I was having one of my “Why here?” mornings, when I am fed up with suburbia and longing to be in ministry elsewhere—a small town, inner city, overseas…
Without examination, this built, and I saw everything around me with a snarky eye. It came to a head at a four-way stop not far from our house. “Get a move on,” I inwardly muttered at the man across the intersection who had clearly arrived before me and yet still hadn’t moved. FINALLY he turned, and I saw through the car’s side window that the driver was a neighbor who lives across the street and a couple doors down from my family. His wife died only a few months ago.
My anger dropped and I received a moment of empathy, a tiny bit of his sorrow knocking off my cynicism and settling in my heart. I followed his car up the hill and then watched as he turned into our local cemetery.
That broke me, and I cried out, “I’m so sorry, Lord. So sorry.”
I don’t know completely.
But we ARE here.
And rather than ask Christ, like the Pharisee in Luke 10 did, “And who is my neighbor?”, I need to ask instead to be a neighbor, not only to those in the sex trade, to refugees and immigrants, to those without Christ in foreign countries, to the widow and orphan and oppressed BUT ALSO to the well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated suburbanites all around me.
I often pray Matthew 22:37-39 over my children:“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And when I do, I don’t specify which neighbors they’re supposed to love. I leave that up to God.
I’ve had two recent conversations about confession. In both the other person told me they are often not sure what to confess. They want a specific recognition of sin in their lives beyond the “we have not loved (God) with our whole heart/We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.” The prayer of confession* also refers to sinning against God in “thoughts, words, and deeds” and by “what we have done” and “left undone.” What, in particular, are these—and how do we become more aware of them in our lives?
It’s generally not too difficult to recognize when we commit one of the “big” sins: an outright lie; a lustful thought; an outburst of anger; blatant, hurtful gossip, etc.** But the less obvious ones, the ones that pop up like weeds from our inherent self-focus/self-love, are often overlooked. Our bishop at Church of the Resurrection, Stewart Ruch, calls self-love/focus the “seed of sin.” It’s a very prolific seed, and the “small” sins it sprouts are harmful, no less harmful than the “big” ones. But they are also insidious (I love that word—it actually sounds evil!), working subtly and gradually. Many of them can even disguise themselves as something culture sees as good (like selfish ambition). How can we recognize these in our lives?
A couple of verses from the Psalms have been a great help for me as I’ve thought about this problem. Psalm 139 opens with these lines: “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.” It goes on to show how intimate this knowledge is and the section ends with this statement: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” This “knowledge” is about me—ME! God’s knowledge of me is far, far greater than my own knowledge of myself. He knows me in ways I am completely unable to know myself. That can seem terrifying—but it’s actually very, very helpful. Each of us has major blind spots in our lives; we can point out faults in others but remain unable to see the very same sins in ourselves. Psalm 19:12 says, “…who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” The last two verses in Psalm 139 say, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the New Living Translation that last verse reads, “Point out anything in me that offends you”; the Message paraphrases it “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about;”.
I’ve discovered the Holy Spirit really does answer that prayer and does so in very gracious, gentle ways—in exactly the ways that make me recognize and face my sin without completely crushing me. The Spirit is also incredibly creative in this process: I’ve become aware of insidious sin in my life through a particular word that keeps popping up in my mind, through sermons I’ve listened to, books I’ve read (even fiction), my children’s struggles…
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.***
NOTE: The italicized phrases in this blog post are drawn from the prayer of confession, which follows the post.
In the last blog post in this series, I wrote about how confession has expanded my view of sin: it is not limited to thoughts, words, or actions, for these spring from a self-focus that keeps me from loving God and others. This understanding of sin has also stretched my view of God, for I see that He, unlike me, has NO sin in Him. His Spirit is not bent in self-focus; His every intent and action are for good.
As a child I equated God’s sinlessness (holiness) with a lot of “not” statements. God does not lie, does not steal (kind of impossible for Him to do that!), does not…
But the holiness of God is so much greater than that. I turn to my definition of “not-sin” from the last blog post to help me with this idea. “Not sin” (holiness) is loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.
Does God do that?
First, He loves Himself with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength.
That’s a strange statement, and one my mind falls far short of comprehending, but when I consider the Trinity (another idea that blows my mind), I see that in the Three-in-One, God keeps this first-and-greatest commandment perfectly. The Father loves and honors the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves and honors the Father and the Spirit; the Spirit loves and exalts the Father and the Son. (For a GREAT and readable article on this, read “The Good News of the Trinity” by Tim Chester. By the way, he uses the term “perichoresis” in that article; click on the word to find the definition–which I had to look up!)
In the Trinity we catch a glimpse of how relationships are supposed to be. No self-centeredness taints the fellowship of the Trinity. Its members are for each other, loving each other with purity and kindness. The members of the Trinity completely act out the love described in I Corinthians 13 and the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.
Second, God loves His neighbors (all His creation) as Himself. This doesn’t negate justice. God wouldn’t allow sin within Himself; He cannot accept it in us. And this is exactly where God’s love for us, His “neighbors” shines brightest. Rather than leave us in a state of separation from all that is purely good (Himself), He loved us as Himself and GAVE Himself. There is no greater example of the second commandment. For the sake of the Son, Christ, He forgives us and has mercy on us.
And so the prayer of confession takes my eyes UP—away from my self, away even from my sin—and I am amazed at the Goodness of God. In all His thoughts, words, and deeds toward us, in what He does and does not do—
He is Good.
Here is the Prayer of confession in its entirety:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will,
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
Almighty God, have mercy on us,
Forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Strengthen us in all goodness,
And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.
Two weekends ago, seven of the eight of us (Kelly was at a game with a friend) went downtown for the evening with Dave’s brother who was visiting. We wandered up and down the Magnificent Mile enjoying the lights and then trekked west to the Portillo’s on Ontario. Before eating, Judy (our older international “daughter”) went to the restroom, took out her retainers (a recent expenditure—they’re not cheap!), and wrapped them in a white paper towel from the restroom (some of you already know where this is going!). She set them next to her plate while she ate.
Near the end of our meal, a Portillo’s employee kept buzzing around picking up trash. She was so quick and quiet doing this, we almost didn’t notice her! When we completely finished, we continued the cleanup (you bus your own tables at Portillo’s), and Judy suddenly realized her retainers were not next to her plate.
Quiet panic. I assumed one of us had thrown them away, so I turned to the trashcan where we’d put everything we cleared. A man in a Portillo’s uniform with a nametag reading “Sherman” was just about to empty the trash. We explained the situation to him, and he helped me look through BOTH of the side-by-side cans. In fact, he stopped me a couple times when I was about to pick up a particularly soggy something and lifted it with his own gloved hand. “I should have gotten you a pair of gloves,” he remarked.
No retainers in the first can. Judy was rigid at this point. Dave had already helped her go through every pocket in her coat and every compartment in her purse. Em had checked under and around the table.
We reached the bottom of the second can. I saw something pink shining through a white paper. I grabbed it.
I looked up and met Sherman’s very, very sympathetic eyes. “Thank you,” I told him. He nodded. I turned to Dave. “I’m going to go wash my hands before we leave.”
On my way up the stairs, I prayed. “Please, God, by some miracle let those retainers be in the bathroom. I know she brought them down to the table, but if You want to just re-locate them right now and have them on the counter when I walk in, that would be truly incredible. She is never going to stop beating herself up about this! Please, God, a miracle!”
No retainers on the counter.
As I came back down the steps I saw my brother-in-law, Scott, had an arm around Judy. All the other kids were gathered around them. My heart sank. She’s crying, I thought. I made it all the way up to the group before they noticed me. I reached out a hand to Judy when Scott saw me. “He found them,” he said. “Sherman found them!”
Judy was crying, but they were tears of joy!
I turned to Dave, and he gestured to Sherman, who was several feet away, emptying a different set of trash containers, these farther from our table. “He decided to look through those, too,” Dave said. “He thought the Portillo’s lady might have taken them for trash and put them there, so he looked before he emptied the cans.”
I went over to Sherman. His grin was broad, but he was a little embarrassed. “Thank you,” I told him. “You are an answer to prayer! I was praying for a miracle!”
“Me, too,” said Scott.
Sherman raised his pointer finger up. “Wasn’t me,” he said. “That was God.”
I was crying by this point. Dave followed Sherman to thank him again. He tried to give him a gift to thank him, but Sherman refused. Dave found a manager and told him what Sherman had done. A few days later I visited Portillo’s website and filed a formal statement of gratitude.
As we left Portillo’s that night, one of my fifth-grade twins said, “Hey, that was a God sighting!”
“Yeah,” said the other twin. “I’m going to write it in my notebook at school! This week I won’t have to think and think to remember one.”
“They happen every day!” I reminded them. “We just don’t always have our ‘eyes’ open enough to see them.”
I hung back to where Judy was walking with Emily. I hugged her. “Don’t beat yourself up,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong, and God just gave you and all of us a miracle. Give yourself over to it and rejoice!”
She nodded, tears still in her eyes.
Thank you, Sherman! Thank You, God, for having him in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time so he could be a testimony of Your faithfulness and greatness to us.
A few weeks ago “Do not grow weary in well doing” literally jumped into my mind. It was unexpected, both out of place and time. I was NOT engaged in what I thought of as “well doing” at that moment. Nor was I in a particularly “spiritual” frame of mind. In fact, after the verse jumped in—surprising me—I retorted back at, I assumed, the Holy Spirit. “What if I’m just simply ‘weary’ without there being any ‘well doing’ going on at all? That’s rather depressing, don’t you think? It means I am weary simply spinning my wheels, simply being ‘busy’ with suburban mom ‘stuff.’”
I waited for a moment, wondering if another verse would “pop up.” Nothing came, but I was left with a slightly unsettled feeling, as if the conversation were not yet finished.
A week later it continued, this time a bit more forcefully. I was driving (no surprise there–a literal spinning of the wheels), vaguely longing for “otherness”—a more focused ministry that involved our entire family (or at least my husband and I together), a centralized location that would involve much less “in the car” time for me…
This time it wasn’t a verse, just three words, but they cut across my mind, stark, black on a white background.
“You are discontent.”
What? Discontent? That didn’t describe me! I was simply longing for something “better,” right? A more spiritual life, one that stood out as “different.” One that could serve as a good example for others…
Ooh—pride as well as discontent.
Really, Lord? I asked. This—what I so often see as a “small” life—is what You want for me? This here? This now?
It was confirmed by a conversation with my mother-in-law. “Let me tell you what I’ve been praying for you lately,” she said. (What a blessing to have not one but two sets of parents who pray for me!) “I’m praying that you will see the goodness and purpose in all the running around, the cooking, the organizing of schedules, the ‘mothering stage’ you are now in, with kids who need you in very different ways than they did when they were younger. I’m praying that you will understand that all this, though it seems small, is BIG. In all this, you are loving your children. This is your good work.”
Good work. Well doing.
Oh, Lord, I prayed, help me to see this—to keep on seeing this.
And help me not to grow weary.
*Here’s a link to a Tim Keller sermon titled “Everyone with a Gift” in which he talks about this very kind of discontent. I’ve listened to it twice now–and I probably need to listen to it again.
The last post I put up–with my questions and wonderings about individuality and how it relates to my being a creation of God–came from a journal entry I wrote over a year ago. It’s been sitting and sitting, but when I finally was able to post something (sorry for the gap), it came to my mind rather than something written more recently.
I posted it on Friday, and that night I went to a church service and we sang the song “Take, O Take Me As I Am”. “This,” I thought, “relates so beautifully to that blog post.” I have found myself singing/praying it off-and-on ever since, and I want to share it with you. The link above (the title) takes you to Hymnary.org, which has information on the song’s author, Scotsman John Bell, and, when you scroll the bottom of the page, the actual music (so those of you who are musicians can play it), and this link is a Youtube video of a choir singing the song.
This is the slightest bit fuzzy, but I couldn’t resist blowing this up a bit to see this beautiful bird’s detail. He was hanging out in my yard last week, and I managed to get a couple shots of him.
It was mid-morning on a Saturday. I’d already taken the boys to their soccer games and returned home. The afternoon had been claimed by the three teens, who needed to shop for school spirit week items. I was their transportation. After that, I would fix dinner, run a younger child to-from a party, and finally collapse.
It was going to be a long day, much of it filled with shopping crowds–always a stressor for my introverted side–and I knew I needed a space of solitude before I plunged into the second part of it. I shut myself in the downstairs bathroom and tried to quiet my mind, to stop the responsibilities and concerns that shout so loud, that so often drown out the Spirit’s whispers.
Into the stillness came a verse, each word in it distinct, like the notes in a simple melody.
I realized it was a melody, was the Scripture I’d set to a tune so I could sing it over my younger daughter each night. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of our God, and the fellowship of His Holy Spirit abide with you, now and forever. Amen.”*
That was my prayer, my gift for that time, for the day ahead.
Again I prayed it. Again, focusing on phrases: Grace of Christ, love of God, fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Forever.
The quiet was broken, and the next, crazy phase of the day began. It was full of traffic, of driving, of crowds, of noise.
Yet Abide ruled the day, inserting itself again and again…
And this led to miracles
Calm in the thrift store. I get jumpy so easily when I have to shop, when I’m in crowds, when I see no end in sight to the shopping. Abide, I heard. And I enjoyed time with the three older girls as we hunted for crazy items for spirit week: tutu skirts, Hawaiian leis, “mom jeans,” ugly sweaters. I even found myself some jeans—ones Em approved of, definitely not “mom jeans”—and didn’t go nuts in the process.
Twelve hours after praying in the bathroom, I was close to sleep. I readied my computer for shutdown, clearing all my screens and then closing my Web pages one at a time. The final page to close: Bible Gateway. The previous day’s verse-of-the-day was still on the screen. On a sudden whim, I refreshed the site to read the verse for the current day, less than one hour before it would change to the next day’s Scripture.
God had worked miracles as I’d shopped in crowded stores and while my car guzzled gasoline and I was stuck behind its wheel. Why was I surprised that the last one of the day was delivered via technology?!
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of our God, and the fellowship of His Holy Spirit ABIDE with us, now and forever!
So be it.
*I made the song with the word “abide” in it, but I can’t find a Scripture version that actually includes that word (I have no idea why I began singing it with “abide” included). BUT the morning I prayed that verse, it came to my mind with the word “abide,” which then led to my envisioning the vine and branches and thinking about Christ’s words about abiding in Him. SO, I’m using the word “abide” in the song version, but not, of course, in Bible Gateway’s verse of the day. That link includes a couple parallel versions.
Immutability: a big word meaning changeless, not capable of or susceptible to change
I’ve been very grateful for that attribute of God lately. As if it’s not enough that I live in a culture in which change is constant (in fact, change is one of its few constants), in a home with so many personalities (six kids, three of them teenage girls), and in a schedule that is both crazy and fluctuating…
I also am crazy and fluctuating.
I can be happy and joyous one hour and overwhelmed by all the pain and injustice in the world the next. One moment I can be confident in the sovereignty of God; in the next I am doubting and fearful. I remember at times that my security and identity rest in God, but I forget that truth daily (okay, more like every hour–or more) and find myself swinging between insecurity and pride as I compare myself with others.
With all that, God’s immutability is a wonder, a blessing, a miracle.
So when I reached the end of Hebrews today and read these words, I found in them a treasure. I hope they are the same for you.
And because that is true–that Jesus Christ is never swayed because HE IS the great I AM (never the “I was” or the “I will be,” always the “I AM”)–then the benediction that follows can also be constantly true.
Speaking of Chai (she’s mentioned late in this post), here’s a shot of her lounging on the only piece of furniture she’s “supposed” to get on.
This morning* I crushed the spirit of one my children.
At least that’s what it felt like.
It was over an organizational issue we’ve been wrestling with ever since school started (well, actually, for years). It’s also an issue that this child refuses to really face as a problem. I hear “I’ve got this” and “No big deal” often enough that it makes me want to scream.
And this morning I did.
“When are you going to see this as a problem?”
“When are you going to admit you need help?”
“When are you going to stop telling me ‘I got this’ and start listening to what I and so many others are telling you?”
Oh, there was more—though God, in His grace, stopped me from saying at least some of the destructive things that were on the tip of my tongue.
But I went on and on. Not a dripping faucet, oh, no, a full-open tap.
And my child cried.
And I felt like, pardon my French, shit.
During it, following it, twinges of it even now.
After the tears, after my anger, I pulled my child aside in the kitchen, held this precious one close and said, “I can’t let you go to school without you understanding that my frustration doesn’t mean I don’t love you just the way you are.”
(And at the same time I said that, I thought, but that’s not what my earlier words and anger communicated!)
I affirmed this child’s wonderful qualities of kindness and generosity and oblivion to differences in other people and unawareness of standards that others set. This child is individual and easygoing and full of so much love.
“But you’re running into some things that are showing you that you have some areas of weakness, too—just like we all do—and until you admit them, you can’t grow in these areas. Do you understand that?” I asked.
My child nodded.
“I’m so sorry for the way I said it, though. There may have been things that needed to be said, but they shouldn’t have been said in anger, and I know I blew it and hurt you. I was wrong.”
My child nodded—but I knew that my apology, which also included “something to work on,“ was a lot for a kid to process.
We got lunches packed. We drove to school.
This child was the last to get out of the car “It’s really okay for you to be mad at me,” I said. “I did you wrong this morning.”
My child paused. Then said, “I love you, Mom.”
I was thankful there wasn’t an immediate statement of forgiveness. I was thankful this child was taking the time and the right to process.
But I barely made it down the carpool lane and around the corner before I began sobbing.
Home again, I cried more, on my knees, next to my bed.
It wasn’t completely about this morning any more. I’d just had a glimpse of how very fragile we all are, how easily relationships are damaged, how easily I could have said (and maybe did) something my child will carry through the rest of life.
And here’s a much better pic of her, taken, of course, by my daughter Em
The dog heard me and came into my room. She pushed her way between me and the side of the bed and nuzzled my ear, and I was grateful for this warm-bodied creature sent by God Himself to comfort.
I found myself suddenly singing, the song itself a gift:
Last night I went to a video screening sponsored by the West Chicagoland Anti-Trafficking Coalition (WCATC). The video was Call + Response, a combination documentary/musical benefit shedding light on the issue of modern-day slavery. I’ve put more information about the film near the bottom of the post, but what I really want to share is the prayer, written by Scott Sauls, that WCATC co-founder Terri Kraus prayed at the close of the event. Please join me in this prayer today.
Lord Jesus, no one knows suffering, oppression, and abuse like you do. As we come together on such a weighty subject as human slavery and trafficking, we pause to remember that you were sold for money by a scoundrel, so that other scoundrels could have their way with you. You were made a slave…pierced, crushed, and punished, even though you had done no wrong. You had your innocence violated as you were led to a dark back alley. You were stripped naked and abused—pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. You sympathize with human suffering. And in time, you are committed to end it…to renew the world until there is no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain. In the meantime, Father, you give solidarity to victims, and support to those who protect and defend them. We do not know what we would do if you were not a defender of the weak, a lover of justice, and full of grace and compassion toward those who hurt.
It is because you love justice and are full of compassion that certain things anger you, Father, just like they anger us. You get angry when vulnerable people, created in your image, are threatened, exploited, degraded, and used. The victims in whose honor and for whose protection and rescue we gather today, are most certainly among these people.
We are grieved and sickened by the way that shame, fear, manipulation, exploitation, injustice and abuse destroy the lives and crush the spirits of slaves around the world and also slaves in our own state, towns, and neighborhoods. We are comforted to know that you are sickened too—and that you, Lord, hold the power and the will to change things. You are the King of heaven’s armies. And so, Father, we ask, please…
Put an end to this wicked and ridiculous industry. Bring justice. Crush evil under your feet.
Save those who are trafficked and exploited. Give them a chance to be physically, spiritually, relationally, and emotionally whole.
Protect all children, youth and adults who are the targets of abusers and human traffickers. Oh God, guard their lives and hold their hearts.
For the traffickers, for those who facilitate slavery, and for those who buy their illicit services…would you frustrate their efforts. Bring them down and take them out. Bring them to justice. Change their hearts so they will forsake their ways, we pray.
And for those like ourselves who have the power to help, because it is often through ordinary people that you choose to bring about extraordinary change—faith communities, potential donors of money and wisdom and time—please stir our consciences, enflame our hearts, call us to action. Show us what it means to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you. Show us what it means to respond compassionately and decisively on behalf of those who need help and rescue. Show us what it means to freely give love away, just as we have ourselves freely received love from Jesus, the One who was exploited and handled and sold to his oppressors for thirty pieces of silver so that we could be saved from everything that’s wrong with us, and also from everything that’s wrong with the world—Jesus, by whose stripes we are healed. It is in his powerful name that we pray. Amen.
I did some research today and found several other prayer guides and devotionals specifically related to justice issues. The links are below:
The film featured activists such as Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, David Batstone of Not for Sale, Dr. Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves; public figures such as Madeleine Albright, Dr. Cornel West, and Ambassador John Miller; author Nicholas Kristof (Half the Sky); celebrity activists such as Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Daryl Hanna; and musicians Cold War Kids, Switchfoot, Moby, Talib Kweli, Natasha Bedingfield (among many others).
The film is now eight years old, but it is still very relevant. The number of slaves at its making–27 million slaves–is no less today, and the call for an abolitionist movement is needed. There is plenty of commentary on this documentary, so I don’t necessarily want to comment on it, other than to say that if you get the chance to view it, you should.
There were, of course, parts of the video that horrified me yet again with facts I already knew but often try to forget. Reading that children as young as seven are used as sex slaves is far different than seeing a video of a little girl tell about what she has to do on a daily basis.
The activists and celebrities in the film were passionate and articulate. Here are a few quotes that jumped out at me:
Ambassador John Miller spoke about the fact that the abolitionists in England were fighting against a slave trade that was not only legal but was considered moral by many of the ruling class. He then said: “We need a 21st century abolitionist movement” with the same courage and outrage.
Ashley Judd, on moving on from indignation–which she said almost all of us feel when we hear about this terrible issue: “Every person has the spiritual responsibility of cultivating that indignation till it creates action.”
Ashley Judd, speaking about the labor slavery that is often used to produce our clothes, our technology, etc.: “I don’t want to wear someone’s despair.”