Nine reasons you can dare to say no

DSCN4978

A year ago I wrote a blog post, “Ten reasons you can dare to put your heart out there.” I return to it often. But sometimes the daring to say no is as hard as the daring to say yes. And as important.

I met them on Saturday – an Iranian man who had been in Canada for ten years, and his newly arrived wife. I surprised them by addressing them in their language. I hadn’t expected the desperate unfolding of the conversation. “Will you teach her? Do you have time? She needs someone to help her with grammar.” She’s enrolled in an English as a Second Language school, but they don’t have the lowest level, which she needs, and she’s struggling in her level two class. “I don’t think I’m the right person for that. I don’t have any training in teaching English.” “She needs you. She needs you. Just a couple of hours a week. To teach her English grammar.” He begged. I prayed.

I felt deep compassion for her. I know what it’s like to be a stranger in a new country. I know that love is at the heart of our Christian calling. I wrestled with the commands to care for the vulnerable: was God’s voice in those commands enough to mean that I should take this on? Yet it felt like a burden rather than a challenge. There was no sense of God’s voice calling me into it, it didn’t fit with my gifts or training, and I was already feeling the limitations of time and energy in being faithful to the things I know I’ve been called to do. Yet I still wrestled with guilt. What about all those commands to host the stranger? Was God disappointed with me?

He brought me back again:

  • A need doesn’t constitute a call. Jesus finished His earthly ministry leaving many sick who hadn’t been healed, many hungry who needed food, and many Jews who hadn’t heard that their Messiah had come. Yet He could still pray “I have finished the work You gave me to do.” (John 17:4) Paul, faced with a need—and even a door that God had clearly opened—left for another region because he “still had no peace of mind.” (2 Cor 2:12-13)
  • Even Jesus said no to say yes. Reading Luke 6, I watch Jesus spend the night in prayer then choose from the crowd of followers, all wanting to be close to him, twelve. Just twelve. Tens, hundreds maybe, disappointed. (Was there an Iranian husband wanting English lessons for his wife among them?) But Jesus knew that He could only build into His apostles as He was called to do if He intentionally chose and guarded time for these few alone. He invested in the few for the good of the many: those few, having been well discipled themselves, would disciple others.
  • We respond to God’s commands as individuals. And as a body. Right now my call is not to teach ESL. It’s to mentor someone who does.
  • God knows my heart better than I know it myself. “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. . .” (Psalm 139) He knows my desire to please Him, He hears my prayers for guidance, He sees my attempt to choose wisely. I can ask Him to correct me if I’m seeing wrongly—and then leave it with Him.
  • I can trust His voice. He promises that His sheep will hear His voice (John 10:27), that He will lead me as I ask Him (Prov 3:5-6). I can trust His voice when He says yes. And when He says no.
  • He knows the deeper reasons for my struggle—and desires to set me free. Do I want to keep everyone happy? Get my own sense of worth from meeting the needs of others? Fear that God will be disappointed with me if I say no to a need? Do I want to love well (with that love that springs from God’s freedom and invites others into it)—or do I just want everyone around me to feel loved? “Jesus, please help me to see beneath the surface. And do in me what only you can do to set me free to follow You.”
  • This is His work, not mine, His kingdom, not mine. I’m given the honor of working alongside Him, but I’m (thankfully!) not asked to run the show. He cares for them. “Jesus, if you’re not calling me to meet their need, will you please bring someone else into their life who is called to walk alongside them in this?” And He cares for me. He knows how much I can handle and what He has created me for. Jesus is gentle—and He’s bigger than my limitations.
  • I’m helped in this stewarding of what has been entrusted to me. “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Tim 1:14).
  • This struggle (like any other) can be a gift, a love-offering to Jesus (as well, of course, as a place He wants to love me.) It can be hard to learn a new way of being in the world. Hard to listen and follow. Hard to disappoint others even when I know that, this time, saying no is part of living faithfully. And I can hold out to Jesus my willingness to do it anyway—Here, Jesus, for you, because I love you—and He who knows my heart and delights in my love will smile on me and whisper Thank you.

The question that’s changing my mornings

DSC_0002

“Grrr. This morning routine takes forever!”

I’m settling back into a new term, trying once more to find a rhythm that lets me prioritize the things to which I’m called. And I’m coming face to face again with just how long it takes me to get from waking to working. There’s the lying in bed with my Bible waiting for medication to kick in before setting feet on the floor. Then the salt drink to fill up my blood vessels and keep my blood pressure up. The trip to the gym or the run on the seawall—skip this and the light-headedness quickly puts me back in bed. Stretching, and, lately, doing the exercises for a shoulder that’s not behaving. Shower. Breakfast. Drying my hair. And finally, three hours later, I’m settling at my desk with my blue pottery mug of lemon-ginger tea and my laptop.

Often I enjoy the routine—the stretching of stiff muscles, the morning fog lifting from the water, the moments for my heart to rest while my body awakens—but that morning I was frustrated. I’d risen early, eager to make some progress on my book, and still it seemed that the morning was half-gone before I was getting down to it.

And then I remembered. The question. The one I’ve been asked so many times. “I wonder what Jesus might think about this?” I pray again the prayer that my spiritual director prayed the last time we met: “Jesus, help us to see what you see.”

I feel like I’ve been floundering around in the fog and fuzz, unable to find my glasses, and someone has just handed them to me.

I see that my morning routine has a lot to do with faithfulness—that word that I’m borrowing from Holley Gerth as my focus word for this year. I love the way she describes faithfulness: “Doing what is needed to take good care of what is entrusted to you.” My body, my soul, my ministry—that morning routine is foundational to all of these, a way to bring my whole self before God and pray with body and soul.

A memory pushes its way to the surface, a conversation I had with God four or five years ago as I was dragging myself the few blocks to the gym on a windy winter morning, wondering if it was worth the effort. If I was worth the effort. I sensed God say, “If you can’t do it out of love for yourself, will you do it out of love for me?” I can race (or drag) through the morning routine, resenting it, or I can offer each moment as a love-gift to the One who cares about this body, this self, that He has entrusted to me.

And then the surprise: “Oh! This morning routine is a gift from You to me too!” For so many years I’ve wrestled to receive His love, to believe it. I’ve lived as though my work for God mattered more to Him than I did. And now He has stitched into the workings of my body a sort of love-tattoo, an every-morning reminder I can’t ignore: “You are far more important to me than the work you do for me.”

Somehow it seems Jesus isn’t in the same hurry I am to race through the routine. It’s another place for Him to love me. And for me to love Him back.

When you’re feeling stuck

IMG_5564

Photos courtesy of Marny Watts

Photos courtesy of Marny Watts

“Go away! How will I ever get anything done with you harassing me like this?”

I’m sitting down to write and I need a little peace.

The drone of the electric saw from the apartment upstairs breaks the silence. Then the sharp bang, bang, bang, metal on metal, of a hammer. The voice of the critic in my head is much more distracting. “No, not that way!” “What will people think?” “Can’t you come up with anything better than that?”

I’ve tried many times to get rid of her. It hasn’t worked. She seems a sticky shadow determined to follow me through life.

And then I wonder. What would happen if. . . ?

I have a new theory: Every time I feel stuck, I’m trying to run from something that I’m unable to escape. I’m trying to run when the invitation is to turn and be with Jesus in that place.

I decide to test my theory. It can’t make anything worse. I stop trying to get rid of her, decide instead to try treating her the way Jesus treats me. I name her, turn to face her, tell her I’d like to get to know each other better.

Turns out there’s been a misunderstanding. She cares about me. She thinks it’s her job to protect me.

“But, Little Critic, that’s Jesus’ job.” I’d learned the lines of the hymn before I went to Afghanistan: ‘The protection of His child and treasure is a charge that on Himself He laid.”

“Oh, Little Critic, it’s no wonder you’re so stressed that you’re always shouting at me when you’re trying to do a job like that! You and I both need someone on that job who’s big enough for it.”

I have an idea. “How would you like to come and see Jesus with me?” She looks at me, wary. But when I smile at her and reach for her hand she lets me take it. I’m beginning to see through her bossy, critical façade. She’s really just a little girl, small and frightened and eager to be loved.

Together we move close to Jesus. Together—all three of us together—we sit to write. Little Critic is quiet at first, a bit in awe of this new presence. It’s not long, though, before she begins to wiggle and squirm, restless and unsettled. She has seen what I’m writing. “That’s stupid! . . .”

She has only half learned what I’ve told her so many times, “We don’t talk to people that way.” She’s not too bad with others, but she seems to think I don’t count.

I watch as Jesus reaches over and gently puts an arm around her. He pulls her close and settles her on His knee. How many times have I watched my Dad love an unruly child that way? She snuggles in.

I turn back toward the keyboard, thinking I’m free to write. I’m surprised to find myself off-balance, unsure how to proceed. It’s like I’ve been leaning my weight into a heavy wind and now that it has dropped I have to shift my weight to keep from pitching forward on my face. I’m a little afraid. Will I even know how to begin making my own decisions when her voice is quiet? I look over and see Jesus, still holding Little Critic close, turn toward me. I move a little closer, listening for His voice. If He’s this gentle with her, He’ll be gentle with me too.

The wonder of who you are

DSCN3664

We’ve walked a few steps into the new year and the sparkle and promise of newness has me back at the beginning, pondering again those first days when God spoke the world into being. I watch as sea separates from blue sky and the first bright stars twinkle. I listen as the first warblers trill and turkeys gobble and cocks crow. The sweetness of the first rose mingles with the tang of new pine.

God turns from one mode of creation to another, from word-art to sculpture, as he stoops to shape the first adam, or earthling, from the adamah, the earth.

It’s a world full of surprises. What will come next? Where will it pop up? What means will God choose to bring it into being? Like a newly formed horse, wonder gallops close and I glimpse the marvel of the first words God spoke to his new human creatures: “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen 1:28). Never again would The Creator make a human being without the involvement of his creatures. The fingers that had formed the first man and woman had woven into their souls and bodies all that they needed for this honor. The Creator had made his creatures co-creators.

We stand a few steps into this new year, called, here too, to be co-creators with God. Not solitary creators, thank God. Adam and Eve were not left to figure out how to shape tiny toenails or cause the embryonic gut to rotate into its correct position, and we can release the burden of trying to cause in ourselves or in others what only God can create. But not passive observers either. Like the first humans, we are asked to choose—in all its challenge and simplicity—to open to love.

Why New Year’s resolutions don’t work (and what does)

IMG_4076

It’s years since I made a New Year’s resolution. I became discouraged with having them fade to a shadow of what I’d envisioned after a mere few weeks.

It hasn’t always made sense to me. I have daily rhythms and weekly disciplines which I live fairly consistently. Why do I struggle to sustain a New Year’s resolution?

But lately as I’ve been asking God if there’s something He wants to bring to my attention as we begin 2015, I’ve been brought back again and again to the words of Simone Weil:

“The effective part of [our] will. . . is not effort, which is directed toward the future. It is consent; it is the ‘yes’ of marriage. A ‘yes’ pronounced within the present moment and for the present moment, but spoken as an eternal word, for it is consent to the union of Christ with the eternal part of our soul.”

All is grace; we simply receive. Yet consent does not eliminate work or negate intentionality; it transforms them. Consent is the “yes” of Mary to the Holy Spirit overshadowing her, a “yes” which opened her to something no amount of her own effort could birth—and led her into the lifelong labor of loving her child and letting him go.

It is the “yes” of abiding in the vine—and bearing much fruit; the “yes” of taking Jesus’ yoke—an instrument of (shared) work—and finding rest; the “yes” of bringing a few crumbly loaves to Him and watching Him bless them and break them—and hand them back to us to distribute to those waiting. It does not pretend away our smallness and fragility: “All people are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field” (Is. 40:6-8). Nor does it limit the power and love of the Light which, with our consent, enters us, transforming our tiny offering with God’s own mighty one.

“To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy which so powerfully works in me.” (Col 1:29)