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Three practices that can help us through a dark night experience

I remember a particularly difficult time in Italy when Harry and I were the janitors, the building and grounds committee, the Sunday school teachers, the nursery, the counselors, teachers and preachers for the small community of new believers that were being formed at Termini Immerse, Italy. (Talk about an overwhelming job description!) I had three lively children at that time at the exciting ages of 2, 4 and 7. Each Sunday when the time for preaching came, I would take all of the children out with me into the next room for Sunday school. On a good Sunday, we could have as many as 15 kids. Harry would get to preaching… a long time… and I would be over in this room in my high heeled shoes and Sunday best which was an important part of the culture… teaching SS class in another language… with 15 children ranging from 1-13 somehow hoping that what I had to say would interest them. I used a flannelgraph which one of my kids would take the characters off each time I put them up there, interrupting my thoughts that I was working on so hard in Italian… with my youngest either clinging to my dress or on my hip or someone else’s baby on my hip… in a room that echoed terribly with marble floors and which you could hear every sound in the next room and vice versa… no heat and no air-conditioning… you are getting the picture right? I was completely and totally overwhelmed and this happened every single Sunday. And… every single Sunday I would go home after church, crawl into my bed and cry.  Even though I believed that God had called us to Italy, and I believed that we were pursuing God’s will for us, I felt like a miserable failure. I was lonely, completely overwhelmed and I really just wanted to go home. That was a dark, dark time for me. I must admit that there were times when I felt so overwhelmed, that I didn’t really care if I was pursuing God or not.

Even Jesus didn’t feel like pursuing God that night in the Garden. In Matthew 26 verse 36 we see that Jesus has celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and he has gone to the garden to pray. He tells Peter and that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Have you ever paused to consider just that sentence… How dark that night truly was for our Jesus? So when we find ourselves in difficult times or in a dark night experience we can learn from our Savior who has walked through the darkest of nights.

There are three practical things that we can learn in this story.

(1. Don’t go to the garden alone…

The first thing we can do when we find ourselves in a Gethsemane experience is invite persons to companion us. Jesus invites three of the disciples, Peter, James and John to be with him. As Christians, I think this can be hard for us at times. We want everyone to think we are doing great, or we don’t want to cause anyone trouble, but Jesus, openly names his feeling of sorrow to the point of death to his disciples and allows them to surround him and be with him during the most difficult time in his life. When we invite our brothers and sisters in the Lord to companion us, it is as if we were inviting God to companion us because we believe that we have the very presence of God, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us.

(2. We can pray honest prayers

Sometimes, I think we pray pretend prayers with God because we are afraid that somehow our anger, disbelief and sorrow will keep God from hearing our prayers. But nothing could be further from the truth. God made us with a full array of emotions… we really can’t hide that from God. If we look at Matthew 26:38 we see that Jesus overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, falls on his face and says, My Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me…

(3. Relinquish our power into the hands of God.

The third thing we can learn from Jesus is that there will come a time in all of our lives when we do things that we really don’t want to do… even when we know it is right.  When we find ourselves in a very dark hour, it is good to relinquish the outcome and control into the hands of God. Jesus, himself, says inverse 38… not my will but thy will, O God.

Jesus was God incarnate, so it is a little different for us. But I think there comes a time when we need to fall on our face and simply let God be God. That requires us to fully relinquish any claim we might have to controlling our lives. It is a little bit like jumping off the diving board at the deep end of the pool for the first time and trusting that our parents will catch us.

There will come a time when all of us will have to do this in the impending hours before our death. But, I believe that this relinquishing should become a practice for us. In a very real way we do that when we practice the Sabbath. When we cease for a day, we are saying in a very real way, God, you are the Creator and I am simply the created. I relinquish my desire and drivenness to pursue more and work more. I trust that you are able to come to my aid. I trust that your will and your power are enough for me.

When the going gets tough

I think that we as Christians skip over the immense pain and suffering that Jesus experienced the week leading up to his death. Though there are many stories in between, we tend to move from the shouting Hosannas in church on Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Yes, many of us do have a Maundy Thursday meal and even a Good Friday service… but we rarely live with the Gethsemane experience for any length of time.

Immediately following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with the crowds cheering and blessing him, Jesus enters into a very dark week. He goes into the temple only to be heart broken and angered by the disrespect and corruption of his father’s house… it should be a place of prayer but instead, it had become a place of deceit, bribery and corruption. Humanity truly needed a savior and he was fully aware of what the price would be.

The following day he was harassed by the chief priests and teachers of the law. They questioned his motives behind his actions. They wondered who gave Jesus the authority to behave the way he did. They threatened him and ridiculed him with poignant hatred, “Who do you think you are?”

The next day, one of his closest friends agreed to betray him and hand him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver… the common price of a slave. Perhaps Jesus could have anticipated this from someone else, but one of his own?

The heaviness of what was to come must have been heavy on his heart as he celebrated his last passover meal with the persons he had lived with, taught and loved intensely for the past several years, his disciples.

It was in this immense, dark place that Jesus found himself struggling to pursue God in the garden.

We may never have a week like that of Jesus, but many of us do enter into dark and difficult times. We all experience deep disappointment, despair, loneliness, dread, heart brokenness, depression, anxiety… you can fill in the blanks. The question is, what will we do in that dark place?

Jesus pursues God even when he doesn’t want to do what is being asked of him. He surrounds himself with persons who will help him, he prays and waits for God’s assistance, and he relinquishes his desire and control over the situation.

When we find ourselves in difficult times or in a dark night experience we can learn from our Savior who has walked through the darkest of nights. We can share our struggle with one or two close friends, we can sit and pray our laments honestly in God’s presence, and we can relinquish our brokenness and darkness before God knowing that only God can deliver us.

It is comforting to know from the Gospel of Luke that angels of light came to Jesus’ after he prayed. God didn’t take the cup away from Jesus. He would still drink from the cup of death and suffering, but God did come to his aid in the dark night.

What then are we to do? Try to muster up enough strength to take a few baby steps toward others and God and then wait for him to find us.

Waiting with Jesus

As Holy Week draws near, I find myself sitting with Matthew 26:36-53. Jesus has celebrated the passover meal with his disciples and he has gone to the garden to pray. He tells Peter and that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death… and he invites  him to stay  and keep watch.

It intrigues me that Jesus needed community in those final moments. He extended the invitation to three of his disciples and friends to companion him during one of the most difficult and intimate times in his life. How were they to companion? By simply being prayerfully present.

He leaves them there to go and plead with God… If it is possible may this cup be taken from me… only to return and find that the Peter and the other have fallen asleep. How is it that they could so easily abandon their Lord and friend at such a crucial time in his life? Jesus’ question to them reflects the same incredulity, “Could you not keep watch with me one hour?”

We may gawk a little at the notion that the disciple were not able to stay awake and pray for Jesus at such a significant moment. Truth be told, for many of us, it is hard to manage  to keep watch for an hour during good and normal times. And yet, it seems that God invites us to keep watch for his presence and prayerful about fresh revelation.

Jesus continues to work among us here on earth inviting us to companion him… sometimes we get to do some really exciting and wonderful things. But other times, more often than not, he invite us to join him by simply being prayerfully present. I am not sure things have changed too much for us over the years… most of us find ourselves sleeping, both literally and figuratively.

How are you keeping watch?

Some thoughts on the gift of time

It is always intriguing to me when the various streams from which I am reading all come together in one congruent message. For the past several weeks, I have been reading about the gift of time… each new day… how we receive it… how we perceive it.

It began as I was reading Eat, Pray and Love… the author reminisces about her time spent in Italy and the beautiful way Italians relish each day and especially the sheer beauty of doing nothing, “Bel far niente”. I literally laughed out loud as I read it because having lived there for ten years, I knew exactly what she was describing in her book. At the same time, I saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty in what I had learned from my Italian brothers and sisters. Read more

making it through the storm

As Harry preached this past Sunday on Jesus walking on the water, I was deeply moved as I realized that recently  I had been weathering my own storm… it is hard to know where these storms originate and why. Sometimes they arrive as quickly and as unexpectedly as they subside… like a squall on a lake… unpredictable and  unforseen but powerful enough to take you down.

The question is, what do we do in these unpredictable and uncontrollable times in our lives when we can quickly become overwhelmed? In Matthew 14, Jesus invites Peter to join him as he walks above the water in the storm… Peter joins him but as we know, he quickly begins to sink when he removes his gaze from Jesus and fixes himself on the trouble at hand.

This practice of gazing at Jesus, fixing our eyes on him, can be elusive at best. When we find ourselves caught unexpectedly in a squall, panic sets in and we can quickly become harried. Slowing down, listening and waiting seem nearly impossible, especially noticing where Jesus is in all of that. Everything in us wants to do the opposite. Read more

What does it mean to be playful?

As I continue my practice of prayer, Jesus continues to invite me to play. Recently as I prayed through Psalm 23, I noticed that in my time of centering prayer, Jesus was with me in the green grass by the still waters. It was a beautiful place. Instantly I saw that we were moving around a lot… I was a child, which I often am when I see myself with Jesus. He was happy, turning around and around with me in his arms; tossing me up towards the sun. His smile was warm and there was great delight in his eyes and we skipped through the meadows by the still waters.

“What are you doing, Jesus?” my thought interrupted my prayer…”I thought we were supposed to be resting?” I inquired.

“We are playing…”

“Oh… is that what this is” the thought took my breath away. Jesus was gently, playfully reminding me of his invitation to play. I realized in a brief moment that I didn’t even recognize that that is what we were doing… because I am so serious sometimes… and because somehow in my spirituality there is no room for this playful Jesus who keeps showing up. Read more

Are there unnamed gifts in your life?

I remember the many Christmases spent combing through the presents under the tree… trying to see through the wrapping paper. On occasion I would shake them, other times I would venture to loosen the tape on them very carefully to see what was inside.

You have to understand that my mother was a master at wrapping Christmas presents. She would spend hours constructing special boxes and adding jewels and ribbons. They would often have a theme. You could say that her Christmas gifts were works of art. This only fueled my curiosity and made it all the more dangerous and adventuresome. Read more

sometimes it is just hard to see

Sometimes it is hard for me to see this God reality… especially when I am keenly aware of the war and violence that is currently happening in Egypt. Or, when I am aware of the suffering and unexplained tragedies and illnesses that my church community experiences. Violence, crime, murder is very present in my living room when I watch the morning news… I do wonder, where is this God reality? How can I see? Sometimes it is not as tragic as that… sometimes it is as simple as my own self-consciousness and inhibitions that keep me from seeing the God sightings.

And yet, God is patient with me. He leaves me little signs… hints of his presence all around.

Blogging about Elisha’s  prayer to see beyond the present circumstances into the reality of God’s presence   kind of stayed with me the rest of the day. Shortly after posting that entry, I had lunch with a group of some of our church members who live in a retirement community. We reminisced about a lot of things. How we have experienced God’s presence when we can’t sleep, ways that we can be more playful, change… especially changes that involve the telephone and technology and change that involves their bodies… some good changes and some hard changes. We acknowledged that sometimes it is hard to look beyond our circumstances to see how God is in that too.

One of the group members who is currently under hospice care and is thinking about the changes she is experiencing spoke up, “It is hard for me to think about the future… when I close my eyes… I don’t see anything.” A moment of sacred silence slipped by and there I was with Elisha’s prayer. I told her that I would pray Elisha’s prayer for her, that God would open her eyes to see the spiritual places beyond her circumstances… just as he had done for Jacob and the ladder from heaven in an ordinary field… just as he had done for Elisha’s servant who even though he was surrounded by an army and possible death, God opened his eyes to see the heavenly chariots of fire that were present as well. Our eyes met for a second… and I knew by the softening in her eyes that it is was a good thing to pray for… A quiet nod of acceptance. It is hard sometimes to see the heavenly in our all too real earthly bodies… this is a thing that only God can do.

“O God, quicken to life every power within me, that I may lay hold on eternal things. Open my eyes that I may see; give me acute spiritual perception; enable me to taste Thee and know that Thou art good. Make heaven more real to me than any earthly thing has ever been. Amen” A.W. Tozer -The Pursuit of God

Coincidental or could this really be God?

“Coincidental , or could this really be God?” I asked myself as I stared in disbelief at my Dove Candy wrapper. Just yesterday, God gave me a profound invitation to play with Him during my time of centering prayer. I saw us playing on the beach, making snow angels and skipping… I felt so carefree and lighthearted in the vision. As soon as the prayer time was over, it occurred to me how difficult the concept of playing was for me.

My childhood was not very playful. My dad died when I was only eleven years old and this tragedy turned my innocent world upside down. As I think back, the last time I remember truly playing was just before he died. Perhaps his death initiated me into the adult world of responsibility too soon.

As I reflected further, I realized that many times, maybe because I am a firstborn, I feel the need to figure everything out ahead of time. Instead of delighting in the day and its surprises, I can become regimented and guarded. Delighting and playing are indeed a stretch for me.

Later on that day, I found myself in a meeting where we were talking about the wonderful things God is doing in our church; a fresh movement of the spirit. I noticed that I along with others felt the need to organize it, theologize about it, anticipate the outcome and plan it. At that moment, I remembered the poem I had written to capture the vision from my prayer. I pulled it out along with a piece of Dove Chocolate. I ruminated over the invitation to delight in this new thing God was doing… to be playful. At that point I glanced down to read what my Dove Chocolate Wrapper had to say on the inside… “Forget  the rules and play by your heart” Coincidence, maybe, but the child inside of me that is learning how to play thinks it may just be God.