Clearing the Decks, or, Crying out to the Father
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
In these readings, we have as our Psalm one of the last five psalms, often called the “Hallelujah” psalms, because they all start with that word. (Hallelujah is the Hebrew for “Praise the Lord,” so some translations of these psalms begin with that, “Praise the Lord!”)
In the first reflection, I suggested that we take home Psalm 30 and read it aloud. And I meant the “loud” part. Often, shouting a psalm opens us to its deep, emotional content. In Psalm 30, there is great praise, but the psalmist also intimates that there were times for him of great trial. In this week’s psalm, we don’t find any hint of despair or tribulation, but I want to talk about how the two, praise and trials, go together in the psalms, and how they belong together as we seek to hear God’s voice.
When Jesus hung from the Cross, we heard him cry out in the words of the psalms he knew and loved. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) While there are other psalms of lament where David cried out to the Lord concerning his woes or lamented loudly his own failings, there is perhaps none so well known or as desperate and powerful as this one.
We might all, in times of great distress, turn to this psalm and cry out with Jesus, “Why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from my cry, and from the words of my distress? Where are you God? Where are you??”
There is no doubt that, in moments of enormous suffering, God seems remote and inaccessible. It is as though God had turned His back on us. In the place where we most need to hear Him, to know His presence and the comfort of His voice, there is silence. Deep, impenetrable silence. And so we cry to God, “Where are You? Do You even hear me? Do You care?”
Many of us, myself included, are reluctant to be so importunate with God. We are embarrassed to shout with such desperation, lest He actually hear us! How dare we doubt His presence? How dare we scream at Him like some mad fisherwoman? To cry out at God this way is to accuse Him of abandoning us, to allow our suspicions that He isn’t really all that reliable and loving to be seen.
So most of the time we bear these trials with as stiff an upper lip as we can muster. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t, but we try.
It is this attempt that I’d like first to talk you out of. Don’t be brave. Don’t be embarrassed that you doubt Him. We all do. It’s part of being human. Because our vision of Him is still clouded, “as in a mirror, darkly,” we have times when we doubt the goodness we think we’ve seen. We wonder if there isn’t also a monster lurking in that closet, one that will abandon us, perhaps at the worst possible moment.
So don’t be brave. Cry out with all your frustration and anger and hurt and pain, and ask him, as the disciples did to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing??!!” To the extent that you and I hide our desperation, our hopelessness, we also hide ourselves from Him, and prevent Him from having access to the places in our hearts that still fear, that still give us pain. And to the extent that we are brutally honest with Him about our fear, about our doubt, about our anger, we open ourselves to His voice, to His words, “Peace, be still.”
As he did with the storm that threatened to swallow the disciples and their boat, Jesus speaks a new reality into the place of emptiness we have entrusted to him, and the wind and the waves are stilled. At first, we may wonder if the wind will come back, and the memory of it may yet make us a little afraid, but the rage of the storm does pass, and the memory of its terror does fade. All this because we admitted our doubt, we acknowledged our frustration with God.
I have heard David called a “whiner” by some commentators on the psalms, because they so frequently involve his complaints to the Lord. Indeed, I think that those who choose our weekly readings secretly think this at times. Look at how often the unpleasant parts of the psalms are omitted on Sunday! It is easy to understand, though, why that is. Not many of us are willing, in the midst of the congregation, to own up to the ugliness that dwells within us and bring it to the foot of the Cross. Maybe once or twice a year, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but enough already!
Cry out to the Lord in your desperation. Use the psalms, or use your own words, or scream in a wordless cry of anguish, but cry out. Bring all of who you are to your prayer, and you will be opened to His healing voice, “Peace, be still.”
No wonder that Psalm 22, which begins with such complete desolation, ends this way:
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. (Psalm 22:22–31, ESV)
In His Peace,
This week, I’m asking you to bring something to Jesus that you and I usually find so unacceptable that we can’t even look at it ourselves, let alone offer it to Jesus. For this reason, I ask you to be gentle with yourself as you begin to open your own eyes to your fear or anger or frustration. I know that I tend to punish myself for “still” having these feelings after years of pursuing His Voice. I have a real problem with wanting to get to a point where this is never going to be a part of my experience again.
Because we tend to “stuff” these unacceptable feelings, the Spirit often uses our bodies to tell us that there are feelings residing in us that need attention. Some of us get upset or acid stomachs. Some of us get tight shoulders or headaches. Some of us get little twitches here and there in our muscles. Some of us, like me, get all of them at different times.
Today, take a few minutes to remember some of the times that your body has tried to tell you that you’re carrying more feeling than you’re admitting to yourself. Remember what was going on in those moments, then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, it is only by Your Spirit that I will have the courage to face the depth of my fear or anger. Today, I only want to make a beginning. Please show me the kinds of things that cause me to have feelings that I need to “stuff,” so that I can enter those memories with You.
In Jesus’ Name,
You may want to live with Day One for more than a day. As I said in the introduction, these “Daily Thoughts” may not really be all that “daily.” If, however, your prayer to be shown places that lead you into feelings that your body expresses has borne fruit, I’d suggest a next step, but ask you not to rush ahead. I am very much aware that these prayers are likely to lead you into some pretty miserable places, and so today I ask of you one extra thing.
Be willing to ask for help if this gets too painful. I do not know a person who can really do what I’m asking of you alone. Seek out your pastor or some other counselor if/when this process opens up something that feels overwhelming. Perhaps you will be led on a path that is sufficiently gradual that you’ll never need that kind of friend to walk this road with you, but that’d be a rare thing.
Now, for today, take only one more step. Before you can deal with the feelings of anger or fear, it’s important to spend some time in the boat and in the storm.
If you’ve put together a small list of situations that tend to make your body tense of up or hurt you, today, I’d suggest that you only meditate on those situations, and listen to your body as you do. Though this is only the roughest of guides, I find that fear often manifests itself in our stomachs, while the shoulders are often more about anger.
Here’s a hint, though. If you’re angry, it’s probably because you’re scared, somewhere.
Today, sit with your “list” and listen, then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, it is my desire to know You better, and to learn to hear You speaking in my life. In the past, though, the world taught me to shut my ears to my inmost self. Open my ears Lord, to the screaming of my own body, so that I can hear my own cry, and one day offer that to You.
In Jesus’ Name,
This week, I’ve been encouraging you to let your body awaken you to parts of your life you keep from God and perhaps from yourself. If you’ve discovered any useful clues, I’m going to ask you to listen to those messages some today. Remember that if you succeed today in uncovering any feelings that you haven’t been willing to bring out into the light before, the whole purpose of this is to make it easier to bring them to Jesus, to scream them at Him if need be.
Now that you know some of the ways your body sends you messages about your feelings, don’t focus on a situation today. Try to remember a time when your body was yelling at you to pay attention. Did your stomach cramp? Your shoulders catch fire? Your head nearly explode? If you can remember one, take a moment to remember what was going on at the time, or shortly beforehand.
You may have had some strong feelings at the moment, but if your body was hollering too, there were probably unacknowledged feelings as well. If you were mad and your stomach cramped up, you may have been frightened, too, perhaps it was the fear that caused the anger. Or perhaps you’re terrified of losing control of your anger.
Take a few minutes to listen to the messages your body was sending you, and while you do, try praying something like this:
Heavenly Father, I want to be free to live in You and worship You. I believe that there are feelings in me that I haven’t yet brought to You for healing, and that You have given me clues to them in my body. Please open my eyes and heart to those that might live beneath these sensations I’m remembering, those that I’m ready to receive today.
In Jesus’ Name,
This is probably the hardest week of all of them to get through, and so I’m still not sure this shouldn’t be “Day Fourteen.” Still, whatever day it is, I’m praying that this will be a fitting next step.
Sometimes I think that the biblical image of the spotless lamb for the sacrifice gets in the way of our relationship to the Father. I know that I want to bring Him the best of me, to lay on the altar only the most beautiful of the gifts I have to offer. As a result, I am often reluctant to bring Him the cancerous feelings that poison me and my relationships to Him and others.
If you have been listening to your body this “week,” you may have encountered some of those nasty, gangrenous places in yourself. Though they may not fit the definition of a fit Temple sacrifice, I want to encourage you to hear His joy as you bring even these worst bits of yourself to Him as gift. (I sometimes wonder, because of the way we keep them to ourselves, if these feelings aren’t even more precious to us than the “beautiful” things we’re anxious to give up.) I am always incredibly grateful that the Father has allowed me to speak His joy into the lives of others as He receives the feelings of which they are most ashamed, fear, rage, whatever.
Today, as you sit with just a bit of whatever it is you’ve heard from your body this week, take a moment to imagine it as something physical. Perhaps it’s as hard as rock, and ugly, or maybe it’s slimy and stinks in your hands. Hold it out, in your mind and heart, to the Father. Then look up and see the tears of joy on His face. And pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I am amazed that You want this, but I trust that there is nothing in me that You do not want to redeem. Today I offer You the worst that I have been able to find in myself and I marvel at the love that I see in You as You extend Your hands to receive it.
In Jesus’ Name.
It may be too early to receive back what it is that the Father wants to make of what we’ve given to Him. Indeed, it will take some time for Him to mold us and our new freedom into vessels into which He can pour the wine He’s making out of the gunk we gave Him yesterday.
But that’s what He’s doing.
Our Father doesn’t just take away the stuff we don’t like about ourselves. He doesn’t just clean out the ugly parts and leave us half the people we were. No, no! In his great goodness, God redeems what we have been, what we have done, what we have felt, and makes those things which we will bring to him into gifts with which we will be able to minister to others’ pain!
Yesterday, I asked to you to look into His eyes as He accepted with joy the ugliness you had discovered as you listened to the signals of your body.
Today, hear this promise. He will make of what you bring to Him a wonderful gift He’ll give back to you wrapped in a beautiful bow. What was once a weakness and a liability will become your greatest strength as you reach out to the world in His Name. Not today, but soon enough. Hear the promise, and then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, how great is the love that You have for Your children, that You would take into Yourself the worst we have to offer and transform our lead into pure gold! Poison to riches! Father draw me ever closer, help me to entrust more and more of myself to You, to be fully transformed by Your love.
In Jesus’ Name.
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