Prayers For the Path: The Prayer of the Cross

There are some stories we want to change, that we need to change. There are endings we would love to switch and details we would love to erase.

This is one of those stories.

Because it would be so much easier if we could tear this one up and write a different one.

We would do anything to break out our pens and mark this one up. We would love to find a way to detour around the Upper Room and discover a way to turn the page on everything that happens between now and Sunday morning. We would enjoy it so much more without the cheap betrayals and costly silence. We want to believe we aren’t the ones who deny and then run away.

We’d like to rewrite this story because we would like to avoid the truth we know about ourselves. We want to tell a different story this Holy Week, one that doesn’t require blood and sacrifice. Sure, we wish there was a better ending in it for Jesus, but what we really crave is a way to avoid facing ourselves in all our sin-stained glory. What we really want is a story that will allow us to justify ourselves.

That’s the thing about the truth, though – you can’t erase it no matter how big your eraser or how short your memory. And while we are pretty good at avoiding it the rest of the year, tonight and tomorrow we can’t.

As we make our way to the Upper Room we realize that all the things we have counted on to save us have fallen away. As we listen to the questions and answers of a trial we realize our need to have all the answers doesn’t satisfy the questions that really matter today. As we walk the final road with Jesus to the darkness of Good Friday, we realize the things we thought were significant – our bank accounts, our waist size, our last name – have disappeared in the shadow of the Cross.

We realize this week what we try to avoid every other one – that our rush to status and our desire for acclaim won’t give us what we need. We come to grips with the truth that there are problems beyond our capacity to solve them. We have to admit that we can’t provide what we truly need; absolution and redemption and the only status that matters come from somewhere else.

We all receive hope in the same way – by allowing the One with the towel and the water to cleanse us. No matter what we have searched for we find what we need in the One who was declared guilty. In the dark reality of the Cross all any of us can do is go to Dark Gethsemane and beg for mercy from the One who received none from us.

We can’t rewrite this story because its truth won’t be denied. We try to cover it up but the harsh reality won’t be silenced. We try to keep it hidden but it always finds us.

Truth and grace are persistent that way.

And so tonight and tomorrow we’ll tell this story again, to remind ourselves how they fit together. We’ll tell it to anyone who will listen and we’ll tell it to ourselves. That when everything falls apart, all isn’t lost. That when everyone else has left, we aren’t alone. That when all we’ve counted on has vanished, hope can still find us.

Hope is still here because he is still here. He is up there and what he has to offer is enough. It’s the only thing that is.

 

Note: This is the fourth post in a series, Prayers for the Path, prayers that keep us rooted and close to Jesus as we follow him this season to Jerusalem.

Prayers For the Path: 

The Prayer of Silence 

The Prayer of Gratitude

The Prayer of Lament

 

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Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Gratitude

We have been conditioned to understand Lent as a season full of darkness.

After all, this is the time in the church year when we pay particular attention to the gaps our sin has created in our relationship with God. These are the days when we are invited to come to grips with the idols that have pulled us away from the path of Jesus. These are the nights when we contemplate how for all of us both our origins and our endings include dust.

But that’s not all God is up to during these forty days. If we do Lent right, our season of preparation will include much more than wallowing in hues of dark purple and black. Instead, Lent can be a great teacher of gratitude.

The season teaches us that confessing the sins that weigh us down reminds us of the depths of God’s mercy for us. Realizing the idolatries within us leads us to remember all the ways we depend on God’s forgiveness. Acknowledging the power of temptation invites us to give thanks for the God who is showing us a better way.

The practices of confession and penance don’t leave us trapped in a darkened room with no escape but instead open a door to gratitude that frees us receive the gifts God wants to give us.

That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in praying The Examen. One of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, The Examen invites us to pay attention to the presence of God in the ordinary activities that make up our lives. By providing structure and guidance to my evening prayers, the Examen has directed me to consider all the places and ways I have experienced God’s grace and mercy. It has also revealed plenty of areas of sin to confess, but even those are opportunities for gratitude when contemplated and prayed in the light of God’s ongoing mercy and grace.

This season invites us to live with a particular type of prayer for an extended period of time. The prayer isn’t so much the point – instead it is about allowing the prayer to point us and redirect us back to God.  It’s really about the turning.

The particular turning I’ve been able to experience this Lent has been less about facing my own inadequacies and more about experiencing the generosity of the God who forgives them. I am becoming more grateful not just for isolated moments and encounters but for the consistent love and character of the God who is drawing me deeper into relationship through these prayers.

The closer we get to Jerusalem the more important this is. Because just like those early disciples I am not sure I like exactly where all this is headed. I have my own ideas about who Jesus should be and what he should be about. I have plenty of thoughts about what he should do and what redemption should look like for me – and particularly for those who aren’t me.

And yet living and praying with gratitude is what keeps me going. Thankfulness for all God has done for me is what keeps me from turning back – at least for now.

We need gratitude and thankfulness in order to trust the goodness of God who is taking us somewhere we don’t want to go.

Thank you. This is the prayer I’m praying today.

How about you?  What is is that you are thankful for?  How might you develop gratitude to live with trust in the God who is calling you to something different?  What do you need to return to God with all your heart?

 

Note: This is the second post in a series, Prayers for the Path, prayers that keep us rooted and close to Jesus as we follow him this season to Jerusalem.

Prayers For the Path: 

The Prayer of Silence 

 

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Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Silence

It is four o’clock in the morning and I’m wide awake. My brain is racing with words demanding to be put into sentences and things needing to be marked as done. There are the things I wish I had said yesterday, and a few words I wish I hadn’t. I can spit out the things that need to get done today, so I can replace them with things tomorrow that are only a little less urgent.

This is no way to begin the day. This is a life, but not life we would call real. This is something less than that.

And so instead of this sprint what I want, maybe more than anything else, is to sit for a minute and remind myself that who I am has nothing to do with this list of things and everything to do with the One who declares I Am. What I’m looking for is a place to hide, if only for a moment, from the demands to go and do. I’m in search of a shelter from the doom and gloom seemingly all around us. I’m trying to find a space not to do but to be.

And so I run, not for the hills, but to the silence, to listen for the words of the God who has something to say to me. Even me. If I can listen. For a moment.

I run to it because, even at this hour I can remember the lesson that so many wise teachers have tried to get into my frazzled and hurried soul – grace doesn’t come from producing words but receiving them. I must decrease, He must increase, John the Baptist said after encountering Jesus.

Sounds about right.

I can’t begin to count all the hours I’ve spent wondering what I should say to God or the best way to approach God in prayer. I’ve struggled my whole life to find the right words to describe my situation and labored to put things in the most appropriate light.

This is how I’m wired. I like words. I read them. I write them. I use them to justify why I’m right and everyone else is wrong. I want to tell God how things need to be and exactly what I need to have happen.

And so it’s humbling to be reminded that the key to receiving the rest God gives begins with me speaking less and listening more. Grace isn’t a great argument to win but a gift spoken to me.

When it comes to prayer, my words are optional. God’s word is essential.

And so I remember the words I need – You were created for more than this. I remember the words that define who I am – You are my child. I remember the words that order my days – Take up your cross and follow me. I remember the words that call me back – You were bought with a price.

Not words that came from me, words that were given, words that changed everything.

And so what I am trying to do right now, in this season of Lent, is to get close enough to Jesus to hear what he has to say. Not from a distance, but up close, where I can see his face and hear the tone in his voice.

That’s what all of this is about. I’m tempted to speak, to tell him what he needs to notice. I want to tell him where to direct his attention. It takes everything I have not to tell him how to solve a particular controversy. It’s on the tip of my tongue how he needs to set this person straight.

The longer I can go without talking, the closer to him I get. The more of his words I hear the easier it is to see what is in front of us. The more I pay attention to him, the more I begin to act like him.

This is why I want to flee the noise. This is why I crave the silence. This is why I run away from the hustle. This is why I want to rest in being present.

To hear his words and to learn his way.

This is the prayer I need.

 

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The Fast I Choose

Today is a fast day. But in our church, we’re putting the fast off as long as possible.

Before we confess our sins, before we remember our deaths, before we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we’re going to eat together and we’ll probably even sing happy birthday to one of our students. Because after all, it’s not her fault she was born on a day when the church gathers to remember the darkness of sin and the inevitability of death.

And yet we will fast. Because today is all about the fast.

We fast to prepare for this holy season because that’s what Jesus did. He prepared to live into his calling by heading from baptism to the wilderness, from receiving a blessing in the water to facing a tempter in the wild. For forty days he fasted and prayed. For forty days he endured the anguish of hunger. For forty days he walked through the lull of fatigue. For forty days he felt the pangs that come from going without. And for forty days he remembered that the God who had sent him to this place was the same God who was providing for him now. He might not have had food to end his hunger or water to quench his thirst but with God he had all he needed.

From almost the beginning the church has been inspired by Jesus’ journey of self-denial to take one of our own. We remember his journey of preparation in the hope that the one we take will prepare us as well.

And so we fast, living without something that seems essential, to remember what it is we truly need. We experience the pain that comes from going without to receive the gift of rediscovering how we are already being filled up. We sacrifice to lose the delusion that we are self-sufficient to gain what we need to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross and beyond.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to fast. You might fast by giving up sugar, or heaven forbid, caffeine. Maybe your fast is a digital one, a more difficult sacrifice for some of us than giving up food. You might fast from being critical of people who see the world differently than you do. Or you might try the transformative practice of becoming less critical of yourself and learning to see yourself through the eyes of the God who created you.

(If you are looking for a last minute way to fast this season, I’ve got a few ideas here.)

And yet for me, the fast I choose to begin today is to fast from looking away. The fast I choose during this Holy Season is to train my eyes on the Cross and to center my attention on the generous love of God on display there.

If we’re honest we can admit how hard it is to have a single-minded focus on anything. We’re overwhelmed by the rush of things competing for our attention, the clamor of voices and the cacophony of ideas to consider, causes to support, actions to take.

We’ve been trained to have our head on a swivel, gazing in all directions. We’ve been schooled in the practice of not dwelling too long in any one place. We’ve been lured to believe that what we long for is to be found in a shallow understanding of many things.

Lauren Winner’s Wearing God has served as a guide for me during the last several weeks. One of the images holding my attention in a book full of them comes from Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.

The only miracle that day wasn’t God appearing and calling Moses from a shrub on fire. Indeed, as Winner writes, “The miracle is that Moses paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed…To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”

We have been deformed by turning our attention everywhere else. But God can still reform us if we can find the strength to stare at the Cross of the One who has come for us.

It’s not easy to look at it, the brutality of its pain and separation. It’s a lot easier to wear a cross than consider this One – the destination charted by our sin and brokenness, the suffering inflicted on the One who taught us and still teaches us how to love.  And so we look away, desperate to find anything else to hold our attention. We avert our eyes, ready to consider anything but our own separation. It is all just too much.

But if we can look at it, we can find our hope. If we can turn back and linger, we can discover a path forward. If there our eyes can remain, we can remember all that has been done for us in love.

If we can go there, we can learn again the truth that sets us free – with God we have all that we need.

This is the fast I choose.

 

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This Week is Our Week

When I first began in ministry, I felt the need to make sure that my congregations knew how important it was to enter into the full drama of Holy Week.  I made a big, and likely annoying point, every year – that we couldn’t go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter. Instead, if our Sundays were to be filled with light, we had to experience the darkness during the week – lowlighted by the betrayal of Holy Thursday and the death of Good Friday.

I almost rejoiced in encouraging, maybe guilting is a better word, all of us to take our liturgical medicine.  It was for good reason, because for far too long we Protestants have struggled to proclaim a faith that speaks to our whole lives.  To put a theological word on it – we’ve struggled with Incarnation.  We know how to sing the Hosannas and to triumphantly proclaim that the Lord is Risen, but we have a much harder time finding our words when life calls for confession and the world’s events demand lamentation.

Holy Week, when we experience it well, becomes a school of formation and a way to help us find the words to speak our faith in a more authentic and complete way.

During the last couple of years, however, I have come to think and speak about Holy Week in a different way.  It isn’t that we don’t need to dwell and contemplate darkness and death – because of course there’s no Easter light and Resurrection without them.  It is just that its more than that – I’ve come to believe that Holy Week is less about Christian education and a whole lot more about identification

That’s because beneath the dramatic and other worldly moments that fill Holy Week are emotions and experiences that are much more common.  The high profile failures of Jesus’ disciples aren’t foreign to us.  In fact, the reason they are so powerful is that they aren’t beyond our imagination at all, but instead mirror our own failures in faithfulness.

 

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The hard truth we don’t want to acknowledge is that the gap between our promises and hopes for faith and the lived reality of our actual commitment to Jesus is what he himself once called a great chasm. No matter how many times we protest, most of us are always one opened mouth away from sounding a lot like Peter and one temptation away from becoming a betrayer like Judas for a lot less than 30 silver pieces.

That’s why this week is actually for us.  We need this week to be reminded of Gospel’s fullness and to once again receive its grace. We don’t need to worship on Thursday and Friday to learn a little more or to have a more defensible faith.  We need to hear these stories again and to live into this drama one more time so that we might relearn and take in the story God is still writing – that sin is costly but isn’t permanent, that darkness may loom but it doesn’t reign, and that no matter how bad your betrayal there is always a road to redemption.

That’s the thing about Holy Week, it never changes – it isn’t an obligation to slog through but is a gift to be received again and again.

And so, if you can recount the dark details of failing in faith and falling short of the glory of God – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who knows what it is like to fall asleep while you are praying, or if your prayer life is so far gone you don’t even think about it before giving in to sleep – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who shout with the crowds but haven’t yet figured out how to show up in crunch time or when the popular kids aren’t around – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who got trapped into putting your hope in the promise that a politician or a coach or a preacher could lead you to the promised land only to be disappointed once they got your vote or your adoration or your check – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who look at the damage and carnage in the world and are overwhelmed and paralyzed by hopelessness and powerlessness – this week is for you. 

If you are one of those people who made that long walk up the aisle one Sunday morning only to return to the life you were hoping to move beyond – well this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who can’t see God’s creative genius in yourself and can’t escape the muck of depression and self-loathing – this week is for you. 

If you are one of those people who long for a more real connection with God only to despair that it will never happen for you – this week is for you.  

If you are one of those people who has experienced the disappointment and darkness that comes from sin and a crooked path – this week is for you.

This week is for all of us who have tried with everything we have to follow Jesus and have still failed. No matter the shape the darkness is trying to take in your life – know that this week isn’t a burden to bear or another obligation to be weighed down by. This week is what it has always been – a gift to help us, a gift to rescue us, and a gift to redeem us.

My hope is that you can experience it again this year and can receive it as it was always intended.

It is a gift – and it is for you.

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