First Things First

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“The prayer that begins with trustfulness, and passes on into waiting, will always end in thankfulness, triumph, and praise.”

~Alexander MacLaren

There was a time in my life when it seemed I had far more wedding and bridal and baby shower invitations than available babysitters. We all knew that such events included obligatory traditions as well as some pressure to meet expectations for originality. Do it this way, but differently. I began to wish my friends, and then my friends’ children, would just announce elopements and spawning events with photos on Facebook. I preferred emailing a gift card and skipping the whole toilet paper and clothes pin games and the dressing up for awkward speeches and plastic cup toasts thing.

Now I’m older. Funeral announcements have gradually outnumbered wedding and baby shower invitations. I realize I undervalued the opportunity to celebrate beginnings. I wish I had connected with joy more.

There can be joy in the midst of sorrow when we know someone is now in the presence of the Lord, but we can’t deny the existence of sorrow. Call it a “Celebration of Life Party” if you like, but funerals are sad events. Some funerals are sadder than others. Loss is loss, even if it’s the loss of someone who didn’t stir feelings of fondness. Sometimes the saddest loss of all is the loss of opportunity to build a better relationship.

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The undeniable fact about death rituals is that they can permit and perpetuate really bad theology – what we think about God. And since what we think about God is the most important foundation in our lives, funerals and “comforting words” in the reception line have a way of forcing us to realize this is where the rubber meets the road, philosophically.

Group mourning rituals can be very similar to weddings. We still have the do-it-this-way-but-differently pressures when arranging a funeral, but with much less time to prepare, an undefined budget and no RSVP list of attendees. Maybe that’s why many people still feel the need to hire an ordained hatch, match and despatch specialist, even when church attendance occurred less frequently than visits to Santa in the life of the honoree. Some clerics are very good at nurturing and comforting in times of need. Some others? Well, not so much.

One of the saddest remarks I heard at a funeral was from a person officiating who said, “Our hope is that our friend made a good enough impression on God that someday he will be allowed to come back and help clean up the earth.”

My heart ached. But I could not judge. For many years I said I believed in God’s grace, but in practice my actions showed I believed in the necessity of making a good impression on God, so he would have mercy on me and not toss me into the trash heap of discardables on judgement day.

God has given me long time-outs on this journey. I’ve had chances to scrape off performance-based religious burrs collected along the way. I still do keep running into residual ideas still clinging to my own previously unexamined places, but I realize for many people thinking about talking to God is like preparing for a make or break interview. Prayer feels like having to make a good impression on God, so he will act in one’s favour. Sacrificial acts of piety and charity carry what we hope is a suitably subtle label: God, please note. (And a sigh: I hope I’m doing this right!)

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I find myself again idling at a rest stop along the road as I recuperate from surgery this season. I find stuck to myself the remnants of an uncomfortable feeling that I’m not doing enough. I should be writing something deeply profound, or at least organizing my sock drawer. Is rest self-indulgent? What if I fail to impress? Will I will be forgotten?

My heavenly Father heard my questions (before I voiced them) and that’s when Holy Spirit showed up in a new translation of Psalm 139 that attempts to include emotional communication. It’s so rich, a gift of gold light showering down like the autumn leaves.

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I plan to feel and rest my way through meditation on this psalm. How profound is the concept that our Creator knows us down to the cellular level and still loves us? How can we possibly think we can impress (or fool) someone who knows our thoughts before we do, someone who is not bound by our chronological sense of time, and who still persists in trying to communicate his love?

At first, immersing myself in Psalm 139 felt like giving into a tendency to be self-indulgent and self-centered. I was taught that being a Christian means putting Jesus first, others second and yourself last. (We even had an acronym for this approach – “J,O,Y”) The work ethic is strong in my culture; a sense of accomplishment is a highly polished trophy passed reluctantly from one hard worker to another.

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Here, in this psalm, the Holy Spirit tells us that before we did anything, thought anything, or were aware of anything worthy of approval, we were the object of his unceasing kind thoughts and the source of his joy. We see ourselves as having value because he first loved us. We love him because he first loved us. We love others because he first loved us. First things first.

Since we can’t give what we have not filled up on, there are seasons when we need to take time to soak in his love like a baby floating in amniotic fluid. Times of rest are like celebrations of joyful new beginnings without the budget restrictions and societal expectations.

I’m learning to celebrate this time of re-alignment by soaking in these words.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me.
You’ve examined my innermost being
With your loving gaze.
You perceive every movement of my heart and soul,
And understand my every thought
Before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord,
You read my heart like an open book
And you know all the words I’m about to speak
Before I even start a sentence!

-from Psalm 139, The Passion Translation

There is more of God’s love, always more love, than we dare to think or imagine.

 

 

 

 

Anxiety: a poor use of space

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“We must learn to cast off our anxieties because we have so many of them. The world destroys spiritual life by generating constant anxiety. Jesus said that the life of the gospel is choked out by the cares of this world. We know this to be true yet we are more chained and tethered to the world than ever before in the human race.”

-John Ortberg

I’m still cleaning out corners of the garden. The old dead growth needs to go. I need the space for healthy plants.

I’m still cleaning out corners of my mind. Old ways of thinking need to go. I need the space for healthier thoughts.

 

 

A Different Kind of Savings Plan

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My little flock, don’t be afraid. God is your Father, and your Father’s great joy is to give you His kingdom.

That means you can sell your possessions and give generously to the poor. You can have a different kind of savings plan: one that never depreciates, one that never defaults, one that can’t be plundered by crooks or destroyed by natural calamities. Your treasure will be stored in the heavens, and since your treasure is there, your heart will be lodged there as well.

(Luke 12:32-34 The Voice)

God’s version of prosperity may be bigger and more freeing than you think.

And very different.

 

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Gathering

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The thing I like about rest is it gives me a breathing space where I can gather myself. I can step back. You don’t have to react to externals; you have to respond to an internal.

-Graham Cook

I feel sorry for the person in a crisis or otherwise dramatic moment who has a microphone thrust in her face as a reporter is asking for reactions. If that happened to me I could probably supply him or her with a choice remark off the top of my head. But that’s the problem. My first reaction is just that -my reaction.

It is, as often as not, a shallow, self-centered reaction motivated by whatever has caused inconvenience or pain. For small things, like a stubbed toe, the memory of a short loud complaint fades faster than it takes to hop across the room on one foot. For big things that involve profound disappointment in people and may even change the course of my life, I need to get away and submit my reaction to the Holy Spirit’s response before I say or do something I’ll regret later

I need to gather in angry scowls, perturbed sighs, peaceless mutterings and woe-is-me moans. I need to take catastrophizing thoughts and calls for revenge captive. Then I can present them to Jesus. After all he paid to take this stuff away. Then I need to listen and respond with his love, his joy, his peace. I need to see the way he does.

Sometimes it’s a bigger struggle than I think it should be. Sometimes I sit in his presence wishing I could take back words that flew out of my mouth before self-control showed up to edit them. Sometimes I feel as stubborn as three-year old who would rather sit at the dinner table until bedtime than eat my broccoli. I don’t want to eat my words. And sometimes I eventually hear the futility of my repetitive argument as the finer points dull in comparison to his wisdom.

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of situations and people lately. When my first reaction might be to reject them he whispers, “Look again. Do you see what I see?”

Freedom means that when a situation sticks a metaphorical microphone in front of my face demanding an immediate reaction, I don’t have to give one. I can step back, wait, listen and respond with Christ in me, the hope of glory.

It definitely beats counting to ten.

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Proclaim

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Sometimes we walk on sunny mountain tops. Sometimes we walk through stormy valleys.

Lately it feels like another storm hits before our shoes have had a chance to dry out after the last one.

Can I be honest with you? I don’t feel like I’m doing a great job in this season of my life. I’m so far behind I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up to my expectations for myself. Sometimes the closest I come to resting in the Lord is pulling the blankets over my head and ignoring the clock in the morning.

This morning I had a dream that describes what I have been feeling. I was rushing around in a house (similar to ours in real life but with more stories) that needed work and preparation for the next season. Someone came to the door. I felt grubby, dusty and sweaty and not in the mood for company, but I invited the young girl who waited there into my mess.

She whispered something about wanting to make a proclamation. Before I could say anything another person showed up who needed my attention. As I went to look for something he wanted more people arrived – all in some sort of need or crisis. My house was noisy and confusing and full of people poking into all my private not-so-impressive spaces. I wanted to be hospitable and make something for them to eat, but everywhere I looked something in the house needed to be cleaned, trimmed, painted, organized, or repaired. Too many voices asked questions at the same time.

I felt overwhelmed.

Then the girl who had arrived at my door first put her hand on my arm and said in the sweetest gentle voice, “Can we proclaim now?”

I woke up, the word “proclaim” still ringing in my ears.

All day I’ve been thinking about this. Then I stumbled on this video by a group of young singers called “Proclaim.” The first young soloist looks like the girl who came to my door in the dream.

Okay, Lord, you have my attention. I’m listening.

I will call upon your name when everything has failed.
I will lift my weary eyes to that place where my help comes from
and I will not be afraid
and I will run to you in my time of weakness
and I will remember your unfailing love for me

You are my help, Lord!
Your right hand will hold me when I stray.
You are my help, Lord.
There’s no fear in me.
I will rise again.

I proclaim the glory of the Lord.
I will remember Your unfailing love for me. There is no fear in me. I rise again!

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