Dust you are: Love in the desert


DSCN1766

In the middle of the desert it can be hard to remember that every bit of dust and stone is love spoken into place. That each blade of brave grass and every dark shadow cast by a towering rock is sustained by that same Love which holds you and breathes into you each breath.

Sometimes in the desert you have to look hard to find the love; other times it pours over you.

I watch as Jesus walks into the desert, sent by the same Spirit who had just descended and confirmed him beloved.

Sent from that baptismal river of blessing to be hungry and weary, alone with the wild animals and his devilish tempter, stretched to his limits for forty days until Satan left and angels came to tend him.

He’d just heard his Father speak His love over him.

Maybe it’s only in the desert that we test and prove that love, learn that that love is strong enough to carry us through every drought and sandstorm.

Maybe that is the love of the desert, the stripping away of everything else until we lean on that love with all our weight and discover that this love will hold us. That, yes, this love will lead us out of everything familiar, and sometimes we’ll see the pillar of fire and other times our eyes will sting from the smoke, but we will be led. Guided. Guarded. And fed by God himself.

Our call in the desert is to lean into that love.

I watch how Satan fights, each of his temptations, as Ross Hastings shows, an attack on Jesus’ ability to rest in his Sonship. And I watch how Jesus responds to each one by leaning into his belovedness. He uses all the tools he has been given: Scripture, first and foremost, and prayer, but also his body. He fasts.

 

Our bodies: thermostats and thermometers

A few months back I looked up all the references to fasting in Scripture. Often, fasting flowed from inner experience as an expression of the deep grief or longing a person or community was feeling. The Israelites fasted as they mourned the deaths of Saul and his army, and Nehemiah fasted as he mourned the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Sam 1:12 and Neh 1:4). David abstained from food as he pleaded with God for the life of his son, and the Jews expressed their kicked-in-the-gut sickness over the upcoming holocaust by fasting (2 Sam 12:16-23 and Esther 4:3). There are times your grief is so deep your whole body cries out to share in its expression; fasting is one such way.

Our bodies are thermometers, the pains, longings and actions (including fasting) of our bodies reflecting what is going on deep within us. They can also be thermostats, able not only to sense and reflect our temperature but to help us recover and maintain warmth toward God.

Sometimes God commands His people to fast as a way to help them awaken again to His love and turn their whole selves back to Him (Joel 2:12-13). Fasting is not a way of subjugating the body so we’re free to pray. It’s a form of integration, a way of becoming more, not less, embodied and unified and whole in our prayer. I realized this one day as I pictured my body slouched in a corner, back turned on my heart and soul which were filled with longing and grief. My body, feeling the same grief, was stuffing chocolate in its mouth, seeking comfort. Helping my body to put down the chocolate and come with my heart and soul to God can be a way of bringing all the parts of me into God’s healing presence and allowing Him to make me whole in His love.

Sometimes God calls His people to fast; other times He says, “Celebrate now and fast later” (Neh 8 and 9). God knows we’re human and the use of our bodies is a powerful tool: there are times we need to engage our body in repentance through fasting and there are times we need to savor flavors and celebrate together, using the thermostat of our body to help us press into joy, not to escape the struggle but to strengthen us for it. It’s like God said to Elijah when He sent him food as he was lying under a bush in the desert praying to die, “Eat, for this journey is too much for you” (1 Kings 19:7). Fasting and feasting (whether on food or music or natural beauty) can both be ways of using our bodies to help us turn back toward God. It all depends where we’re starting from and which way we need to be turned.

 

Leaning into love

Two weeks ago I sat, clinging to the cross, and leaned my head back, thinking it bare wall behind me. When we stood to leave the room, she took my shoulder and turned me to see what I’d been leaning my head against, what she’d kept seeing as the backdrop to my tear-stained face. One row after another of heart-rocks, each on its own rough, sandy backdrop. Each a reminder as she’d walked the several weeks along the mountain desert trail: even in the desert, the heart of God toward us is love.

photo collage courtesy of Karen Webber

photo collage courtesy of Karen Webber

 

Taking it deeper:

Can you hear the invitation for you this week? Are you needing to let your body help you celebrate and receive the joy of the Lord? (More thoughts on that next week but you can pray with me about this and look for ways to begin.) Or are you needing to let your body help you re-awaken to God’s love by fasting from something? Skip a meal; forego chocolate; unplug from facebook—watch where you turn to fill the empty space or satisfy loneliness and step away from it for a while, choosing to turn your body as well as your heart and soul to God instead. Notice both what your reaction to the discipline tells you about your internal state, and how it helps awaken and turn you back to listen for the Voice that calls you beloved.

__________________________________________

This is the third in a Lenten series of posts exploring what it might look like to live fully alive to God with our bodies as well as our souls. Click on the links to read the first two:

Dust you are: An Invitation

Dust you are: A Call to Pay Attention

Dust you are: a call to pay attention

IMG_2825

Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving?

Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”

I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.

The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”

Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.

I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so you learn to ignore the messages your body is sending you. Your body shouts louder. You buy industrial strength ear protection and keep on working. And in the process you forget (if you ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.

I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.

I keep needing to begin again.

She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.

Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.

“. . .for He knows how we are formed,

He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And—(this is what I need to know!)—

“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)

It’s so clear, there in the psalm:

“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .

Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:

The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from

everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)

He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:

“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”

I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.

 

Taking it deeper:

Notice how your body responds when you are under stress. Does your body respond with muscle tightness? Diarrhea? Irritability and edginess? Sleep disturbance? Migraines? Dry mouth? Sweating?

List your top three or four. (If you have trouble, ask those close to you to help you notice.) Now (here’s the challenge): pay attention to your body so that when you feel those symptoms you step back and ask God to help you see, “What is really going on for me? What is causing me stress right now?”

(If you’re like me, there may be the temptation to think those things “shouldn’t” cause you stress, or you “should” be able to move past them more easily. Then you might find it helpful to ask, “Jesus, how do you see me right now? How do you want to love me in this place of facing my frailty?”)

 

(“Taking it Deeper” adapted from Regent College Living Well Forum on Stress and Transition by Rod Wilson, February 5, 2015)

Dust you are: an invitation

DSCN3664

On Wednesday I’ll walk home from my second trauma counseling appointment via my church where I’ll join with others in having a cross of ash painted on my forehead. A version of God’s words from Gen 2 will be spoken over each of us as the ashes are applied: Remember that you are dust. . .

She asked me at my first appointment, “What is your biggest fear about counselling?” I struggled to answer. There are many – some more rational than others. That it will put me back in a posture of striving to “fix” myself rather than letting my focus be on coming to Jesus broken and opening to his love. That she won’t know what to do with my mess. That I won’t know what to do with it. And this one: That at the end of the day it will turn out that my struggle to deal with the things I experienced will be less about the strength of those experiences than about my own weakness and vulnerability. Somehow that feels shameful. Even though I know better, somewhere deep down I still think I should be impermeable, or nearly so.

Ash Wednesday reminds me otherwise. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) Though the words close God’s declaration of judgment on the serpent, the land, the woman and the the man, they are not a statement of judgment but a statement of fact. As Walter Brueggemann points out, the Genesis 3 words echo the declaration at the start of chapter two that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

“Human vulnerability is not late, not chosen, not punishment, not an aberration, not related to sin. It belongs to the healthy, original characterization of human personhood in relation to God. This is what it means to be human. This rather elemental and straightforward physiology marks the human person as a creature who lives by the daily, moment by moment generosity of God.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, You Are Dust”)

In fact, as he points out,

“The narrative of Gen. 2-3 concerns the risk of trying to escape or transcend the modest status of creatureliness, the dangerous venture of ‘being like God’ (3:4).”

Limitations are not sin; our sin is our attempt to escape them.

We often think of Lent (if we think of it at all) as a time of mourning and fasting and repentance, of becoming more aware of our sin and maybe even wallowing in the awareness of our sinfulness. But at its heart, Lent is about love. It’s about noticing and turning away from whatever keeps us from opening to God’s love, and it’s about turning back toward that love with our whole selves.

What if one of the barriers to receiving God’s love was the dualism that resents our bodies as weak distractions that need to be overcome to live well the life of the soul?

What if God was calling us to come as whole persons, soul, spirit, and body, to love and be loved?

Over these next six weeks of Lent I’ll be exploring aspects of this invitation. How does God see my creatureliness—body included? What might it look like to live fully alive to God with my body as well as my soul? What are some resources and practices that can help me begin to travel along this path? It’s a lifetime journey, this learning to be wholly God’s—heart, soul, mind, and strength—but I’m lacing up my runners and taking the next few steps. Care to join me?

The best reason I know to let Him tend your wounds

DSCN4049One of the congregants texted a question to the pastor yesterday: “Why do so many of us who belong to Jesus not experience the intimacy that makes joy bubble up in us and overflow?” We’d been talking about the woman at the well.

The pastor said there are many reasons—one of them busyness. I can’t help wonder if one of the other reasons is that for all our words about wanting intimacy, really we fear it. We’re scared to come too close, scared of what God will see in our nakedness and maybe even more scared of having to see it ourselves.

And the appointment reminder has arrived in my inbox (and yes, I’m going) but there’s this part of me that keeps wanting to shut it down. Stuff it all back in the closet and slam the door and aren’t I making too big a deal of this and shouldn’t I just focus on the good things and leave the hard behind and I can feel the edginess that tells me I’m trying to push away emotions I don’t want to feel.

But Jesus steps toward me, his right hand extended so I can see the wound in his palm as he invites me to place my bruised one in his. He places his left arm around my waist, his hand on my back. I put mine on his shoulder, accepting His invitation to dance. We’re clasped together, that hollow pit in my stomach against the wound in his side, his scarred hand holding mine. He steps and I step and our cheeks brush and my tears leave a mark on his face.

I listen again to the song and see Jesus suffering for love of me and hear the words, “the Saviour drank it all.” And I think of Hebrews 12, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” and I fall at his feet and embrace those beautiful wounded feet, my wounds all of a sudden seeming so small. So small, not in a “these aren’t worth bringing” sort of way but in a “these belong here” sort of way, because, since the cross, every wound that I carry—however big or small—is already part of him. His wounds are his choosing to carry mine.

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. (Isaiah 53)

And I hadn’t thought the dance could become any more beautiful than in that moment when he pressed my wounds to his but I’d forgotten that this is the God who is full of surprises. And there in His embrace when He honored my wounds as real—as part of His own—and set me free to cry, the pain that had been there all day, so heavy and sharp, disappeared. As soon as I stopped trying to push it away and let it be there, let myself be there with it, with Him, it was gone. All I could feel in His arms was the deep and quiet joy of being loved. Why do I keep being afraid to go with Him to the hard places, forgetting that they’re always where He meets me most deeply? 

I remember the last time I embraced his feet. It was the only posture I could imagine to express the desperate longing I was feeling. And I remember my sobs of surprise when, too fast for me to see how it happened, Jesus slipped through my grasp and knelt beside me, lifting me into his embrace.

There are many good reasons to let Him tend my wounds. But the best reason I know is that I can’t enter the dance with my hands stuffed deep in my pockets. When I’m trying to run from my wounds, I’m only running from Him.

When life runs you over: the inside story


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t, really.” (Marilynne Robinson, Lila, p. 4)

How do you tell a story of grace, of being so deeply loved that you know you can trust this love? How do you tell it so your listeners can feel the story from the inside as a breath-taking place of beauty and lovedness, rather than leaving them standing at a distance looking at the outside of the story and judging it sad?

I sat last week with the first of the six hundred pages of emails I’d sent from Afghanistan, emails that Mom had found and returned to me. I sat to mine the wealth of concrete detail that I needed for the next stage of the book I’m writing, oblivious to the fact that I’d placed my desk in the center of a major highway.

A truck travelling north slammed into me as I relived stories I remembered: the feel of the wild dog’s teeth behind my knee, moonlight reflecting in the eyes of the rest of the pack encircling me. Then a van travelling south ploughed over me, crushing me with the forgotten story of the mother of six who bled to death with my hands in her abdomen. One after another the memories flew at me, no space between to scrape myself up off the road. How did I ever live this when I can scarcely bear to read it now?

I’ve booked my first appointment with a trauma counselor. That’s the part that might sound sad to someone standing outside, looking at the story. More than six years after leaving Afghanistan and this is still surfacing, still raw?

But to me, inside the story, this place is beautiful. Crazy and overwhelming and uncomfortable—and one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

Jesus, how do you want to love me in this place?

I find myself again in a womb. “In Him we live and move and have our being. We are His offspring.” (Acts 17:28) It’s dark, and I’m curled head-down. I can feel the warm, stretchy walls of the womb containing me, God “enfolding me with strength and steadfast love” (Nan Merrill, paraphrasing Ps 62:2). It’s timeless here in the One who has all the time in the world and knows how to use it to gently awaken me to the beat of His heart. And it’s sheltered here in this place where I can dare to let myself feel: everything I feel, I feel here, safe in the God who surrounds and holds me.

There is an eye of the storm, even when the storm is happening in your own mind and body. There is a place still deeper. And that place knows that all of me is safely held and loved.