As I lean forward over the handlebars of my bike, tiny arrows of rain slant under my glasses and sting my lower eyelids, my upper cheeks. A laugh escapes as I savor the joy of this morning’s adventure, feeling a cool rivulet creep down the front of my jacket, and the puddles that have formed in the toes of my shoes sneak a little further back with each press of the pedal. I’m alive! For this half hour, I’m out in this beautiful world. And, most wonderful of all, Jesus and I are on this adventure together.
I can’t see the detail of the leaves beside the path today, but I know what I’d see if my vision wasn’t obscured by dozens of convex droplets, each their own little lens, changing the shape of the lenses I need to correct my vision. I’ve been watching the leaves on the thorny thimbleberry vines that creep along beside the path and climb into mounds of tangled vines. The berries are long gone, and since the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, the leaves have begun to change. But each leaf is dying differently. One still clings to its summer green except where tiny paths of gold creep along the veins and a rim of red tints the pinked edges.
Another is almost completely crimson, with hints of peach tracking each vein.
Another is turning from the tip, red creeping down into the center of the dark green leaf like a fire intent on consuming the whole.
Is it always in the dying, in the ceasing to cling to our lives, that we become most beautiful, most freely and fully ourselves?
This week I’ve been pondering Paul’s statement:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12).
What was this secret that he knew? And why didn’t he share it with us?
Or did he?
I trace my way back through the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi and find that right at the heart of the letter Paul lays out the secret, and only at the end of the letter does he tell his readers that he has given them this treasure.
Right there in the middle of the letter is this:
“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and may be found in him. . .” (Phil 3:8)
The secret to being content no matter what life throws at you? Want Christ.
Get to know Christ deeply enough that you learn to want, more than anything else, the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world, and that no one and nothing can take away from you.
We can’t make ourselves want something or someone by willpower. We can only get to know someone and let that Someone teach our hearts to love. It’s like a marriage, or the decision to have children, or to write a book or grow a business or pursue a vocation: you give up your independence in order to commit to something or someone. And, in the best cases, you do it not because you have to but because something is burning in you and you’ve discovered that you can’t live without that person, or you don’t want to, or that book just has to come out. In every choice, there is cost. But still we choose because we believe the gain is greater.
So get to know Christ, Paul says. Choose Him, and you’ll find that what used to feel like losses don’t bother you as much anymore because you’re in this together, you and the One in whose love you have made your home.
But Paul offers his readers more than simply telling us the secret of contentment. He offers us behind-the-scenes steps to help us get to know Christ in that Christ-matters-to-me-more-than-anything-else kind of way.
Our part comes down to two simple steps: Focus, and enjoy. Keep looking for the fingerprints God leaves on our lives, and celebrate those signs of His love. Or, in Paul’s words, “Set your minds,” and “rejoice in the Lord.”
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1).
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8).
“Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).
For me, “focus” starts with a few sentences in a journal each evening. What am I most thankful for today? Where did I notice God’s presence and God’s good gifts, in my day? No matter what the day has held, there are always places I can rejoice in God’s goodness to me and his presence with me. And then I pause to enjoy resting quietly with God in that place of loving and being loved. And over time, the focusing creeps off my journal pages into my day and the enjoying follows even into rainy Sunday mornings.
And the moments and days I find it hard to keep my mind focussed on Jesus? There’s good news here too. First, from a neurological point of view, what creates new pathways in our brain is not the perfect maintenance of focus, but the turning again and again back to focus on God (Blanton, Contemplation and Counselling, p. 11). Refocussing helps retrain my mind to move naturally in that new direction.
Second, it’s not all up to me—thank God! As I keep choosing to turn my mind back to God, bringing my requests and my thanks to God, He’s right there protecting and helping me, surrounding me with his peace (Phil 4:6-7). As much as I want to keep growing in knowing Christ (a sure sign that God has already been deeply at work in me), He wants it more, and is right alongside, eager to help me notice His kindness and settle a little more deeply into His love.
I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.
There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.
On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.
I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.
I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).
I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that's because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands.
But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?
Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.
"This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels" (Eph 6:12, The Message).
Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.
Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).
"Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . ." (Deut. 8:2).
“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).
God doesn't command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.
But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt" (Deut. 7:18).
I look and remember—yes, there's a war, and I'm in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.
And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.
I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him.
I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).
It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him?
This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I've long stumbled over:
“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.
I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.
So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”
Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.
Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call.
Jesus' vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.
In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).
Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.
My family doctor once asked me two questions that I return to again and again. She asked them when I was struggling with depression, but she could just as well have asked them in one of the times my physical illness has flared and I've felt hemmed in by my limitations, or, for that matter, by a situation outside of me.
What kind of person do you want to be?
What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?
The questions could, I suppose, feel heavy, but to me they feel like grace. No matter what is going on inside me or outside me, I still have choice. No matter how much is beyond my control, there's always something I can do to cooperate with God's work in me. These two simple questions lead me out into a spacious place where I am no longer trapped or helpless but remember again that God gives me choice and agency and authority at least in the small bit of creation that is myself.
Among all of God's creation, he honours us humans particularly with this: we get to participate with God in shaping ourselves. We are, of course, completely dependent on God to sustain us in being, to give us choice, to do in us the many things we cannot do in ourselves. ("Without me you can do nothing" John 15:5.) Yet also, as part of our bearing the image of a sovereign Creator, God makes us co-creators with him in the shaping of our own selves and lives.
- I want to be a person who hears God’s heartbeat. Today I can be still in his presence even for a few minutes, opening my heart to him.
- I want to be a person who is honest. Today, rather than trying to push away the uncomfortable questions and emotions, I can sit with them in Jesus’ presence and tell him what I’m feeling.
- I want to be a person marked by gratitude. Even on a difficult day, after I’ve let Jesus into the hard feelings, I can look for his grace in the day and write out the things I’m thankful for (starting with his welcome of me just as I am).
It's a big responsibility, but also a gracious one, this participation in our own transformation. It's a plan designed by a God who loves and honours and cherishes us, and who is so gentle and gracious and kind that He receives our smallest attempts to cooperate with Him like a mother delights in the bouquet of dandelions brought to her by her two year old. He well knows that we can’t transform ourselves, not deeply and thoroughly like Jesus can. But still He honors us and the choice He has given to us, and invites our consent and cooperation in the process, and even on the hard days (maybe especially) on the hard days, our job is to open to this One who loves us and do the bit we can to cooperate with what he is doing.
What kind of person do you want to be? What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?
One morning as I biked last week, the word “home” was on my mind. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the fall leaves drew my eye to the homes peeking out behind them.
Perhaps because the heavy clouds above the fall leaves just allowed peeks of the mountains, and something stirred in me as though my heart was being drawn toward heaven.
Or perhaps because, as I rode, my mind drifted back to a letter written by a wise mentor to someone asking the question, “Why didn’t God take me to heaven the moment I trusted Jesus? Does he have a special work for me to accomplish for Him?” As I pondered what I could remember of his response, I recognized all over again that our true home is neither earth nor heaven but God.
“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. . . . Make yourselves at home in my love" (John 15:4,9, The Message).
Both our temporary home here on earth and our long-term home in the new heavens and the new earth point us to our true Home, helping us settle more deeply into God’s love.
There are, of course, many reasons God leaves us on earth. Here He gives us the privilege of participating with Him in his work in the world, even of sharing in His sufferings. But more deeply still, as Edward Miller says, God leaves us on earth to know Him.
There are ways we will only know God when we finally walk with him face to face. And there are other precious and beautiful characteristics of God that we can only experience here on earth.
“The benefits earth yields outstrip heaven in many ways. Take, for example, knowing God as our Sustainer through trouble. This is our privileged experience now rather than later, after all tears have been dried by His own hand. It’s here on earth that God unveils to us His priesthood and enters into our sufferings, rather than in Glory where no one suffers. Only on earth does God show Himself to us as our Fortress and Defender, for who opposes us in heaven? On earth He shows Himself as our Rock and the One who lifts up our heads.
Here, when we faint, His everlasting arms catch and support us. Here He is our Saviour and Advocate and gentle Shepherd. Through the changing experiences of this life we are introduced to His hands, His feet, His wings, and His heart.” (Edward Miller, Letters to the Thirsty, p. 8-9).
I asked the question on Facebook, "What word(s) would you use to describe God's love? Which of those characteristics means the most to you today?" The responses were beautiful and varied. And I'm guessing that most of them came from the hard times. My own favourite—gentle—has certainly been most deeply discovered in the times of challenge.
So, friends, join me in letting whatever challenges you face this week press you deeper into God's love? There are many ways I do this, but lately God's promise in Isaiah 66:13 has been calling me to come close with the same trust and vulnerability as a sick or sad or hurting child runs to her mother for comfort, unashamed of pain or tears, and confident in the safety of her mother's arms.
"As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Isaiah 66:13, NIV).
What would it look like for you to make your home in Jesus' love today? How might it change your day?
PS. I've just created a new facebook page to accompany this blog. Thoughts and quotes that I'm loving and that don't make it to the blog will end up there, and from now on I'll ask questions like I asked about your favourite characteristic of God's love on that new page instead of on my personal profile. If you'd like to be part of the conversation happening over there, please do pop over and like or follow the new page!
I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again.
The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.
Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.
And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving.
And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.
So, the gifts: I’ve already shared a prayer slipped through my mail slot and how, as I prayed it, God has been reorienting my love back towards him, loosening my grip on comfort and control and security. That alone was worth this challenging time. There’s something about suffering that drives our roots deeper into God, if we let it.
But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church?
Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:
“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ's affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ's sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it's not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ's. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.
Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world?
"Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies" (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)
Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God's life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.
“He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.