Grace for eternity

Spring on the university campus.  Iphone photo by the husband.
Signs of spring on the university campus. Iphone photo by the husband.

There is a mantra among new parents, oft repeated and spoken with a mix of exhaustion and hope, that “everything is temporary.”  

That is, the sleepless nights, the afternoons filled with crying, the growth spurts, they’re all necessary phases, but blips on the map of childhood so quickly turning to youth and adulthood, and life.  Young parents remark that if you can keep this perspective that everything is temporary, you can endure anything…temporarily.

I do find this advice helpful and comforting, not only for parenting, but for other aspects of life.  And I find it similar and perhaps more poignant alongside the wisdom that we are to abide in God as God abides in us.

Abiding has always been instructive to me, because it reminds me not to project outward from my fears, but to trust that there is more than this moment.  Rather than the existential promise of all of life being temporary, abiding reminds me of the importance of choosing and praying for faithactive, strident faith–that humbly believes and resolute, unswerving hope to accompany it.

It is only through abiding with God, gladly placing some of my fear and worry at his feet, and coming plainly to him with my raw hunger and thirst, that I am reminded that God abides with me not temporarily, but for eternity, ordering all moments around a life-giving sacrifice that brings eternal grace and peace.

This is what I choose and try to fixate on when life seems mundane and contrived, that what is extraordinary about the ordinary is God’s grace that makes each morning fresh and new, grace for more than this moment–for eternity.

 

An invitation to listen

As many of you who have been reading my blog during Lent have apprehended, I’ve been pretty transfixed by the simple instructions on spirituality in Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  But the other day as I read through the final chapters of the book as I nursed my baby before sunrise, I realized that in the busy-ness of my mind and the eagerness of my heart, and despite the silence, I’d forgotten about listening.

I’d forgotten that what sent me on this deep spiritual quest during Lent was the increase in silence in my life since the birth of this baby, and the subsequent invitation to let God fill those silences.  Since that realization, I’d picked up Foster’s book in an effort to be more intentional about my spirituality, and therefore, I’d been the one filling the silence with all sorts of things, from counting precious hours of sleep to pondering the tasks for the day ahead, and even my devotional study.

This is not another mommy guilt blog about how I should have been treasuring the moments with my infant suckling at my breast, but rather a mere realization that I hadn’t been faithful enough in those moments to allow God’s voice to be louder than my own.  In a previous post, I shared Foster’s words about how our fears about entering into the silence often reflect a distrust of God, and for me it’s no different.  I recently read this post from the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist, in which he ponders our collective societal aversion to silence.  Joshua Becker writes, “While anyone can experience silence at any time by finding a quiet place to sit for an extended period of time, I have found solitude does not occur naturally in our noise-centered world. It must be intentionally pursued by each of us.”

In my own post on “The God of Silence,” I talk about the value for me in practicing centering prayer and reframing the experience of silence not as one of absence but of presence.

But I still struggle.

I still doubt over and over whether God will truly meet me in the silence.  

But what if God was already there?  What if the essence of God was that God goes before us, is ever-present, always waiting on us when we call?

My sister's photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.
My sister’s photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.

Perhaps that was why some of the words from the liturgy this weekend at church seemed to jump off the page.  We prayed together, confessing, “Fear and worry hold us back.  We confess that we try our very best, carrying the weight ourselves.  We gladly hand some of our worry and fear to you today.”

What a simple action, I thought, handing our worry and fear over to God, and yet we cling to these things as if we love them more than peace, hope, and love.

And as we took communion, we spoke, “When we come to this table together, we trust God will satisfy our hunger and our thirst.  Jesus shared this meal with a hungry crowd long ago and he shares it with us today.  Let us bring our hunger and our thirst to the table of the one who called himself the Living Bread.”

Fear and worry, hunger and thirst, these are the little that Jesus asks of us, and yet we cling to our noisy lives with such cowardice.  I don’t know about you, but the thought that our mighty God wants our heartache, and that God is so pure and humble and innocent and present, moves me.  The least I could do is listen, right?

And so I’m returning to that simple message on this foggy Tuesday morning.  I’m returning to the silence with my ears attuned to the presence of God.  I’m bringing my fear and my worry, my hunger and my thirst, and I’m trusting that God is already there, listening, as I listen for him.

 

Where is the joy?

I’m nearing the end of my Lenten devotional, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, so besides needing another short book to fill the rest of April (any suggestions, guys?), I’m also finally starting to discover the meaning behind the curious title.

As Foster writes, “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives.  God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is transforming work within us…Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed” (Foster 193).

Plymouth, MA.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Plymouth, MA. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Foster describes how we can’t take a shortcut to experiencing and exhibiting joy, but we can certainly experience joy through seeking God in prayer, confession, service, and worship, and it is God who is the source of this great gift.

That last line, “celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed,” reminds me of a reflection I read this morning from Micha Boyett where she discusses the ordinary tasks of readying her two boys for school alongside the rather extraordinary miracle that Jesus does by turning water into wine.  Boyett’s pastor described the miracle as Jesus “replacing the joy,” and then points to our own lives, saying, “Look where you’re frantic and that’s probably the place where you’re trying to find joy.”

But the challenge is that finding joy, requires little of us and so much of Jesus, that we often spend the better part of our days scouring and scrubbing only to miss the promise of the dirt, the simplicity, the ordinary holiness of our bent up, misshapen lives.

Foster goes onto discuss a spirit of carefree celebration where we rely completely on God, and experience radical joy through our trust in God’s greatness rather than ourselves.  I look at the last few weeks and this controversy over World Vision’s decision and retraction for hiring gay staff in committed relationships, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look around me at churches working arduously and desperately to spawn last ditch ministries to save themselves, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look at each of us going about our busy lives, failing to truly see those in front of us, to listen, to love, and to rely on God and one another, and I don’t see strength or independence or carefree celebration, but fear and greed and angst.

I certainly don’t see joy.

The Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The Church in America is in need of God’s joyful transformation.  We need less of us and more of God, less of our will and more of God’s grace and love and mercy.  And it’s only by way of the cross, that we are found by grace, and the we experience such true, unadulterated joy.

We don’t often think of Lent and the journey to the cross as a journey toward joy.  We often place the story of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus’ death on the cross in two completely different literary categories, but what if we are called to live out the whole of our faith as ordinary, yet joyful people?  What if the transformation God enacts on the cross and in each one of us amounts to replacing the joy of humanity, and we’ve been missing something as we try so hard to just “get things right?”

We need look no further than our ordinary lives to answer the question, “where is the joy?”, and yet we struggle against what God has done for us.  We need look no further than the cup of wine to remind us of both Jesus’ holy sacrifice and great joyous celebration.  Let us accept the joyous transformation that Jesus brings to our lives, and let us live with great reliance on God, great grace for one another, and above all, great joy.

A photo so full of joy.  Bridal party at my friend's wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A photo so full of joy. Bridal party at my friend’s wedding on Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Amen.

 

 

Your grace finds me

It’s there in the newborn cry
There in the light of every sunrise
There in the shadows of this life
Your great grace

It’s there on the mountain top
There in the everyday and the mundane
There in the sorrow and the dancing
Your great grace
Oh such grace

From the creation to the cross
There from the cross into eternity
Your grace finds me, yes your grace finds me

–Matthew Redman, “Your Grace Finds Me”

Giverny, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Giverny, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I was listening to this song on the radio the other day and reflecting on the baptism of my daughter, which took place this weekend at our church.  And as I hummed along, the truth of that chorus, “your grace finds me,” clawed at my heart.

I think all baptism is holy–infant, adult, and all those in between.  And yet, because I’m Presbyterian I’m much more familiar with the tradition of the sprinkling of waters on babies who may sometimes cry, but are otherwise blissfully unaware of the weight of the sacrament.  We Presbyterians are known for our conviction in the total depravity of man, and God’s sovereignty (following John Calvin), to which all our will and desire and deeds in the world don’t even hold a candle.

And while I often struggle with a doctrine that claims the depravity of infants or the predestination of only some, the older I get the more convinced I am in and grateful for the sovereignty of God.  While we may seek much in this life, it is truly by God’s grace that we live and breathe and have our being.

And so as I watched my sister, who is a pastor and who assisted with the baptism this Sunday, pour the water over my daughter’s head, I remembered how wonderful it is that even at her tender age, there is great grace, and it has found her.

How like little children we all are in the arms of our sovereign God!  

May we yield as little children do to the loving arms of our maker, may we seek to walk in God’s ways, and may we remember in each moment that it is God whose grace finds us and hardly the other way around.

Dirt

As I headed out to the canal path yesterday afternoon for my first run since the baby, I was dismayed to find that between winter and spring in New Jersey (and many other parts of the world) comes another less beloved season: the season of mud.

It seemed no sooner had the ground thawed that the bulldozers came to clear the path, pressing the treads of their tires deep into the fresh earth and leaving behind nothing but brown as far as the eye could see.

But as I plugged along, bemoaning the stark landscape and the thick frosting of mud quickly coating my tennis shoes, I caught a whiff of something fresh, crisp, and almost sweet.  And as the smell of fresh, earthy mud wafted through my nostrils, I was reminded that beneath that brown soil lay roots, soon to be buds, soon to be new life.

I was reminded that we can’t have the new life without the dirt and the worms and the mud.

We often want to skip over the hard parts in life.  In our spiritual lives, we want to be rid of the dark nights of the soul, the calls to accountability, the wandering in the desert.  But it’s no accident that Easter falls at the end of the season of mud, which we call Lent, a season caked with sins that can’t be wiped clean unless we unveil them in the light of day.

The other morning in the wee hours while I nursed my baby, I listened to a sermon by our pastor on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  In it, she asks, what is the dirt that sticks to us when the day is done?  (11:00), and who are the people who we would let interact with our dirt? (14:12)  

In other words, while Lent is in many ways a personal and solitary journey of coming to grips with our own sin and the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross, it’s also a corporate season of sharing our joys, our fears, and our darkness, and of washing the dirt from one another’s feet, just as Christ first washed the feet of his disciples.

Botanical gardens in Massachusetts.  My photo.
Botanical gardens in Massachusetts. My photo.

So as spring draws near and as we walk through this holy season of Lent together, I encourage you not to eschew the muddy bits of your life, but to let God and others behold that dirt, from which will spring new, eternal life.  I encourage you to let Christ lift your muddy feet into his clean hands, and to anticipate the miracle of the cross to come.

Amen.

The God of silence

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101

Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise?  Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?

Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak?  Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives.  As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.

During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas.  As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working.  Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion.  Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning.  And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life.  Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.

Amen.

Lent: a new balance

Aren’t we all striving for some sort of balance in life between confidence and conviction and humility and a healthy fear of God?

It seems parenthood is no different.  

Sometimes my husband and I are completely flummoxed by this seven pound something human being in our midst.  We wrack our brains for why she could possible be crying as if the answer were not completely fixed and finite.  Other nights as she floats dreamily off to sleep, we proudly (yet quietly)  slap each other high fives and reward ourselves with glasses of wine or bowls of ice cream (I now understand why so many people gain weight in parenthood with these celebratory rituals!).

As I lay awake last night, holding my breath and waiting to see if my sleeping baby would find rest, I was reminded that this balance between confidence and conviction, humility and fear of God, does not come easily.  While parenthood is yet another experience that teaches us that control is but an illusion, I don’t want to walk on eggshells, especially during this season of Lent.

Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child.

If we believe that in Lent God is reworking our lives to find a new balance, how might we reinterpret these pillars of confidence and conviction, and humility and fear of God?

Might we walk with the knowledge that we are children of God, with which comes great conviction, but also great humility.  Might we discover that humility doesn’t mean timidity, that being a servant is a bold role in this floundering world.  And might we take heart that it is not we who craft this wondrous balance in life, but it is we who are being made new by a God who teaches us daily, through the example of Christ, what it means to be this wondrous pairing of confidence and conviction, humility and awe.

Amen.

Lenten Links

Flowers in Monet's Garden.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Flowers in Monet’s Garden. Photo by Evan Schneider.

It’s inspiring to read all the posts out there on Lent this time of year, so I thought I’d link up to some of my favorites today, and I hope you’ll do the same in the comments section.  Additionally, I’d like to pass on this reflection on fasting and feasting which my mom passed on to me, and which I think sort of bridges the gap between those who abstain, add, or simply try to be more intentional during Lent.

Happy reading!

Lent: Spring Training for Christians

20 Things to Give Up for Lent

These last three aren’t specifically on Lent, but I thought they were inspiring and appropriate for this time of year all the same:

18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently

The Most Revolutionary Question You Can Ask

The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying

A snail at Giverny.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A snail at Giverny. Photo by Evan Schneider.
True Lenten Discipline 
(author unkown)
 
FAST from judging others;
    FEAST on Christ dwelling in them.
FAST from fear of illness;
                FEAST on the healing power of God.
FAST from words that pollute;
                FEAST on speech that purifies.
FAST from discontent;
                FEAST on gratitude.
FAST from anger;
                FEAST on patience.
FAST from pessimism;
                FEAST on optimism.
FAST from negatives;
                FEAST on affirmatives.
FAST from bitterness;
                FEAST on forgiveness.
FAST from self-concern;
                FEAST on compassion.
FAST from suspicion;
                FEAST on truth.
FAST from gossip;
                FEAST on purposeful silence.
FAST from problems that overwhelm;
                FEAST on prayer that sustains.
FAST from worry;
                FEAST in faith.

Lent in the everyday

In a cemetery in Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
In a cemetery in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Our pastor’s message at the contemplative Ash Wednesday service last night was simple, yet profound: what might we do during this season of Lent to follow God wholeheartedly in the everyday of our life?  Instead of giving up one sinful practice, one favorite food, or even adding one daily activity, she challenged us to let Jesus dwell in our every step, our every breath, our every word.

In Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, he describes meditation much the same way.  Meditation is not a specific time set apart from our daily lives, but a way of life, a way of praying without ceasing, a way of bringing the spiritual into communion with the profane, so that the two intermix powerfully and prayerfully.  Additionally, Foster points out that the difference between Eastern and Western meditation is that while Eastern meditation seeks removal from the world and emptiness, Western meditation seeks communion with God that ultimately leads into service to others (this is not to say, of course, that Eastern meditation can’t lead to service as well!).

I’ve talked incessantly on this blog about my love affair with centering prayer, but these are the tenants that so challenge and convict me about the practice.  We may just be beginning this journey of Lent, but I am reminded this morning that we are headed not to a holy place but to a holy transformation.  We are becoming Easter people, through this process of reflection and action, and while God effects those changes in our lives and our hearts, we do the walking.  

We put one foot in front of another.  We follow.  We accept our sins and repent.  We resolve to let God into the everyday, and it is in the everyday that we truly encounter our deep depravity and God’s transformative love for us.

May we seek God everyday in this journey of Lent, leaning on one another for encouragement, and trusting God’s transformative love.  Amen.

Lent: An invitation to righteousness

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have a restless streak in me.  And despite being overjoyed at the birth of our daughter and blessed to have the time to take off to get to know her, I’ve discovered that it’s still there.

When I find myself feeling restless, I’m reminded of the perpetual invitation to rest in God, but that often sends me off chastising myself for forgetting such wisdom and promise in the first place.

And I don’t think that’s where God is truly leading.

As I’ve discovered over and over on this blog, finding rest from restlessness for me consists of embracing who I am, and then tapping into what’s truly restful and restorative for me.  It’s an awesome thing that God has given me this spirit of curiosity, and to glorify God, I’ve got to use it, not suppress it.

As I started reading Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline the other day, I started to be inspired by reframing this time of maternity leave and rest with my husband and my daughter as invitation to go deeper and connect with God.  I began to become enthusiastic about the invitation to breathe deeply in prayer while I’m nursing my baby, to turn the pages of the Bible rather than jump on facebook in the wee hours of the morning, and seek rest, comfort, and epiphany in God and not this world.

As Foster begins his treatise, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (A Celebration of Discipline 1).  I desire to be one of those deep people, who studies and explores the spiritual life “with as much rigor and determination we would give to any field of research” (3).

Finally, as I kept reading I was struck by Foster’s use of the word “righteousness.”  I may have mentioned before that my church hands out epiphany stars with words on them to each congregant at the beginning of the calendar year and challenges us to reflect on how God might be using the word to teach us throughout the year.  When I looked at my star this year and saw “righteousness” scrawled upon it, I practically rolled my eyes.  There’s a word that I fear Christians have become problematically known for, and I wondered what good could come of it.

Yet, Foster’s use of this word was revelatory to me.  He points out that our method to confronting sin through our own use of willpower leads to a false sense of righteousness, let alone the perpetuation of that sin.  Instead, if we practice the spiritual disciplines, prayer, fasting, fellowship, etc., we might open up ourselves and our lives to receive the gift of righteousness.  Finally, I love the fact that he counts himself a beginner in this process, just as Thomas Merton once pronounced us all beginners for life.  None of us is too great or too mature to enter into these disciplines anew and receive righteousness afresh.

As you enter this holy season of lent, I encourage you to honor who you are, encounter God in the discipline of spirituality, and receive the gift of righteousness, humble, holy, and free.

 And I’d love to hear: what are your lenten disciplines, and how do you honor God by embracing who you are?