Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

A Prayer for Election Day

a-prayer-for-election-day

We were apprehensive about that election in 1994: the first democratic vote in South Africa’s history. There had been so much bloodshed leading up to that point, and I was just one of a throng of believers who prayed fervently as people cast their ballots. More often than not, I found myself praying 1 Timothy 2:1-6: for a government that would allow us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, so that the gentle work of God drawing people to know him could continue.

Today is election day in the USA, and again I am one of a throng of believers praying. This time, these are the words I keep finding myself praying:

Our Father, who is in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom Come,

Your Will be Done –

– on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins. Even as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

Deliver us from Evil.

For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are Yours.

Now, and Forevermore.

Amen.

Idiot Psalms (Scott Cairns)

Idiot Psalms

Idiot Psalms

1   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so, 
                     dimly apprehended in the midst 
                     of this, the fraught obscuring fog   
                     of my insufficiently capacious ken,   
                     Ostensible Lover of our kind—while 
                     apparently aloof—allow 
                     that I might glimpse once more 
                     Your shadow in the land, avail 
                     for me, a second time, the sense 
                     of dire Presence in the pulsing 
                     hollow near the heart.   
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline 
                     your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy 
                     of immolation, if You will. 
                                     2   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper 
                     of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent 
                     of energies both appalling and unobserved,   
                     do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen 
                     or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant   
                     to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,   
                     nor narrowing his affective sympathies 
                     neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. 
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue 
                     to enjoy my morning run among the lilies   
                     and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might 
                     delight in this and every evening’s intercourse   
                     with the woman you have set beside me. 
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness 
                     to roll out readily, accompanied 
                     by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,   
                     the idiot’s undying expectation,   
                     despite the evidence. 
                                     3 
       A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously   
                     slow to act, should You incline to fix   
                     Your generous attentions for the moment 
                     to the narrow scene of this our appointed 
                     tedium, should You—once our kindly 
                     secretary has duly noted which of us 
                     is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused, 
                     You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions, the discussions, the several 
                     questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots. 
                                     4   
       Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator 
                     of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing   
                     Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible, 
                     I find my face against the floor, and yet again 
                     my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart 
                     caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue. 
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire 
                     one day to slip my knot and change things up, 
                     to manage at least one late season sinlessly, 
                     to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
by Scott Cairns: Poetry (January 2009).
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

***********

I first heard this poem spoken by Cairns himself at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. I had never heard of Cairns, or the Idiot Psalms, and didn’t know what to expect. At first: it seemed snarky and pretentious, but then it began to hit uncomfortably close to home,

…. and I think: yes, this is no doubt how I sometimes pray, too. I start off self-important, asking for placations and blessings and if God would please just keep me comfortable. But, if I stay there long enough, at some point I become more aware of Him, aware that I’m rambling and asking for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. These lines stuck out to me in particular:

You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions.
I pray my own idiot psalms too, sometimes. And I am grateful that the Holy One who “endlessly attends our dreariness” is patient, loving, and knows we are little and young and self-absorbed, and yet he loves us still.

 

When God Hears Prayers in the Kenyan Dust

Loki and Grant Swanepoel were guests at our wedding just days before relocating to Kenya to serve as missionaries there. It has been my great joy to learn from them and support their efforts among the nomadic tribes of Northern Kenya: they are precious friends and faithful workers in the gospel: parents to four kiddos, leaders in their church, and fully committed to encouraging and training local pastors to be better equipped Bible teachers. In the way of missionaries , they have found themselves developing some mad skills: like repairing Land Rovers and water pumps. Also? Grant takes AMAZING photos. I asked Loki if she would write something for us. I’m so glad she did. 
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With President Obama’s recent visit to his ancestral home here in Kenya security measures were at an all-time high. Even the airspace around our Nairobi’s International Airport, Jomo Kenyatta, was closed for 72 hours. Having lived in Kenya now for more than 10 years of our married life, we have experienced our fair share of security concerns and a few narrow escapes. Friends and family of ours have been shot at. Just three months ago we had to be evacuated out of the area where we live and work due to a huge escalation in tribal violence.
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Writing home about these scary events is hard. We cringe especially for our parents,who have to hear about all this from a distance and can ”only pray” about it. Being a Mom of four myself, I can understand how hard it must be for my Mom and Dad to worry and  pray about yet another trip through bandit country. I always think that must have been the reason why God sent us an army once in answer to my parents’ prayers.
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Let me explain. During my parents’ second visit to Kenya , we were driving to Nairobi on the notorious Great North Road, which stretches from  the  Ethiopian border in the North all the way to the South. Sections of it have since been tarmacked, but we used to joke that the only part of the name that was true was ”North”, since it was definitely not great and not much of a road.
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We had been hearing reports of a UN vehicle that had been attacked by bandits on this road a few days before our trip. As we were driving down south to Nairobi, we ran into serious trouble with one of the shocks on our Landy. You guessed it, we broke down right by the place where the attack had taken place just a few days before. The front left shock turret  (a short of tower-like little part on top of the shock for those of us who are laymen) had completely torn off. We were pacing up and down on the side of the road and my Dad came to me to say ” We need to pray to find a piece of wire here next to the road. Maybe we can somehow tie this thing up and make it to the next town”.  I was trying to be calm and cheerful and make the kids comfortable on the kikoy (local wonder blanket/sheet used for everything) I had spread out for them on the desert sand under a thorn tree. I was even busier inside praying and scanning the bushes for possible attackers.
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A few minutes later a British army vehicle appeared on the horizon, followed by another one and another one and another one. In the end, we counted more than 25 vehicles. They were out in Northern Kenya to do maneuvers with the Kenyan Defense Force (they do training here). In the convoy there were two fully kitted out mobile ”garages” with mechanics at the wheel. They had every Landy spare known to mankind in there. Their trained mechanics got out, looked at our car and had it jacked up, new turret mounted and all back on the road again in a matter of minutes. My eyes were brimming with tears. My Dad walked up to me and said ”Here we were praying for a wire, and the Lord sent an army!”
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It was the one and only time that He did this particular thing for us. I think He  was demonstrating to my dear parents  that He is able to do whatever it takes to take care of us.
We live in times of shootings and insecurity on every side. I am not saying that God will, at all times, protect His own. He can, but sometimes He shows His glory in other ways too. For that day though I believe He wanted us all to know what can happen if one ‘just’ prays.
IMGP2659Loki Swanepoel is the wife of her favourite person in the world, and a missionary who is very thankful for the gospel, since she sees her own need for it daily. She is Mommy to a prospective electrical engineer, an aspiring knight, a perpetual sunbeam and a compassionate artist. You can follow their adventures on Facebook at Nomads Pulpit, and check out more of Grant’s incredible photos on Instagram at GrantsMind.
P.S. Note from Bronwyn: All photos in this post are subject to copyright and may not be copied without permission from Grant Swanepoel. You may think no one can see you… but remember, you are seen by the God who sees what happens on deserted roads in Kenya… so act in light of that, mkay?

What women want

I’m over at Ungrind again this week. Here’s a sneak peek – click over here to read the whole thing 🙂

WHATWOMENWANT1

I settled down at the table and watched my daughter compose her face in her “now-I-have-something-important-to-say” expression: eyes level, chin down, forehead hopeful.

She paused dramatically and in a butter-cream-smooth tone, said: “Mom, if you just gave us more of the things we want, there would be less crying and being angry with you.”

Reader, I literally snorted with laughter. I laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed until the tears streamed down my cheeks, infuriating my daughter more with each passing second. In hindsight, I probably should have laughed a little less.

I laughed because this was not the first time I was getting advice from my kids on how to do a better job as their mom. Not unlike the young tyrant from Calvin and Hobbes, my children are full of suggestions on how I can “improve my ratings,” or secure better responses from them.

In this particular instance, my 6-year old was angling for me to change my mind about whether or not she could have her ears pierced: a decision we had already said no to. She entreated us daily. For weeks on end. Sometimes with tantrums. Sometimes with stony silences. And on that particular day, she resorted to cool, calm reason. If we would just give her what she wanted, she’d be less angry with us.

Somewhere in the midst of that laughing, I felt the Holy Spirit tap me on the shoulder. Once again, He directed me to consider that panoramic vantage point into God’s parenting of us, His children, which we become privy to when we become parents ourselves.

(continue reading at Ungrind…)

A writer’s prayer for the new year

A Writer's Prayerfor the New Year

Lord God,

I need your help for the year ahead. I need the usual bucketloads of grace as a wife, mom, and friend, but I need your help as a writer too.

I need grace to overcome insecurity with confidence in your adequacy.
I need help to overcome jealousy of others with generosity of spirit.
I need help to cover enmity with encouragement.
I need your courage to speak truth in places where there is silence.
I need your insight to shine light where there is darkness.
I need your humility to make mistakes in public.
I need your love: to love You and to love those around me, whether we agree or not.

If writing is what you are calling me to do, let me write well and worshipfully. May my words be gracious and truthful. May your kingdom be represented on this blog, even as it is heaven. For whether many read this, or none at all – the power, the glory and the honor are yours. Now and forever. Amen.

 

photo credit: Catherine de Lange/istockphoto

Big, Brave, Badass Prayers

Please forgive my rude title.  Desperate people need desperate words, and my dictionary says “badass” means 1) tough or aggressive, or 2) formidable, excellent.

I mean it in the first sense, with all the brokenness and bewilderment that I can summon alongside it.

Because this prayer thing? I’m lost.  I’m bewildered and broken, and I’m finding that sometimes that calls for big, brave prayers. Badass prayers, even. Prayers that Psalmists prayed: laments, petitions, cries for deliverance.

It is one thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am alone. And it is another thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am in the company of other believers: I have learned the Christian etiquette of praying “thy will be done”. We cover all our bases: praying that things will get better, but then adding “but if they don’t, then please comfort us in our disappointment”.

However, it is another thing altogether to have found myself praying for pain and brokenness this past week in the company of beloved ones who don’t call themselves Christians and who don’t know the “cover all your bases” (by which we mean, cover all God’s bases for Him) type of prayers. To pray about situations with God-sized problems and which need God-sized answers in the hearing of someone who is not sure if God is even listening calls for a kind of faith muscle I’m not accustomed to flexing.  As Rachel Marie Stone insightfully pointed out, maybe it calls for the prayers of the Psalms and other Biblical figures, rather than the prayers of our protestant practice.

Something deep shifted in me, and I found myself praying big, brave prayers for specific relief in specific ways. I asked for huge relief, without adding the fineprint of  “but if you don’t do it…” clauses. And as my words came out loud, these words were whispered in my soul:

woman-praying-silhoutteOh God – SHOW UP here! DO SOMETHING!
Your name and reputation depends on it!
Please, show up, and show you are real and you care.
Stoke my faith, and light theirs into being.
Please, O Lord, Show Up!

I am simultaneously terrified and emboldened. I feel a little of the Psalmists’ pulse: a cry for deliverance, a cry for vindication, an appeal to God’s honor. I’m still praying make it count .  And I’m clinging to Jesus for an Amen.