Let It Go

coronagull1 A few months after my husband died, I went away by myself for a five-day silent retreat.

One evening I sat on a quiet beach watching the waves and waiting for the sun to set. A gull caught my attention. It was standing on a flat-surfaced rock as the tide started to come in.

At first the waves rushed around the rock where he perched. After a while, waves started to splash over his rock. Before long, the waves would completely cover the rock before receding.

I expected to see the gull fly away. But he didn’t. Instead, he would jump over the wave and then settle back on the rock as it rolled back to sea. Eventually, he couldn’t jump high enough. But he still didn’t leave. He just started flapping and shot up—vertically—until the water receded off his rock.

This was one stubborn bird, I realized. He was not going to leave his rock come hell or high water.

What about you? I sensed God quietly ask. Are you determined to hang on? Will you try to control, no matter what? Or will you release it to Me? Will you let it go?

I knew what God meant. It had been nine months after my husband had died and I was still hanging onto the idea of how I thought life should be. There was nothing I could do to bring my husband back. But I could cling to my ideas of what I thought life should be, couldn’t I?

Apparently not.

So I spent the next day with God and my journal. First, I wrote down all the gifts I had received from my 23 years of marriage. Everything I could think of. Then I started a new page. I forgave my husband for all the hurts that still lingered, and I asked God to forgive me for the hurts I had caused. Finally, on another new page, I listed the losses—the things I would miss and the things I would never get to experience.

I used a lot of pages and a lot of Kleenex. When I finally finished—it was an all-day project—I called a friend and asked her to be a witness to my prayer as I thanked God, gave and received forgiveness, and then surrendered. It was a holy time.

When I finished, I felt tremendous release. I was no longer hanging onto what had been or my disappointment over what never would be. I was free to move forward into what God had for me next.

Recently I shared this experience with a younger friend on the journey. In her case no one had died. But a much-loved family member had stepped away from her and was making important decisions without seeking input from God, her, or family members.

In some ways it felt like a death. My friend struggled with her emotions. She grieved the loss of her family member’s companionship. Sometimes she tried to control the situation—but that only caused the distance between her and her loved one to grow. She felt frustrated. And worried. Sometimes she was scared.

God reminded me of my experience on my silent retreat six years earlier. I told her about it, then suggested that she take a day with God to give thanks, grieve, forgive, and let go. She agreed to try it.

When we talked a few weeks later, she was bubbling with joy. The person she had been so concerned about was seeking God again! Her family member was reconsidering important decisions. Putting off certain plans. Inviting input from other family members. Wanting companionship again.

“When did things start to change?” I asked. She thought for a moment, then said it had only been a couple of weeks.

“Was it after you released your family member to God?”

She paused and considered. A smile slowly crossed her face. It was! God had moved in just about the same time that she had let go.

I thought again about that silly sea gull. How foolish he had seemed to me, taking on the Pacific Ocean just so he could stay in the place that felt comfortable to him. But so often I’m like him. I try to hang onto things that can’t be held. When I hold things in my tight fists, afraid that if I let go they will be gone forever, I block God from working. We can’t both be in control. It’s only when I release my control that He can work freely.

Lord, I give it to You—I’m not doing a good job with this. Will You please take control?

Photo courtesy of Free Nature Pictures: http://www.freenaturepictures.com/seagull-pictures.php

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Pardon Me?

I sinned the other day. You’re shocked, I know.

But here’s the thing—even after I’d confessed my sin to God and asked His forgiveness, I still felt guilty. The thing I’d done—actually something I said—kept echoing in my head. And then another voice—the Accuser’s, would chime in: That was so stupid! When will you ever learn to keep your mouth shut?

So I’d ask God’s forgiveness again. And again . . . and again.

A few hours into this I realized I was caught in an endless loop. It was an endless cycle: the echo of my careless words, the words of condemnation, and my apologies to God.

When I realized I was stuck I made myself get quiet before God.

Help me, please, I said to Him.

It was quiet for a while, but then I heard Jesus say, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven; Go and sin no more.”

Immediately, I knew that the infinite loop had been broken! I was free.

Some people get to hear those sweet words of release regularly in church. It’s part of the liturgy. My “low church” service doesn’t have that practice. But sometimes I wish we did.

If you go to a liturgical church, every week you probably get to make a corporate (yet private) confession of sin and then hear the pastor or priest pronounce you forgiven.

It might go like this:

Hear the good news!
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
He himself bore our sins
in his body on the cross,
that we might be dead to sin,
and alive to all that is good.
I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
you are forgiven.
Amen.

There are many ways this “Assurance of Pardon” or “Prayer of Absolution” can be said.* But the hoped-for effect is the same. Repentant sinners get to hear Jesus’ forgiveness spoken over them—out loud. And somehow, hearing “You are forgiven,” helps. For me, it serves to break the power of cancelled sin, as the old hymn put it.

I’m probably not going to change churches just so I can hear my sins pardoned each week. But I think maybe I will add a step to my personal process of confession. After I’ve confessed my sins, I think I’ll wait to hear Jesus say I’m forgiven. I need to hear Him say that. And I think it’s something He’s happy to say.

*Here are a few other beautiful examples of prayers of pardon:

“People of God, please listen: God holds out His hand of mercy and blesses us by saying, “You told me your sins, without trying to hide them, and now I forgive you.” Our sins are forgiven, He takes away our guilt. In Jesus Christ you are forgiven and free. Amen.”

“Anyone who sins has an advocate with God: Jesus Christ, the righteous one. By his life, death, and resurrection, he has found the lost sheep and brings it back, rejoicing over one sinner that repents. In Jesus, we are never beyond the reach of God’s love. And so today, in the name of Jesus, I proclaim to all of you who believe the Gospel: In Jesus your sins are forgiven! Receive the Good News!”

“To those who turn from sin and seek Jesus Christ there is no god like our God, for He promises to pardon sin and forgive transgression. He treads our sins underfoot and hurls all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. He is faithful, loving and true to His promises. Take heart, in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven. Amen.”

“The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. I declare to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. May the God of mercy, who forgives you all your sins, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.”

Don’t Bite Off More than You Can Chew

Sometimes I feel pretty pathetic as an intercessor. There are just so many things to pray about that I can’t—or at least I don’t—keep up with them all. Often I’m overwhelmed by all the prayer requests that come to me via conversations, emails, phone calls, texts, prayer letters, prayer calendars, things I hear at church, even Facebook. The fact that I don’t pray about everything I’m aware of makes me feel inadequate. And guilty.

The other day I felt that way. I felt exceedingly guilty because I don’t pray “enough.” I told God that. I asked His forgiveness for being slack in my intercession, and I asked Him (again—it’s a frequent request of mine) to teach me to pray.

Almost immediately I heard Him speak to my heart.

“Daily bread, Child,” is what I think He said. “Jesus taught you to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ But you feel responsible to pray the entire globe and the entire future every day. That’s not a burden I have placed on you. My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

God reminded me, too, that Jesus, the consummate Man of Prayer, had the same human limitations I do. Even though He prayed early in the morning and late into the night, He was aware of far more needs than He could reasonably pray about every day. Jesus understands how overwhelming it can be to try to pray for everything that needs praying for. So maybe that’s why He taught us about daily bread. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Pray for what you need that day.

So I tried it. I asked the Holy Spirit to show me what I needed to pray about that day. I wrote down what came to mind. Grace for a challenging conversation. An open-door for ministry I hoped to be part of. Protection and empowering for friends on a short-term mission trip. Insight about a project I as working on. Provision for an unemployed friend. Spiritual connections for friends doing cross-cultural church planting. A leadership need in my church. Wisdom for a family member’s important decision. An aspect of my life in which I need His transforming power.

When I finished, instead of feeling apologetic for not “getting more done,” I felt satisfied and complete, kind of the way I feel after a good conversation with a close friend. I didn’t feel inadequate or guilty. I sensed that the intercession I’d done that morning was exactly what was needed. It was enough.

The next day I did the same thing. And the next. I prayed for different things each day, trusting that the Holy Spirit was leading me. He knows better than I, after all, just what I need for my “daily bread.” He doesn’t expect me to bite off more than I can chew.

Use Your Imagination!

I never used to think I had any imagination. In those days, I also didn’t enjoy praying very much. I’m not positive the two things are connected, but I think it’s possible that they were.

Recently I have been reading Jean Fleming’s new book, Pursue the Intentional Life. Jean suggests that it is difficult to revere an invisible, holy God, apart from using our imaginations. That makes sense to me. How often have I pictured Him as Shepherd with sheep or as the King on His throne?

She suggests that deep engagement with Scripture also depends on imagination. I believe that, too. When I envision Jesus laughing and surrounded by children, or I try to picture what the holy uproar that took place on Pentecost, Scripture pops for me. It engages my heart and evokes my thinking.

Jean also says that imagination is required if we want to learn to walk compassionately in another person’s shoes. Again, I think she’s right. It’s only when I take time to imagine what it’s like to live with 24/7 chronic pain or to suffer with an unwanted addiction, that I am able to offer more than platitudes and pat answers.

Jean did not mention prayer, but I realize that imagination is one of the things that has made my prayers more meaningful in recent years. Here are some examples:

• I have friends who just moved to Asia as missionaries. They need to learn the language. I can ask God to help them with that—and I do. But I can also take a few minutes to recall how difficult foreign language-learning is. How full one’s head becomes with all the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciations. The embarrassment of saying the wrong thing, the frustration of not being able to express oneself. I consciously call to memory what it was like for me on my last trip to a foreign country—how hard it was to communicate and how desperately I wished I could. And from this place of identification, I pray for my friends. With heart!

• Another friend faces a scary medical test. I can pray that God will give her peace—and I will. But when I remember the various medical tests I’ve had done before, and the anxiety and discomfort they caused me, I pray with deeper compassion and greater fervency.

• I support a Compassion child. So I pray for him to be healthy and do well in school. But after a trip to a developing country last year, I pray for him with new understanding. My memories of that trip—the beggars on the street, foul odors, people huddled under tarps trying to keep warm, desperate poverty—cause me to pray with emotion, “Lord Jesus, have mercy! Rescue him! Let Him know how much You love him. Accomplish all Your purposes for him!”

• When I pray for my son’s future spouse, I use my imagination, too. I imagine a godly woman who loves God, my son, and their children. I picture her worshiping, laughing, listening, giving wise counsel, caring for others. From this Scripture-inspired mental imagine, I don’t merely ask God to “give my son a good Christian wife”—I pray for that godly woman I see in my mind’s eye.

I used to be suspicious of the imagination. I was one of those people who Jean Fleming says worry about “making up something that doesn’t exist, something fictitious.” But I’ve come to see my imagination as a God-given gift that helps me to live, love, worship, and pray more passionately and compassionately, in spiritual 3D and living color.

Multiple-Choice Prayers

I hate multiple choice surveys.

Ask me a good question, give me enough space and time, and you’re likely to get a response that’s thoughtful, maybe even passionate. Just don’t force me to give canned a-b-c-d answers. Multiple-choice responses rarely represent my true thoughts or feelings. In fact, multiple choice is usually apathy-producing for me.

Why, then, do I so often pray multiple-choice prayers? Do you know what I mean? I’m referring to prayers like:

  • God, would You please cause Mary’s medical tests to come out negative, but if she does have to have this frightening illness, would You please give her good doctors and excellent care?
  • Father, You know that Tom has an interview for his dream job on Friday. Would You please give him favor with the guy he will be meeting with? But if this is not the job for him, then would You please cause something even better to come along?
  • Jesus, I am desperate to (fill in the blank: find a spouse, get pregnant, be reconciled in a relationship, see a prodigal come home etc.). Would you please do this for me? But if not, then would You please help me to be content and trust You anyhow?

I was praying one of those prayers Monday morning when I sensed God saying, No, don’t give Me multiple choice. What do you really want Me to do?

I was surprised. I guess I’d been thinking that I was being polite and submissive by allowing God “options.” Since I’m not always the best judge of what’s best for me and the people I love, I wanted to make a “suggestion” of what seemed good to me, but then allow Him the freedom to do something different, if that seemed better to Him. After all, He knows best. That kind of praying seemed pretty mature and spiritual to me, actually.

But the Holy Spirit pressed me. When you pray multiple choice prayers, you detach emotionally from your desire. You really want Me to do a certain thing, but you’re afraid I won’t do it, so to protect yourself from disappointment, you hedge the request.

I thought of the account of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1. She prayed so desperately for a child that the priest who watched her thought she was drunk. Her prayer was not, “If You please, it would be very nice if you’d give me a child, but if You don’t, well, maybe you could help me to be content with a puppy?” No, Hannah prayed one thing, and one thing only. And she prayed it with deep anguish and bitter tears. She was not ready to settle for less than the thing her heart most desperately longed for.

I also thought of Paul who had a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12). Paul didn’t give God options—he pleaded with the Lord to take it away! Three times, Paul pleaded and asked God for exactly what he wanted.

In Hannah’s case, God gave her the desire of her heart. In Paul’s, God denied his request and gave him something that turned out to be even better. But in both situations, Hannah and Paul asked for precisely what they most desperately desired. They didn’t give God options to choose from; they prayed for the good things they longed for—and then let God decide how to respond to their requests.

So I took my journal and began writing my longings concerning a specific situation. I was a little surprised by how deep they ran. In allowing myself to express what I so badly wanted, I discovered passion and fervency I hadn’t recognized before. Multiple choice had caused my heart to be guarded, dispirited. But when I was honest about my longings, it’s almost as if my soul woke up from a long nap.

As I lingered with God about my longings, He led me to a Scripture that perfectly expressed my desire. He helped me to see that what I wanted so badly was something that He very badly wants, too. So, instead of multiple choice, this one thing has become my prayer.

Will He answer it the way I envision? I have no idea. He is God and He knows best. But I trust that He can redirect me when I am praying for something He chooses not to give, just as He did Paul. And, just like Paul, I don’t need to be disappointed. I don’t need to “protect” myself with multiple-choice prayers.