Prayer Day and a Paraphrase

Something I love about where I work is that twice a year, we have Prayer Day. The institute empties for most of a day, and people scatter throughout the surrounding area to find solitude and fellowship with God.

As part of my Prayer Day last Wednesday, I paraphrased parts of Lamentations 3. I thought it would be a nice exercise. I didn’t realize how accurately it would reflect my story.

My paraphrase of parts of Lamentations 3: 15-33:

He made me eat distasteful, disgusting things. He filled me with bitterness. When people bumped me, I spilled over with acid and scorn.

He filled my mouth with grit. I lay lower than the curb and sidewalks. I had no rest in my soul, no quietness, nothing to soothe me–not even a padded savings account.

I can easily recall the awfulness. It’s always just under the surface of my thoughts. It’s easy to say “I’m desolate, bereft, devastated, ugly. What I thought was lovely about me or my life is gone. God has broken my heart.”

The memories haunt me. I remember the depression, the acid, the hardships and injustice. I can feel the old darkness and and heaviness and suffocation again.

BUT

I remember something else, and this keeps me from despair.

I was low, but God’s immense, endless love kept me from death. His care and deep concern for me never stopped, even when I forgot Him and gave in to darkness.

The signs of His care surround me. Every morning’s light reveals new love notes from Him.

Every morning.

Every morning.

His mercy always shows up again.

So I remind myself of what is true: “My God is my life. I will die without Him. He has proved Himself, and when I can’t see or feel Him I will wait. I will rest quietly, confident that He’ll show up again. When my eyes are cleaned from their cloudiness, I see He was with me all the time.”

On those whose gaze is fixed upward and outward, He pours His goodness. To the one who craves His presence, He presses in close.

It’s good to be quiet and rest instead of strive. It’s good to watch, hand over mouth, at how He saves the day again. It’s good to work hard before I’m old because it develops the muscles of faith and teaches me how utterly and completely dependable He is.

Though He allows hardship, His care never stops. He weeps with me, and covers me with endless love. He doesn’t enjoy seeing His children struggling in loss and grief. He knows tears too. And He knows that pain isn’t the end of the story.

Come to the Feast of Love

You pass by this scene every day on your walk to work:

Candles flicker on the stone step outside the door. String lights swoop toward the center of the ceiling. Waiters place hors d’oeuvres onto tables sparkling with goblets and silver. You catch whiffs of expensive cologne, alfredo, lemon, basil, coffee.

You peer into the banquet room and linger in its fragrance for a couple seconds. But you never step further because you know you could never eat there.

It’s way too expensive.

I’m alone and it’s a place for couples.

I wouldn’t know what to do with all those forks and spoons.

My clothes smell like work.

This banquet and this hesitating is the setting for George Herbert’s poem called “Love.” The poem is a story recounting the exchange between Love and a soul. Each of us can read it in the first person, first placing our souls at the banquet door. (The words in parentheses are my responses.)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
 (My clothes smell like work.)
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
From my first entrance in, (He saw me every time I lingered outside the door.)
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.  

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
 (Me? No, you can’t mean me.)
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
I cannot look on Thee.’ (You are very kind, but I don’t belong here.)
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made thine eyes but I?’ (Hmmmm. He made this banquet—He even made me.)
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’ 

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’ (He says He made me worthy of this feast. He wants me here!)
‘My dear, then I will serve.’ (No, no—I won’t eat. You are my master. I’ll be your waiter tonight.)
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my Meat.’ (‘Says’ is present tense: He is still speaking!)
So I did sit and eat.

As we read George Herbert’s lines, we see that he knows how to be proper, dutiful, and fair. He knows about protocol and propriety to maintain at all costs. When Love pronounces him as the worthy guest of the feast, Herbert is incredulous and gives reasons why he can’t possibly accept. Sounds familiar, right?

When Love invites us to His feast, we learn, like Herbert did, that love is not a place, or a feeling, or a flavor. Love is a person, and His name is Jesus. Hearing His voice and seeing His eyes is the best thing that could ever, ever happen to us. And the banquet never, ever ends.

*****This is the final in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday from now on!

Love’s Posture

I wonder if you’ve seen how you’re surrounded by love this month. I wonder if you’ve been surprised or disappointed. I wonder how you’re responding to that surprise or let-down.

When we open our hearts to ahava, we risk loss, misunderstandings, and even heartbreak. One human response to this is anger and a commitment to avoid ahava in the future.

But the posture of ahava is an open hand. I’m here to serve you. What do you need that I can give?

Alternatively, the posture of anger is a clenched fist. I can’t wash my neighbor’s feet with my fists, and it’s hard to ahava (give to) someone if their hands are closed. There are a lot of clenched fists around these days. And sometimes the fists belong to me.

John, who found his identity in being the disciple Jesus loved, pointed out that love casts out fear, and he added that fear possesses terror. Apparently, he believed that the opposite of love is fear. Let’s contrast more words connected to love and fear.

These lists demonstrate love’s enormous power to transform, heal, and free. Like the sun shining on a cold day inviting you take off your coat, instead of the wind that makes you hang onto the coat even tighter, love melts open a clenched fist and a stiff exterior. It invites dialogue and a smile. It gives a cup of water, the simplest of gifts.

If we would love like Jesus did, generously and winsomely and in hidden ways, we could change the world! We can live in love and not fear when we embrace our deepest reality—that we are deeply, outrageously, undeservedly loved. It seems John knew how much Jesus loved him, and he never got over the wonder of it. It shaped how he saw himself, and influenced how he spoke and taught.

The ahava God pours on us is our endless supply to share with our world. We can approach the difficult person and the stranger with open hands, and mirror His warmth and comfort. In doing so, we help to soothe the crippling, damaging fear that keeps people from living with open hands.

If the posture of ahava is open hands, it means that love has nothing to defend and no personae to keep polished. It is genuine and honest, simple and frank. It is not driven by the destructive, irrational fear of criticism or failure. Living with open hands is possible by a power far beyond human limitations, and its results reach further than we can know or dream.

Will you move into this week with open hands, giving and receiving love?

*****This is the third in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

God So Loved That He Gave

One of times I felt most alive was when my friends and I swam in the Dead Sea. The buoyant water let us do gymnastics we could never do before! The clear, turquoise water, briny with salt and minerals, made my skin silky smooth, and soothed the sunburn I’d gotten a day earlier.

An Israeli company takes the salts and minerals from the Dead Sea and produces a beautiful line of skin care products, choosing the name Ahava for their brand. A friend gave me a tub of lovely Ahava body sorbet that I love using.

Ahava means love. It’s the same word God used in Leviticus: You shall ahava the Lord your God, and your neighbor, and the foreigner among you.

Why did God command a condition of the heart instead of action with the hands or feet?

The root word of ahavah means “to give.” To ahava the Lord and our neighbor is an act of intentional giving, serving, focusing on another. Love is far more than a warm feeling deep inside. It is action and generosity, sacrifice and service.

In this week of masses of pink and white fuzzy animals, red-foil balloons, and heart-shaped chocolates, it is normal to focus on what we might or might not get, and what makes us feel loved. Romantic love is beautiful and life-changing, and carries enormous power to heal and restore. Valentine’s Day is often the most noticeable, accessible form of love, but ahava is far bigger than a special day on the calendar.

God modelled ahava for us when He loved us so much that He spared nothing and gave His Son. God’s call for us to ahava is a call to the shape of a life, the deeds and habits of a heart that gives and serves the neighbor and the family member and the stranger. Ahava is not expecting to receive nice things or to stay comfortable. However, in a beautiful paradox and a curious exchange, when we ahava God and others, we receive stupendously in return.

In this week of pink and white and red all around you, how will you receive and give ahava?

*****This is the second in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

Surrounded by Love

On my desk at work, I have a Willow Tree figurine. She’s holding a spray of red flowers and burying her face in them. The title of the figurine is “Surrounded by Love.”

I keep her there because she reminds me, with her relaxed posture and exuberant enjoyment of the flowers, that I, too, am surrounded by love. It’s in the air I breathe on my walk to work, the flavors I relish at lunch, the laughter I join in.

Now and then, I forget that love surrounds me. I become fretful, touchy, defensive. I think I need to prove myself to my world. I need to control my surroundings to be safe and predictable, because no one else is making that happen.

Those days could be titled “Surrounded by Fear.”

This is not an attractive, restful picture. It’s ugly and obnoxious, and no one would ever cast a figurine of that to keep on a desk.

Here’s a thought experiment:

What would change in us if we lived in the awareness that each of us is truly, deeply, freely loved? That we could never earn or perform well enough to deserve the love that surrounds, covers, carries us?

How would this awareness change how I see my world? How would it affect the way I look at other people, knowing they are loved like I am?

This week, look for the ways you’re surrounded by love. Write them down. Because you see what you look for, chances are good that you’ll come up with an impressive list. If you can’t see anything, ask God to open your eyes to His love. Read I John and Luke to see God’s heart demonstrated in Jesus.

Looking for His love might mean that you see in a shape you did not expect. You might be in for some surprises!

*****This is the first in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

Gold and Cracked Pots

I enrolled in a class the last two weeks of Winter Term: Growing into a Godly Woman. I took it because I like knowing more about how a wise woman should live and how she should see God and her world.

It was intense, and the homework every night kept me hopping, but the effort was very worth it. We looked at subjects like forgiveness, vulnerability, friendships, and trusting God. We read wonderful, wise books and responded to their themes. We were listed our dreams, memories, fears, and disappointments.

Making lists  is a good discipline because it pushes me to own the thing. As long as it’s a distant, foggy idea, I don’t have to grapple with it, but when it’s in black and white, it actually exists, and then I have to do something with it.

I couldn’t come up with 10 fears to list because I try very hard to live without fear. Fear is paralyzing and ugly and damaging and I try hard to live in ways that don’t let fear call the shots. But maybe I have more fears than I think, and I just didn’t think long enough to list them.

The list that gave me the most pause was the list of disappointments/losses/failures. It was easy to think of 10, but as I listed them, I kept wanting to give qualifiers for them, and explain what happened next, and that it wasn’t the end of the story. I keep thinking about that impulse to explain and assure.

The last day of class, each of us shared the time line we’d made of our life. We were to share birthday memories, school memories, when we felt most alive, and a time of disappointment or loss.

This is not the platform for me to tell the world-wide-web about my losses and disappointments. There are plenty of them, and the story I told the class still pierces me with its staggering pain.  But it occurred to me several days later that even that story is not the end of the story. There are good things, benefits, beauty that came out of it–and can I say it?–joy. The pain still takes my breath away, but so does the piercing goodness that came of it.

It reminds me of the painting I finished last year to illustrate my idea of kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold.

The idea is that the bowl is more beautiful because of its broken pieces.The gold adds to the beauty and the overall design of the piece of pottery.

This is not something to trip out glibly when you hear a distressing story of grief. Romans 8:28 is true, but it’s not a lot of comfort in the depths of loss. The pattern for good is more true and deep than anything else, but it can take a long time to come to see or feel or know it. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it’s not visible in this life, but heaven is true and real and long enough to solve those mysteries.

Meanwhile, I work on my pottery painting collection and try to perfect my bowl shapes!

His Own Secret Stairs

Years ago, I was reading The Lady’s Confession by George MacDonald, and was thrilled to come across this poem. It felt like a bonus, to find this treasure in the middle of a story.

Now, every year, in Advent and the extended celebrations leading up to Christmas, I revisit the poem often.

They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st a little Baby thing
That made a woman cry.

O Son of Man, to right my lot
Naught but Thy presence can avail;
Yet on the road Thy wheels are not,
Nor on the sea Thy sail.

My how and when Thou wilt not heed,
But come down Thine own secret stair;
That Thou may’est answer all my need,
Yea–every bygone prayer.

I reflect on God’s ways, and witness His comings and goings that are completely unpredictable. In my beautiful, broken world, He keeps showing up. He changes things and heals hearts and bodies. He does it in endlessly creative ways without fanfare or announcement, and never in the way that I was expecting.

This is a season that always invites me to nostalgia and reminiscing. I mark time and progress in myself by what other Christmases were like. Four years ago, two weeks after major surgery, I flew home, using the airport’s handicap services. Three years ago, I ran and up down four flights of steps to host a ladies’ evening at a friend’s apartment. Two years ago, I was newly living in the US, visiting my sister and her little family. One year ago, I was in Greece with another sister who supports those caring for refugees.

Greece broke something in me that is still not cured or answered or solved. I cannot reconcile my comfort and ease of living while thousands of beautiful women, children, and men barely survive in super-crowded, cold refugee camps.

There are lots of overwhelming, devastating things going on across the globe that tempt me to despair. I want answers, solutions, a king to sweep in and slay the foes.

I would most certainly despair if I weren’t so sure that He has His ways, His own secret stairs, and somehow, in a most mysterious exchange, my by-gone prayers make a difference.

On this surety, I can sleep well and delight in beauty and rejoice in miracles and not stay crumpled in a heap about the injustices in my world.

Who can know how He’ll show up today?