When you need to know how deeply you’re loved

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We’ve been soaking in Philippians this fall, reading through it every week as a church, letting it seep into our pores. I’m awed by the love which pours itself out for me, becoming servant, becoming human, dying for me. Or at least I think I should be awed by it. In reality I’m not sure I understand it at all. I think if I did I wouldn’t find it so hard to rest in this love.

I’ve been asking God, “Why do I keep running from the love that You offer?” I’ve been seeing many reasons – fear, self-protection, laziness. . . and a need to know that the gift is given out of love which delights to give Himself to me, not out of obligation, benevolence, or condescension.

“It may well be that the fundamental suspicion which Christianity arouses is directed not against the disparity between its practice and its message, but against that message itself: it may be the suspicion that, when Christianity speaks of the love of God, it means something different from what it says.” (Vanstone, “Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense,” p. 74)

To believe we’re loved, we need to know our presence makes a genuine difference to the one claiming to love us. But God is complete in himself. He needs nothing. How can I matter to Him? Given His sufficiency, how do I make sense of the longing that I see in Scripture of God for his people, the longing that cries, “You have stolen my heart,” (Song of Solomon 4:9) and “How can I give you up?” (Hos 11:8)

I read a simple story, and it’s here I begin to understand the extent of God’s self-emptying love for me:

A family, happy and fulfilled in their own love, adopts an orphan. They do it not because they lack anything, not because they need the child to meet a need of their own, but out of the overflow of their love and a desire to share that love. But once the child becomes part of the family, the family feels incomplete without him. When he is absent, there is a lack. If he runs away, his absence brings anxiety and grief. He is missed. His goodness and happiness is necessary to those who have come to love him.

“In spontaneous love, the family has surrendered its own fulfillment and placed it, precariously, in the orphan’s hands. Love has surrendered its triumphant self-sufficiency and created its own need. This is the supreme illustration of love’s self-giving or self-emptying – that it should surrender its fullness and create in itself the emptiness of need. Of such a nature is the Kenosis of God – the self-emptying of Him Who is already in every way fulfilled.” (Vanstone, p. 69)

When it’s Thanksgiving and you want to feel it

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So there it was—Thanksgiving Sunday—and I was doing my best to get into it. I want thanksgiving to characterize my life every day of the year, so it felt especially sad that on this weekend that our Canadian forefathers and mothers set apart to give special thanks, I was full of self-pity. Yuck.

I know sometimes thanksgiving is a sacrifice; we’re to give thanks anyway, even when it feels hard. Often that choice—to give thanks anyway—opens my eyes so I can see again how good God is, and joy creeps in and my thankfulness switches from something I’m doing out of sheer obedience to something I’m doing because God is so big and so good and loves me so much that what’s not to give thanks for?

But there are days—like yesterday—when I want to feel thankful, I try to give thanks anyway, and my eyes stay glued shut and my self curved in and my thanks stays tasting like cardboard. I wondered why.

So I asked.

“God, You are so good—there’s enough in Your character to keep me giving thanks forever. And on top of that you’ve poured out so many other blessings. Why don’t I feel thankful even when I want to, even when I’m trying to give thanks?”

“It’s hard to give thanks for a gift you’ve just pushed away.”

Huh.

I think we’ve been here before, He and I.

I can feel deeply thankful in the middle of illness, in the middle of grief, in the middle of just about anything—as long as I feel loved. And since God’s love for me never changes, when I’m not feeling loved, it’s because I’m pulling away, or pushing him away.

So I ask another question, one that I plan to keep handy for every time thanksgiving fails to open my eyes, “Jesus, where am I pushing away your love?”

A string of questions follows:

  • Am I insisting on carrying burdens that God wants to carry for me?
  • Am I berating myself (perhaps for not feeling thankful enough?) while God is whispering that he loves me and just wants me back in His arms?
  • Am I refusing to receive His love through the hands of a friend? Failing to rest when He invites me to? Prioritizing the do-list over the moment of celebration He has invited me into?

He brings me back once more to a prayer that helps me stop pushing Him away:

“Blessed Trinity,

I receive your love,

your presence

and this day as a gift from you.

I open my heart to you.

Please lead me deeper

into your transforming love

as we live these next hours together.

Amen.”

And as I give thanks for Grace that always welcomes me home and Love that wants me to know I’m loved and parents who listen and a friend who drives, my cardboard thanksgiving catches fire and I wonder if the world will end before I run out of things to give thanks for. And this—this Love in which we find ourselves—is the flame that turns thanksgiving to thanksliving and moves us out to change the world.

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When you don’t have much to offer

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I ran along the garden path, wishing I’d brought my camera. The grasses bowed, shimmered, almost glowed in the early morning light.

I moved slowly, my run half walk, each step dragging the weight of my heart. There are times it’s tempting to pull the covers over your head and skip the day.

I stopped to stretch and a tear slipped from my eye. I gave it to Jesus. It was all I had to give.

As I walked back past the grasses, almost other-worldly in their silvery shimmer, I sensed His nudge. “Look closer.”

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Sometimes you have strength to give, and sometimes willing weakness. And when your threadbare weakness has worn right through and all you have left is emptiness and tears, just bring Him those. But be warned: you might have to go for your camera. It’s nothing for this one who spoke the Milky Way out of empty space to string worlds of beauty from tears bent to his light.

The one simple question that’s clarifying all my decisions

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I’ve always disliked decisions. Every day seems to hold a million or so, and I struggle with most of them, so anything that might help with that process—well, bring it on.

I was praying through several yesterday afternoon and stumbled across a question that clarified them all: “What does love look like here?”

I remembered a prof sharing several years ago the freedom he’d found in realizing that though he could never quite manage to stay on top of his do-list and empty his email inbox, he could choose to live each moment in love.

Love: it’s the one thing God asks of us. “’Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27; c.f. John 13:34-35; 15:1-17)

  • Do I try to get out of the baby dedication I’d committed to attending before I discovered that one of the classes for the mentoring course I just signed up for is on that morning? What does love look like here? The answer might be different for different people, but I know what love looks like for me, and I all of a sudden see that my desire to attend that particular mentoring session is less about love than about a greedy hunger to learn all I can and a hyper-responsibility that never lets me miss a session and a fear that if I miss that session near the beginning of the course I’ll never feel part of the group.
  • Is this a time to sit in silence with God or to reach out and meet practical needs? What does love look like here? I watch Love embodied and see that sometimes love looks like retreating to give our Father our undivided attention, and sometimes it looks like delaying those plans for solitude for a day to meet the needs of a sick and hungry crowd (Matt 14:13-14, 22-23). It always looks like listening and trusting the Father to lead us into what love looks like for Him living His life out in us in this moment (John 5:19-20; 12:49-50; 14:10-21; 15:4, 9-10).
  • Should I go to that evening event I’ve been invited to? What does love look like here? For me, this time, love looks like saying no. I can better love God and neighbor and this self that He loves by recognizing that this introvert isn’t made for parties and seldom sleeps much afterwards and another night of lost sleep right now would neither be loving God well (by honoring the way he has created me and living within my limitations) nor loving neighbor well (it’s hard to have much to give to my housemate and others to whom I’m called when I’m sick and cranky from being overtired).
  • Should I send that follow-up email or not? How should I word it? What does love look like here?
  • Should I say something to her or not? What does love look like here?

Where there doesn’t seem to be an answer to the question, the decision is probably neutral. Many times we’re free to choose. But I’m being surprised by the breadth of decisions into this question gives insight.

I’m also surprised by how much freedom it gives. If you’d asked me before I tried it, I might have feared that such a question would feel like another heavy burden, another thing for me to fall short of, rather than freedom. It doesn’t. As I’m prayerfully asking this question, willing to act on the answer, many of my previously unseen motives that have been clouding the issue become obvious and the decisions clear, and grace is given to move ahead.

Praying about decisions this way is quieting my heart as I discover once more that the call to love always comes in the context of the call to live in Jesus’ love (John 15:1-17). He knows me. He loves me. He wants to set me free. He fills me with Himself to enable the action and, when I stumble in trying to hear what love looks like or stumble in trying to live it, He, Love, draws me close once more with the gentle reminder, This is where I want to love you.”

Why you don’t need to fear evil

DSCN5747I step out the back door. The sun should have risen by now but who can tell? The world feels heavy as thick grey presses low against us.

I’m wearing my too-close-to-orange running shirt and black bottoms and this day feels too much like a shivery Halloween night. A crow sits black and silent on a fence post as I run past.

I listened this morning to Jesus warning Peter of his denial and I feared my own weakness; where would I deny Jesus today? “Oh, Father, you who rule everything, may your name be praised. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth—in me—as it is in heaven. . . . Lead me not into temptation, and when temptation does come, save me from giving in to evil. . .”

In this morning’s grey, I felt like I’d just stepped into Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness. There’s fog, and dark shadows, and the landscape is barren with ragged rocks. When I looked at the painting a couple of days ago, at first I just felt heaviness. As I continued to look, I began to see what is really going on: birds and animals encircle Jesus, each bowed in worship; angels hover, eager to serve. Even the great lion sits calm and docile with head lowered. Only the curving body of the snake moves toward Jesus’ heel. But the snake is small, small and as pale as the dust on which it slithers. He is dust, a creature like all the other creatures surrounding Jesus who sits dressed in royal red and blue. Fierce fangs notwithstanding, the snake remains a mere creature, no more danger to the outworking of the mighty plan of God than any other creature. The snake strikes—and in the same instant finds his head crushed.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet.” (Rom 16:20; cf Ps 91:13; 1 Cor 6:3)

The death blow of the cross continues under our feet, Jesus in us continuing to crush the head of the serpent. Maybe snake-crushing victory is always heralded by the sting of a bitten heel. Maybe we only know the serpent-slaying power of grace through wilderness struggle and Gethsemane tears and face-to-face encounter with sin.

Know this, friend: We may fail. God will not. Satan is small and conquered—no greater threat to the outworking of God’s purposes in world affairs or in your church or in my life than he was to the unfolding of God’s plan in the life of Jesus.

“I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)

“. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

I run home, fallen leaves crushed crisp under my feet.