I have a poem up today at The Well, InterVarsity’s online blog for women in graduate school and beyond. The poem is titled “Let Me Think.” While you’re at The Well, check out some of its other content. It’s fast becoming one of my favorite sites.
I’m also sharing some of daughter Em’s hand lettering today. She, Judy (the older of our two international student “daughters”), and I spent a LOT of time at our church during Holy Week. Judy, Em, and I went to every single service, spending nearly 20 hours at church between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day. It was wonderful, and Em took her notes from a few of the services and created a booklet. The only page I’m not allowed to share with you is the Easter Festival page (it’s a service at our church on the Saturday before Easter) because some ink from the facing page bled through.
I delivered this sermon to the women’s gathering at our church last week, so for a blog post, it’s SUPER looong and it sounds more like a “talk” than an essay! If you’d rather listen, I recorded it (about 25 minutes in length). Just click below.
I first read the prayer below in a book I was reading on the Old Testament Law. It’s called the “Prayer to an Unknown God” and was found on a tablet dating from the mid-seventh century BC. The original prayer is from Sumer and probably dates from somewhat earlier. What follows is just a small portion of this prayer:
May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
I sought for help, but no one took my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.
I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
I kiss the feet of my god and [crawl before him] . . .
How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?
Can you imagine being in that situation? We don’t live in an ancient near eastern culture, so the idea of having to appease an unknown god is pretty strange for us, but this was the norm in that time. When you listen to that prayer—and I only read a very short portion of it—you hear the desperation and you begin to see why people did so many strange and even terrible things to appease these gods they didn’t even know. About a month ago I read a fictional book about a village in ancient times that was oppressed by a demon. This oppression had gone on for decades, so by the time the story takes place, the villagers have made up a religion to try and please this demon. They’ve elected a priestess to serve the demon, and she spends her entire life trying to determine what the demon wants. But things have gotten worse and worse, and they’ve finally begun offering their children to the dragon, a different child each month. They choose the child by lottery and take the child up into the hills and leave it there to be consumed by this demon. The author allows you to get into the mind of the young priestess, and you get to feel her confusion, her dread, her sorrow at the death of children she has known and played with. But she doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t know how to please this angry, hungry god. It’s heartbreaking! They give and give and give to meet the demon’s needs, but it’s never enough.
This isn’t just ancient history, is it? That scenario describes so many of the religions or systems that people follow even today. Many of our systems are governed by questions of “Is this enough? Is this what I should be doing?” People who follow them are plagued by feelings of inadequacy and failure and hopelessness.
Does this sound familiar? If we’re honest, we have to admit that WE often put ourselves under those systems—without even realizing it. And then we discover ourselves asking those same questions, feeling those same feelings of inadequacy and failure.
But we don’t have to. We don’t pray to an unknown God. We don’t live with an unknown God. We follow a God who has made Himself known, who has revealed Himself to be a God of goodness, a God of light and love.
And what is more, in complete contrast to every system we’ve created, to every demon that has demanded worship, God doesn’t ask US to figure out an offering for Him. HE OFFERS HIMSELF!
This is unheard of! Unprecedented! It’s so far outside our natural inclination as to be CRAZY!
God gives Himself to us.
Do you see this in the passage we just read, in John 6:25-35? Let’s look at it again.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[c]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Now we have to go back before we go forward. In the section just before this one, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two small fish. That’s what Jesus is referring to in verse 26.
So he tells these people who have followed him to focus more on eternal life rather than physical food, and they respond with a question, a very typical question, one that is our normal response when we’re told that what we’re doing isn’t quite right, isn’t “enough.” They ask, “What should we do? What is the work God requires?”
Such a normal question! Whenever we’re told—or we even feel that what we’ve done or who we are isn’t enough, isn’t completely right—we do the same. We, too, ask, “What do I do?”
But Jesus’s answer is NOT normal—is SO “not normal.” It’s a shocking, crazy, upside down answer!
“Believe in the one God has sent.”
Believe in the offering of God!
He doesn’t tell them how to fix THEIR offering. He doesn’t give them more specific instructions. He tells them to believe in him.
He goes on to explain that this belief, though, is not just a head decision; it’s not flippant. The Amplified Bible gives several of the meanings inherent in the word and translates “believe” as “adhere to, trust in, rely on, and have faith in.”
Then Jesus takes this further, and equates belief to “eating his flesh and drinking his blood.” Let’s look at verses 47-58:
47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Jesus tells us to ingest Him, to eat and drink of Him. Think of all the implications in that: tasting, chewing, swallowing, and then a digesting that spreads his being into every part of our being!
He’s telling us to believe in him to the point that we take him into our own selves—THIS is what will please God!
It sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it! And how, exactly, are we supposed to do that?
Now I want to point out that in this passage John brings up two Old Testament events that “fill out” this command of Jesus and might help us understand this I Am statement. First, John opens chapter 6 by mentioning that the Passover was coming. He just throws it in there like a throwaway statement, but it’s not. The Passover was the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians; it was His rescue of them from slavery and oppression. So the word Passover was synonymous for the Jews with the word salvation, and John mentioning the Passover is a clue that this entire passage is about Jesus being salvation—that the miracle that opens this chapter and leads into Jesus ‘s statement about his being the Bread of Life is about way more than Jesus just providing physical food.
So when Jesus tells us He is the Bread of Life; he’s telling us He is our salvation, our deliverance. This is central every time we celebrate Eucharist. “This is my body, broken for you. Take this in remembrance of Me.” His flesh, offered for us, brought us deliverance.
That’s amazing! That God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Him—through His own Body. HE made the offering. We don’t have to. All he asks us to do is believe that He actually did this for us—and that it’s enough!
But remember that I said there were two Old Testament events that John brings up in the passage? I think the second one actually helps us to believe the first one. The second one is what moves our belief in Christ from our heads to our hearts. We can SAY, “yes, I believe Jesus is the bread of life for me”—but it’s in the nitty gritty, every day “eating” of him that this belief becomes something real and warm and true inside us!
So let’s look at the second Old Testament event. In verse thirty, right after Jesus tells the people that the work of God is to believe in the one God sent (Jesus!), the people bring up the manna in the wilderness. “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? … Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Now just a little backstory. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness AFTER their deliverance—that’s important—and the manna was bread that came from heaven every single day for their sustenance. They’d already been delivered from slavery, but they needed something to carry them through the gap between the deliverance and arrival in the Promised Land.
We, too, need sustenance. Our salvation is one of those “Now and not yet,” things. We have eternal life, but we’re not living in the actuality of it right now.
But hold on! Let’s not just gloss past this, let’s not SETTLE for something less than what Christ offers us. Remember, Christ told us that he came that we might have LIFE—and have that life to the full! He’s still offering us Himself—and He’s holding it out to us every day! He’s saying—that eternal life that I offered myself for—that my death provided for you—I want you to start living it NOW, HERE!
He doesn’t mean that we never struggle; he doesn’t mean that we don’t experience problems; he doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to fight against our sin tendencies.
But He does mean that He is making available to us a life in the here and now that is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, a life that is able to consider others’ interests ahead of our own without resentment or bitterness, a life that is drawn to the noble, beautiful, lovely, and the good!
We know what it’s like to have moments of that eternal life here, don’t we? But we also know a lot about the half-life, the shadowed life, the pseudo=life we usually live in—the life we plod through, always struggling with ourselves, with others, lacking joy, lacking peace. The church father Athanasius described this life as a return to “nothingness.” He described it kind of like being a zombie (okay, the word “zombie” is MY take on Athanasius’s idea!—wandering around, walking dead, grunting and geared toward grumpiness and destruction!)
That’s a little how I’ve felt in the last 30 days. My husband and fifteen-year-old daughter went on a Whole 30 diet about a month ago—for a month—and in sympathy I went on a modified Whole 30 with them (I did NOT give up my afternoon sweet chai ritual or cream in my coffee!). But I did give up bread, which is not terribly difficult for me outside our house, but I MAKE our bread at home, and it’s darn good, whole wheat, incredible toasted with some butter! Mmmm.
I discovered that there was another side effect of giving up bread. One morning I ate some leftover stew for breakfast (you eat weird meals sometimes with Whole 30). I worked for a couple hours and then took the dog for a walk in the woods. It was good—until I just bonked. My energy was gone. The stew—the little bits of meat and lots of veggies—were gone. My legs and arms felt heavy, and every step was hard. I thought, “Oh, if I’d had a slice of bread this morning, I wouldn’t feel this way,” and I longed for a warm slice right then! Instead I had to drag myself the rest of the way out of the woods to the car.
That’s a picture of the half life, and it’s not the full life Christ is offering us.That full life fills us full! It spreads the fruits of the Christ’s Spirit all through us and gives us the power to live like Christ did, energized by the Spirit, motivated by the love of the Father, in fellowship with God and his people.
We KNOW how to live the half-life, the dragging, defaulting-to-self-and-negative-emotions life. That is completely natural to us. But we don’t really want that—not deep down. Deep down we want the full life Christ tells us about—and we SHOULD. C.S. Lewis once said that the problem is not that we desire too much but that we desire too little. The Holy Spirit wants us to recognize that desire for more, that desire to be filled with Christ, to be empowered by his Spirit, to have life to the full.
But how do we do this? (Oh, I’m back to asking what do WE do, am I not?)
Here’s how: we eat Jesus like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness (which often describes our here and now, doesn’t it!).
That means daily!
We can learn from the Israelites’ wilderness experience here. God sent the manna every day to them, and he told them not to store it up. They tried to—a few of them went out and gathered a whole bunch of it—either because they didn’t want to gather it the next day or because they doubted God would provide it the next day or they were trying to be resourceful—but when they opened up their “stored” manna bread, it had worms in it. It was stinky and rotten.
We do that, don’t we? We try to do life on our own. We follow our own plan. We want to be in control. We want to prove ourselves—that we’re strong and capable. We don’t believe God really means it when he says he wants us to come to him empty handed every day! We don’t believe he’ll love us or want to be with us if we’re too needy.
But we have to believe that he really wants us to come with our bellies empty and our hands empty, empty but ready to receive from him. He doesn’t ask us to gather the wheat or press the oil or grind the salt. He just tells us to come and believe that he is who he says he is—the one who made us and loves us and feeds us. He wants us to believe that like we take bread into our mouths and chew it and swallow it down inside us, filling us.
Our only work in this is to come to him, to cup our hands or, if we’re simply too weary to even do that, to open our mouths and let the Holy Spirit feed us the Bread of Life.
Practically speaking, what does this look like? It looks like us coming out of sleep each morning and saying, “I got nothing. If I try to feed myself with myself—or anything else— today, if I try to function on my reserves, it will be disastrous. I will crash. I will struggle through my day, feeling overwhelmed or weary or struggling with negative attitudes” OR we acknowledge, “I will seem to function just fine but I’ll be charging through without the ability to really care for those around me or to notice God and the gifts He is giving me.” (Those are just a couple of examples of what it is like to live the not-life—you probably have some ideas in your own minds of what it looks like for you.)
But if we eat Jesus as our daily bread, we dwell in Him—who is Life itself!—and Life Itself—Jesus—dwells in us! And THAT is a life worth living. THAT is eternal life NOW!
So how do we eat this daily Bread of Life? I came up with three action steps:
First, we Look at Jesus.
Second, eyes still on him, we Reveal our brokenness and emptiness.
We acknowledge it—to ourselves and to him.
And third, we Accept His fullness for us.
We say, “Oh, I want to really believe in You today. I want You to be my all in all. I want to know and rely on and trust in you—completely! Help me to do this.”
We do these steps at the beginnings of our days, in the middles, at the ends—daily bread might need to be hourly! We probably need to graze on Jesus all day long!
Look at Jesus.
Reveal your brokenness.
And Accept His fullness for you.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of our God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit abide with you, now and forever. Amen.
My friend Sandy taught last week at our church’s women’s Gathering service. We are studying a few of Jesus’s I Am statements this winter term, and though she was teaching on “I am the Light of the World,” she began with some background on all the I Am pronouncements. She pointed out that when Jesus’s audience heard his statements beginning with “I Am,” they knew what he meant: he was identifying himself as God!
So, as WE study the I Am statements, we can understand that they reveal to us great truths about God Himself: Father, Son, and Spirit. Sandy reminded us that Jesus doesn’t finish these “I Am” statements with abstract ideas but rather “link(s) every I AM with a tangible, material thing—something of this world, part of Jesus’ humanity—a light, a grapevine, a shepherd, a door, a gate. Each of these things is Jesus’ way to help us understand and believe this great God who loves us with a great love. Jesus describes the love of God in ways we can understand, so we can believe and love him back!”
Then Sandy shared this beautiful quote from St. Ignatius: “All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love, and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.”
I loved what she said, and I thought that today I would just share a few pictures of the “God gifts” I’ve noticed and taken pictures of in the last couple weeks. May you notice many God gifts today.
I love to walk in the woods. I don’t know why this red tanker car has been left on the tracks so long, but I love seeing it against the dark woods–with a brilliant pink sky blazing above and shimmering below in its reflection on the pond ice.
a wider view of the same sunset
one of my daughters gave me this sign. It sits next to a bird, another gift, this one from a dear friend.
They (my children) are all four of them gifts, but I had to take a picture of my youngest dressed up as a Secret Service agent! Those glasses barely stayed on for the picture!
ANOTHER view of that train, but this time in the very early morning light–almost blue!
I have no idea how I blurred this picture so badly, and I almost deleted it, but then I thought it looked like an impressionist painting–so soft. Look close and you can see the red train.
According to her, there is no point in stopping and taking pictures. “Come on!”
NOTE: A few weeks ago, I posted this piece about the word “rest” in the book of Ruth. In the last week, I’ve encountered two things that have really resonated with me regarding that topic: 1. a quote from Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471); and 2. a song from church this past Sunday. Hope these are encouraging. ~Jen
If you are constantly in search of this or that, wanting to be anywhere but where you are, believing that you will be happier having more or being somewhere else, you will never know peace, never be free of care. In everything and every place you will find something lacking. Adding things to your life, multiplying them, will not bring you peace. Only be cutting back and breaking their control over your life will you find peace. This applies not only to money and riches, but to the desire for honor, for praise, and for an undemanding life. Don’t desire what you do not have. And do not cling to anything which stands in the way of your freedom in God.Thomas à Kempis
“Restless” by Audrey Assad and Matt Maher. Click on the title below to listen to Assad sing this song. The lines that spoke most to me are these: “I’m restless ’til I rest in you” and “Without you I am hopeless, tell me who you are/You are the keeper of my heart.”
Rez’s New Name team members standing behind the gifts donated by WA girls’ soccer team
I’ve decided what job I want in heaven.
It came to me as I sat with a few other women around a table covered in toiletries, jewelry, lotions, and other small gifts. These items had been donated by the girls on the Wheaton Academy soccer team my husband, Dave, coaches. An annual tournament they play in encourages every team to create a service project, and for the past two years the WA girls have supported New Name, a local ministry that partners with area churches to reach out to and walk alongside women in sex trafficking and adult entertainment industries. Last year they made cards to go into the gift bags that New Name teams deliver. This year they went a step further and purchased items to go into the gift bags. Dave gave up a practice for the girls to shop and then gather back at school to make cards and listen as I told them about New Name’s ministry.
A few days later the members of my church’s New Name chapter unloaded all the purchases at Church of the Resurrection, and we organized them and packed gift bags for outreach.
We oohed and aahed over the pretty soaps and the jewelry, and I told the group, “You know, one of these gifts may be used specifically by God to open a woman’s heart to Him. In a few weeks the girls who purchased these may not even remember what they bought; they might see what they did today as a small thing, but they may discover when they get to heaven that this very lotion”—I held up the bottle in my hand—“may make an eternal difference. Won’t it be awesome to trace it all back! To see how all our stories connect into the Big Story!” It hit me then, and I said, “That’s the job I want in heaven—to follow the stories of people’s salvation and growth in Christ back to all the ‘small’ things that played parts in it. What an awesome job it would be to write down the creativity of God in weaving it all together!”
In chapter 4 of Zechariah, the angel of the Lord visits Zechariah and gives him a vision that encourages the Israelites to keep on with the slow, laborious work of rebuilding the temple. This new temple is a very small accomplishment when compared to the temple that was destroyed, but the angel says, “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” and he goes on to tell Zechariah that the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth and see each act of obedience.
In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he wrote, ”In God’s work the day of small things is not to be despised. Though the instruments be weak and unlikely, God often chooses such, by them to bring about great things. …Though the beginnings be small, God can make the latter end greatly to increase; a grain of mustard-seed may become a great tree.”
Don’t despise the small things you’re doing. Don’t get discouraged. Keep doing them! Encourage others to persevere as well. Listen as the Spirit leads into seemingly “small things.”
And maybe in heaven I’ll get to write down one paragraph of God’s great story, and we’ll see that each of our “small things” has great significance.
By the way, the tournament directors awarded the top three service projects with a cash prize, and the WA team won first place! They’re donating their $1,000 prize to New Name.
This is PJ (my youngest) exulting in the foam bubble pool at the Birmingham, AL, zoo last week!
“Through Him also we have [our] access (entrance, introduction) by faith into this grace (state of God’s favor) in which we [firmly and safely] stand. And let us rejoice and exult in our hope of experiencing and enjoying the glory of God.” Romans 5:2 AMP (emphasis mine)
Here are some synonyms I found for “rejoicing”: elation, delight, jubilation, exuberance, celebration, revelry, merrymaking, euphoria.
This past Sunday we celebrated the Resurrection of Christ. In my church, we sang, we clapped, we rang bells, we danced. Many joined hands and skipped up and down the aisles. It was wonderful.
And it shouldn’t be a once-a-year event.
Our senior pastor often reminds us that every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection. Each and every one.
And while we often may arrive at church needing encouragement, needing prayer, needing to weep and confess and be healed…
we ALSO need to rejoice, to engage in elation, delight, jubilation, and exuberance.
It’s a necessity for our souls. It’s a reminder that the troubles and sorrows of this life will not last forever.
This past Sunday, I grinned from ear to ear as I sang “Oh happy day/o happy day/when you washed my sin away” and watched the children—who often lead us into joyous abandon—skip down the aisles, tugging adults along with them. My mouth stretched wider (if possible) as I saw a woman in a motorized wheelchair join their line. She zoomed (carefully, of course) around the corners, small children bouncing behind her. Her joy was infectious.
It was a foretaste of heaven, when we will rejoice in the glory of God.
Except she won’t be in a wheelchair there.
After the service, one of my children whispered to me, “Mom, I wish I’d joined the other kids in skipping through the aisles.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. A little embarrassed, maybe?”
“Do you regret it now?”
The child nodded.
“Whenever you’re faced with something like that, you need to think ahead. Ask yourself, ‘Will I regret it if I don’t do this?’ If the answer is yes, do it.”
Some of us rejoice more quietly than others. That’s okay. We’re not all dancers. But we still NEED to rejoice fully, without embarrassment. Our souls require rejoicing like our bodies require water. We must join with other believers in this foretaste of heaven, in our understanding that the awful-beautiful sacrifice of our God for us has set us free to love and enjoy Him, to love and enjoy others. We must let our voices belt out, no matter how out of tune they are. We must sing of our redemption.
In public, here on earth, I may never dance like David—or like my insanely rhythmic youngest child. I’m introverted—and awkward. I am, still, a product of my particular culture, my particular upbringing.
But I can rejoice with my full voice, with my whole heart, with the brothers and sisters surrounding me. I can spread my arms high and wide. I can kneel. I can cry. I can clap. I can tap my toes and shuffle my hips in the only dancing I know how to do.
This has NOTHING to do with this post but is a pic of Maddie blowing out the candles on the birthday cake made for her by her older sister, Emily.
In the last “Confessional Living” post, I wrote about the joy that comes through confession.
I suggested it is possible for this joy to be a constant state if we live in continual recognition/confession of sin–Martin Luther’s “life of repentance.” To do this, though, we must understand the concept of “sin” more deeply–beyond its obvious symptoms to its core, where we always put “self” ahead of God and/or others. A few weeks back I was at a morning retreat run by our church (Church of the Resurrection), and Bishop Stewart Ruch spoke about the chronic disease of sin and the different ways it reveals or presents itself in our lives. I found his list very helpful, particularly in relation to the studying/thinking I’ve done for the Confessional Living series, so I am sharing it here.
1. the disease to meet our own needs–no matter what; ahead of others’ more pressing needs; for being flattered, noticed, taken care of, pampered, etc. Stewart suggested that people struggling with this particular sin disease are often magnetic or subtly manipulative personalities; they have figured out how to get others to want to meet their needs.
2. the disease of self-deception–living as if we have no sin/not seeing our own sin. This is why it is very, very dangerous to live outside any spiritual authority. It is too easy to ignore and become blind to our own sin.
3. the disease of introspection–This is not reflection but is a constant consciousness of ourselves, of how we are presenting ourselves to others, of how others are perceiving us. A continual awareness of SELF.
4. the disease of unbelief–of doubting the truth of God’s Word, of HIM. Of doubting the Gospel. Of ALWAYS questioning/pushing off acceptance.
5. the disease of perfectionism–In this, we have an illusion of the possibility of self-goodness and being completely RIGHT. It leads to brutal self-standards and terrible judgment of both self and others. Perfectionists are exhausted themselves and tiring to be around.
6. the disease of non-acceptance–We do not accept what God has given us to do or be. We don’t embrace it and instead long for something else.
These were very helpful for me. A friend who also attended the retreat went with me on a long walk, and we discussed the realities of these diseases in our lives. We recognized many of them! They bring theoretical sin into the nitty-gritty and allow me to see the wrong in very subtle attitudes, actions, or thoughts. When I am in a group, and I find myself slightly amending a statement or story just before I say it so that I will appear more likable/knowledgable/competent–I can see that this springs from a sin disease and needs to be brought to the Lord. When I fuss at two of my children for squabbling in a store, it allows me to see that underneath the good desire for these children to care for each other is a sliver of hurt pride at having others’ perceptions of my parenting tainted by my children’s actions.
And when I become conscious of these things, I am more in awe of Christ–who didn’t exalt Himself but instead humbled Himself to the cross, –who loved and died for us while we were still dead and rotten in our sins.
With great gratitude I remember that for our sake “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
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.***
The past three Januarys, I’ve taught a breadmaking class to Wheaton Academy students. This is one of their jelly rolls (not quite Communion bread but perhaps symbolic of the sweetness and goodness of Christ’s sacrifice for us).
Communion during my childhood felt like the bridge challenge my brother and I gave ourselves whenever we were on road trips. We’d see a bridge a little ways ahead, breathe fast in-out, in-out, and then, as soon as the car was out over space rather than earth, try to hold our breath till we made it to the other side. Our faces turned pink with the effort; we stared at each other with wide eyes, daring the other to hold on just a little longer; and we sucked in fresh lungsful of air as soon as we were back on solid ground.
Communion in the churches I attended as a child and teen popped up like those bridges. On rare and random Sundays the silver towers of tiny crackers and grape-juice-filled cups betrayed its inclusion in the service.
And I would hold my breath—because “do not take communion in an unworthy manner” had been presented to me as a flagrant sin, and I was terrified of committing it.
First came the searching for past sins. I began at perhaps a week before and scoured my actions and thoughts up to that present moment. Discover-confess; discover-confess.
Then I held on. My main thought—prayer?—was “Don’t do anything. Please, God, don’t let me commit any new sins. Blank mind, blank mind. Don’t look at anyone.”
I simply had to make it till the two silver trays made their way past and the pastor said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Then the wafer was popped in the mouth. Hold it; try to be thankful in that moment—Remember, this is Christ’s sacrifice. A lot of pain went into my forgiveness!—don’t sin, don’t sin —then the juice—and a feeling of guilt at my enjoyment of the sweet taste.
Finally, the release of breath, the feeling that, if I were to sin at that point or thereafter, it wouldn’t be quite as big a deal.
Communion was not celebration; it was ordeal.
First, Communion is no longer random—we participate in the Eucharist every Sunday at Church of the Resurrection—and, second, it no longer terrifies me.
This transformation began long before our change in churches. As I began to understand the Gospel more deeply, I understood there is no such thing as being “worthy to take communion,” just as there is no worthiness required or possible to receive salvation. My youthful fear of taking communion lightly actually pushed me into another unworthy way of taking it: as if I could earn it.
Communion at Rez (as attendees affectionately refer to our church) has fleshed this concept out even more. I cannot deny it was a shock to my fundamentally-brought-up soul to see tiny children taking the bread and cup my first Sunday. But week after week, as I watched little ones joyfully bounce up to accept the gifts, something began to resonate within me.
This, this, I wanted to shout one week, is the way to accept it. No pride, no self-awareness, in complete weakness, presenting nothing, simply ACCEPTING.
One Sunday this revelation became even more personal. I was processing a grudge during the sermon, and communion “popped up” for me like an unseen bridge. Suddenly the person next to me stood, and I realized it was our row’s turn to stand and go forward. A bit of the old panic struck. I’d done no preparation at all! How had this crept up on me?
But when I stepped up and the bread was pressed into my open palms, I understood it in yet another new, fresh way! Communion is like a refresher course in the Gospel: God saying, “Remember how helpless you were. Look at what I did to rescue you! You couldn’t prepare for it then. You can’t earn it now. Keep living in that truth! This is what leads to true gratitude and celebration!”
Like the children, I have nothing to offer, nothing to exchange, and I never will. I come forward, again and again, with a confidence that is based solely in Christ.