Learning to breathe

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I don’t pretend to be a fantastic singer. I’ve sung in choirs and I delight to sing harmonies when we sing the old hymns in church. But a friend tipped me off to this Q&A and voice coaching turns out to be soul curing and learning to breathe the very stuff of life.

I could spend weeks pondering this fifteen-minute clip. But here’s the love that I hear God singing over me through the voice of Joyce DiDonato today:

Relax. You are made for this.

“Your body is a perfect instrument. . . .” [She demonstrates with a three month old infant sitting there wailing away. No placement, no concern about diaphragmatic breathing, yet the infant can wail for hours!] “We are built to do that. The biggest issue with breath support is not what we’re doing with our breath; it’s everything we’re doing to interfere with it.”

We are made to house the life of God. We were woken from our dusty beginnings with a kiss, Yahweh breathing into us the life that we are made to contain, to carry, to breathe out again into the world. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into His followers. That same Spirit still breathes in us, giving us all we need to sing, to pray, to live God’s love in the world.

Stick to your job

“The biggest job of the singer is getting out of the way of the breath doing its job. If I’m feeling pressure or tight or the sound is tightening up on me, it’s not a matter of me needing to support the breath more, it’s a matter of me needing to release somewhere so that the breath can move more freely.”

My default when things aren’t going well is to try harder. I feel stuck in writing so I make myself sit longer, try to write more, figuring that if I just try hard enough and long enough, it will come. There’s a place for persistence and good hard work. It can be part of my loving of God. It can also be me getting in the way, trying to do God’s job rather than my own, trying to make something happen rather than being content to open myself to the One who seeks an instrument on which to play, a body through which to sing. More often than not, the breakthrough comes when I let go of control and step into God’s ever-offered invitation to be small and let Him be God, when I stop trying to figure out the details of how and when and just let myself be His.

Know what you’re singing

“If you’re singing a pure vowel and are really clear in your brain about what that vowel is, the breath has a much clearer track on where to go.”

It is the truth that sets us free. Read, study, memorize the Scriptures that help you remember what your song is. Practice thanksgiving. Hike in the woods or watch the sunset or play with a toddler. We have a good God—a God who loves us with His life. Learn what helps you live in His love—and this is a little different for everyone—and keep doing it.

Use all of you

“The clearer the emotional content of what you’re singing, the freer your breath will be. If my brain knows exactly what the expressive quality is, my breath can move more freely. Somehow that way everything is unified and married. If I’m just thinking vocally, I start to concentrate on the breath, . . . [and get tense], and there’s no way the breath can move freely.”

It’s easy to think God only approves of certain emotions. But every single emotion—fear, joy, anger, hope, discouragement—is a gift that, if we dare to sing or cry or groan it honestly to God, can be a place where He meets us and breathes in and through us more freely.

Trust that the breath will be there

“[In a long phrase that’s hard to sustain], if I’m only thinking about the breath, I get scared that the breath is going to run out and I start trying to hold onto it and conserve it, which of course blocks off the breath and that freedom isn’t there. . . .If you get out of the way and have a clear intention on a clear vowel, the breath will be there for you. It just will be. It involves a lot of trust and being prepared to step off the cliff and being prepared to fall. . . . But the freer I am—in my mind, in my body—the freer the breath is.”

Enough said.

Just fill the jars

One day last week I was writing my book. (Okay, I was doing that every day, but that’s not the point here). I was coming up against all the things that hold me back. “You can’t write well enough.” “Your story isn’t interesting enough.” “No one will connect with this.” (Probably all lies, but that’s not the point here either.)

The point is, I was stuck. And the point is what I heard Jesus’ mother say to the servants at the wedding: “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

And the point is what He told them to do: “Fill the jars with water.” It was a lot of work – 120 or 180 gallons of water to haul. But it was something they could do. He didn’t ask them to fill the jars with wine.

Then, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They weren’t asked to stand in judgment over what was in the jars. They were just asked to fill them and offer their contents. (If they’d sipped when they’d finished filling—just to make sure what they were taking to the master was good enough—would they still have tasted water?) Their job was to do what Jesus told them.

I hear myself in the story:

“Fill the jars with water.”

“But I don’t have wine!”

“I just asked you to fill the jars with water.”

“But I don’t know how to make it taste like wine!”

“Just fill the jars with water.”

“But what if the guests don’t like the taste? What if the master fires me? What if . . .?”

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Between us and those we serve, between the water we draw and those who need wine, stands Jesus.

This story is bigger than you.

Just go fill the jars with water.

How to travel lighter

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“When I’ve experienced God loving me so deeply and gently and often, why do I still struggle to live free in His love?” I was worried that something was terribly wrong with me.

Tears of relief ran down my cheeks as I received her reassurance that, in her experience as a spiritual director, almost everyone struggles to live consistently in God’s love. It seems to be part of being human.

As our conversation continued, I began to realize that I was placing my expectations on myself rather than on Jesus. I wanted to trust my ability to live a particular way. Jesus invited me to trust His unfailing love.

I saw a picture of Jesus lifting a backpack from my back and putting it on his own. It’s the kind of thing Dad does when he meets me at the airport—because he loves me and delights to make my burden lighter. Usually I let Dad take it because I’m tired and sometimes the weight of the backpack pulling on my neck has given me a headache. But I usually hesitate before handing it over. I don’t want him to have to carry my stuff. I’m afraid it will be too heavy for him.

Since I love to walk without anything on my back, it’s funny that I carry a backpack—a heavy one—so much of the time. I can create it out of almost nothing and stuff it full of just about anything, even expectations about how I should be able to receive God’s love.

All of a sudden I see: Jesus never asked me to carry that backpack. All the way we’ve been walking together, He has been offering to take it from me. I’ve let Him carry some things, but I’ve held onto others, not wanting him to have to carry my stuff.

But I’m hearing Him say that He doesn’t have to. He wants to. And He doesn’t want just the few things I hand him as I root through the backpack and pass him the things I think He can handle. He wants to carry the whole pack with all the expectations I stuff in it. Even my ability to live loved. He knows I’m human. Sometimes I’ll feel His love, sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll be able to receive it and live free in it, sometimes I’ll still doubt. And nothing about my struggle will ever change His love.

He knows that when my hope is firmly pinned on His love that never stops drawing me back rather than on my ability never to waver, then I’m truly abiding in His love.

I hand over the backpack. I’m lighter. I stand taller, accept his hand, smile up at him. He doesn’t look like the weight is bothering him. He doesn’t seem to notice the backpack at all. After a while, I don’t either. I just see His eyes smiling back at me.

Why God trusts you (Encouragement for when you feel like a failure)

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I write to tell her how deeply blessed I was by our conversation. She responds with gratefulness, admitting she’d been feeling like a lost cause. I’m amazed how often we can feel like failures when God is gently and powerfully loving others through us.

Our struggle can keep us dependent. It can keep opening new places to receive God’s love in our own brokenness. It can also bind us in knots of unhelpful insecurity and anxiety.

I return again to words I’ve been contemplating for a long time: “God trusts you.” How? Why? What does that even mean?

I pray to see then go looking.

First I sort through what it doesn’t mean.

  • It doesn’t mean that God expects us never to mess up. He knows we’re human—limited and likely to make mistakes—and still, as long as we’re on this earth, in a battle with sin. (Rom 7:14-25)
  • It doesn’t mean He expects us to be able to do things on our own. He tells us up front we can’t. (John 15:5)

Then I begin to see how God does trust us.

  • God trusts us to carry His message into the world.“Go! I am sending you. . .” (Luke 10:3; c.f Matt 28:18-20)
  • He trusts us to share His work. “. . . I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing.” (Jn 14:12 MSG)
  • He trusts us with the stewardship of the world (Gen 126; Psalm 8:5-8) and, ultimately, with the possession of His kingdom (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27), even judging the world and angels (1 Cor 6:2-3). And, living in us, he gives us the wisdom and competence to begin making sound decisions now (1 Cor 2:15-16; 6:2-3).
  • He even trusts us with the deep places of His heart. (Jn 15:15; 16:12-15)

God trusts us. But why?

Here’s what I love most: God trusts us to bear His life into the world not because of who we are on our own but because He lives in us.

The fact that it doesn’t depend on me doesn’t make it any less true that God trusts me. It just means I don’t have to carry the weight of impossible expectations.

God trusts us to carry His life into the world, and He puts Himself in us to ensure the outcome.

He seals His trust (of us) with a trust (the Holy Spirit, placed in us).

He trusts us. . . and He carries the weight of that trust Himself.

Trust always has context

I used to love the nights as an obstetrical resident when I was on call with Dr. G. I trusted him and I knew he trusted me, and that set me free to do my best work and enjoy doing it. There were many reasons for our mutual trust: one was that we  each understood and respected our unique roles and positions.

  • He knew I understood my limits and would ask when I needed help. I knew that when I called he’d come quickly.
  • He knew I’d work hard. I knew I could always count on him to pitch in when the workload was too heavy for me to safely handle.
  • He knew I’d learned well the basics of surgery, so he’d let me try something more difficult, standing by to help as needed. I was eager to try, knowing he always had my back.

His trust in me wasn’t lessened by knowing that I sometimes needed help. It was strengthened by knowing that I wouldn’t hesitate to ask.

Trust happens within a context which understands and respects our unique roles and limitations. I trusted Dr. G., but I wouldn’t ask him to fix my toilet. I trust my plumber, but I wouldn’t let him cut my hair. We trust people to be who they’ve agreed to be in the context of our relationship.

We trust God to be God—all-powerful, full of grace, and eternally faithful. 

He trusts us to be His people—limited and dependent, alive and growing, loving Him and wanting to love Him more.

God trusts us! The declaration is not a heavy expectation of super-human performance or sinless perfection, but an invitation to live more securely in our place as limited (and loved!) people in relationship with the unlimited God who, through His power at work within us, is able to do immeasurably more than anything we can ask or imagine.

God’s favorite part of creation (and why it matters)

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I was walking one day in the garden, admiring the beauty that surrounded me and trying to choose which bit of beauty was my favorite: the delicate deep pink plum blossoms? the ornamental grasses surrendering their pale, wispy tassels to the breeze? the grand and steady backdrop of mountains still wearing their snowcap?

I chatted with God about my struggle to choose—it was all so beautiful. Then I asked Him, “What’s your favorite?” I tried to guess, expecting he’d choose the mountains or the redwood trees which towered far above me—something tall and grand and, if not eternal, at least stretching toward ancient. “You are.” Tears sprang from the surprise of finding myself so deeply loved and honored. I wondered why I was his favorite. “The mountains and trees can’t have this conversation with me.”

I’ve been reading through Genesis in The Message, hearing again and again the echo of our godlikeness:

“God spoke, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for. . . Earth itself. . . ‘” (1:26)

“God created human beings, he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female.” (1:27)

“When God created the human race, he made it godlike, with a nature akin to God.” (5:1)

“. . . God made humans in his image, reflecting God’s very nature.” (9:6)

God clearly wants us to understand our greatness.

But I often find myself afraid to receive God’s gifts. Like this one. I hold it at arm’s length, afraid of the responsibilities that will accompany it. Afraid that the gift will take the place of the Giver. Afraid of becoming proud. Or selfish(Does God really want me to see myself as godlike?)

But every gift that God gives is meant to be received. Including this gift of our greatness.

And I’m surprised to discover that in receiving the gift and the accompanying embrace of the Giver my hesitations disappear. The fear of the accompanying responsibilities is calmed as I realize that God is telling me who He has already made me, not demanding that I make of myself something I can’t possibly be.

And as for proud and selfish, I’m at far greater danger of that when I don’t embrace my God-given greatness than when I do. (Underlying our society’s increasing self-absorption Brene Brown sees “the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” (Daring Greatly, p. 22) Is this why our enemy goes to such pains to keep us from seeing and receiving our God-bestowed greatness? Does he know that if he does, he’ll keep us forever tied up in trying to create and prove our extraordinariness instead of being free in humble confidence to live our already-bestowed godlikeness in ways that bring glory to our Creator?)

We are made godlike. How can we ever be ordinary?

Knowing who we are frees us to engage rather than compete, give instead of grab, and celebrate instead of cling. I look again at Jesus who, accepting the authority bestowed on him by his Father who loved him, stooped to serve (John 13:3-5).

So come, friend, be free in the God-spoken guarantee that you aren’t ordinary. Be free to live your godlikeness in grateful humility and in union with Christ who, living in you, takes your godlikeness to a whole new level.