Dry ground

When the soil is dry, plants are driven to push their roots deeper and deeper to find water. It makes them stronger in the end, though the long summer may be hard to endure.

08 St Fagans Garden

A dry spell in our garden has just ended. Rain is falling, sinking into earth and pattering on leaves.

In the next dry spell, their roots will be that much closer to water.

I am in a spiritually dry spell. After a winter spent at an oasis of God’s nearness, I am feeling lost and a bit bewildered. God’s arms seemed to encircle me, his presence seemed so near, and now I pray and I feel I am speaking to an empty room. My heart is heavy, and it is hard to lift it high to God.

But our feelings are no measure of our circumstance.

The truth is, I am firmly planted in the love of God. His nearness is as certain as the ground beneath my feet. I must learn to trust in the certainty of his promise, of his character, instead of how I feel.

I put roots down, seeking water, seeking spiritual life. I return again to old texts that have encouraged me before, seeking the silver trickles that once refreshed me. I seek new sources of life, thirsting for the living water that does not run dry.

Christians have written often of the strangeness of these times. Why does God withhold the rain, the sense of his presence? Why do we have to endure dry ground?

In our emotion-reliant culture, it is more important than ever that followers of Jesus have deep roots, strong foundations. We have a rockbed of truth that never moves, and we must take our stand firmly on that, not on feelings.

God is faithful, when I am not. God is good, all the time. God is loving, in a way we can barely understand.

These truths must be the source of my life, my strength, not how I feel about them.

And is it possible that I have been seeking nearness with God, merely to enjoy the heady emotions that follow? Surely God himself should be my heart’s desire, whether he chooses to bless me or not.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

(Psalm 73:25)

Running Joy

I must start with a disclaimer. I don’t run. I am bad at it. I imagine I look like a string puppet from behind. Apparently my feet don’t pace evenly but randomly, like a penguin. Or so my loving husband tells me.

However, in my days of yore I took part in cross country races. (I always came last. Long-legged boys from older classes would leap past me, gazelle-like, splattering me with mud as I picked my way around the bogs, trying to avoid wet feet.) Follow the path at your feet

I like the idea of running; but I’m just not good at it. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy other sports instead like badminton and the school run.

So why am I writing about running?

I know this blog is about joy but bear with me for a few paragraphs. I’m kind of in a boggy place right now, in terms of joy and spiritual life. I suppose it reminded me of those old cross country runs, slogging along wet gravel paths, trying to find the least slippery way through the mud, that feeling of not enough air, of pushing your legs to take one more step. One more step. One more step.

I haven’t slept through the night for nine months now. BabyGirl sleeps. But I lie awake, trying not to think about irony, or how I’m going to survive the next day, and how much damage I’m doing to my children my being grumpy and exhausted all the time.

It’s a slog. Reading the Bible is painful. Praying just ends up in a vague mess of tears and pleas for help which so often seem to go unanswered.

And it struck me that when the Apostle Paul described life as a race, he meant a marathon, not a sprint. There are times when your frozen legs feel like lead, the wind is in your face, hail is stinging your cheeks and other runners are passing you. It feels like you’re not going to make it. You’re wondering why you entered this race in the first place.

I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m angry with myself for letting my short temper and impatience get the better of me again and again. I’m frustrated that I cannot hold onto God more firmly, or make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in me, or let the life of Jesus into my home through me.

Where is my joy? I’ll be honest … right now, it’s a damp little flicker that seems to be failing against the dark.

I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m being open about it. This blog is about joy, but I always wanted it to be clear that there is joy for the hard days as well as the days when the sun shines and running is all downhill. In fact, there is joy especially for those days.

There is joy in knowing I’m flexing spiritual muscles, even though it hurts. I’m learning to give myself up for my children, to be more humble, more sacrificial, more like my wonderful Jesus. It’s tiny baby steps. But it’s progress.

There is joy in knowing that I’m loved even here, even now. Even when I’ve nagged the husband, and berated the kids, and lost my temper, and told God that he isn’t being fair, stamped my spiritual feet and told him that he’s asking too much. (To which he softly replies, “Too much?” And holds out his wounded hands).

There is joy in kneeling at the cross and reminding myself of the forgiveness that is mine. The grace that is poured on me to start again tomorrow as if today never happened.

And soon the sun will be out, and the path will be dry at my feet, and that finish line will be visible on the horizon.15 View from Garden

Here is love

Our culture has many false assumptions about love.

Very often what we mean by ‘love’ is warm feelings towards another person.

Being ‘in love’ means that a person makes us feel excited, happy, tingly, aroused.

Both these definitions are very self-centred. They focus on Me and My Feelings.

 * * * *

Love in the Bible is an action. To quote Massive Attack, ‘love, love is a verb, love is a doing word’.

To quote a slightly more famous person,

‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

This means that love, real love, involves sacrifice. It involves putting Me and My Feelings aside, and putting the interests of others ahead of my own.

It also means that those we do this for are our friends, not those we especially like, or enjoy the company of most.

 * * * * *

More astoundingly, it means that the Person who said this considers us friends, because he laid down his life for us.

This is the essence of Easter. Jesus did not consider his own comfort, his own happiness, even his own life to be more important than our need. He did not rationalise, or draw a line in the sand, ‘this far and no further’. His love is radical, the right kind of extremism.

He held back nothing.

 * * * * *

We are meant to be moved by this. We are meant to consider his strength, his determination, his courage, his selflessness … and worship.

 * * * * *

We are also meant to reflect on ourselves. How often do I love like this? Even my own husband? Even my own children?

How often am I drawing lines in the sand, hoarding my reserves, trying desperately to cling onto my own life and happiness and comfort, instead of pouring it all out for the good and happiness of others?

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.

But whoever gives their life for me will find it.

(Luke 9:24)

When God says ‘no’

Prayer is my secret weapon. I am weak and broken, and full of fear. Prayer is how I cope. I lay my fears, my weakness and my shortcomings before my God. I receive forgiveness, and help (not often in the form I want or expect, but, still … help).

Prayer is also my source of joy. I learned through tough times that acknowledging the good things that overflow in my life (or saying ‘thank you’) brings great joy, even in pain. It puts my focus where it belongs – on the divine – instead of on me.

 

But sometimes I hit a wall. It happens most often when I’m praying for safety or protection (usually from whatever sickness bug is lurking in the ether) because I ask God to keep us safe, and then the finger of fear prods this nasty, insidious thought to the front of my mind:

What if God says no?

 * * * * *

That is the dilemma of every person who prays.15 View from Garden

This is the fear that turns our prayers from worship and love to manipulation and whining.

This is the doubt that turns our God into an idol, a creature of my imagination who can be persuaded and bargained with.

 

You remember idols. The Bible has a lot to say about them. They work like this: the idol wants (or even needs) something. I provide that thing (be it fruit, or money, or a hundred prayers, or my child) and then the idol does what I want.

It’s a business transaction. A bargain.

If I keep up my end, then I can fully expect god to do his bit and protect me.

 

Except God isn’t like that.

God is God. He will do what is good and right, no matter how we wheedle and plead and beg. He rules over heaven and earth and an army of angels. He even rules over demons and the forces of evil. He ‘turns the hearts of kings’, and puts governments in their place. This is the God of earthquakes, lightening and volcanos, the God of stars and solar systems … mighty forces that put the pinnacle of human power into the realm of ants and bees.

If I come to God imagining that I can offer him something he needs or wants, I do not know him at all. He isn’t even bothered by my disobedience – it makes no difference at all to his plans. All the forces of evil stand against him and he wins.

God cannot be bargained with. We offend him if we try.

 

So how do I pray to him? How do I get past the fear that God might say no?

 

Aha … (this was an ‘aha’ moment for me this week so I’m putting it in writing just for you) … aha! The fear that God might say no is the very thing that keeps me from trying to manipulate him.

Stay with me.

Look that fear full in the face. God might say ‘no’. This is not because he is petty or mean or because I haven’t offered him something big enough, but because he is great and good. Because he is God. If I was praying to a petty deity I could be afraid of his ‘no’ because I might offer him my whole life and it might not be enough.

But if I come to God as God, recognising him as the awesome Ruler of everything, if I recognise my place as the created, dependent, helpless being … if I then place myself into his hands … I am in the safest place in the universe.

Yes, that thing I fear might happen, but only because God has allowed it.

 

And God is God, who never willingly sends suffering into human lives (Lamentations 3:33). He remembers that we are dust. He doesn’t just remember, he knows. He became one of us. He knows what it’s like to suffer pain and sickness, tiredness and fear. He died so that you could be free of those things one day.

He is my Father. He is my Friend. So I can ask him for anything. I must remember as I do so that he is God. He may well say ‘no’ – but it is remembering this, while avoiding the impulse to try to tame the whirlwind, that is real prayer. It is laying my requests humbly before God, acknowledging on the one hand that I have no right at all to expect a favourable answer … but remembering on the other that God is good and merciful and kind and overflowing with love towards me.

 

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

C. S. Lewis ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’.

Looking at the thing I fear or want, looking at myself … this induces panic and the attempt to manipulate the God of heaven and earth.

Looking at God … this produces prayer.