O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

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Giving Up ALGAE for Lent

HolyLentThere are plenty of things I could give up for Lent this year that would improve my health and well-being, both physically and spiritually, but the one I have chosen to focus on is anger and frustration. This is a life-long struggle for me as a highly competitive and perfectionistic person. Those qualities are not all bad and even useful when trying to achieve some goals in life, but when it comes to being at peace and satisfied with my life, not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing, but being at peace has become much more important to me than winning a golf game or achieving economic or academic “success.”

I’ve done a pretty good job of concealing my angry side from most people. My professional persona is one of a caring, compassionate pastor and teacher. But my family and close friends have seen me break golf clubs in frustration, chase referees down the court at a high-school basketball game, or pitch temper tantrums when the difficulty of a home improvement project exceeds my limited skills or problem-solving ability far more often than I would like. So for all the times I have embarrassed any of you, my sincere apologies.

My decision to focus on anger as a barrier to peace this Lent is in large part because of an excellent course I am participating in called “Peace Ambassador Training 2.0.” Sponsored by the Shift Network, this is a 12-week web-based series of seminars focused on Mindfulness Meditation as a way to achieving more inner peace that can lead to peacemaking in the world. We are almost half way through the 12 weeks, and I had a breakthrough aha while meditating this morning as some things from our classes came together for me in a powerful way.

Last week’s class, led by Colin Tipping, was about radical forgiveness as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for peace. My insight this morning was how well forgiveness fits into the overall framework of this class. In our very first session Sister Jenna shared a helpful way to remember some basic shifts that are necessary to achieve a more peaceful state of being. She says we need to remove the ALGAE from our lives. ALGAE is an acronym that stands for Anger, Lust, Greed, Attachment and Ego. The quick, easier-said-than-done version of Sister Jenna’s teaching is that we need to replace Anger with Peace, Lust with Innocence/Purity, Greed with Satisfaction/ Joy, Attachment with Love, and Ego with Self-respect.

That’s obviously a God-sized transformation, but in my meditation today I saw more clearly how other the parts of that ALGAE formula contribute to anger for me: ego – not ever wanting to be wrong or out of control – being disrespected for my opinion or actions and not having “all my wisdom” given its due. If I replace ego with self-respect then I am not dependent on the praise or respect of others. To have self-respect I have to let go of regrets and painful memories, i.e. forgive myself and others. If I have self-respect I don’t need things I am attached to that feed my ego an unhealthy diet. There is also no need to lust after others or things if I’m at peace with myself, and therefore no need to be angry about not getting what I want/deserve, i.e. what I think I am entitled to. I love how that all comes together – now to just learn to live it and get it out of my head and into my being. “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Footnote: I was reminded how challenging this can be even as I was writing this piece. In a hurry to capture my thoughts before they left me and dealing with competing family commitments that were impinging on my consciousness as I wrote, I made numerous spelling errors as my brain tried to rush faster than my fingers could type. My old default reaction of frustration and anger quickly kicked in, only making the typing that much worse. New habits take time. The experts in self-help say it takes 21 days to change a behavior pattern. My personal experience is that it takes longer to teach old dogs like me new tricks. And the bigger the changes, the more time and the more spiritual help I need. That’s why the 40 days of Lent are a great time for me to ask for God’s help in giving up the ALGAE in my life.

To that end I draw hope and inspiration from “Guide My Feet,” a wonderful African American spiritual we sang at a recent worship service:

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Amen!