There have been several times over the last few months when I have simply run out of words (or energy, for that matter) to pray. “Help” or “Lord have mercy” seemed to be all I could mutter.
In those moments, I often turn to worship music to fill in the gaps, to give me fresh words to offer up, to minister to and comfort me when scripture feels lifeless. Recently—and I promise Zac Hicks hasn’t paid me to say this—I’ve been running to a handful of Advent Birmingham songs, namely “Take Heart with Altar Fire.”
“Take My Heart” is a song of confession: asking for forgiveness for sins committed in thought, word, and deed and confessing that God is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all-knowing. It’s a beautiful way to take our confession of sin in the Book of Common Prayer to another level, to shake it up a little. The chorus and bridge of this song get me every time.
First, the chorus, which says,
Take away my love of sinning, straighten every bent desire,
Fix my soul upon your promise, take my heart with altar fire
We probably could talk for hours, unpacking our love of sinning — yikes!
But the part I’ve really latched onto in prayer is “straighten every bent desire, fix my soul upon your promise.” Yes, we do have God-given desires, unique to each of us, but my default is to take those desires to extremes, warp and twist them to the point that they’re almost unrecognizable, looking more like idols than gifts.
Not only are my desires bent but so often my posture is bent too, so curved in on myself that eventually, I’m totally closed off from the good God has for me. Instead, I’m looking to myself to set the course for my life and absentmindedly inviting God along for the ride. All this accomplishes is sending me on a fast track to the pit of despair. Where else would I go if I’m spending all of that time wallowing in my own darkness and weakness?
So I pray, as Annie belts it out, that God might straighten my posture to look up for long enough to refocus my eyes on him. Joy and peace would abound in fixing my eyes, my soul, on his promisesthat he will never leave or forsake me, that my future and salvation are secure in him. Such freedom and relief would come from releasing my white-knuckle grip on my desires and plans so that He can straighten them out and use them according to his will.
I continue to pray as the song moves to the bridge,
Fire of God, consume my heart, burn it down to only faith,
Til all that’s left of me is only you, Christ my glory, Christ my praise.
This is where things get a little uncomfortable. Being consumed by fire causes not only pain and suffering but ultimately death: the letting go of any illusions of control to walk one step at a time, as Heidi preached on Sunday, with the only guide worth following through this life. As Paul writes in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Hard pill to swallow, but I’m dead, and a dead person can’t do a whole lot to help herself, but I’m also loved, redeemed, and brought back to life by my heavenly Father whose steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting, as the psalmist says.
I continue to pray that God would remind me daily of my death and continue to burn away all other desires and parts of me that go astray from him, that I will be so captivated by his love for me that, quoting Paul again in his letter to the Philippians:
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.