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The Extravagance of Advent … in Freedom

Part 4 of a weekly Advent blog written by Doug Kelley and Ted Wueste

The movie, Braveheart, indelibly etched the words of William Wallace in the minds of many of us: “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take…OUR FREEDOM!” Wallace keenly recognizes that what happens to us physically does not absolutely determine what happens to us mentally and spiritually. The extravagance of Advent is that waiting and letting go (see Blogs 2 & 3 in this series) can actually result in freedom.

Freedom, like many other words and phrases in modern Western civilization (e.g., success, progress), has many unhealthy associations. Some associate freedom with doing whatever you want, regardless of its impact on others. Others associate freedom with capability – the ability to engage in certain behaviors or tasks. Still others see freedom as freedom from certain obligations and responsibilities – “I don’t have to do that if I don’t want to.”

However, Paul tells us that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). This is not a freedom that comes from volition, or ability, or sidestepping obligations and responsibilities. In fact, just the opposite. The freedom Paul is talking about is one that comes as a result of being in the Spirit. God’s Spirit. In Christ. Counterintuitively, it is a freedom from all those other “freedoms”. We are freed from what has been called the hedonic treadmill – the constant chasing after pleasure. We discussed this in the last blog, mistaking striving for the good life. In essence, we are freed from the constant striving of trying to make ourselves happy. And, as such, we are freed to release the tyranny of constantly looking for the next fun or interesting thing, or finding our worth through what we do, or avoiding those things that are inconvenient or distasteful to us. This is the freedom that God’s Spirit brings.

Indeed, we are now freed to wait for and wait in Emmanuel, God with us. Think about this for a moment. Find a quiet spot. Take a couple of deep breaths. Relax. Clear your mind. How would it change your life, right now, if you were aware that you are with God, in Christ? Not aware as in you know intellectually that you are in Christ. But aware as if your senses are reeling with it. 

In Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose, Alec Hill, emeritus president for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA, distinguishes between the Greek words chronos and kairos. Chronos is chronological time (“See you Thursday at 1:00.”). Kairos, however, represents moments that somehow change our lives. Moments where we sense God’s presence. 

In his book, Alec describes how cancer reoriented him from chronos to kairos. Ted and I (Doug) have experienced that, too. But you don’t have to experience something traumatic to know God’s presence. As Ann and I walked today, she stopped to smell some roses (I’m not making this up. We literally stopped to smell the roses). She spoke of how great they smelled and I could see her countenance brighten as a result of inhaling the aroma. Then, even though I’ve smelled roses before and intellectually know what they smell like, I decided to go over and take a deep whiff of one beautiful little blossom. Transformation, my friends. The aroma was life giving. My spirit wasn’t freed by believing something about the rose, but by experiencing the rose – just being there with it, engulfed in it, for a moment

Alec Hill shares an old French saying, en peu d’heure Dieu labeure, which means God works in moments. In that spirit, consider the following words from the classic German carol, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming:

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

Letting go of our own striving, we wait. We wait for the presence of the Lord. For moments where we sense the Spirit of the Lord. For freedom. Extravagance. Advent.

Prayer: Lord, give me courage and strength to let go and wait. Help me to experience true freedom in moments where I sense the presence of the Lord. Amen.

Question for reflection: What intentional choices can you make to experience the presence of the Lord this advent? 

Reflect on the words of 2 Cor 3:17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Sit with those words and repeat them slowly until they sink down into your heart.

The Extravagance of Advent … in Letting Go

Part 3 of a weekly Advent blog written by Doug Kelley and Ted Wueste

Advent reminds us that extravagance and abundance come in unexpected packages. Sometimes those packages are bright, shiny, tied with ribbon. We anxiously wait as they sit under the tree or peek out of our stockings waiting for the time to be opened. (True confessions. One of my [Doug] guilty pleasures was watching our young children wait to open their presents while I readied the “adult” part of the morning – fixing freshly ground coffee and warming delectable morsels to snack on during our gift opening ritual.)  And, sometimes those packages come in surprising shapes or forms. So surprising that we may struggle at first to see them as gifts. The key lies in waiting for their giftedness to emerge. In fact, some of our most memorable gifts may not have seemed like gifts at all when we received them, but endedendedd up being something that changed our lives in a significant way. In this sense, Advent is about waiting for the gift to emerge, surrendering our expectations, and letting go. 

For most of us, we’ve been led to think that “the good life” is about having what we want now (not waiting), conquering (not surrendering), and getting what we can while we can (not letting go). The ancient psalm writer called this way of thinking: “striving” (Ps. 46). When the world doesn’t make sense, often our instincts are to push ahead, to fight, to go for it … to strive.

In that same Psalm, God is presented as the Lord of Hosts. The word “host” might conjure images of hospitality, but the ancient word “host” speaks of angel armies. It is an image intended to conjure hope of God’s power and resources.  The idea is that we can stop striving because God is powerful, at work, present with us. That’s the good news. The other news (let’s not call it “bad” news) is that we’re now on God’s timetable, which often means waiting and letting go of our expectations.

We (Doug and Ted) have shared about our common experience with cancer and stem cell transplant over the last few years. When the “c” word gets mentioned, it strikes fear into the strongest of people. The temptation is to fight, to strive, to do anything to remove the difficult situation. However, there is a different path. While it is fashionable to talk about “fighting” cancer and, of course, understandable to want to take things into our own hands and “fix this mess,” what if we are being invited into a space that let’s God do the fighting, the fixing? Of course, none of us wants to receive cancer, but if we wait and watch we may eventually see certain gifts emerge. I (Ted) had a clear sense that the battle was not mine to fight. It was in God’s hands. It was a gift to wait with Him, surrender to His goodness, and let go of trying to make things happen. And, I (Doug) saw this time as one of journey, with God, toward uncertain outcomes, a gift to quiet my heart and journey with God more deeply.

As we discussed in our last post, waiting can be life giving. Letting go is part of what makes waiting life giving. As we wait, we can become aware of fears, impulses, and difficult emotions and, over time, let them go. 

The invitation to let go isn’t just about letting go of the hard stuff, it is about being present to what is already there. It represents a significant shift in how we see God and ourselves. Instead of thinking we need more of God or more faith or more hope, we begin to realize that we already have all we need.

Ephesians 1:3 tells us that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing, and 2 Peter 1:3 reminds us that we have been given everything we need for life and godliness. The challenge is to let go of strategies (like striving and fighting) that may obscure our view of God’s presence and how He is with us, now. As we release those things that we do in the hopes of fixing our lives, we become able to see and fully access the reality of life with God. Remarkably, we find that when we are able to see Him, we become like him (I Jn 3: 2-3).

Meister Eckhardt said that growth occurs “not by addition, but subtraction.” Could this be why the psalmist in Psalm 46 writes, “Be still (cease striving), and know that I am God.” As we let go of our strivings, the subtraction (the letting go) leads us to see what we always sensed was there. God isn’t prodded into action by fervent prayer nor persuaded with right words. He is always with us (Emmanuel). And perhaps as we unwrap the remarkable gift of his presence, tossing off all the ribbons and wrappings and bows that we use to dress up our faith and make it look glittery under the tree, we shall see him “as he is” and be transformed (I Jn 3:2) from death into life.

Brother Sean Glenn (SSJE) notes: “By our holy waiting we will learn to rely on God, who alone has the power to change our minds. For if it is God to whom we surrender the final word about ourselves, we will come to know that this thing that feels like death is actually the way into Life itself.”

Prayer: Lord, give me eyes to see me as you do so that I can see you as you are. And then, give me strength that let go of what obscures my vision so that I can see you clearly. Amen.

Question for reflection: What might you release? Is there something that you might let go so that you are able to see Him as He is? 

Reflect on the words of Psalm 46:10, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” Sit with those words and repeat them slowly until they sink down into your heart.

The Extravagance of Advent … in Waiting

Part 2 of a weekly Advent blog written by Doug Kelley and Ted Wueste (The Extravagance of Advent)

Remarkably, both Ted and I underwent treatment for acute myeloid leukemia within the last 19 months. Crazy. Stem cell transplant is a risky procedure in many ways, but actually not as dramatic as it sounds. We were both in each other’s rooms (six months apart) during these critical events, along with other family and friends. Basically, the procedure involved dripping what looks like a strawberry Slushy intravenously into our bodies. It took about an hour. No big deal. Then came the waiting. Weeks of waiting for our new immune systems to kick into gear. Each day, ninety minutes after the 4 am blood draw, we would peek bleary eyed at our Mayo Clinic portals to see if our white blood cell counts had moved from 0. Each day, encouragement from the staff, “It will happen. Be patient. It takes time.” Waiting. Like our lives depended on it…because our lives did depend on it.

What if our lives do, actually, depend on waiting? Pausing? Being present to the moment? Paula Gooder, in a wonderfully insightful advent book, The Meaning is in the Waiting, describes waiting as what gives meaning. We frequently believe that meaning and purpose are found in the future (“Once COVID is over, I’ll be happy, again.” “When my daughter stops rebelling, life will be back to ‘normal’.”). In tangible outcomes. So, waiting becomes more of a “gutting it out,” hoping the future turns out as we want. 

Instead, waiting can be a place where we experience God in the present.

The temptation for both of us, post-transplant, was to only wait for the future, “Come on little German stem cells (we both had German stem cell donors). Set up your new home. Do your thing! Then we can get back to normal.” The danger in this, of course, is that waiting for tends to shift our attention away from what God is doing, now. It puts us on a never-ending treadmill of waiting for the next thing, the next event, the next whatever, that we hope will make us feel safe and happy. In sharp contrast, waiting in the present can provide an enduring sense of being with God, listening to Him, receiving His comfort and perspective.

Some have said that God exists in the eternal now. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Forever is composed of Nows.” And, Jesus beautifully points out that, “This is eternal life, that they know [italics ours] you, the only true God…” (John 17:3). Present tense. Not, “will know you,” but do know you! So, when our lives are not just as we hope or when we’re excitedly looking for something to happen in the future, we still find God in the now, not in the next week or the year to come, but now. This is the meaning in the waiting.

Some of you might be thinking, “That sounds fine for you, but my present is tough, overwhelming, hopeless.” Finding God in the present, is easier said than done. When too focused on possible future outcomes, we can experience a dark shadow over our experience of being present that is often characterized by the fear of uncertainty and the frustration of unfulfilled promises. In these times, living in the present can feel constricting, suffocating, hopeless. 

Finding meaning in our waiting can also be lost when waiting feels too passive. During our tough seasons, we often find ourselves wanting to “just do something.” Just do anything! Of course, waiting is passive in certain ways. While waiting in the hospital, there was little Doug and I could do to reboot our own immune systems. Yet, there was a beautifully active part of the waiting that was thrust upon us. We were able to intentionally focus on what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. In this sense, we both had a somewhat counterintuitive experience of deep comfort that resulted from simply being with God. With nothing we could doto “fix” things, we were free to wait on Him … with Him. 

When this kind of waiting happens in our lives, we are shaped in the present moment as we connect with God’s heart. In Luke 2:25-35, we read about Simeon who was waiting for the Messiah to come. It had been revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Savior. This waiting was not a wish or a hope or a dream that he held to the side, but an active waiting in which he watched each day for God’s appearance. This waiting shaped him until he was prepared to see the Savior. The words he offered to the mother of Jesus are poignant:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon seems to be saying, “I’ve waited, and I’ve seen God’s salvation. If God so ordains, I am happy to die and go to heaven” … with his dreams firmly rooted in what God told him in the past; his daily life shaped by a watchful waiting with God in the present; and his hopes shaped as he waited for the Savior to come. How incredible that his faithful waiting culminated with being on the scene when Jesus was presented at the temple. 

How are you waiting in this advent season? Are you waiting with a watchful anticipation, not trying to fix things or make things happen? Are you waiting for the Savior as you wait with Him?

Prayer: Lord, I want to experience meaning in my waiting. Help me to learn to wait on You, in You, and for You.

Question for reflection: Consider that the promise and the hope for the future is God Himself. What might it look like to wait with God and for God? How might that shape you differently than waiting for a particular outcome or event to transpire?

Reflect on the words of Psalm 62:1-2, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.”

In my (Ted) new book, Welcome Everything, I explore more of that journey through cancer – lots of training in waiting. 🙂

The Extravagance of Advent … in Unlikely Places

Part 1 of a weekly Advent blog written by Doug Kelley and Ted Wueste (The Extravagance of Advent)

A few years ago, when Ann and I (Doug) were a tad younger (no kids yet), we were bumped to the penthouse suite when checking into a hotel. Giddy, like kids, we played in our full dining room, enjoyed the sweeping views of the bay and city and, most incredible, called our friends on the telephone next to the toilet (pre-cell phone days!)!

Extravagance. Over the top. Luxury. 

Not exactly images that call forth the creche of Advent season. Bereft of adornment, save a single bright star, Jesus enters our world in a stable, surrounded by hay and farm animals – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus all trying to stay warm. Yet, it is in the simplicity of this simple space that God reveals his most extravagant self.

Our eyes are often drawn to the shiny object on the ground but surprisingly, it is in the dirt surrounding this bright bauble that we discover the extravagant … the life of abundance we all hope for. It is frequently in the messiness of life when we are stripped down to nothing that we see. We see that it is not more stuff, more acclaim, more influence, or more power that gives us the life we desire, but it is when we have nothing and are then filled with a sense of completeness and wholeness. When our lives are filled with the shiny objects and/or the pursuit of those shiny objects, there is little room for anything truly meaningful. Maybe it will surprise you note that the US, compared to other wealthy countries, has the highest suicide rate and highest rate of hospitalizations for preventable conditions and avoidable deaths. Our wealth has not always been life giving.

In the incarnation, we see the God of the universe modeling an alternative for us. When God the Son took on human flesh, He didn’t do it as a king riding in on a white horse but as a baby – vulnerable, cold, unable to speak, and completely dependent upon someone He had made. In fact, when He did ride into Jerusalem years later, it was on a donkey – a clear sign that He was not a conquering hero in the classical sense but a humble servant.

We’re told in Philippians 2 that He emptied Himself, and it was out of that “emptiness” that He loved us so extravagantly. In many ways, we have been shaped and formed by Western culture to believe to that life is found in more things, more experiences, more stimulation. The reality is that “more” often confounds our ability to see what is really life giving. We adopt a scarcity mentality and believe we never have enough, rather than an abundance mentality in which we see that we already have everything we could ever need. (cf. Ephesians 1:6) Indeed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Or, another way to put it is, Blessed are those living in God’s extravagant Spirit.

Both of us (Ted and Doug), have been traveling a road that includes cancer these past few years and, surprisingly, we have found abundance over and over again – even in the midst of chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and multiple hospitalizations. Seemingly unlikely places … and yet, the extravagance of God has been abundantly present in our experience.

Is it possible that God’s extravagant love has been waiting for you in some unlikely places, as well?

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes to see the ways that you are present with us in unlikely places. 

Question for reflection: Take a look at a few places in your life where you have thought it is unlikely that God will show up. Is it possible His extravagant love is lurking their waiting for you?

Reflect on the words of Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a help in trouble and abundantly present.”

In my (Ted) new book, Welcome Everything, I explore more of that journey through cancer – certainly, a very unlikely place.

Happy New Year

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:

The Key of Gratitude, Part 5: a thanksgiving prayer

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.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Key of Gratitude, Part 4: Releasing Certainty

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?

The Key of Gratitude, Part 3: Releasing Complaint

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.

The Key of Gratitude, Part 2: Releasing Comparison

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.

The Key of Gratitude, part 1

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:

  1. 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))
  2. 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).