This. I Wanna Do THIS.

I’ve started readings for one of my fall classes, CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–which looks like it will be a chance for us to push into what being in full-time ministry will be all about. (“You sure you wanna do this?”) One of the books is Stephen Seamands’ Ministry in the Image of God, and I just have to quote from his Chapter 4, on “Glad Surrender.” In it, Seamands himself quotes from Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Check this out.

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In the story, Much-Afraid is puzzled when she learns that she is ascending to the High Places not to remain there forever but so she can descend back into the Valley of Humiliation from which she has fled. At the beginning of her journey with the Shepherd, as they cross a swift stream running through the valley, he bids her listen to the words being sung by the rushing water: “Come, oh come! Let us away–Lower, lower, every day…From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys sown below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.”

The water sings joyfully as it hurries down to the lowest place, yet the Shepherd is calling Much-Afraid to ascend to the High Places. It seems contradictory, so Much-Afraid asks what it means. “The High Places,” the Shepherd explains, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again […] for it is only on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves in an utter abandonment of self-giving.” At this point in the journey, however, Much-Afraid is perplexed by the Shepherd’s answer.

Later, though, when they arrive at the borderland of the High Places, she begins to understand. Standing before the towering cliffs still to be scaled, the Shepherd has Much-Afraid look up at the mighty waterfall flowing down from the High Places. When she does, she is awed by the tremendous height of the rocky lip over which the water cascades down and the deafening noise as it crashes down onto the rocks at the foot of the fall. Never has she seen anything so majestic or terrifyingly lovely. Once again, as in the valley, she hears the waters singing, “From the heights we leap and go, To the valleys down below, Always answering to the call, To the lowest place of all.”

To Much-Afraid the fall of the mighty waters is both beautiful and terrible. She can hardly bear to watch the water cast itself down from the heights above only to be shattered on the rocks beneath. Sensing her apprehension, the Shepherd urges her to look more closely. “Let your eye follow just one part of the water from the moment when it leaps over the edge until it reaches the bottom.”

As she does, she gasps in wonder. Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could have almost supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went. To the water this was the loveliest, most glorious movement in the world. And its joy didn’t end when it broke upon the rocks below. In fact, the lower the water went, the lighter and more exuberant it became. A rushing torrent, it swirled triumphantly around the rocks and then flowed downward, lower and lower, around and over every obstacle in its way.

As the Shepherd explains, “At first sight the leap does look terrible […] but as you can see, the water itself finds no terror in it, no moment of hesitation or shrinking, only joy unspeakable and full of glory, because it is the movement natural to it. Self-giving is its life. It has only one desire, to go down and down and give itself with no reserve or holding back of any kind. You can see that as it obeys that glorious urge the obstacles which look so terrifying are perfectly harmless, and indeed only add to the joy and glory of the movement.”

Soon Much-Afraid discovers firsthand what this means. After she ascends to the High Places and is given a new name (Grace and Glory), compassion for those in the Valley of Humiliation wells up within her. They are so fearful and bound; she longs to tell them how the Bridegroom-King can free them as he freed her.

As she rises to go down into the Valley, she sees the great waterfall and hears the song again, “From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys down below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.” Now she fully understands. She has been brought by the King to the High Places so that she too can pour herself out in joyful abandonment. The thought of being made one with the great fall of many waters filled her heart with ecstasy and with a rapturous joy beyond power to express. She, too, at last was to go down with them, pouring herself forth in love’s abandonment of self-giving. “He brought me to the heights just for this,” she whispered to herself, and then looked at him and nodded.

What Much-Afraid once considered terrible, love’s abandonment in self-giving, has become to her altogether lovely, a fountain of unspeakable joy. What she has shrunk away from for fear of losing herself, she now gladly embraces as the grand purpose of her existence.

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This is at least the third time I’ve read this, and it’s moved me deeply each time I do. In fact, this passage was part of one of the more powerful experiences of God that I’ve had in the past year. I read this for the first time over lunch in my office at work, tears streaming down my face. I felt two things at the same time. I felt the desire to join the water “to go lower, lower still.” And I felt more affirmed in my path than in practically anything else this year: that yes, this is what I am calling you to do; that it will be all right even though it might look scary sometimes; that this is “the grand purpose of [my] existence.”

I can’t say I’m ready to do this, and at the same time, I don’t think anyone ever can. But the rivulets are forming up. They are flowing into trickles, then into tiny streams, then on into a great river that rushes to the edge and off, abandoning all it knows for the ecstasy of the flight, and the privilege of going lower, lower still. Come along for the ride.

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Put Me To The Test

Last time, I mentioned that this year my bride and I would be giving up something each day of Lent–something to de-clutter our lives and let us focus on God. Proving once again that God does have a sense of humor–or at least, a willingness to say, “OK, you’re on!”–we now have something new to give up, and we’re doing it together.

Last week at a doctor’s appointment, her doctor told her that she needs to make a serious shift in her habits. He told her to start a ketogenic diet. This means we get to go wild on all the meat we want, including bacon (yay!), but have to live on a very low carbohydrate diet (boo). I’ve commented before on how my waistline could stand a trimming, and to give her support as well, I’ve joined in.

Here we are saying “Lord, let me have the strength to give something up in Lent,” and here’s God coming right back at us: “Okay, eliminate carbs.” Until this week I had no idea how carb-heavy our diets truly were. My usual breakfast of a grapefruit with a drizzle of maple syrup…gone. So would be any of a thousand typical American breakfast options: bagels, muffins, hash browns, pancakes, waffles…oh, sure, I can have all the eggs, bacon and sausage I want. Guess what my cafeteria at work doesn’t stock for breakfast?

Lunch: Out goes anything on bread, so my usual sandwich shops are gone. Salads, yes, and soups, sure, as long as I have some sense that they’re lower in carbs. And sure I can have meat from the cafeteria, if they offer something that isn’t breaded before it’s fried. Dinners have been OK–we skip the potato or rice now. But man, do I miss dessert. I *really* miss dessert.

It hasn’t been any easier for my wife, whose breakfast of choice for decades has been a can of full-strength Coke. We’re both struggling to find suitable replacements for all three meals, and for snacks that we can enjoy in the in-between times. This isn’t easy.

And yet, I feel, that’s the point. The lesson we may be being taught this Lent is more about discipline and commitment. You want to follow me? asks God. OK, here’s what it will cost you: your comfort zone, your usual habits, everything accustomed will go away.

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39)

Me and my big mouth, offering to give up something. Thank you, Jesus, for taking me up on it and forcing me to confront what you’re teaching. May we find the strength to turn from what’s comfortable and find instead the fullness of what we’re being called into.

Lent

Hard to believe but another year has come since last year’s effort at setting aside the noise and giving up the superficial “Lent” for Lent. As I tried to explain last year, the traditions around giving something up aren’t the point: the point is to focus on God, to draw nearer to him over these weeks, and so if it takes giving up chocolate or beer to do that, then fine, but the essential point is to get closer to God.

To that end, this year my bride and I are trying something a little different. This year, instead of giving something up for Lent, we’re giving something up every day. Let me explain.

Each day, we’re going to go through our home, our offices, our lives, and we’re going to jettison something that clutters our life–something that gets in the way of a simpler life, something that prevents us from having more time for reflection and devotion and growth in Christ. For instance, I’ve gone through the top two drawers in my dresser. If yours are anything like mine, they were f-i-l-l-e-d with clutter. I got rid of old membership cards, luggage tags (!), broken cufflinks, things that I simply do not need in my life. I’ve also put away some of the last bits of College Boy’s high school graduation paraphernalia that I’d held onto; I don’t need it out, it can go away. I’ve gone through my closet and soon I’ll go through the rest of my dresser, pulling out things I’ve not worn in years and where I know someone else can make far better use of them than I can.

In some regard, that’s the easy stuff. In a few days I imagine we’ll get past the low-hanging fruit and still be looking for things to give up. Then it might get harder. We may start giving up as much TV as we watch in the evenings, so we can spend more time in study. We may start giving up time on social media, or memberships in some clubs or organizations that, y’know, we just haven’t been active in but still keep paying dues. And by the end of this time of Lent, maybe we’ll have stripped down our lives to the point that we can be free of so many distractions, and can focus more on Christ: so we can more readily

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim/

In the light of his glory and grace.”

Wishing for a Lent that leads us back to Jesus, back to the full relationship we’re called to have.

And if all else fails, we can try this:

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Giving Up “Lent” for Lent

Here we are in the midst of the 40 days of the Lenten season before Easter, and the most common question people ask is, “What did you give up for Lent this year?”

In years past I’ve done that practice: I’ve variously sworn off fried foods, alcohol, and even doughnuts in some years. Each year I also tell people that I’ve given up smoking; I’ve never smoked, which makes that particular abstinence an easy one to keep.

I’ve come to appreciate, though, that the point of Lent isn’t necessarily to give something up, it’s to draw closer to God. If there’s something in my life that’s more important to me than God, then yes, I’m supposed to replace that with God–hence the abstaining from any of a number of habits for 40 days.

However, since the point is to get closer to God over this time, perhaps we need instead to pick something up. Pick up a Bible and read each night. Pick up a prayer habit each morning over coffee. Pick up a friend, reach out and lift her spirits during a dark time. All of these are more meaningful in building a better, more lasting relationship with God than seeing if you can make it 40 days without chocolate.

So this year I’m giving up “Lent”  for Lent–giving up the mindless giving up, and instead being more mindful of my relationship with God. I’m taking an online class on belief and grace during Lent, and that’s helped keep me framed and focused during this time. I’m being more intentional in my prayer life as well. My hope is these allow me to draw closer to God in a more significant way than ever.

Oh, and I gave up doughnuts too. Because, well, my waistline suggests that’s probably needed also. But that’s another story.

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