Who’s in Control?

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Through the Lenten season, I’ve been reading Daily Devotions from the Lutheran Hour Ministries. The series reflects on the Gospel of John and is called “Light Shines in the Darkness”.

One theme particularly grabbed me during these daily reflections on Christ’s life and ministry leading up to the events of Holy Week.  Throughout everything that Christ endured, he was always in control of the situation: “As we begin this week of Jesus’ suffering and death for our sins, we notice He is completely in control. We will notice He is in control through this entire week-clear up to and including His arrest, trials and crucifixion.”

As Jesus made his victorious entry into Jerusalem, as we celebrated this past Palm Sunday, he was greeted by huge crowds cheering shouts of “Hosanna”.  The people were greeting their King as the Pharisees stood by watching and despising Jesus for challenging their power and religious authority.  They knew the only way to quiet this threat was to kill Jesus.

After eating the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus lead them to the Garden of Gethsemane.  There he was deeply troubled, knowing what was about to happen to him, while his disciples fell asleep, leaving Jesus to suffer alone.   When Judas led the Roman soldiers and Jewish officers to identify Jesus and arrest him, Jesus did not run and hide.  Instead, he asks them directly whom they are seeking.  To their response: “Jesus of Nazareth” he replies, “I am He.”

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At this decisive response, the Gospel reports that Judas and the band of soldiers, officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees “… drew back and fell to the ground.”  Jesus repeated his question, “Whom do you seek?”  When they again responded, “Jesus of Nazareth” – Jesus replied, “I told you that I am he.  So, if you seek me, let these men go.”  Even as he allowed himself to be arrested, Jesus protected his disciples and friends.

Simon Peter then struck one of the high priest’s servants with a sword, cutting off his ear.  Jesus gently rebukes Peter saying, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). His words here echo his prayer earlier that evening in the Garden, when Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you.  Remove this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36).  These passages illuminate the dynamic between Father and Son.  Jesus, though himself God, was also a human being and experienced great suffering as he faced death, therefore he relied on the Father to give him strength to endure the sacrifice he came to fulfill.

Over the next several hours, Jesus is shuffled between various Jewish and Roman authorities – first he’s taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, then the headquarters of Pilate, the Roman governor, next he was sent to Herod, while he was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and finally back to Pilate for sentencing.  The political posturing and varied motives of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities meant that Jesus was seemingly caught in a political turf war.

However, as Pilate questions Jesus, it is once again clear that Jesus is fully in control of this life-and-death situation.  Starting at John 18:33, Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”  Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.  But my kingdom is not from the world.  Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

Jesus spoke the truth about himself and the coming Kingdom of God.  Pilate, and all of the Roman authorities and Jewish leaders, stubbornly held to their own definition of worldly power.  They were blind to the spiritual power that Jesus held.  There’s a somber juxtaposition between what the world views as powerful – money, military victory, fame, versus the ultimate power of Christ’s death on the cross.  To the Jews and Romans, crucifixion was the most shameful and degrading of deaths.  However, in full control of this worldly situation, God provided a complete and perfect sacrifice of his beloved Son, for us.

Trust in the Lord… Day by Day

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As I’ve grown over the past couple years, several similar prayers have arisen in my heart and mind.

At first, I asked God to keep me on the path of growth and to help me let go of my need for self-reliance and control.  More recently, I’ve been praying that God will help me to surrender and stay mindful of my neediness for Him.   I’ve also prayed that God would keep me from ever returning to that place of self-reliance and holding onto an illusion of control.

But then, I still experience this nagging feeling that I should be able to hold onto specific thoughts or ideas that will give me a sense of control and calmness.  If I could only come up with just the right way of thinking and understanding, I’d feel okay.

Sometimes I imagine God lovingly shaking his head at me: “Oh, Kelsey.”

Nevertheless, God has been faithful to answer these prayers, even though there are times I struggle against surrendering.  It’s like a version of “Be careful what you wish for…”

Be careful what you pray for, you may get it.

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Trusting God and being surrendered to his perfect will necessitates a letting go of my own understanding – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.   I presently have a deeper reliance on God and neediness for Him, but there’s still that human desire to elevate myself and my thoughts.

All of these anxious feelings boil down to my conflicting desires to trust in the Lord and simultaneously trust in my own understanding.  At times it seems I’m using the Word of God to help me recapture a sense of peace and calm, rather than truly relying on God and his Word and Sacraments as the very lifeblood they are.

This morning, after praying for God to continue to deepen my reliance on him, I listened to one of Pastor John’s sermons on Luther’s theology of the cross.  I then heard with new ears:

We are not yet one completely with Christ obviously, that’s true.  We strongly gravitate like zombies toward the flesh and that’s why the faith that Luther spoke of had to be renewed day by day and consciously and purposefully trusting the Lord. You cannot live today on yesterday’s faith. Faith in the gospel has to be renewed day by day, which is why he said, “Wake every morning, make the sign of the Holy cross and remember your baptism.”

How comforting to hear the Christian life being described in these terms! Having to renew ones faith on a daily basis stands in stark contrast to my foolish attempts to figure out just the right understanding, once and for all.

Renew your faith today.  You cannot live today on yesterday’s faith.

Sorrow and Gratitude

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In the past couple weeks, my family and friends have been through difficult times. There’s been pain, confusion, and sadness. I’ve felt helpless to do anything other than pray for peace, understanding, and comfort.

The thing that has emerged in my heart and mind is the deep connection between sorrow and thanksgiving, between grief and love.  As I’ve talked with dear friends about their losses, one of the first things I’ve found myself saying is, “Aren’t you holding your kids closer through this?”  It’s what I’ve done and continue to do when facing challenges, losses, and pain.

teoOur families and friends are precious gifts from God.  Holding on tighter, in thanksgiving for these miraculous gifts, seems like a fitting way to express gratitude for what we have.  Losing something dear makes us appreciate the frailty of life and cherish the blessings of our loved ones.

Between the births of Sienna and Mateo, I had a miscarriage.  During an ultrasound at six weeks, my doctor announced to Dennis and me that he wasn’t seeing what he should see.  There wasn’t a heartbeat.  It was awful.  We cried and mourned the life that we’d hoped to know.  Amidst the tears, the moment that stands out clearly in my memory was telling Dennis, “We’ll look back in five years and know that we had the children God meant us to have.”  Within the pain, there was hope.  And when Mateo was born, there was an enriched appreciation for the miracle of his birth.  I also clung to my precious daughter during those months of sadness.

Even in little ways, being a parent means we’re always holding grief and love together in a delicate balance.  Loving these children means we experience a degree of pain and loss when they transition through stages of life.  Having a seven-year-old daughter means I no longer have a two-year-old little girl.  That stage is in the past and (though we don’t spend much time dwelling on it), there’s a loss there.

kidsThen, in a more ultimate way, loving our kids opens us up to potentially devastating pain. You’ve likely heard the quote:

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ~Elizabeth Stone

Just the idea of something happening to your child is painful.  People who have lost children experience a grief that they never recover from.  That’s the price of love.  You can’t experience the depth of love without exposing yourself to potential (and actual) pain.

This balance of grief and joy was beautifully expressed in another article by Tish Harrison Warren:

When we lose our ability to lament, we aren’t left with unadulterated joy, but instead with stoicism and cynicism… Mourning and thanksgiving are not only not opposed to each other but often grow together, so intricately entwined that we can’t stifle one without killing the other.

In my experience this is very true. There’s a rawness and vulnerability to life that means we cling to God, our family, and dear friends for comfort and support. Personally, when I lose my ability to lament (through controlling my feelings and relying on myself instead of God), I also stifle joy, thanksgiving, and connection with others.

God knows this about humanity. His perfect plan did not mean we’d experience endless joy on Earth.  As Tish also wrote:

Our central practice in worship allows us as Christians to fully embrace the complexities of joy and grief together. The communion meal is, in many ways, a meal of sorrow. It reminds us of the crucifixion. It’s a broken body and blood of an innocent man. The scriptural words that introduce the Eucharistic liturgy begin, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed . . .” We start the meal with a reminder of our Lord getting stabbed in the back by one of his best friends.

And yet, the word Eucharist, which is the historic term for the Lord’s supper or communion, means “Thanksgiving.” It’s the Thanksgiving supper of the people of God, rejoicing in our salvation and redemption through Christ. Each Sunday when we take this meal, we hold together sorrow and joy and gratitude and lament. Our Christian worship invites us to wade into this complexity and let it be, belittling neither the brokenness or the beauty in our lives.  Because that’s where we encounter Jesus, who is as inseparable from our worship as gratitude and sorrow, as bread and wine.

This perspective was profound for me.  Letting this complexity be, without having to dissect and try to understand it.  Belittling neither the brokenness or the beauty in our lives. Feeling the pain, crying with a friend, letting it be.  Holding our children close, sharing and connecting with friends in need, loving one another.  Rejoicing in Jesus and the beauty he bestows on our lives.

In the end, my heart breaking for someone simply means I love them.

Yahweh, I Know You are Near

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The other day I found myself lost in my thoughts and prayed for peace and stillness.  As I gazed out at a vast view and finally quieted my mind – this hymn, that I haven’t heard in many, many years, suddenly popped into my head and I sang the chorus out loud.

Yahweh, I know You are near,
standing always at my side.
You guard me from the foe.images
And You lead me in ways everlasting.

Lord, You have searched my heart,
and You know when I sit and when I stand.
Your hand is upon me protecting me from death,
keeping me from harm. [Refrain]

Where can I run from Your love?
If I climb to the heavens You are there;
If I fly to the sunrise or sail beyond the sea,cropped-sunset.jpg
still I’d find You there. [Refrain]

You know my heart and its ways,
You who formed me before I was born,
In the secret of darkness before I saw
the sun in my mother’s womb. [Refrain]

Marvelous to me are Your works;
how profound are Your thoughts, my Lord.
Even if I could count them, they number as the stars,
You would still be there. [Refrain]

I looked up the lyrics because I could only recall the refrain and most of the second verse.  I discovered (oh the wonders of the internet!) that the composer of this Catholic hymn is Dan Schutte.  He also wrote one of my all time favorite hymns, “Here I Am, Lord,” also known as “I, the lord of sea and sky”.  How cool!

This song has been the soundtrack of my week.  I hope it brings you peace and stillness too.

Control, Pride, and the Emptiness Only God can Fill

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Over the past couple weeks I’ve been slowly letting go and accepting my thoughts and feelings.  Clearly control continues to be an issue for me.  Reflecting back on the past few months, I can see that, in lots of little ways, I’d pulled away from God and embraced my own illusions of control over my inner world.

I’d previously noted to pick up a book called, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry by Amy Simpson.  I ordered it last week and felt hopeful that it would have some helpful insights for me.  There were a couple lines that jumped off the page at me and a chapter that spoke to an aspect of my tendency to try to control the future that I’d never considered.

emptySimpson writes, “When we worry instead, we hold on to the idea that we must maintain control over things that are not ours… We elevate ourselves and our own responsibilities above God’s.  We diminish our own view of God’s capabilities.”  Wow.  I really related to the idea of maintaining control over things that aren’t mine to know or direct.  She then devotes an entire chapter to this idea of God’s area of responsibility versus ours entitled “The Future Belongs to God.”  This passage spoke to me:

“We have no claim on the future; we’re never there. God calls us to live in the present and gives us what we need to live in his strength, for “today’s trouble is enough for today” (Mt 6:34).  Worrying about the future means we at least partially ignore the gift of today and the calling we have to be in the place we are, with the people around us, in the circumstances we face in service to God… Essentially, we try to be like God, who is not bound by the constraints of time, as the earth’s original inhabitants tried to do when they kissed a beautiful temptation and found it tasted like bitter poison.”

With this new insight percolating in my mind, I specifically prayed for God to help me grow in knowledge of His power and my reliance on Him.  Shortly after this prayer, I headed out for a run.  When I went to find past sermons to listen to while running, I felt drawn to one of Pastor Brian’s sermons in his series of the minor prophet Habakkak.   I was literally stopped in my tracks when Brian shared a passage from the book Love Within Limits by Lewis Smedes:

“Pride in the religious sense is the arrogant refusal to let God be God.  It is to grab God’s status for oneself. In the vivid language of the Bible, pride is puffing yourself up in God’s face.  Pride is turning down God’s invitation to join the dance of life as a creature in his garden and wishing instead to be the creator, independent, reliant on one’s own resources.  Never does pride want to pray for strength, ask for grace, plead for mercy, or give thanks to God.  Pride is the grand illusion, the fantasy of fantasies, the cosmic put-on. The fantasy that we can make it as little gods, it leaves us empty at the center.  Once we decide to have to make it on our own, we are attacked by the demons of fear and anxiety. We are worried that we cannot keep our balance as long as we carry no more inside our empty heart than what we can put there.  We suspect that we lack the power to become what our pride makes us think we are…”

When I first started dealing with this illusion of control, the way I would describe it to myself and others was that I seemingly told God, “Thanks for all you’ve done for me.  I’ve got it from here.”   I honestly didn’t hear the pridefulness in that expression then.  I sure do now.  Brian also quotes Pascal’s famous declaration that there is a God sized hole in every man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator.   This God shaped void is why all of our prideful attempts to make ourselves “little gods” in control of our little worlds are doomed to lead to fear and anxiety.   We cannot fill the vacuum within us, only God can.

This idea of the emptiness that only God can fill is described beautifully in a moving article by Tish Harrison Warren that I’ve been reflecting on lately.  (I was introduced to this amazing writer through an article in our church newsletter a couple years ago.)  In an article from 2012 entitled “Lent: Emptiness, Fear, and Fullness” Tish writes:

“I have been reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to my daughter before she goes to sleep each night, one page at a time. This last week we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000. In it, the author writes about Jesus filling up emptiness. He filled up empty bellies because that’s what God does. He fills. He filled up the chaos of the empty cosmos with water and earth and zebras and pear trees.

Through that bedtime reading, God reminded me that he’s filling up my emptiness too. Those howling winds are calling out his name. The vulnerable places where I find fear are the very places that Jesus is willing to enter and fill until there is only room for love. The stillness I am seeking leaves space in me to be filled by Jesus. The empty isn’t empty if God enters it. And he is what my soul aches for, like a hungry belly grumbles for dinner right before a miraculous meal of fish and bread. That’s why I want to come into the wilderness — the lonely place — even though it frightens me: because Jesus is there. And where he is, fullness is.”

Today God made me aware of this connection between holding onto an illusion of control, being prideful, and ultimately that none of this activity could ever fill the God shaped hole in my heart.

God tells us to live in the moment because that’s the only place we can ever be.  And we can only be filled by God where we are.

Lord, please help me to quit trying to fill my God shaped void with anything other than you.

His Better Things

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As I’ve been reviewing some of my past writings here on Be Still and Know, I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of repentance and lowliness.  Why must I continue to struggle when I know that God calls me to trust Him and rely on His infinite goodness instead of depending on my human weakness?   Even so, as I’ve prayed for increased trust and acceptance, God has faithfully put his perfect Word in my path, sometimes with an uncanny relevance.

040A good friend gave me a daily devotional for Christmas called, Be Still and Know (but, of course!).  I haven’t been reading it consistently, until last week.   Last Friday, as my anxiety about not sleeping well recently was at its peak, the Bible verse for February 27th was Psalm 56:8:

You have seen me tossing and turning through the night.  You have collected all my tears and preserved them in your bottle!  You have recorded every one in your book.

The devotion went on to ask: “Are you an individual who has difficulty sleeping at night?  The harder you try, the more you toss and turn… During the dark night hours the tears fall. Our hearts may be broken.”  The author describes that David knew pain. In this psalm he is referring to a custom in ancient Persia and Egypt whereby tears were wiped from the eyes and cheeks of mourners and preserved in a tear bottle, which were often times buried with the person.  The devotion continued:

But sometimes God knows that for our own good He must remove something from our lives, something we may consider very dear. The tears may fall; we may not understand why, yet He does it for our good. However, He never removes anything from our lives without replacing it with something else.  It has been said, “Our broken things lead us to His better things.”  God comforts as no one else does. He understands as no one else does.

The thing I feel God removing from my life (again) is my sense of control over my feelings.  He is calling me to replace faith in my perceived control (over thoughts, feelings, sleep patterns, etc.) with faith in Him.  His better thing is Himself.

Likewise, it’s absolutely true that God comforts us and understands us, like no one else.  I shared my thoughts and struggles with a few people who love me, and even they had a hard time truly understanding my experience.  That’s when turning to God, who knows me and loves me best, brings great peace and comfort.

C.S. Lewis once said, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

We all have the thing we struggle with, the thing that keeps us from allowing God to hold that pinnacle place of worship in our lives.  Letting go is hard. Floating in the quicksand isn’t easy.  But, when we’re holding onto and trusting in anything other than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we’re not leaving room for His Better Things…

Himself.

Floating on Quicksand

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This past week has been a trying one.  As a good friend asked me the other day, “Is it hard being in that head of yours?”  Yes, actually.  Sometimes it is.

When I’m dealing with anxiety, there are so many rabbit holes of thoughts that I scamper down, only to realize that my reasoning has become circular and confused.  After indulging my thoughts for a few days, my mom helped me to acknowledge the simple truth: all of this mental activity was an attempt to control my feelings.  My “struggle switch” was in overdrive.  I kept trying to regain a sense of control over my thoughts and feelings.

serenity prayer crossYesterday I started to feel pretty hopeless because I’d reasoned that I couldn’t be trusted to use the acceptance strategies from The Happiness Trap without turning them into control strategies.  But then, after praying for guidance (once again), I realized that I hadn’t been actively accepting my thoughts and feelings or mindfully connecting with the moment much at all recently. In other words, the good mindfulness exercises I was thinking of abandoning were not to blame. Instead, I had once been in a place of acceptance and openness, but then somewhere I crossed over into trying to hold onto a sense of control over my feelings.

Along those same lines, yesterday I thought – “These strategies don’t seem to be working anymore.”  Ah, and there it is.  I’d been expecting this new approach to “work” at keeping negative feelings away.  Of course they didn’t work; that’s not what acceptance strategies were meant to do.

This morning, while on a walk with Claira, I prayed for insight, peace, and acceptance.  The next thought that jumped into my mind was “floating on quicksand.”  In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Harris provides this analogy for struggling with our emotions: “If you ever fall into quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can do.  What you’re supposed to do is lie back, stretch out, keep still, and let yourself float on the surface… This takes real presence of mind, because every instinct in your body tells you to struggle; but the more you struggle, the worse your situation becomes.”  He refers to this analogy again later, noting: “Lying back and floating on quicksand is both simple and effortless – yet it’s far from easy.”

Floating.  Stillness. Ceasing the striving.

I know it’s effortless, but it’s often a challenge for me to get to that point of surrender.

There’s a deep correlation between accepting thoughts and feelings and surrendering to God’s perfect will.  I’ve been praying the Serenity Prayer frequently –

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.

Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

As a Lutheran, we believe that Christ did everything that’s necessary for salvation.  Everything.  We are even gifted with faith as part of our baptism into the body of Christ.  Really laying hold of the fact that there’s nothing God needs from me to ensure my salvation in Him, has been a process in surrendering. I’m called to trust in him, not try to “figure everything out” on my own.

So, that’s where I am now, practicing floating on quicksand.

And trusting God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   I’m in good hands.