Praise When there is Cost
LENTEN REFLECTION #5 - Let us bring A continual Sacrifice of Praise
Written by Jennifer Gorham
“We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord! We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord. And we offer up to you our sacrifices of thanksgiving, and we offer up to you, our sacrifices of praise.”
Imagine this song being sung to a jaunty and quick tune, with hands clapping on the beat, smiling faces. This was a devotional song from my childhood, my whole body came alive as we collectively offered praise to God.
“Through Jesus, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise….” This was a verse I skimmed over earlier in my life, even as I sang the above song regularly. I couldn’t understand how sacrifice and praise went together, and honestly, I didn’t take time to find out. It escaped me that the author of Hebrews was writing to Christians who had suffered intense losses on many levels as a result of professing their discipleship to Jesus and his teachings. They encountered loss of social standing in their Jewish communities, as well as persecution from the Roman empire. Many lost valued relationships and sustainable jobs. They were unmoored and floundering, and wondering if it was worth it to follow this Jesus when it brought such real, tangible loss.
The author of Hebrews honors the fact that this praise they offer is a sacrifice. The author encourages them with the truth that through Jesus, who suffered the cross and built a bridge for us to be reconciled to God; who continually goes outside the camp to those who are rejected; who points us to the enduring city to come… Through this Jesus, they can endure as well. These believers could know and trust that they will be found, that they have a place, that they have a Savior who also knows rejection and promises a better life to come in the enduring city.
These Jesus followers knew the consequential loss as they sacrificed praise to God openly with their lips. This kind of sacrifice is hard to teach when life is comfortable. It is hard to live in this earthly reality while focusing on being citizens of a different place; to sit with the fact that while God wired us for belonging, this place is not where he says we will find the fulfillment of that desire.
No matter what is happening with our jobs, our social standing, our relationships, or our physical bodies, we are called to view life through the lens of Jesus’ sacrifice. This perspective offers us reconciliation and future belonging to an eternal and enduring city. Through this lens, we can offer praise continually to God because he comes to find those of us who are rejected, outside the camp when this world is unkind because we know it is not our ultimate place of belonging.
When I consider the praise I read throughout Scripture, it is more often based in God’s character and Christ’s sacrifice as opposed to thanking and praising him for what he has done in our individual lives. While I do thank God for who He is and all He’s done, I often get sucked into offering praise in only small details rather than stepping back with the same perspective that the Hebrews author is reminding these early Christians. My praise should be rooted in God’s character and not my circumstances, no matter how wonderful or tragic. This is how we are able to continually offer praise, because it is based in the unchanging love of God and the once and for all sacrifice of the cross and the resurrection. When I get a job, I thank God for His unchanging love. When my loved one rejects me or dies, I praise God because He never leaves or forsakes me and promises a new life after this one. When our world is chaotic, I praise God because He holds all things together. When we sense revival and new birth, I praise God because He is giver of all life and sustains our breath.
Songs are my medium for praise. They give me words for praise when I can’t form it; they give me a way to engage when part of me wants to argue that there’s nothing to praise because there’s so much pain and loss. Songs give me a path into the kind of praise that offers correction and perspective that doesn’t come naturally with regular words in prayer.
I understand the sacrifice now, for these Christians and for myself. To praise God with my lips will bring sacrifice and loss in my life. It will also be my comfort when I suffer loss and pain. To confess the name of Jesus will cost me my grip on suffering, my version of God who acts in accordance with what I want or think is best, my pride, my sense of belonging in this world, my comforts that exist in this life. My prayer is that this Lenten season will shape our ability to praise continually, as we let go of our attachments to earthly comforts.
“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not. As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed, thy hand has provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
Encouraged in Endurance
LENTEN REFLECTION #4 - LET US RUN WITH ENDURANCE
Written by Ronald B. Waddell Jr.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us
Hebrew 12:1 NLT
When I was in high school, I ran sprints. The 100 and 200-yard dash were my favorite events. The challenge was that I didn’t have top-end speed, so I would consistently end up in 3 or 4 in the meets I participated in. My coach had me run the 400-meter race (once around the track) a few times. This race is brutal. You have to manage your speed between a ¾ sprint to maintain the stamina to make it around. Once you hit the third turn, the lactic acid builds up in your muscles, and your lungs are aching. I didn’t know any of these things when I ran this race for the first time, so I went out full tilt. I led the pack until that third turn and quickly dropped from 1 to finish second to last. I had no gas left. What I learned is that there are a few keys to running with endurance. To run an endurance race, a few things stand out. First is the pre-planning required. Because the question isn’t “what are you going to do if it gets tough”, but “what are you going to WHEN it gets tough?” Secondly, the early achievement you have is not always indicative of the outcome. When I began my faith walk with Jesus, everything was new and exciting, and it almost as if the world was different. There was so much I was learning and growing in that I was in a full-out sprint for the Cross. Somewhere along the journey, I hit that third turn, and the lactic acid started building up. I didn’t have a plan for this; I anticipated that this feeling would last forever. I wish someone would have taught me about the passage in Hebrews.
In my arrogance and/or ignorance, I believed that I would never lose the momentum I started with. Eventually, I’ve learned to look at those who have gone before me in the faith, both in the Bible as well as around me. This is where it is beneficial to have a historic crowd of witnesses in addition to a contemporary one. We aren’t to run this race alone. Paul encourages us with this “Let us”, where he’s including himself while speaking us as the Church.
Recently, I was reminded of a principle of healthy spirituality that impacted me: There should be someone ahead of you, someone alongside you, and someone you are leading. I had people alongside me, and I for sure bought into the idea of being a leader. What was lacking was a witness who had been further along in the race to help prepare me for what was coming and how to pace for the challenges. In the absence of a contemporary spiritual mentor, God, in His wisdom, provides us with Biblical characters to learn from; see Hebrews 11, often referred to as the “Faith Hall of Fame.”
Our ultimate guide in living with endurance is Jesus himself. Jesus put some spiritual disciplines into practice that helped him navigate the race set out for him. Even though keeping his focus on the goal, he needed the encouragement through time with God along the way. He also had his close friends that he rocked when it got challenging.
When running this race with endurance, remember to check in with someone who is further along in the race than you; they have some wisdom to share. Remember, you will hit that proverbial third turn at some point, and it will be challenging. Don’t be surprised by it but rather be prepared for it and have a plan. Ultimately, please keep your eyes focused on Jesus; he is the author and finisher of your faith.
The Risk of Considering One Another
LENTEN REFLECTION #3 - LET US HOLD ONTO HOPE
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER GORHAM
Almost everyone I have talked with this week has hit some kind of emotional wall. Tired...the week felt really long...feeling off kilter...are we back at March?...will this pandemic ever end?...did I mention tired? It’s the story of my week as well. I’ve been looking for the hole to crawl in, to hibernate and to honestly, avoid all demands and responsibilities. As I went to sleep Monday night, lying on my side in the fetal position, I told God this desire, and I heard his gentle whisper, “That’s ok, I’ll be in the hole with you.”
Pastor Tom taught this week from Hebrews 10, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” After the sermon ended, I found myself thinking YES. Then, almost immediately, NO! As I reflected, three things came to mind as reasons why we might resist considering one another even on a week when we and others desperately need it.
First, considering one another requires my vulnerability with others about my struggles and personal weaknesses. Even while wanting to go in a hole, the Spirit gently nudged me this week to share my struggles with a few friends. Their prayers and encouragement have carried me through the responsibilities I can’t walk away from and spurred me to return to God each day.
Second, considering one another requires my openness to others’ influence and their speaking into my life. Our “You do you, I’ll do me” culture is full of good intentions and poor follow through as we actually live it out. Practically, this means we don’t have space to speak into each other’s lives with truth, honesty, and love. This distance based on “no judgment” keeps us inflated with our own egos, isolated, and avoiding growth or change because they require encouragement, friction, and discomfort. I often find that I resist influence because I don’t want to change, be inconvenienced by someone else’s perspective or need, or feel the pain related to what they are communicating. When we truly consider one another, even when someone says something that we find intrusive, we are able to reflect on what God might be saying through this person and why our response is what it is.
Third, considering one another requires us to be vulnerable as the one who speaks into others’ lives. The reality that we can be cut off without a chance to dialogue keeps us relationally scared of dire and catastrophic consequences. Many people I have talked with express anxiety about saying anything as they fear losing relationships, employment, etc. Humans have a core desire to belong with and to others. That desire is threatened constantly by this fear. Now, I’m not advocating for speaking all we think or believe, as this can be damaging and driven by our own needs and egos. We need to speak under the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in love and with humility. But we do need to speak to one another, spurring one another on to love and good deeds within the family of God. This calls us to step outside of ourselves so that we know others and are involved in their lives, so that we know the context into which we speak.
How do we know we are listening to the Holy Spirit and speaking out of God’s heart? Listen by reading Scripture, as this is the primary way God speaks to us. Be in relationship with and listen to godly people. Listen as you pray. Listen to those in your world. And then try. Take the chance.
Brene Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She says that it is not weakness, but that our most accurate definition of courage. This seems consistent with The Apostle Paul’s statement that God is glorified in our weakness, so we should not be afraid of what feels weak. It is courageous to step into these spaces. But I will be honest, I have been hurt by God’s people. I have also been healed by God’s people. If I get scared by the wounds I have endured or by those I have inflicted, then I withdraw when the author of Hebrews directs us to not give up meeting together. This isn’t just coming together to worship on Sunday (whether on zoom or in a building) but leaning into authentic and messy relationship with our community of faith. The most important relational work we can do as we listen, speak, live, and love is to engage and then repair when there are wounds.
What does this have to do with Lent? Lent is a long 40 days based on the wilderness experience Jesus had after his baptism. We are wandering, wondering, and at times feel alone. While Jesus walked the wilderness alone, he doesn’t require us to be alone in our Lenten practice. We might feel tired, overwhelmed, stuck, obstinate, or many other responses as we walk this path. On our own, we are inclined to be self-focused and centered in our own experience, life, and needs.
Lent requires things of us. This sacrifice requires us to be brave, to sit in the feelings that vulnerability arises within us and to move toward one another in it, even when we have to face hard things about ourselves, others, and the world. But this is the bravery God asks of us in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Doing Lent together intimately and openly leads to us being better able to step outside ourselves, not in judgment, but to serve and encourage one another as we seek restoration, justice and shalom. This space is risky, beautiful, scary, lovely, and worth it.
I need this. Without the spurring from my community, I cannot on my own love well and do good works. I bet you need it too.
LENTEN REFLECTION #2 - LET US hold onto hope
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER GORHAM
Hope is a word I have wrestled with in the last few years. It’s overuse in our culture, even as Christians, often makes me sick to my stomach as though I ate an entire bucket of cotton candy. When we see the word ‘Hope’ materialized, it is often in pastel colors or on a shirt with flowers or some other image that is so nicely cultivated. But my experience is that hope is not light nor wispy. These images make it seem less like the anchor that it is meant to be in our walk with Jesus.
One of my first graduate courses in psychology looked at the core factors that influence the outcomes of being in therapy. Everyone wants to know how to make therapy work, right? If you picture a pie graph, one of the two largest slices is the expectation of change a client brings to therapy. Factors like what tools the therapist uses or how research based they are not nearly as important as this expectation is.
The other word for this is HOPE.
Often, people’s ideas about how things will be different must also be wrestled with. They have a picture of how this hope they have will play out, and the work they have to do is often about accepting the ways that change will play out in reality - letting go of how they thought it would happen. In the end of their process, their hope often looks different than where they had originally placed it.
Welcome to my walk with Christ.
Tish Harrison Warren tells a story in her recent book (Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep) of a couple who say, as they watch their infant son being rolled in for a major and invasive surgery, “We have to decide right now whether or not God is good, because if we wait to determine that by the results of this surgery, we will always keep God on trial.”
A few years ago, I went through a series of trials in rapid fire succession, losing several members of my close “village” to death while also undergoing financial stressors and caretaking demands in my home to abrupt and unexpected health issues. I was so tired, so grieved, and if you were to read my journals you would see a great deal of tears and anger and confusion. You would see my desperate desire to believe that God was good while wrestling with the reality of my pain and grief, and not always believing it because of how easy it is to tie this up with circumstances. If God is good, then why is life hard? How do I keep confessing hope when there is so much hard?
We, I, have to let hope be transformed. To be examined honestly. To have the chaff blown off so that we can hold fast to a real, substantive hope. Lent is a perfect time for this, because we abstain from things to expose where false trusts and hopes. This week already has shown my cracks again, these deep questions of God’s goodness no matter what is going on in my life. I have to be careful not to tie my phrases of “God is good” to when things turn out well, as we and I so often do.
Hope was forged in sweat and tears in Gethsemane, at the bloody and gut-wrenching cross, and the dust and ash of a rising body from a grave. This is not a light story. It is not fluffy, but rises from the pain and suffering of human existence by the tender presence and mighty hand of God. Hebrews 10 says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” God is faithful in bringing about resurrection of life and salvation. This hope is not in what the Trinity will continue doing for us, but what has already been done that keeps shaping us. The hope is in his presence, and his faithfulness to make all things right at some point through this narrative of death bringing life.
Even while the process is hard, it is also profoundly more hopeful to me than keeping God on trial. God does not change. This hope I have will never fail, because the one who promised is faithful. We confess this hope together as it anchors us as a people walking with Jesus through turbulent circumstances, because this hope was forged in the very types of circumstances that we walk daily. Our communal confession holds and binds us, as we speak hope over each other when sometimes we personally cannot confess. Hope is risky, and vulnerable. Hope allows space to open in our hearts rather than it becoming jaded and deadened. Sometimes we avoid hope so as to avoid disappointment. But God’s hope, not rooted in circumstance or people or outcomes, stands, holds and anchors, and never disappoints.
Lent brings me back each year to this hope, often through pain as a pathway to the hope found in the garden, at the cross and the empty tomb. I sing through tears as each year of my life etches this more deeply into my soul, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
The Gift & Mystery of Lent
Lenten Reflection #1 - Let us draw near
Written by Jennifer Gorham
I was 23 years old when I became aware of the church calendar. Celebrating Advent worked naturally into my Christmas celebrations; Lent was an interruption in time and disconnected from the spiritual rhythms I was comfortable in. Even so, the discipline and focus on growth in Lent drew me into the practice. Self-awareness was my jam, so this fit well with my personality. Even though positive in a lot of ways, this trait of mine also held a healthy dose of legalism as well as the desire to be successful. Lent was inviting me to use this self-awareness to orient myself towards God in the harder moments. It was easier to practice my own self-sufficiency and willpower, struggling to maintain self-discipline in moments of need and failure rather than turning to God.
Why would I not turn to God? This is not a hard question for me to answer.
It was easier. I felt less needy, and as though I was proving myself to him, which was far less vulnerable.
It has taken more than a decade of Lenten seasons to begin to understand this deep reality and disconnect from what God desires. He already knows my weakness, and I prove nothing but my humanity and pride when I think I have to prove myself before coming to him. Even though my mouth would have said God’s grace is sufficient, something inside me, much more subconsciously and much stronger than my words, said that God would reject or tolerate me, or worse, grow and change me, if I came in my vulnerability and weakness.
Draw near to God, says Scripture.
This is the gift and mystery of Lent.
Before the author of Hebrews encourages the community to draw near to God, he/she shares that the sacrifices and offerings that were a part of their rhythm of life are no longer necessary. Jesus was the sacrifice once and for all. This sacrifice makes us perfect as we are also being made holy. Lent is not a time of sacrifice and offering in order to gain salvation, favor, or to show our holiness. It is a season to focus, and recognize that Christ’s sacrifice gives us the ability to enter into God’s presence with confidence rather than trepidation, no matter our situation.
This process is not easy. Facing my need and humanity directly is tough. There are so many options for me to use as a shield to protect myself from it! Sitting in the process, and the accompanying emotions, is often the hardest part. Not trying to make it better, not trying to grow on my own, but listening to what Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit have to say to me.
Jeremiah 2:13 says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” These patterns of avoidance and self-sufficiency are my broken cisterns that cannot hold the whole of life. These ways of managing fear, anxiety, shame, and sin are what feel comfortable to me. No matter how familiar, they are not sturdy and do not lead me into God’s loving presence. Lent gives us the chance to face the death of self, of false and fleeting comfort, of repentance, so that God can give us springs of living water to quench our deep thirst. We face our need and train ourselves to orient ourselves towards Christ rather than something broken, unsatisfying, and that does not heal.
What I have found during Lent, which is beginning to bleed through to the rest of my year, is that God is waiting for me in my joys as well as my laments. Honestly, I would rather skip the pain and head to the party, but the lament is where he meets us to heal. He waits with tenderness, mercy and love rather than disappointment and judgment. I usually am still trying to work on my speech presentation, like the younger brother returning home to his father. This comes from my felt need to establish rightness with him again (offering, sacrifice, penance). He is simply delighted that I have returned, as he knows that orienting myself in his love is what will correct and actually transform my character.
If you have never practiced Lent, you might wonder what this practically looks like. One year I gave up criticism. When halting my tongue, I realized that my tendency was to stew on the reasons for my criticism even without saying it aloud. Lent helped me move from the place that built resentment to one of turning to God in the moment, asking for his truth and comfort for whatever anger, hurt, or shame was driving the criticism. As I sought his forgiveness, he gave it, and this tenderness wrought tenderness in me over time. Authentic encouragement became the fruit.
Lent can be hard. Facing our broken cisterns doesn’t feel good, and it will be tempting to bypass the hard work of lament by focusing on success and the trophy of making it through to the end. But success isn’t the point. The point is the process. We should not rush the process as we ask for God’s comfort and restoration to our lament, and end in a posture of worship. Practicing Lent as a community gives us necessary support to share what we learn about ourselves and God in the process, which might be less earth shattering and less than flattering than we want it to be. We do it together so that we can encourage each other when we fall, receive grace and gentle direction, not to avoid the hard things discovered, but to sit in the discomfort and let Christ do his work within those discoveries. The joy that comes from God healing our laments is so worth the wait.
Let US draw near to God. “How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Psalm 36:7-9