On Forgiveness

Audrey As a parent, I often find that the struggles I see in my kids are a reflection of a similar struggle in me, because we are all human and our weaknesses are common to us all. Lately, when something bad happens, Audrey seems to always be looking for someone to blame. Just yesterday she was playing with Ben and Willa, jumping on the couch, and she somehow fell off. Her immediate exclamation was “I don’t know WHAT Willa did, but somehow she did something bad and I fell off and got an owie!!!” Hmmm….yes. Let’s just say the old, tired, Genesis story of “the woman made me do it!” and “the snake made me do it!” pretty much repeats itself every day in our house.

In discussing the pitfalls of the “blame game” with Audrey, I’ve tried all the tricks: “sometimes things are just accidents” or “blaming others doesn’t make anything any better” and on and on. After a whole lot of NOT success, one day I decided to just hit it head on, so we discussed Matthew 5:44.

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”

We talked about how even if we could blame someone for bad things, even if they really did do bad things to us, Jesus says to love and pray for even those people. Not only does it not help to blame others for our problems, but even if it really is someone else’s fault, we still need to forgive, love, and bless them. Following Jesus means letting go of the blame game, and extravagantly pouring out love on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That very evening, after I had so confidently taught Audrey from this passage, I myself was given an opportunity to practice it. How did it go, you ask? How did I respond? Well, let’s just say that loving your enemies is a LOT easier to preach than to practice. I will also say that I am thankful for the mercy and forgiveness of God, because I need it so constantly. I am regularly amazed at the malice and venom in my own heart, even if only expressed in my thoughts or to my spouse. The same violence I condemn in others resides in me, and if I do nothing about it I will be destroyed by it.

As I prayed the St. Francis prayer today, the last two lines particularly stood out to me. “…it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” Pardon and death are inextricably linked. In forgiveness, we have to die to whatever offense we’re holding. We have to die to the expectations we had. We have to die to truly pardon others. Our flesh-self, the self that sets itself up as more important than Jesus and his Way of forgiveness and sacrificial love, has to be crucified. It doesn’t mean the hurt isn't real, or even valid. On the contrary, the hurt is very real, but we have to acknowledge the only way to true healing is through forgiveness.

It feels rather satisfying to hold onto that anger just a little longer—trust me, I’ve been doing it! I keep saying, “Not right now. I’m just not ready, Lord. I’ll forgive, but not right now.” One of the beautiful things about God is that he’s patient, even when I’m throwing a 2 year old tantrum. It’s very clear that I’m doing what is decidedly NOT best, for me or anyone else, but he won’t come down with an iron fist and force me into anything. Even though he knows I need to get to point B, he doesn’t rush me or cajole me, or condemn me for my “late obedience.”

But it’s hurting me. Every second I choose to stay mad and clutch tight to my poisonous anger, it does more damage to my heart. The danger of holding out on forgiveness is that it quickly irritates and hardens my heart more, so that eventually bitterness will set in and it will become all the more difficult to forgive. In my foolishness, I somehow think it will get easier to forgive tomorrow, but it actually gets harder.

Lately as I pray The Lord’s Prayer through the second time in the morning, I pray “Lord make me a quick forgiver.” If I want to be an ambassador of God’s peace and love, I have to start by dealing with the violence in my own heart. It has to start with me. It will only happen by recognizing the malice and hatred trying to take up residence in me, and by flat-out killing it. I have to die to my own wicked desires for revenge and judgment. If I want to be shown mercy—and oh how I desperately need mercy—I must be merciful.

I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. It hurts to be wounded, and yet to slowly loosen your grip on the one who has done the wounding, to peel back your fingers one at a time and let go. But it hurts far more deeply to keep the wound bleeding and open, or infected and festering, holding onto every ounce of bitterness. When I do this, I’m only standing in the way of my own healing.

You see, Jesus is the Way. His life and death and resurrection shows us the way of true life. He went first, to be the example, and to show us the hope of his victory. He went first in death. He didn’t defend his rights, he didn’t try to justify revenge, or even bringing his offenders to justice. He had complete trust in God his father. He knew his Daddy, and he trusted not only his heart, but his ability to be his defender. He trusted God to put everything right and to justify him in the end. And because of that trust that led to his death, we now get see the power and victory of Jesus’ resurrection! God DID justify his son. God raised Jesus from the dead, showing the world who Jesus truly was, and where his meek, humble, sacrificial, loving way of life would really lead. Because Jesus is resurrected, we have the assurance that he WILL put the world completely to right again.

So when I’m working through forgiveness, I always spend a moment mulling over the resurrection, and the redeeming power of God at work in the world that will someday finally be complete. I know that all will turn out right in the end, because God is perfect, and God is coming to our rescue. He will not stand for violence and injustice, and someday it WILL all come to an end. So I can, with confidence, release my hurt and any injustice I suffer to him with the knowledge that he cares, that it breaks his heart, and he is doing something about it, even if I don’t see it right now this minute.

What also helps me is to humanize my offender instead of villainize them. It’s easy to try to see things as black and white, and to set yourself up as the good victim and the offender up as the literary “bad guy” with the black cat and the evil laugh. The problem with that is that we are all gray. None of us are completely good and none of us completely horrible. There are always two sides to every story, and no side is complete and perfect. So I visualize the person who has wronged me making their coffee, reading the paper, or even their Bible. They put their shoes on one at a time, like me. They burn themselves with the curling iron, like me. They have fears and insecurities, like me. They have been wounded, like me. Maybe their wounds or their insecurities cause them to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, probably like me.

The point is that we are all human and we all hurt each other, and the only way to get through this life and come out healthy is to forgive. Constantly, generously, and extravagantly. It will certainly look foolish to the world, but Paul told us that already:

“For the message of thecrossisfoolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

I thank God every day for the power of God, forgiving me and empowering me to forgive, and I pray I choose forgiveness daily.

On Prayer

As a parent, one of the greatest privileges and greatest challenges has been teaching my kids how to pray. Granted, Willa’s pretty young still and her prayers mainly sound something like this: “Lord, ahewahmisuMommaDaddyphiticahew…Amen!” But I still cherish the moments of seeing her eyes squinted shut, her hands folded (because Audrey told her that’s how prayer is done), and her tiny little voice parroting random words she just learned. Audrey is often reluctant to pray, but if we can convince her to pray out loud, I’m always amazed by what she has to say to God. If you want to better understand Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” then I recommend you start by listening to a child pray.

Audrey’s favorite prayer, however, is the one she learned when she was 3 years old at preschool, and it’s called “The Superman Prayer”. One cannot pray the Superman prayer with hands folded, because the Superman prayer is prayed with hands up in the air, as if one is flying like Superman, naturally. It is also not spoken, but sung, to the tune of…you guessed it—the Superman theme song. It goes like this:

“Thank you LOOOORD, for giving us food!

Thank you LOOOORD, for giving us food!

For the THINGS we eat,

For the THINGS we drink,

Thank you LOOOOOORD for giving us food!

Thank you LOOOOOORD for giving us food!

AMEN.”

Now, this was really cute the first time Audrey came home and demonstrated it at the dinner table. It became remarkably less cute when she insisted on doing it at a restaurant. In public. With full participation from everyone at the table. (Parenting, for me, has been one LARGE exercise in learning humility.)

If you were privy to my awkward and feeble attempts at explaining prayer to my kids, you’d probably be shocked at the clumsiness. Prayer is something I’ve spent most of my life doing, watching, and studying, and yet it is still a mystery to me. Communicating with a God we can’t see requires great faith and vulnerability, and yet, it is one the greatest sources of strength. I can’t tell you why some prayers go seemingly unanswered, while other very specific and outlandish prayers are answered definitively and miraculously. I don’t pretend to completely understand God, only to seek Him and to know Him a little more each day. And that’s why I pray.

I also pray because I am utterly and completely needy. No, really. I am simply not capable of handling life on my own. If you hang out with me for more than 5 minutes, that will become abundantly clear. I pray because my life literally depends on it.

Over the years, I’ve journaled my prayers because it helps focus my mind, and I love being able to go back and look at it later (Sometimes. Other times I’m reminded that if I die young, no one should allow my kids to read my journals until they are 21, and are also mature enough to handle the reality that their mom was a total psycho.)

Somewhere along the line, I developed the habit of writing in red whenever I felt God was speaking to me, and that is probably one of my favorite (albeit incredibly cheesy) aspects of my prayer life. For one thing, it stops my steady stream of thought, and forces me to consider whether that thought I just had was really from God. Is that what God would say? Is that in his character? Is it kind? Is it loving? I think that’s one of the things that helped train me to actually hear God’s voice. For another thing, I love being able to go back and quickly find what God spoke to me in different seasons. It’s those words in red that have carried me, challenged me, changed me, and grown me up.

A few months ago, I felt like my prayer life was staggering. Of course, as a mom of 2 young kids, I was still praying what the great mystics call the “breath prayers”. You know, the “Lord, have mercy” and “Come, Holy Spirit”, and “FOR THE LOVE HEEEEEEELP!” (What can I say? Tranquility does not come naturally to me, thus the desperate need for the spiritual practice of prayer in my life.) I was still attempting to get quiet on a regular basis, to acknowledge God’s presence, and just to be still and listen, but my mind just stopped cooperating. As soon as I closed my eyes and took the first deep breath, I would be viciously attacked. My mental to-do lists, my messy kitchen, my worries about the upcoming day and week, and my children would all choke out any effort at stillness and solitude I was trying to cultivate.

That’s when I knew I needed help. I’ve been practicing what some call “contemplative prayer” for years, but it had never been this challenging. For some reason, when I would try to sit in silence, I immediately felt inner chaos. Luckily, God anticipated this bump in the road, and provided a rescue just in time.

A few months ago, my husband attended a conference at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, and learned that the host, Brian Zhand, taught a prayer school periodically. Ben insisted we plan to attend together, and I readily agreed. I was absolutely 100% in favor of 2 whole days away from the kids in solitude learning about prayer.

The Prayer School was not only timely, but revolutionary. It has completely changed my life. I do not say those horribly cliché words lightly. Not only was it like a tall drink of water for my thirsty soul, but it provided me with tools for my wayward and horridly-behaved mind. He basically passed on to us his daily practice of prayer, and explained the “why” behind it. He challenged us to give his morning prayer liturgy a chance for the summer, and to evaluate it at the end of August. Well, it’s June 24th and I’m here to tell you I am amazed at what God is doing in me already.

Most of what was taught is Scripture, some of it from The Book of Common Prayer, and all of it feels like it is straight from God for me. As I pray every morning, I sense God’s nearness, I gain new revelation, and my soul is refreshed. I see the Holy Spirit at work in me, shaping me and transforming me as I internalize the words Christians have been praying for centuries.

The liturgy helps to train my heart and focus it in a Godward direction, so that when it comes time to pour out my own heart to God I’m able to do it in much fewer and more eloquent words. When it comes time to pray what’s in my heart, I recognize what emerges as more pure and more aligned with the character of Christ. The prayers also help me quiet my own thoughts, so that when it comes time to listen, my mind is trained in the ability to sit in solitude and true silence.

I’ve been taking notes, and I’m still journaling most days, so I imagine much of what I’m learning will emerge here on the blog. For now, I will say that if you feel stuck when it comes to prayer, there are tools out there to help. Start with the Psalms, and pray one every day. They cover the range of human emotion, and as you meditate and chew on the words, they will orient your spirit toward a fresh understanding of God.

My husband acommonprayer1nd I just celebrated our 8th anniversary. We commemorated eight happy, full, satisfying years of marriage covered in dirt and mosquito bites at a Dairy Queen in Motley, Minnesota. That’s another story for another day. But my thoughtful, generous, incredibly handsome, sexy…wait, what?! How did my mind go there? You see what I mean about my wandering mind. Anyway, my incredibly sweet husband gave me a small, carefully-wrapped package later that night. When I opened it, I of course began to cry. commonprayer2

I am discovering treasure after treasure, and I am basking in the deep well of prayers prayed by the many saints who have gone before me. If you’re curious about it, you can access it online for free here.

This has been much longer than I intended, but i’ll chalk it up to my husband being at the College World Series this evening, thus leaving me with way too much free time on my hands. If you’ve made it to the end, bravo to you, and good night. I have a date with my Bible and my anniversary present tomorrow morning, so I've got to turn in.

My Favorites

     It’s been far too long since I’ve written about books. It just doesn’t seem right, seeing as how they’re such a big part of my daily life. I read first thing when I wake up (after the coffee’s brewing, of course—let’s not be ridiculous), sometime throughout the day, and last thing before my head hits the pillow. I. love. to. read. My stage in life (aka constant interruptions from two constantly needy and noisy children) is not very conducive to my reading habit, however. Usually after the tenth time of having to reread a sentence to regather my train of thought, I throw in the towel. So I have to save anything that takes major concentration for when I get a little Starbucks date by myself, or when both kids are asleep.
     Lately I’ve been reading The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. It’s one of those that requires me to be “kid-free” while reading it, so I’m only on Chapter 6, but I can already tell it’s going to become one of my favorite books. Essentially it’s a book on being a disciple of Jesus in the truest sense of the word, which is what I want my whole life to be about! I’m learning so much and I’m being challenged in new and deeper ways because of it. I crave books that will force me to grow, and this is one of those.
     I’ve also been reading Shauna Niequist, whose writing I just love. She writes about ordinary life—about pain, joy, loss, celebration, and lots about food. She’s written 4 books and probably my favorite is Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table. Isn’t that subtitle delicious (no pun intended)? I connected so deeply with it because although I loathe cooking, as all my friends will tell you, I am a firm believer in the ministry of feeding people. I’ve always prayed that God would make me, my home, and my table a soft place to land for others. I want to be one of those people and my home one of those places where people feel safe, loved, and cared for. One of the places I experience God’s presence the most is around the table, sharing food and stories and deep conversations with the people I love. The table is special and significant, and Shauna beautifully expresses why. She has such a gift of expressing things we're all feeling, but in a much more poetic way than we'd ever be able to muster. She beautifully put into words the deep feelings I’ve always had about food, community, and sharing life with my family and community. It also has lots of gorgeous recipes. (I say gorgeous because they look like they’d be amazing if I actually ever made them, which is highly unlikely given my history. But if you are a foodie like my husband and enjoy cooking, I’m sure you’d love them.)
     For Christmas, I always ask for lots of books and this year my husband pre-ordered Shauna’s newest book, Savor: Living Abundantly Where You Are, As You Are. It was like Christmas all over again when it arrived on my doorstep in March! It’s a daily devotional that includes Scripture and a question to ponder at the end, which I’ve found to be good food for thought throughout my day. My morning routine is as follows:
Savor
I grumpily emerge from sleep to my RUDE alarm, press snooze 2 or 3 times (my poor husband), reluctantly lumber out of bed, wriggle into my robe, and bump down the hall like a blind bat to the kitchen. I put the water in the kettle to boil, grind the coffee and dump the grounds into the french press, and then bump back down the hall to pee. (Yes, you read that right. Coffee first, peeing second. Priorities, people.) Then I make my way to the kitchen, in a slightly less bat-like manner, to the now noisy kettle, and reach for Savor to read the day’s devotional. It's a great thing with which to fill my mind first thing in the morning, when my whole being is nothing but grumpy. And bonus, it's beautiful! I keep it in my kitchen for three reasons: 1) It's easily accessible as I make my coffee in the morning. 2) It also has recipes, so if by some divine miracle I ever decide to cook, the option of delicious recipes is close at hand. 3) It's beautiful, so it doubles as kitchen decor. As I may have mentioned a few times before, making my home look put together is not really my thing in this season, but this book on the shelf makes me feel like one little corner of my house has been blessed with the mojo of Joanna Gaines (of the hit HGTV show "Fixer Upper").
     So what have you been reading lately? What is speaking to you and teaching you?