A Prayer for Those in Need of Goodness and Mercy

Whenever I am invited to pray in public, I try to post those prayers in this space. Sometimes, people ask me for a copy and this is the easiest way to make that happen. In our church community, we find ourselves in a surprising season of discord and misunderstanding. We’re working on it! And the sermon for the day helped, as did the song that just preceded this prayer, “Psalm 23,” with the chorus that begins with, “Surely goodness, surely mercy” Yes, indeed. Please, Lord. (Our primary teaching text was Zechariah 8)

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Oh, Good Shepherd, we gather together in this place,
at this time in our history and in the history of the world, to acknowledge —
out loud and with all of who we are —
that we stand in need of goodness, we stand in need of mercy.
Every last one of us as individuals, and all of us together as your people at Montecito Covenant Church. All of us.

We need to remember, and to give thanks for, the truth that You are on our side,
even though the valley be dark and the way ahead, uncertain.

Lead us, O Lord, into green pastures. Restore our souls, refresh us with the water of life, remind us that we belong to You, and remind us that You are good.

Even as we acknowledge that goodness in You, O God, we must also own the truth that we are sometimes not so good.

We step on toes, 
we say harsh things,
we talk about others when they are not present,
we make judgments with incomplete facts,
we make assumptions,
and stand on entitlement,
and fail to practice grace and peace.

Forgive us, O God. Forgive us. And help us to forgive one another, too.

The climate in the world around us right now is not particularly conducive to forgiveness, nor to goodness and mercy. So it seems even more important than usual that we — as members of Christ’s body — practice what we preach. Will you help us to do that, please?

The text before us today reminds us of some of those things we preach, and we need to hear them, we really do. Bless Pastor Jon as he brings us your word for today. Give us ears to hear, O God, give us hearts to understand, and give us feet that walk out that truth into our world, beginning with the patio, and then the lunch tables we will share together a little later today. May your grace and joy infuse every conversation, guiding us into wisdom, and good decision-making.

Most of all, Lord God, will you help us to let your goodness and mercy inform what we say and do in our day-to-day living? That is not always easy for us. Some of us are in the throes of deep grief during these days of summer —

loved ones die,
relationships dissolve,
circumstances take a nosedive,
hard decisions must to be made,
ugly voices rise to the top in too many dialogues,
children suffer,
politicians seldom tell the truth,
poverty of all kinds surrounds us,
wars never end.

To us, the world feels a shambles, and we forget about goodness and mercy.

But we are not YOU, O God. Help us to look around us and see what you see — a world in need. . . yes. But a world that is also deeply loved, a world held in place by a Good and Merciful Sovereign, a world in which we are invited to partner with that Good Sovereign in the necessary work of restoration, reconciliation, recovery, and renewal.

We give you thanks this day for the evidence of that good work in the lives of those graduating from Bethel House and the Rescue Mission last night, celebrated right here, in our sanctuary. And we give you thanks for the changed hearts in thousands of teenagers, including some of our own, who were at the CHIC conference in Tennessee this past week. Thank you!

Bless and encourage every hurting heart in this room, O God. And use each of us to make that blessing real. Help us to be good neighbors — to each other, and to all those we meet day by day. Because everybody, from the grocery clerk to the rude driver behind us, needs a little goodness and mercy in their life, too.

They need the truth that we already know: that all of us belong to you — every last, mixed-up, weird and wonderful one of us.

Glory be.

In the name of Jesus — who loves us, who died for us, and who, by the power of the Spirit, was raised to new life, the One who dwells today in the church, including this one, in that name, we, together say,

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

A Beautiful Book — Book Review: “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey

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Those of you who subscribe to my monthly newsletter already know that this one was on the top of my to-be-read pile as April began. It took me exactly ONE DAY to read it, and I am re-reading parts of it regularly.

This book is the real deal. Combine a tender heart with a first-class brain, a fierce streak of independence with a humble desire to yield, add to that a stubborn commitment to do it right and do it well, what do you get? Hilary Yancey.

She is young — younger than my eldest grandson. She is SMART — working toward a PhD in philosophy at Baylor. She is a wife and mom — married to author and soon-to-be Anglican priest, Preston Yancey, and mom to Jack and June (short for Junia). Over and around all of that is this truth: she is a force to be reckoned with. Also? She is an earnest, open, willing-to-admit-questions-and doubts follower after Jesus. 

She writes beautifully, with a lyrical style and startling honesty. They tell me poetry and philosophy often go together and this book makes me believe that, big-time. “Forgiving God” is the story of Hilary’s first pregnancy, just six months into marriage. This particular journey into motherhood was difficult, mystifying, troubling, terrifying and ultimately, salvific. It is both humbling and inspiring to see how she and Jack not only survived a troubling pregnancy and a 43-day stay in the NICU, but somehow managed to triumph over every setback, every complication. 

At what was thought to be a routine 18-week ultrasound, her son Jackson was diagnosed with a rare and severe facial deformity. With each week that passed, her now high-risk pre-natal care visits brought more and more difficult news. Teetering between praying for a miracle and trying to learn all she could about how to deal with what could come for her newborn boy, Hilary takes us into her own dis-ease, disappointment, and wonder. She also shares with us some of the pieces of her journey as a graduate student, eloquently positing big ideas about God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge. She does both — the personal story-telling and the philosophical musing — exquisitely well.

I am grateful for this book because of its beauty and power as a ‘good read.’ More than that, I am grateful for it in my practice as a spiritual director. I meet regularly with friends who are dealing with all kinds of issues, some of them extraordinarily difficult. Hilary’s thoughtful, intelligent, and ultimately hopeful words have already helped some of us find solid ground in the midst of what often feels like very fluid terrain.

This is a memoir that is a gift to read — and to re-read. I highly recommend it. Buy it, give it away — and then write a short review at as many places as you can think of. Hilary is not doing the usual big promotion push, so any help we can offer would be grand. 

Undone: SheLoves — February 2018

Well. The theme this month is “hidden,’ and what came out of my fingertips surprised me. True confessions time, friends, that’s what this one is. Start here and then click over to SheLoves to finish reading and to tell me about how you choose to come out of hiding . . .

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In my therapy session this week (yes, I talk to a therapist every week, have done so for 25 years), the word that emerged was this one: ‘undone.’

Exactly right.

The entire session had felt like a chaotic purge of some sort, one story after another, tumbling out, seemingly unconnected. And yet, as she so often does, at the end of it all, my therapist said to me, “Diana, you are talking today about things that are undone, starting with yourself.”

Ouch.

SO on target, and exactly what I needed to hear. Over the course of my L O N G years of living, I have learned that it often takes this kind of unfettered babbling for the underlying truths of my life to emerge. Why? I think it’s because much of the time, we are hidden people, tucked away, even from ourselves, and turning the spigot of story-sharing to ‘on’ loosens the fences we have built. This is especially true when we are feeling under siege, which has been my default mental setting for many months now. Hard thing, after hard thing, after hard thing — and as I have struggled to make sense of it all, I retreat behind this huge, self-protective bunker.

Sometimes that kind of hidden is a good and necessary thing. When life goes crazy, we need to marshal our resources and hunker down. Pulling in every excess emotion and lining them up in a safe place enables us to more forward, offer help, stand next to others who are fighting similar battles.

But in the long haul, remaining hidden becomes a liability, not an asset. We need to come out from behind the barricade and take a good, long look at everything that is happening — outside of us and inside of us. And for me, this week, that meant admitting that way too many things in my life are in a state of undone-ness.

There are at least two ways to define that word, seems to me. Undone in the sense of incomplete, and undone in the sense of unraveled. Both are true for me — and my guess is, for most people — at multiple points along this journey called life. There are projects to complete, relationships to tend, ideas to make real. And then, there are people in terrible trouble, decisions that cause chaos, and situations that appear hopeless.

Incomplete and unraveled, yea and amen. That is me right now. . . 

Follow this link to continue reading and to join the conversation . . .

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers: Day Sixteen

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Psalm 126, NRSV

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

This psalm is one of the loveliest pieces of writing I have ever read in my life. Look at some of those phrases — “like those who dream,” “mouth filled with laughter,” “may those who sow in tears, reap with tongues of joy.” And that image of the heartbroken carrying only seeds and then returning with shouts of joy and sheaves from the harvest? Gorgeous!

This is our promise, my friends. This is it. All the tears we have shed, do shed and will ever shed, will be transformed into beauty. Into shouts of joy. Into laughter! We get to peek into that joy from time to time, right here where we live now. But then? Oh, yes! It will happen in full technicolor! 

Thank you for technicolor promises, God. Thank you for your ongoing work of redemption, in which even our tears are transformed into shards of laughter and joy. Thank you for the ways in which that happens in the here-and-now. And thank you for the promise of a whole lot more of it to come in the hereafter. Yea and amen!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Fifteen

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Philippians 3:7-11, The Message

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.

I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

You do know that Paul doesn’t actually say, ‘dog dung’ here, don’t you? Nope. He uses a flat out swear word. Yes, he does. But we have sanitized it — to our loss, friends. To our loss. There are some things in life for which there is no more suitable word than a swear word! And this is a prime example of exactly that. Everything of value in this world is pretty much worthless in comparison to the riches that are ours because of Jesus. Now that does not mean that the things of this world are worthless. Far from it, truth be told. They are worth so very much, that Jesus came walking right into the middle of them, to redeem and save them. But in comparative terms? Well, yeah. If you pile up all the beauty, wonder, achievement and success of the human race next to the Savior? Pretty much, it’s dog dung. (Stronger word allowed!)

Thank you for the reality of Paul’s language, Lord. For the depth of his insight and for the wonder of who you are. You came to us, you love this place we call home and yet . . . you are so much more. So.Much.More. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Thirteen

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Isaiah 4:2-6, the Message

And that’s when God’s Branch will sprout green and lush. The produce of the country will give Israel’s survivors something to be proud of again. Oh, they’ll hold their heads high! Everyone left behind in Zion, all the discards and rejects in Jerusalem, will be reclassified as “holy”—alive and therefore precious. God will give Zion’s women a good bath. He’ll scrub the bloodstained city of its violence and brutality, purge the place with a firestorm of judgment.

Then God will bring back the ancient pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and mark Mount Zion and everyone in it with his glorious presence, his immense, protective presence, shade from the burning sun and shelter from the driving rain.

When these words were penned, the author had no thought of Jesus. Or what we have come to call, “the second coming.” Others, looking back at them in light of Jesus, have given them that weight. They are surely prophetic, but most likely meant to describe something that would happen within the more near future at the time they were put down on papyrus.

But here’s the thing about prophets and prophecy — they don’t always know the import of their own message. Today, we read this and think, “Yes! Jesus did come like a green sprout. And Jesus will come back again someday and all the messes of the past (including those we are making right this very minute!) will be behind us!” But the prophet who said them and then wrote them down? Not so much. And there are prophets still speaking into our century, our culture. Do we have ears to hear them? Walter Brueggeman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Ann Voskamp, and a whole host of others. They’re out there, speaking God’s truth. Can we listen? Will we hear?

Give us ears to hear, O Lord. Ears to hear the truth of your powerful, life-changing love for this beat-up place called planet earth. Help us spot your prophets and help us to listen well.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twelve

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Psalm 27, NRSV

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of theLord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of theLord,
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face,Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of theLord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for theLord!

In 2002, I was forced to take an 8-month sabbatical from my job as an associate pastor. The forcing did not come from anyone but me — my own body and spirit were simply exhausted. I was anemic, frazzled, and wondered where I was headed. So I took time away from work — with the blessing and encouragement of my senior pastor and my congregation — and spent some concentrated time building my physical, emotional and spiritual strength. It turned out to be a gigantic blessings in disguise. For those months, I spent every morning in a chair in my living room, working through the morning prayer of A Celtic Daily Prayer. And it began, every single day, with these words from Psalm 27. “One thing I asked of the Lord, this is what I seek . . .”

YES.

ONE THING. The most important thing of all — intentional time in God’s presence. When I returned to work, it was to begin one of the hardest and most wonderful seasons of my ministry life: my boss left to take a denominational position, we began a huge building project that had been on the books for 10 years, we hired an unknown interim pastor who turned out to be the perfect person for the job, we lost almost every other staff member over the next 24 months, but replaced them with people who are still serving the church, and we eventually dedicated our gorgeous new sanctuary and office complex and hired a senior pastor who served us well for eleven years. THESE WORDS helped prepare me to be the ‘glue’ during that season of upheaval, the one who stayed through all the changes. And we did see, “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

Thank you, Lord God, for your faithfulness over time. For your commitment to our good. For your presence, which brings with it healing power, inspiration and encouragement and the peace and strength needed to make it through all of life’s curve balls. Thank you. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Eleven, Second Sunday of Advent

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Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSV

Comfort, O comfort my people,  says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of theLord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Handel’s setting of this beautiful passages is one of my favorite pieces of music. Ever. And also one of the very first choral pieces I learned as a high school student. I was blessed to go to a public high school that wasn’t the least bit afraid of singing sacred music — after all, it’s an important part of every student’s musical education. Without the church, there would be little choral music worth singing. And these words?? Glory, that’s what. A willing admission that human beings are transitory, our lives but a whisper on the earth. And yet . . . our Shepherding God loves us so! There is tenderness here. And faithfulness. And GLORY. Thanks be to God.

Lord, give me ears to hear these words in a fresh way this Advent season. Thank you for them, for their inclusion in our holy book. And thank you most of all for the powerful truth of them. Thank  you for being our shepherd, our good, good shepherd. We surely need one!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Ten

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Mark 11:27-33, The Message

Then when they were back in Jerusalem once again, as they were walking through the Temple, the high priests, religion scholars, and leaders came up and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to speak and act like this?”

Jesus responded, “First let me ask you a question. Answer my question and then I’ll present my credentials. About the baptism of John—who authorized it: heaven or humans? Tell me.”

They were on the spot, and knew it. They pulled back into a huddle and whispered, “If we say ‘heaven,’ he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe John; if we say ‘humans,’ we’ll be up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet.” They decided to concede that round to Jesus. “We don’t know,” they said.

Jesus replied, “Then I won’t answer your question either.”

It’s just a small story, but how I love it! And Peterson nails this translation: “They decided to concede that round to Jesus.” Oh, yeah, they did! Whenever I read an example of Jesus’s almost crafty intelligence, I marvel. He knew how to wriggle out of tight situations. Really well. But then . . . as the days of Holy Week march by, we see him relinquishing that skill, just turning it over and letting it go. He drops the quick comeback, the diverting word. And he steps calmly and graciously into the ugly future that awaits him. I wonder when he came to the full realization that his ministry life would end with his death. We can’t know that — it’s one of the mysteries of the Incarnation — that grand gift that we celebrate during Advent. How much did Jesus know and when did he know it? I choose to believe that his understanding came in slices, like it happens for us. He got some of the picture. . . then a little bit more, then another piece, etc. Eventually, he began to see the entire puzzle, something we are only able to do in part, I think. And yet, he kept choosing to move toward that inevitable end. Amazing. AMAZING.

Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us, for choosing to be one of us, for accepting the limits of human flesh, of human comprehension. You know us. You know us from the inside out and that is the greatest gift — and the greatest mystery of all. You know us. Thank you!