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Giving Up on “Giving Up” for Lent

March 5, 2014

It has been a year of many small deaths for me.

Postpartum depression is death in a way; I feel like I’ve lost the old Aubry, and I often wonder if she’s coming back. As we prepare to move overseas this summer (Lord willing), I feel a sense of loss for my home culture, my family, my way of life. We have simplified our possessions again and again, we are constantly frustrated when we need something we used to have and now have to do without. I know, first world problems. My mother, wasting with dementia, slowly fades into a shadow of the person she once was. We’ve moved so often and I desperately miss faraway friends.

Then there are the tiny deaths that I’m almost embarrassed to write here because they seem so whiny. My kids’ nap schedules are erratic no matter what I do, and I’ve had to give up my expectation and reliance on a quiet moment each day, because those moments rarely come now. I know it’s a short season, but I can’t help but grieve the loss of my solitude that I need to thrive. For the most part, I’ve given up on blogging to make space for the million things I need to do to try to survive life with 3 kids, except when the occasional post boils up out of me and I have to write it out. For health issues I’m dealing with, my doctor has had me give up dairy, all grains, and sugar (basically the Paleo diet) while I heal. Is it okay to grieve over bagels and coffee with creamer? I’m shallow, what can I say?

So we come to Ash Wednesday, and my husband asks what we should do for Lent this year. And I almost can’t bear it. In years past, the giving up and making space has served as a profound reminder of the cross and enabled a deeper celebration of the resurrection. But I cannot bear it this year. I’m tired, and I see now that I’ve come to view God as a Taker.

This week, I got great news that I was not expecting–in fact, when I asked close friends to pray with me about it, I told them, “I’m not hopeful, and this will be hard for me to give up if that is asked of me. Pray that I would submit it to the Lord anyway.” I was sure that the Lord would not grant it to me precisely because I wanted it. What kind of a view of God is that?

But Lent isn’t about God being a Taker and a kill-joy. The entire season serves as a preparation and a sign-post for Easter: the ultimate generosity of God in providing Life to us. The ultimate mercy on the people He loves. How did my sinfulness get to center stage? How did I become convinced that because I was so undeserving that God would not grant me grace and good things? How did I push Him from the spotlight and place myself there?

So this Lent, I’m giving up on giving up. I am a sinner in need of mercy, and I have received it. God is a giver. This Lent, I am reflecting on the radical generosity of my God in Jesus Christ as we move towards the cross and the resurrection. With all my little deaths, I so desperately need a Resurrection this year. I want Him in the center–not my need, not my sinfulness, not my deaths. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

So take up your ashes today and repent over your sinfulness, and give up things to make space for worship and reflection and fasting. But let it lead you to the kind and generous Savior who conquered sin and its power, to the One who is generous beyond all we can ask or imagine.

Easter is coming!

 

 

When Life Went Dark and Jesus Became Clear

February 24, 2014

It turns out, it’s not the best idea to blog about your postpartum depression, then quit blogging for a few months. I’m alive, I’m emerging from the darkness, and I may start writing again. Sorry for those I worried.

It’s interesting, when you go through times of suffering, how clearly you see some things, though everything else fades out of focus (like: how to eat, do laundry, get dressed, etc.)

I have several years of formal theological training behind me, on both the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels. I know my Bible, I can pick out a heresy from a mile away, and I constantly think on various theological issues (and often wrestle through them here with you).

And suddenly, when my hormones went crazy on me, everything went dark and yet, several things became very clear.

I know my Bible. But I don’t know Jesus very well.

And I’m tired of this chained life, friends. I’m tired of endless Bible studies that equate knowing Bible trivia with spiritual maturity. I’m tired of the “spiritual milk” being basic facts about the Bible, and “spiritual meat” being lessons that include the Greek words and cultural background. I’ve gorged on this “meat” and I still don’t know Jesus well. I’ve followed many teachings of the Bible and tried to conform my life to Scripture but I still don’t know Jesus well.

How is it that believers in persecuted areas have little to no Scripture in their possession, perhaps a scrap of a chapter, no seminary training, and they know Jesus far better than I? How is it that they give their lives in courage and trust, that they bring their children into the life of Jesus though they know it will cost them everything, when I struggle through trivial things? They know Jesus better than I do.

I grieve at the years of pride over my training, thinking myself a good mentor or teacher to others.

I grieve at the Church culture that perpetuates this thinking.

And I don’t care anymore.

Just give me Jesus.

Suddenly, learning to pray has become the top priority for me. I’m fumbling and figuring it out, and it is growth for me that I no longer feel like I need the perfect words or a good prayer record or even great motives to come back to Him each time. I come as I am, I’m accepted as I am. And I’ve been changed in the process.

I am sad that while I’ve had so much training in Bible interpretation, in presenting the Gospel, in thinking theologically, I’ve had miserably little training in prayer. I’ve even gone through entire Bible studies and books on prayer and still only spent 5-10 minutes each time in actual prayer! How does this happen? Nearly every Christian I’ve ever known has admitted (with a laugh!),”I struggle to pray. I’m not very consistent in my prayer life.” Why do we accept that we’ve cut ourselves off from Life? We admit prayer is important but give it little focus–betraying our true belief that prayer is not really all that important.

And how are we taught? Do our churches meet for intensive, true, begging prayer? Do we have mentors who teach us to pray as fervently as they teach us to study the Bible or defend the faith? Do we push “pause” on the hectic day to find a closet or grab our kids and huddle on our knees and ask Jesus to break in? Do we ever consider the discipline of simply being with God?

I constantly wonder at our spiritual anemia, though we have endless Bible studies and full freedom. What is it that holds us back, what would it take to propel us into full-fledged Life? And it’s this, friends: we are pursuing knowledge about Jesus instead of Jesus.

We are teaching kindness and good leadership skills instead of pushing people into Jesus.

We are nitpicking over whether this Greek word means this connotation or that (and they are practically the same thing), instead of asking Jesus to help us submit our whole lives to Him.

We are preaching that the foundation of our faith is up to Jesus, and the rest we figure out on our own as we try harder to be better and nicer.

And it could not be more clear that we do not understand Jesus.

We cling tightly to our rights, our freedoms, our pursuit of happiness, though Jesus gave up His glory as God to die a humiliating death on behalf of those who nailed Him to the cross.

We panic when the money or the health or the clothes or the food isn’t there, when Jesus spoke specifically about those exact things, that our security is not truly found in those things, but in God who provides and loves and cares for us.

We hang on to our possessions and grasp for more, not believing that Jesus could ever have really meant for us to have true, radical generosity like the widow with her last two mites. We cannot imagine that having Him is really enough. We go away sadly like the rich man who kept all the commandments but clinging to his stuff, missing the point that in Jesus are all the riches of all the world, if we will just wait and trust.

We avoid danger and risk and persecution and hardship when the model of our Savior is suffering, is dying for others, is loving enemies unto death, is living upside-down in a world devoid of peace, love, and self-denial.

I  let go of my former perception of spiritual maturity, and I now see so clearly how I am such a baby.

But I feel unchained.

And so all I know to do is pray, and to take the bread and the wine in faith and receptivity and gratitude, asking Him to impart His life to me and make me new.

I see now that knowing about Jesus’ character, knowing these stories and his teaching, will not imbibe me with enough willpower to become like Him. And I no longer want to teach others this way. Our only hope is taking His life for our own, begging Him to transform us and do the work we cannot do on our own.

He is the Vine, we are the branches. Why do we cut ourselves off and try to make our own vine of our lifeless sticks of wood?

The Advent Lament

December 13, 2013
Kujota via Flickr

Kujota via Flickr

I feel at home in the long Church seasons of Advent and Lent. The waiting, the yearning, the longing for the Savior and his Resurrection.

This is my third round of postpartum depression in 4 years, and the worst I’ve had it. The unbearable sadness and nothingness is heavy these days, and trying to summon up the energy needed to care for three kids under 5 and their little disasters is a gargantuan task, especially on so little sleep. The never-ending tasks of laundry, dishes, cleaning, cooking crater me down further, giving me this sense that I’m not accomplishing anything because nothing ever stays done.

I’ve started teaching myself to crochet this week, and I’ve noticed that it helps. The repetition grounds me: hook, yarn over, pull through. Hook, yarn over, pull through.

I’m at home here in Advent, in the waiting for a Messiah. 400 years of silence, exile, and longing for vindication: this is my sphere. There is a rich tradition of lament in Scripture, often pushed out of the way by our discomfort with things like death, sadness, and anything that doesn’t wreak of “joy.” We expect ourselves and others to be happy about the death of loved ones, to rejoice as Paul did in suffering, to find the silver lining before we truly look at the horrors around us. I’ve become so good at pushing aside true emotion and grief until it overwhelms and consumes me.

I’m here in Advent, in the waiting, crying out with the saints, “How long, O Lord?” I cry for No Reason or for All the Reasons, tears dropping straight into my yarn, hook, yarn over, pull through. “Will you forget me forever?”

I pass right over Paul’s rejoicing in prison and persecutions because I’m just not there yet, and head straight for the lamenting psalms, for the entire book of Lamentations. Some of it is just hormonal imbalances and some are true mournings for what I’ve lost and what I’m losing. I follow the lead of Lamentations and dwell in the details and complaints, crying out to God to Look. Look at what is happening! Things are truly bad and I can’t get through them! Will You forget me forever?

I’m at home in Advent because even God allowed time for Israel to grieve and mourn and suffer. 400 years of silence from God, of wondering whether the promises were still true for them, of waiting for something to happen. I’m lamenting because suffering with a smile only led to dishonest prayer before an all-seeing Father, who wants us to come as we are anyway.

And the hope of Advent is that it won’t be my home forever. A Messiah is born. God is with us. Not just far off feeling sorry for us, not sending a greeting card from the Throne to say “Get well soon!” He has come. He has come to make it all new.

He will make me new.

There is a time for lamenting, waiting, grieving. There is room for it here, as we push on towards the Day. Advent is the time for those of us who wait.

In the waiting, my crochet hook keeps working, doing the mundane repetitions over and over, knowing faithfulness and perseverance will get me through to the end. Hook, yarn over, pull through. I go to church and small group and sing the songs of victory and rejoicing not to be fake, but to remind me of the True Reality. “A people walking in darkness have seen a great Light, on those living in the land of darkness, a new Light has dawned.”

I feel the walking in darkness, but the Light has come into the world.

I’m waiting for Him this Advent.

 

Are you lamenting this Advent?

How can the Church affirm Christians in the grieving process, rather than stifling them?

Bearing the Burdens

December 12, 2013

bFriends,

A dear friend of mine is in the midst of financial struggle. She’s had a lot of transition and not a lot of stability the last few years. She is in horrific pain from a wisdom tooth coming in sideways. I saw a picture and it looks so awful. She has been quoted $400 to remove it, but she cannot come up with the money quickly, and cannot get a loan for it. She has no plan but to pray God will help her bear it.

Often, God answers our prayers by mobilizing the Church. We can bear her burden as our sister. You guys. $400 is nothing to the Body of Christ. I wish I could just pay it all for her, but I’m not in a position to do that either. But I can do some and maybe you can, too?

Can I tell you about her? I promised I wouldn’t use her name because she is mortified to even need help. This is because she is the type of person who will give you everything she has without question, so it’s hard for her to be on the receiving end. I’ve known her for about 15 years. She is so generous, so caring, so kind, so loyal. She is the kind of friend you wish for.

No one should have to bear this pain and risk serious infection because she can’t afford a simple and relatively cheap medical procedure.

I know it’s Christmas. I know you’re being pulled ten different directions. No Sarah McLauchlan puppies. Here before you is a genuine, tangible need that you could be part of providing for. Here is a way of giving your cold neighbor one coat if you have two. Can you do $10? $20? The whole thing?

Here is a link to donate securely through PayPal. You can decide the amount.

Also, my heart is so heavy for my friend. She is discouraged and tired and in a lot of physical pain. Could you pray for her and let her know you did in the comments? Can you encourage her?

I’ll let you know when we reach our goal! Let’s send this girl to the dentist…FAST!

**UPDATE 8:37am: We’ve raised $150! Thank you guys! Keep it up!!**

11:04…$285! So close! Thank you!

11:13am…$305!!

 

**Update. We did it! We’re at $400! Thank you so much for your generosity! I am blown away by you guys. She was just crying over all this this morning, unable to believe how yesterday she felt so hopeless, and today she is able to schedule the extraction. I’m leaving the donation link up, in case you would like to bless her beyond the surgery as she gets her feet under her. You all have been Christ to her today. Thank you, precious friends. You’ve healed my heart a bit, too. Bless you.**

Holy Ground and Red Candles

December 11, 2013
DaveHudPhoto via Flickr

DaveHudPhoto via Flickr

A few years ago, my grandparents took me to tour the Subiaco Benedictine Abbey that was not far from my home in Arkansas. As a Christian Studies student at a Baptist liberal arts university, I was fascinated with the history and symbolism of it all. My grandmother is Catholic, and I had been to Mass with her many times throughout my childhood, but always with a posture of defense: “Oh, we don’t do this. I’m not comfortable with that. I can’t drink the wine, it has alcohol. I’m Protestant.” I was pretentious.

This time, however, I was eager for my grandma to teach me.

Every picture and object had been carefully placed. Each was a symbol or had a story. I drank it all in, as my own Baptist roots were parched for an ancient connection – connections that seem to get lost in the search for “relevance” or being “seeker-friendly.”

A single red candle was lit in the front of the room, glowing in a sacred and eerie way, and I asked my grandma what it meant. She explained that it represented the presence of Christ. The bread and wine had been blessed by the priest, and had become the actual body and blood of Christ. We were on holy ground, and the red candle stood there to make us aware.

And we were aware. We kept our voices low, our heads slightly bowed, our wet shoes from making loud scuffing noises on the marble floor. We moved slowly and contemplated much more than we spoke.

(As a disclaimer, I don’t believe in transsubstantiation – the miraculous turning of the bread and wine into the actual body of Christ. I do believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sacred remembrance of the death of Christ in our place.)

But we, even Protestants, need those red candles in our lives – reminders of Christ’s presence in our worship and in our daily lives. Perhaps not a literal red candle, but some reminder-object that draws us to remember that through the Holy Spirit, we have the true and real presence of Christ among us. We need a solemn moment in the day to bend the knee and bow the heart in a posture of humility and quietness, because Someone holy is in our midst.

Safely Home by Randy Alcorn is a story about a Chinese family’s life of persecution by the state. This particular family had a beautifully carved, throne-like chair in their small home that no one ever sat in. They would sit on the dirt floor if there were not enough chairs when guests were there, still leaving the chair empty. At the end of the book, we find out that the chair had been carved for Christ, and that He alone was to sit there. They would pray aloud sitting beside it, cry with their heads where Jesus’ lap would be, and honor His presence in their home with the Chair as a visual aid. It was a way for them to invite Christ into their homes and to remind themselves of His constant and caring presence.

It’s far too easy to go through the motions of church-worship without acknowledging the presence of Christ among us. The stage full of musicians serves as a visual focal point; services are full of noise and loudness and a distinct lack of listening; prayer serves as a segue to another event rather than a main event. After all, people might get bored praying.

So in our prayerless home and work lives, we fail to seek and savor the presence of Christ that is very real among us. We cannot seem to disconnect ourselves from technology, people, and to-do lists long enough to know Him.

If I sound preachy, it’s because I’m preaching to myself.

I have begun my quiet times by lighting a candle. It isn’t red; it’s just one that I had. Before praying or reading Scripture, I just sat in wonder on the holy ground. Christ, dwelling in me. Urging holiness into me not by scolding or preaching, but simply by being with me. The time spent there is love and speechlessness and awe and humility and grace. Always grace.

And of course, my quiet times are anything but quiet–I have 3 kids under 5. But He meets me there, in the chaos.

Maybe you don’t need a candle or any other daily, physical reminder of the presence of Jesus.

But maybe you do.

Do you have a way to remind yourself that Jesus is near?

Power Overturned

December 9, 2013

JAS_photo via Flickr

JAS_photo via Flickr

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the incarnation this Advent, how God enters into our mess and our pain, shows us what God is like, and speaks hope to the world. 

Philippians 2 is one of those passages I end up in a lot, probably because I have a tendency towards pride and grasping at power:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

There’s this downward movement of Jesus, down from Glory, down to a servant, down to death of the lowest and undignified kind. It’s the ultimate stooping, the God of Life cratering down to death on a cross.

And then an upward movement because of the downward. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place, name above all names, where the rest of creation is bowing low to Jesus.

And I look at our ideas of power, of victory. We grasp at power, at success, at a better reputation, at being more and doing more. If the Body of Christ doesn’t reflect this downward movement of humility, can we ever say we are like Jesus?

Can we let go of our need to fill the pews up and be known as The Church To Go To in Town, and instead bow our knees to the Almighty?

Can we let go of big programs and productions and newer, bigger, better things and serve the poor, the widows, the homeless, the Lost, the people we don’t think are worthy of our love and service? Can we let go of our big things to do small things like meeting one-on-one with a younger believer and showing them what Jesus is like and how to follow him?

Can we stop grasping at what we think we’ve earned through hard work, what we think we deserve, and use all that we have as God intended–for His glory and His purposes?

Jesus is our example that the great victory is in sacrifice; that the roaring Lion of Judah is really a slaughtered Lamb (Rev 5:4-6). That power is obtained through bowing low. The world as we know it is upside-down; what we think is Power and Strength and Wisdom is really weakness and foolishness.

I want to make downward movements this Advent, as Jesus did. I want to see the Church bowing low together.

How can we do this?

What examples have you seen of this?

Crying Out for Advent Peace

December 5, 2013
Copyright @ madssj via Flickr

Copyright @ madssj via Flickr

Fourteen years ago, I stood before the church Advent wreath beside my mother. Diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given mere months to live, she had been asked by our pastor to light the candle of Peace. Clearly undergoing an internal struggle with peace, my mother asked me to do it instead.

So there I stood, shaking with this candle before hundreds of piercing eyes, full of pity. Pity for this young, dying mother of five children. Pity for the weeping, trembling teenaged acolyte. Pity for the cruel irony of a suffering family lighting a candle of Peace.
Miraculously, my mother survived the cancer and lives to this day. But the delay of her death did not bring peace. She is not whole. Her personality radically changed, and my father engaged in a string of affairs before leaving her. She now suffers from dementia. She often forgets the names of my children, or that I have children. She is rude and abrasive. Her skull has been riddled with infections and much of the bone has been removed, so that her head is caved in on one side, posing a constant danger from falls. Her finances are a mess, and she is bound to an assisted living facility. She is constantly in surgery or in the hospital.
She is no longer the mother who once stood with me before that candle of Peace.
Sometimes I ask the Lord whether it might have been easier if she had gone with the cancer, as she should have. I wonder whether we would know more peace had she died. No divorce, no heart-wrenching dementia, no back-taxes, no more life-threatening surgeries. Would the pain of a quick death be more bearable than this insufferably long death?
We pray for peace this Advent because we are a people ignorant of peace.
It took many years, but I realize now the wisdom in the pastor’s decision to have us light this particular candle. As we celebrate the first coming of Christ, we remember why He came – to make right what sin had broken. Because of Christ, we have the in-breaking of a Kingdom of Peace, which will come to fullness at the Second Coming of the Son. Advent is a season of remembrance, but also a season of anticipation.
We assume all the wrong things will bring peace. All our lives, we have known death. Betrayal. Lies. Divorce. Insufficiency. Poverty. Suffering. War upon war. We are hopeless, helpless, unable to do enough or be enough. We reach for peace through ceasefires and negotiations, vaccinations and surgeries, generosity and trying harder. But our reach cannot go far enough. We need the Prince of Peace to come to us.
And He has.
Advent is a time of quiet peace as all the hope for restoration lies bundled and squirming in a manger. This Immanuel has come to live among us and suffer for us – a people who know suffering well. He has left His Spirit to groan and cry out with us for peace, to empower us to be peacemakers, to be our deposit for perfect peace.
So if you’re crying out for peace and wondering whether you can truly celebrate the coming of the Christ during a season of suffering in your life, please light that candle of Peace. Be still and wait. He is coming again, bringing life and resurrection.
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
Originally posted on Adam S. McHugh’s blog.
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