. The fullness of life in Christ is found as we die to self … as we choose to love. As Carl Trueman put it, “Much of life can be explained as an attempt to deny or escape from death.” The intimacy and emptiness of the wilderness threaten our previous understandings of how life should work.
Getting the “Egypt” out of us requires time and patience. The layers of resistance and avoidance that can build up over time have to be peeled away layer by layer. And in it all, God abides with us in grace … tenderly, gently, and persistently inviting us to sit still and submit ourselves to His surgeon’s scalpel.
Question for reflection: how do I see the temptation to avoid in my life? What does resistance look like for me? Sit in quiet trust and ask the Lord to give insight into these things.
Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer)
“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” 1 Corinthians 10:12
As we walk toward the cross with Jesus, it is wise to consider this encouragement to notice: are there ways that I think I am “standing”? Do I believe I have it all figured out? Do I believe that I’ve got it together? If we believe we’ve got it together, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. This is reminiscent of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction.”
One of the consistent themes of the ministry of Jesus was the critique and challenge of religious leaders. In our reading of the Gospels, we may like to identify with the prodigal son, the lost coin, or the lost sheep (cf. Luke 15), but the truth is that we often have more in common with the older son (in the prodigal son parable) and the religious leaders. This can be a difficult thing to consider. You may even experience some resistance to the suggestion. Will you take a moment and reflect on this possibility? The nature of Jesus’ challenge to the religious was that they believed they had it all figured out when they actually were blind to spiritual realities. They had constructed their lives in such a way that they used “religion” to hide from their hearts – to hide from their sin. Are there ways that you hide?
All of this came to a head after Jesus entered Jerusalem when one of the first things He did was go to the temple. In Luke 19, it is recorded that he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” (vs. 45-46) While this is a very familiar event from the Gospels (all four record it), it will be helpful to explore the background of Jesus’ statement which is made up of quotations from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
When a rabbi quoted the Old Testament, listeners would have heard the verse in the context of the original statements. So, what may seem to be a simple reference was loaded with all the power the context supplies. First, the statement of the temple being a house of prayer is from Isaiah 56:7. Notice the overall context: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (vs. 6-8) This was a statement of God’s heart for not only the people of Israel but all peoples to have access to Him … to be able to pray and seek Him. Second, the statement about the temple being made a den of robbers is found in Jeremiah 7:11. Again, the overall context is found in verses 8-11: “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” The people of Israel were going to the temple and calling out to God while they were also oppressing others and shedding the blood of others. (vs. 6)
The word “robber” in the Hebrew language of Jeremiah could be more appropriately be rendered “violent one.” Jesus was accusing them of violence against others … of not giving access to the poor, the widowed, orphans, and foreigners. Further, calling the temple a “den” is a way of saying … “you have made this place a hideout.” The temple (and by extension, their relationship with God) had become a place to hide … a place to ignore how they were living their faith in the world and with others. To put this into a modern context, we might say that “religious” people often do not address the way they treat others and then hide out in church singing praise songs and calling on the name of God. And don’t pass too quickly over the reality that people were being oppressed. Are there ways that you actively or (more likely) passively are involved in the oppression of others?
Before you react with, I don’t do that, are you willing to stop and consider a few questions? Do you ever use God as a hideout … a way to make yourself feel better … but leave sin in your life unaddressed? Can you humble yourself and acknowledge ways that you praise God on the one hand and then ignore sin on the other? Are you open to looking at ways that you are part of things that oppress others? Are there systems in place around you that it is easy to ignore because you benefit from them?
We are plunged into a wilderness season to lay bare the reality of our lives … to come out of hiding. This demonstrates the grace of a wilderness season. When the circumstances of our lives are pleasant, we may not pay attention. Can you come out of hiding? It requires trusting the grace of God … trusting that we will be safe. Simone Weil wrote “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” This illustrates the need for faith and trust. We may not feel safe or experience grace in those places where we are holding on and not releasing our sin. And then, when we do, grace comes flowing in.
In his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May discussed this reality in taking about things being “stripped away, leaving a desert like spaciousness where my customary props and securities no longer existed. Grace was able to flow into this emptiness, and something new was able to grow.” In this event from Jesus’ last week, we are encouraged to empty our hands … to let the desert expose things hidden.
Questions for reflection: sit with what you are noticing being stirred in your spirit. Ask the Lord to search your heart. What is coming to your awareness? How is God calling you out of hiding?
Prayer: Lord, I humble myself and acknowledge the ways I have praised You on the one hand and not treated others with justice and equity on the other. Thank you for the grace to let go of those things and the experience of grace that flows as I do. Amen.
As we move into this final week of the Lenten Season, we come to the last part of the passage from 1 Corinthians 10: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (vs. 11–13)
In the examples of the people of Israel, we have considered various ways we stray off the path as we journey through the wilderness. The invitation of the wilderness is to trust the voice of love … to trust that the pain, the disorientation, and the confusion is all used by God to deepen our souls. The temptation is to short-cut the process … to try to escape the wilderness rather than receive it. Jesus received the wilderness that was His life (taking on human flesh) and death. The last week of His life displayed a purposed, intentional movement that mirrors the transformational process into which we are called. In Luke 9:51, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He willingly entered these days that lead to the crucifixion on Friday. His life was not taken from Him, but He freely gave His life. (John 10:17-18) He could have hidden or even quietly moved on. Instead, He modeled trusting the love of the Father.
Cynthia Bourgeault suggests Holy Week is “the most sacred and mystical passage in the Christian year, when we ritually re-live and re-claim the very epicenter of Christianity, as Jesus reveals the depth of love and wagers his very life for the reality of the premise he has staked his whole ministry on: that love is stronger than death – love is the strongest power in the world … stronger than fear — stronger than hatred – stronger than division — stronger than violence. This is the moment, this week, when we again have the opportunity in a very special way to enter into this mystery of love with him, confront our own fears and shadows, and emerge as shareholders in his resurrection — not only through faith but through our own lived experience.”
In Jesus, we are given someone to follow. Jesus invited, over and over in the Gospels, with the simple words: “Follow me.” This invitation is to be with Him, to trust Him, and to live like Him. This is the hope of the one who has been redeemed by grace … to be like Jesus. (Romans 8:29) 1 Peter 2:21 says: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” As Jesus walked this earth, he retraced the steps of Israel’s wilderness journey with faithfulness rather than faithlessness. He became the example for us to follow in learning what it means to live faithfully … to trust God’s love and presence in our lives. As we approach the cross this week … we will walk through the events of the Passion Week.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus, it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
This may feel quite counter-intuitive. As we think about the spiritual journey with Christ, we may think of abundant life (John 10:10) as a sweet, nice, pleasant sort of existence. By this point in our Lenten journey, I pray that you have been disabused of such a notion and are embracing the reality that abundance of life (eternal life) is found in a gritty kind of faith that transforms us into lovers from the depths of who we are. The pattern of the cross is a stripping away so that life can emerge. It is letting go of what is so what can be will emerge. All of the movements we’ve explored in these previous weeks can be summed up with the movement from “death to life.” Jesus described this in John 12:24-25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus also put it this way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23–24) The invitation is to die before you die. But there is a choice. God never forces us. He invites. He woos. He beckons. And He is always present, patient, and available to lead us.
In 1 Corinthians 10, we see a progression: humility, temptation, escape, and endurance which also marked Jesus’ life. This week, we will walk through these elements of trusting God in the wilderness. Humility comes as we trust that the way of the cross is the way … as we decide not to think we know better or that perhaps there is a different, easier way. Then, we notice the temptations to hold on, to protect, to run so that we can save our life. As we notice, we discover there is a way of escape which is most simply understood as following in the steps of Christ. Finally, we are able to endure and stay in the desert as God does His gracious work in us.
There is an intensity to the way of the cross and yet deep joy and freedom as we let go. Much of the pain, confusion, and turmoil comes as we fight and refuse the process. We can become fearful because it may seem too intense, but Jesus challenges us to see that the way of the cross is actually free and light. Matthew 11:29-30, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” His yoke, or His way, is not burdensome. It is actually “easy” which might be better translated as “well-fitting” or “free.” When we release and let go of that to which we cling, we actually find freedom and that this way of the cross fits us better than we could have ever imagined.
In Jesus, we see One who knew fully what He was walking into and yet trusted the Father step by step. It is those steps we are invited to follow.
Questions for reflection: will you set your face toward Jerusalem? What fears are you noticing as we move into this final week of Lent? As you pray, what are you being asked to release? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you to surrender?
Prayer: Lord, I want to follow the way of the cross, but I am often fearful. Give me the courage to release into trusting You and the process of Your gracious, deepening work in my life. Amen.
On Sundays, we are invited to pause in order to remember God’s goodness and His work in us on the journey thus far. Today, look back at the last six weeks and also consider the One who entered Jerusalem on a donkey. (Matthew 21:6-11) How does Jesus (proclaimed as coming in the name of the Lord) calm your fears and awaken your trust?
Use the following to engage in a time of examen prayer:
- Begin by quieting your heart before God and simply taking a few deep, slow breaths as you remember that you are in God’s presence.
- Review the last six weeks with gratitude. What is the Spirit bringing to your awareness?
- Notice the ways that God has been present to you in this journey so far.
- What are you thankful for? What might God want you to see that you didn’t previously notice? Perhaps a place to repent? Is there something that you have been led to release, but you’ve been holding on to it? Are you ready to release and trust?
- Select a part of your reflection to pray over.
- Pray for the coming week as we walk with Jesus to the cross and then wait in trust for what is next!
Write out a prayer in which you release fears and enter with trust into participating with what God is doing in you.
As we near the end of this journey, let’s revisit the concept of story. As we are able to see our story in the context of God’s love, it brings healing and hope without denying the hard parts of the wilderness. When we can see our lives as part of an unfolding story, we experience joy. The joy that is discovered in the midst of pain has richness and depth as opposed to momentary or shallow joy.
Grumbling is a response to being enmeshed in the details of the story. However, our grumbling begins to fade as we take a step back and get some distance. Getting distance from the details allows us to see them in the context of the story that God is telling. When we do not see things in their context, we can misinterpret and become overwhelmed. The story that God is telling is a story of love. Love is who He is (1 John 4:8) and as Julian of Norwich said, “love is our Lord’s meaning.”
In Deuteronomy 6, we find the beautiful invitation that God relayed to His people through Moses: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and with all your soul and with all your strength.” We are likely familiar with the invitation to love but may skip over the statement that the Lord is one. While this statement supports the idea of monotheism, the point becomes clear as we look at the word that is used for one. It is the same word used in Genesis 2 to describe man and woman becoming one. One describes the loving, committed union of the marriage covenant. With God, it is suggesting that core to God’s essence is loving union. First, we now know with the fullness of revelation that God exists in a perfect union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, He invites us into that loving union. 2 Peter 1:3-4 tells us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Our response of loving God comes as we respond to the love God has shown us. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) As we receive His loyal, faithful love, we are led to love Him and move toward deepening union and oneness with Him.
Receiving His love is rooted in seeing it. He is always loving us, but it can remain an abstract concept that is not experienced if we are not seeing it in the context of our lives. The praise and joy in the prayers of the Psalms are always rooted in recognizing specific acts of God’s love. Psalm 136 begins with the words: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Then, as the story of the people of Israel is told, the phrase “His steadfast love endures forever” is connected to particular details and is repeated twenty-five more times in twenty-five verses. Today, stop for a few minutes and prayerfully read through Psalm 136.
Psalm 107 walks through various descriptions of where the people of God found themselves. Some wandered in desert wastes, find no city to dwell in. (v. 4) Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons. (v. 10) Some were fools through their sinful ways and because of their iniquities suffered affliction. (v. 17) Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters … He commanded and raised the stormy wind … their courage melted away in their evil plight. (v. 23, 25, 26) Sometimes we find ourselves in tough places through no fault of our own and sometimes we find ourselves in tough places because of the consequence of our sin. For whatever reason we end up in the wilderness, God’s heart is that we would see our desperate need for Him … that we would cry out to Him. It is not as simple as “do good” and things will go well, or “do bad” and things won’t. In each situation, the people cried out to God and He was right there … listening and loving them.
In the final verse of the Psalm, we read: “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” (v. 43) Pause for moment and consider the love of God … the way He is meeting you or has met you in your wilderness season. How has He loved you?
Anthony DeMello describes the joy of considering God’s love: “behold the One beholding you and smiling.” As we perceive and receive His love, we move from discontentment toward joy because we are moving from isolated details to seeing all things in the context of His story of love. Our wilderness story becomes a love story that we wouldn’t trade for the world.
Question for reflection: select a time period in your life. Take a few steps back from the details and ask God to help you see how He has loved you during that time. What do you notice in your spirit as you see His love frame the details?
Prayer: Lord, I want to see You in the circumstances of my story. Give me eyes to see and discernment to know Your love. As I perceive and receive it, may I respond by loving You with the same kind of commitment and desire with which You pursue me. Amen.
Contentment and joy are rooted in love. When we receive and experience God’s love in the Spirit, joy is part of the package. The fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5 lists nine aspects of the fruit. Rather than describing nine separate pieces of fruit, they are referred to as a singular unit. Love could be described as the overarching description with all the other aspects being specific descriptions of the experience of love. Joy comes immediately after love on the list.
The love of God for His people is clear in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each book was written by Moses who led the people out of slavery in Egypt. The intention of what was recorded in these books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was to explain how God had made a covenant with the people that He was faithfully keeping. In Genesis 12 and 15, the covenant is described as an unconditional promise. God would be faithful no matter what. Even as the people of Israel failed to live up to their identity as the beloved of God, God made a way for them. While pain and difficult consequences resulted from not trusting Him, He never turned His back. Over and over again, God pursued His people. He was present. He listened to their cries for help. He led them through the wilderness. While many have questioned the presence of the love of God in the Old Testament, His love is overwhelmingly present. Consider these words from Deuteronomy 7 that explain God’s faithfulness to His promise:
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. (vs. 6-9)
As we have explored previously, the steadfast love of God is the Hebrew word hesed which speaks of His loyal, faithful, pursuing love. He chooses us to be His beloved, His treasure. The reference in verse 9 to “a thousand generations” invokes a phrase from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (vs. 4-6)
While our unfaithfulness may create consequences that last for a few generations, His love extends to a thousand generations. A powerful statement is being made about God’s love … it is more powerful and longer lasting than our lack of faith and trust. God’s hesed beckons us back to Himself over and over again. A significant loss of joy occurs when we dwell upon and even define ourselves by our sin and/or lack of trust. In His love, God leads us to remember that we are His people … this is our identity. We can wallow in the discontentment of our sins and failures, or we can listen to God’s voice which calls us His own … His treasure. His love and His loyalty to us is more significant than we can imagine. His love leads us into joy. No matter where we find ourselves, His love is present and preeminent. Contentment unfolds before our eyes.
Part of what we begin to notice in the desert is that as we return to God’s love as our reference point, we notice God changing and shaping our heart. We notice a freedom and detachment from the conditions of the desert. This is God’s work and His initiative that shapes us as we seek to be present to His love.
The great English mystic of the early 20th century, Evelyn Underhill, observed: “God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.” Receiving God’s love means being able to say: I love my life. There is deep joy and contentment in that. Notice: we are not saying that we love the circumstances around us or what we have and don’t have or what we do and don’t do. We can say that we love “life” because life is not defined by all these external realities but by the love and presence of God. In this space, we are accessing deep joy. We might even be surprised by joy.
When seriously ill and living in a time of pandemic (bubonic plague) and war (100 Years War), Julian of Norwich (14th century) experienced a vision of God in which she heard Him say, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The war started before she was born and ended after she died. The plague affected her village in England three different times. She was transformed by the love of God and experienced deep joy as Christ became her life as evidenced in the statement that “love is our Lord’s meaning.”
“The contemplative vision keeps before us the truth that the deepest longings of our heart were placed there by a loving God, to find their fulfillment only in relationship with God.” Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE
Questions for reflection: are you tempted to define life by the circumstances of life and your interaction with them? How might you grow in being able to say: “I love my life”?
Prayer: Lord, I can see the ways I often define my life by my failures, and yet I desire deeply to grow further into seeing life through my identity as Your beloved. I thank You for the ways that Your surprise me by joy. Amen.
What we behold shapes us. Our ultimate transformation will occur as “we see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2) and this gives us a window into how transformation and shaping happen in the present as well. This concept is found through the canon of Scripture. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22) Proverbs 4 connects the heart with what with view: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life … let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” (v. 23, 25) And, David, in Psalm 101 wrote: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” And, finally, we are reminded that “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 3:16)
What we behold and put before our eyes is not a minor issue in the Scriptures. It is deeply significant. If we gaze upon things other than God, we will be shaped by the culture around us, others, or even the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves. The wilderness can devastate us if we do not know how to take it all in. Of course, the answer is not to deny or ignore or escape but look at things through a different lens. If we behold without the lens of God’s presence, we begin to look like the desert – dry, desperate, and desolate. As we behold God and view all through the reality of who He is, we begin to see God and see how He is at work in all things. This is certainly easier said than done, and we are challenged to be intentional so that this does not stay in the realm of words and ideas.
Let’s examine two practical ways we can develop and deepen our “beholding.” First, as the people of Israel were travelling in the wilderness, God instructed them to make specific, physical reminders of His presence and commandments for them. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is being addressed. When there are not specific physical reminders, we can find ourselves gazing upon almost anything without any reference to God’s presence with us. Specifically, we find this encouragement in Numbers 15:37-41:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”
In addition, Deuteronomy 6 lists several encouragements to bring the commandment to love God with all your heart into every day, physical realities. God encouraged them to wear the commands and even post them on the gates to their home. He urged them to talk about the command to love when they sit down, lie down, rise up, and walk. The idea is to integrate the reality of who He is into actual, physical rhythms of our lives. What might that look like for you? Pray and ask God. Perhaps, you already have some physical reminders integrated into your life. Are they still helping you? Do you need a refresh? Finally, God says “you shall teach them to your children.” A relational component to our beholding is so important. Are there ways that you are sharing and connecting with others about your life with God … His presence with you and love for you?
Frank Laubach, in the early 20th century, asked this question in Letters by a Modern Mystic: “Can I bring the Lord back into my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind? I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.” The challenge to have reminders and structures addresses a part of what this question is asking.
The second way we develop and deepen our “beholding” is through a contemplative seeing. This is not a physical kind of seeing per se, but a beholding in our spirit. As we develop a contemplative vision of God in our lives, it colors everything we see and behold. Then, our joy is protected as our temptation to move into discontentment wanes. We see this beautifully illustrated in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (vs. 1-2)
Notice the clear desert imagery in these verses: thirst, faintness, barrenness, and weariness. The response? Beholding God. Psalm 27 uses similar imagery: gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and meditating in His temple. (v. 4) This is a call to contemplative prayer. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we read: “Contemplation will change your heart. It will make you so kind and dynamic in loving that when you stop doing it and mingle with the world again, you’ll discover that you love your slanderer as much as your friend.”
The Cloud of Unknowing goes further in describing contemplative prayer: “Unclothe your awareness of analytical thoughts. Keep it empty. Don’t cogitate on yourself or on others whom you know. Let them go… You no longer need to feed your mind by meditating on who you are and who God is. Grace will help you focus on holding yourself steady in the deep center of your soul, where you’ll offer God the simple fact of your existence. Your spiritual affection will be filled to overflowing with love and virtue in God, who grounds you in integrity.”
Questions for reflection: review the two ways that beholding can take hold in our lives. How is the Lord inviting you to behold? What might this look like in your life? Are there things you behold that you might eliminate from your life?
Prayer: Lord, I acknowledge the weariness and desolation of the desert. By Your mercy and grace, may this not lead into discontentment as I look at You, beholding Your power and glory. Amen.