A Controlled Burn

Twice a month I meet with a peer group of spiritual directors. Yesterday one of them shared an image that is just too good not to pass along.

We were listening to one of the directors describe a recent session with a directee. Over the past few months, Pam had watched this directee grow in her faith and in her longing for Jesus. But in their latest session together, the directee had returned to some destructive habits and relationships. Pam was discouraged and frustrated.

As we spent some time in prayer for Pam, Mark spoke up. “Here’s the image I’m seeing,” Mark said. “You’re driving along the highway and see a forest fire raging off the side of the road. So you pull over, panicked. You’ve got to call someone, and you don’t have your cell phone with you. Just as you’re standing there wondering what to do, a forest ranger appears. You’re surprised he doesn’t seem panicked about the situation, and he smiles and says, ‘Don’t worry. This is a controlled burn. We’ve had this planned for a while.'”

What a beautiful, profound image.

We’re so quick to try to label things as “positive” and “negative.” But often what we label “destructive” is a holy fire safely held in the hands of a loving God–a God who is vigorously committed to our freedom, growth, and conformity to Christ.

As I pondered that imagery this morning, the lyrics of an old hymn came to mind:

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” (How Firm a Foundation)

What’s on fire in your life right now? What’s being consumed so that you can be refined?

“Don’t worry,” God says, “This is a controlled burn. I’ve had it planned for a while.”

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The Gift of Community

One of my deepest joys is hearing about readers who are connecting with one another to pursue spiritual formation together. Just yesterday I heard about a book club that has decided to form a sacred journey group in which they can open their hearts and spirits to one another in authentic and life-giving ways. Praise God! God creates us for community. At the very beginning of creation, God declared that it was “not good” for us to be alone. God gives us the gift of walking together, of encouraging one another, even of glimpsing the formation of Christ in one another.

This is the story of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke’s gospel. Mary, having received the angel’s word that she will bear Christ, immediately races to see her cousin, Elizabeth. And Elizabeth immediately recognizes the work of the Spirit in Mary’s life and celebrates it. Elizabeth offers the encouragement we all need when we are waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled: “Yes, the Spirit is doing something new in you! I hear it. I glimpse it. Christ is being formed in you. And even if the promise seems impossible, I am with you to affirm it, because God is doing impossible things for me, too.”

This is the gift of group spiritual formation. This is the gift of opening ourselves to one another in community. Henri Nouwen, whose work has had an enormous impact on me over the years, writes, “How can I ever let God’s grace fully work in my life unless I live in a community of people who can affirm it, deepen it, and strengthen it? We cannot live this new life alone. God does not want to isolate us by his grace. On the contrary, he wants us to form new friendships and a new community–holy places where his grace can grow to fullness and bear fruit.”

And here’s a prayer from Nouwen, which expresses my hope for each of us as we open ourselves to God’s transforming work:

O God, when we feel isolated and want to withdraw, help us by the grace of Jesus to reach out to others.

May you, like Mary, not only have the courage to say yes to God’s work, but also the desire to seek and find the gift of companionship as Christ is formed in you.

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Wakened from Sleep

Yesterday the “real Sensible Shoes Club” sat and prayed with Zechariah 4:1-10.

The angel who talked with me came again and wakened me, as one is wakened from sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” Then the angel who talked with me answered me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No my lord.” He said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!'”

Moreover, the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumbline in the hand of Zerubbabel.

It’s funny. I had intended to start the reading at verse 6: the “not by might, not by power” part. That’s the best-known portion of this passage. I expected that I would land there, as God frequently reminds me that I am to do His work by His strength.

Instead, I ended up meditating on the very beginning of the passage: the “wakened from sleep” part.

It occurred to me as I listened to the text that what we have in those first few verses is a picture of spiritual formation. God invites us to keep awake. And when we inevitably drift into drowsy spiritual dullness, the Spirit awakens us again–awakens us to see, perceive, and understand the movement and work of God.

“What do you see?” the angel asks Zechariah. But the question comes only after Zechariah is awake.

It brings to mind Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John have traveled to the top of the mountain with Jesus. Luke tells us, in language pregnant with meaning, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory.” (Luke 9:32) Some translations say, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw His glory.”

I’m comforted to know that Jesus’ inner circle, His close companions, struggled with drowsiness. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus poured out His prayer with sweat and blood, the three of them couldn’t stay awake.

I wonder, what glimpses of God’s glory have I missed because I was too sleepy to watch and pray and see?

Zechariah, awakened by God’s messenger, sees what God desires for him to see. But he doesn’t understand what it means. That’s the next movement of being awake in the Spirit. God enables us to see, and God invites us to ask the meaning of what we see. We wrestle, we chew, we meditate, we pray, and God in His mercy reveals His heart and plans and purposes to us as we wait and listen.

Advent. A season filled with temptations to drift into busyness and spiritual dullness. The Spirit longs to awaken us from auto-pilot, quicken our attention, and help us see Jesus’ glory, even in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.

Are we awake? Are we paying attention? Are we sitting still long enough to listen to the Word made flesh?

Lord Jesus, awaken us and give us eyes to see Your glory.

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Laying it Bare

In my “Hanging up the Harps” post, I commented that perhaps Psalm 137 was worthy of several blog entries. Here’s part two.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Lay it bare! Lay it bare! Down to its foundations!’ (Psalm 137:7)

When we read the psalm in our circle that day (four different readers, with different translations), something unusual happened. We had listened to the text three different times, and it was J’s turn to read. J came upon verse 7 and read it this way, “Let it bear! Let it bear! Down to its foundations!” She read it incorrectly twice before she caught herself and changed it to “lay it bare.” Her “mistake” captured my attention.

I started thinking about how the Edomites were cheering on the Babylonians in their work of destroying Jerusalem, and how the Babylonians were doing God’s work of destroying and purifying Jerusalem. They were instruments of God’s judgment against Israel. The “laying bare” of Jerusalem was a merciful (and terrifyingly harsh) destruction of idolatry. God stripped them down to their foundations because they had forgotten who He was. They had also forgotten who (and whose) they were.

As I prayed the refrain, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,” it suddenly became “Lay me bare, Lord. Lay me bare. Tear down everything in me that isn’t established in You. And let it bear. Let the destruction of everything idolatrous in me bear fruit for You.”

Joseph famously declared to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

It doesn’t mean we start calling evil “good.” But can we begin to glimpse the hand of God mysteriously working in the midst of all our circumstances, even in the painful, crushing ones?

Lay me bare, Lord. And let me bear for You.

Funny, the timing of this post. Right after I typed that prayer, the tornado sirens went off. I’ve just emerged from our basement. Seven years in Michigan, and I can’t remember ever hearing tornado sirens. We spent five years in Oklahoma, and they were commonplace there. Let me simply say, I’m terrified of tornadoes. Maybe it’s rooted in childhood memories of watching “Wizard of Oz.” As a little girl living in earthquake country, I was just glad I didn’t live in Kansas.

In light of those fears, can I pray the words again, confident in God’s love and goodness? Do I really trust God’s tearing down and building up work in my life?


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Hanging up the Harps

The “real Sensible Shoes Club” meets every week for two and a half hours. After more than two years of walking together, we’re accustomed to traveling reverently through deep, sacred, and often tender places of the inner life.

Last week, as I often do, I asked the group if anyone had a text to offer for our time of lectio divina. There was silence around the circle, and then one of the women spoke up. “I hesitate to offer this one,” she said, “but it was part of the lectionary reading this week, so I’ve been praying with it for a few days now.” Pause. “It’s Psalm 137.”

Immediately, violent images of babies’ heads being dashed against rocks came to mind. In fact, that’s what I’ve always called Psalm 137: the “bashing babies’ heads” psalm. We studied the psalm in seminary, and I haven’t studied it since. I’m not sure I’ve even read it in the sixteen years since graduation.

Composed during the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, Psalm 137 is one of the so-called “imprecatory” psalms–the kind that calls down curses on the enemy. It’s brutal. And it’s part of our God-breathed prayer book.

It was a bold offering to the group, and I was feeling brave. “Let’s sit with it,” I replied, “and see what the Holy Spirit brings to mind.”

So we listened as four different women slowly read the text aloud (allowing plenty of silent space for meditation between each reading). Then we spent twenty minutes journaling about what the Holy Spirit had shown each of us during our time of prayer.

I’m always amazed by what God reveals during our time together, and last week was no exception. Since some of the insights continue to stir me, I think it’s worth a blog entry. Maybe a few blog entries. In fact, maybe I’ll spend the next sixteen years prayerfully contemplating what God wants to say to me in Psalm 137.

Here are the first three verses:

By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

I hope that someday the women from the group will post their own rich and profound reflections on how God stirred them through the words of the prayer. Their stories aren’t mine to tell. But here’s one of the larger themes that emerged that morning:

In seasons of profound grief and pain, who holds us captive with the demand to be joyful? Which voices command us to be full of mirth when it’s necessary for us to hang up the harps, sit down, and weep?

We’re so often held captive by the crushing legalism of the “good Christians don’t (fill in the blank)” rules.

“Good Christians don’t get angry.”

“Good Christians don’t feel discouraged.”

“Good Christians don’t mourn.”

We stuff our deeper, darker emotions under the mistaken assumption that God is requiring mirth from us when in fact God is offering us an invitation to sit and weep awhile in His lap. And if we have eyes to see it, we’ll even glimpse His tears for us.

Can we offer our tears in honest lament to Jesus? And can we receive the intimacy of Jesus’ tears for us?

I’m just going to leave it there. Let it sit. Let it breathe. And I offer my prayer for any of you who need to recognize the tormentors’ voice for what it is. May you have the courage to hang up the harp for a while and sing a quieter, sadder, and more honest song to the God who hears, who knows, who loves, who weeps.

In Jesus’ name.

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Boasting in Weakness

I’m sometimes asked just how much of my own life is concealed in the pages of Sensible Shoes. Here’s a short answer to the question:

Mara experienced a couple of true-to-life flashbacks. I was always the last one picked for teams, and there really was a birthday party from which I was painfully excluded.

Meg had to suffer the incarnation of one of my deepest fears. I hope I never receive a phone call that brings sudden and tragic disruption to the life of our family.

Hannah received both the burden of being overly responsible and the invitation to relax into God’s love and care.

Charissa inherited the sin of my perfectionism and my need to be radically converted to grace.

And Katherine got my bench-pressing dream.

I was in my first month of seminary, and I was doing field education work at a male maximum security prison in Yardville, New Jersey. One night I had a dream that was so vivid that when I awoke, I knew God was speaking to me through the images.

I dreamed I was applying for a job at a police station. The officer was particularly gruff and surly as he informed me that in order to get the job, I would have to bench-press two hundred pounds. “Two hundred pounds!” I echoed in astonishment. “But I haven’t done anything athletic for seven years!”

(Remember that I was ALWAYS the last one picked for teams. People actually fought over who had to have me on their team. And at the time of the dream it had been exactly seven years since I had been emancipated from high school P.E. Of course, seven is also a symbolic number for completion, so perhaps what I was actually declaring was, “But I’ve never done anything athletic in my entire life!”)

So the officer scowled and growled and said, “Listen, lady–that’s the job requirement. Is it gonna be a problem or not?”

And I looked him straight in the face and replied, “No, it’s not going to be a problem, because my Lord Jesus is going to do it for me.”

So he led me over to an enormous machine (to this day, I don’t actually know what a bench-press looks like), and he strapped me in. At first, I could hardly lift my arms. But then suddenly, I was lifting enormous weights over and over again, effortlessly.

I woke up before I found out if I got the job, but as I prayed, I heard the Spirit’s gentle voice. “This is a picture of humility, Sharon. And this is where I want you to live: when you have absolutely no confidence in your own power or ability to do anything I ask you to do, but you have absolute confidence in My power and ability to do it through you.”

I can’t tell you how often the images of that dream have returned to me over the years. I’m so grateful that the dream was given as a gift to me in the early days of preparation for ministry, because the temptations to trust in my own strength or wisdom or abilities frequently rise up. Of all the images that could have appeared in a dream, the image of my physical ineptitude–and the utter impossibility of the task–spoke volumes to me about where God was inviting me to place my confidence and trust.

The apostle Paul spoke of having “reason for confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:4) He then gave his resume of his law-keeping. I suppose each of us could compose a list of the things we’re tempted to rely upon apart from the presence and power of God. I know how I have been tempted over the years to rely on my training or education or communication skills. Within areas of giftedness are the temptations to put “confidence in the flesh.” Many churches–and many Christians–function quite efficiently (and by appearances, quite effectively) without any reliance upon the supernatural power of God. I don’t want to live that way.

“Whatever gains I had,” Paul continues, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Whatever reasons for boasting Paul might have had, he learned the secret of boasting in his weaknesses so that he might boast about the power of God.

The bench-pressing dream pointed me to a passage that has become a life verse for me: “[God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Thankfully, God continues to give me ample opportunities for bench-pressing so that I can continue to rely on His power and provision. I’d love always to possess the exuberant, child-like confidence I expressed in the dream, quickly turning to the power of Christ whether I’m feeling overwhelmed or comfortable. Most days it’s a slower awakening to God’s invitation to trust Him. But I’m becoming quicker to recognize the blessings of my weakness to bring me into deeper intimacy with Jesus. God’s grace really is sufficient, and His power really is made perfect in weakness.

And that’s something to celebrate. Maybe even boast about.

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I am a recent convert to purple. I never paid much attention to the color, always preferring burgundy or mauve or slate blue. Purple brought to mind the “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” poem. Or at its best, it was the color of Advent. In Acts 16 we read about Lydia, the first convert in Philippi, who was a worshiper of God and a “dealer in purple cloth.” By that, we know her to be a woman of some financial means, as purple dye was costly in the ancient world. And so purple was a color of wealth and power and privilege and position.

Maybe that’s why I always shunned it for myself. Purple seems lavish and extravagant and eye-catching, and I prefer to be–well, more subtle, retiring, and reserved.

A year ago I attended my first meeting with a peer group of spiritual directors. For our opening get-acquainted exercise, we were instructed to choose a fruit or vegetable from a corner table that best captured something about ourselves. I hate getting-to-know-you exercises, and this one made me feel particularly awkward. Describe myself by way of an apple or banana or artichoke? What did that even mean? I lingered in my seat as long as possible, hoping perhaps there would be just enough fruit to go around. Then I could take whatever was left over and make up something that sounded profound.

No luck. There were twelve of us and probably two dozen different fruits and vegetables on the table. Reluctantly, I rose from my chair and stared at the leftovers. Weren’t carrots good for eyesight? Could I connect that to spiritual vision? The voice inside my head said, No. I looked at the peach. Sensitive skin and sweet and juicy? Definitely not. And then there was a single plum. I picked it because we had a plum tree at our house when I was a child, and I loved those plums. To this day, I’ve never tasted plums quite like the ones from our tree. So I took the plum and figured I’d say something about growing up in Southern California. Nothing particularly revealing–certainly nothing of profound spiritual significance or depth.

At break time a friend of mine came up to me and said, “Isn’t plum a metaphor for something really special?” I had no idea what she was talking about. “Yeah–I’m sure it is,” she continued. “Like ‘landing a plum job.'” Not convinced, I came home and looked it up. Sure enough. Plum: choice, masterpiece, prize, gem.

I cried.

One week later I was sitting with my spiritual director. I didn’t tell her about the plum, but at the end of our time together, she said, “Maybe you could pick a particular color to pay attention to this autumn. And whenever you see it, think about how God loves you and treasures you. Let the color remind you of God’s particular affection for you.”

I chose–you guessed it–purple. I had no idea there was so much purple in autumn. I expected to see yellows, reds, and oranges. But I was stunned by purple. Whenever I saw purple wildflowers in the field, I’d say aloud, “The flowers are for me–thank You, Lord!” And when the leaves of certain trees turned deep plum, I thought about God’s love and care. I was surrounded by purple.

I was still revising the manuscript at the time, so I made the pamphlet from the New Hope Center plum-colored. And when it came time to choose a border for the cover, I chose purple. As a reminder.

Last week I went for an early morning walk through the woods near our house. I was “purpled” by God’s goodness, grateful for the demonstration of His presence offered in the wildflowers along the path. When I emerged from the woods into the neighborhood again, I noticed that the stop sign at the end of the road was entwined with purple morning glories. And I heard the Spirit whisper, “Stop. Pay attention. The flowers are for you.”

Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”

My growth in Christ has meant embracing that truth of God’s love for me with new openness and receptivity. God invites each of us to find ways to celebrate His unfathomable love.

Perhaps you could choose a particular color this autumn–something to remind you of God’s love and grace and delight in you.

As for me, I’m wearing purple these days. And relishing the lavish attention of God.

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