“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me. I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”
“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.”
Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious.
As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”
That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?
The questions kept coming:
- What if God wants you to be big?
- What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
- Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?
It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.
It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).
Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process.
Trust can look many different ways.
In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.
When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.
And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”
(2 Cor 3:4-6)
As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death.
But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.
A couple of months ago I asked you the question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?”
Quite a few of you responded, “anxiety.” Since anxiety has also been a frequent companion of mine, as well as one of the places God has most deeply met and loved me, I wrote the free email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, for you.
Many others of you shared stories of pain and struggle and grief—losing a partner or a parent to dementia or death, navigating the energy-sapping realities of chronic or life-threatening illness, waiting for a child to believe or a job to come or hope to arrive. There are so many forms of suffering!
As we continue our journey with Jesus through Lent, I can’t help but wonder how Jesus might want to be with us in our suffering.
Lent, I think, extends to us multiple invitations.
Ash Wednesday , with its call to “Remember that you are dust” reminds us of our humanity and frailty, as well as the gentle compassion of the One who also remembers our dustiness.
“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him,
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust”
Lent's emphasis on fasting and repentance and prayer calls us to look with Jesus at our lives, to notice the places we have turned away, and to notice them not in order to beat ourselves up but to let Jesus help us turn back to him. We’re called to let go of habits that get in the way of our relationship and form new ones that help to bring us close, not out of obligation but out of a desire to return to our first love.
But I think Lent also extends an invitation to us in our suffering. It invites us to remember, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross, that we never suffer alone. Whether we are aware of Jesus' presence or not, we are accompanied in our suffering by the One who himself faced suffering in so many of its forms—the agony of abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness; the weight of sin’s consequences; sleepless nights, systemic political and religious injustice, physical torture and death. Lent invites us to bring our own wounds and place our hands in Jesus' nail-pierced ones and walk this journey together.
The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear: Jesus shared in our humanity for two reasons: 1) so he could destroy the devil and free us from our fear of death and 2) so he can help us in our own suffering. (Hebrews 2:14-18) Might honouring his sacrifice involve not only the discipline of repentance and choosing to love but also choosing to receive his love by letting him into our suffering?
Sometimes when we see someone else suffering, we hold back from sharing our own wounds. We’re tempted to think, “Their suffering is so much greater than mine. I have no right to pay attention to my own suffering. I should just be able to get over it.”
But the invitation of this season is precisely the opposite. It is to look at Jesus and see the pain of his suffering, yes, but not to bury our own pain but to let him meet us in it. This is part of why Jesus suffered, so he could understand our pain and walk gently with us through it. And letting Jesus meet us in our suffering is a huge part of how we are enabled to turn from sin and turn back to God, since our sin so often arises from our suffering. We choose cookies or facebook or something more potent to numb the loneliness we don't want to let ourselves feel, or we hurt people with our anger because the pain in us pushes its way out.
So as we continue walking with Jesus the long and weary road toward the cross, let’s pause for a moment. Let’s accept his invitation to sit down with him on the edge of a well or a grassy hillside—somewhere away from the crowds for a few moments of quiet conversation. If Jesus asked you, “What’s your greatest struggle, your deepest pain, right now?” how would you answer? Would you even know how to put your pain into words, or would you hope he can read your eyes, your posture, your silence, because you have no words for the pain you are feeling? Would you be afraid to speak because you’re not sure what might come out, and you’re not sure if Jesus could handle your anger, your tears, or your fears?
Know this: Jesus has walked this road of suffering as a human made of dust. He knows from the inside pain so excruciating that his capillaries burst and he sweat blood with the agony of it all. He gets it. And he extends to us his hands which still bear the scars and asks us to let him into our pain. He doesn’t want us suffering alone.
“Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers.
We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.
So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”
(Heb 4:14-16, The Message)
PS. If you missed The Gifts of Anxiety course, you can still get it here.
And if you missed the chance earlier and would still like to respond to my question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?” email me at Carolyn@hearingtheheartbeat.com. I read and pray over every response.
These are the days of:
- streets lined with trees in bloom . . . and discovering where the cherry trees are in my new-since-last-spring neighborhood
- walking with Jesus toward the cross . . . and being so grateful he is no stranger to the weight of grief in the world around us
- savoring the fun of writing The Gifts of Anxiety course for you . . . and discovering that the email system that I use was switching servers last week so not everyone who signed up received all the emails.
- delighting in a preview copy of Emily P. Freeman’s new book, The Next Right Thing, and finding help in her accompanying Discern and Decide course. (This “these are the days of” exercise is something I learned in Emily’s book and course, and I’m enjoying it as a simple way to notice the realities of my life—a key step in living my own life rather than trying to live someone else's, and in any discernment process.)
These are also the days of realizing what my heart needs to know to turn fear of moving ahead into willingness, and even excitement. . . and of realizing that what my heart longs for has already been provided.
I entered this most spacious decade of my life (so far) straight out of the most hectic and crushing decade of my life: twenty-four and thirty-six hour shifts during five years of residency, then four years and many long lines of beautiful and needy patients in a little village tucked in the Afghan mountains. Learning and practicing medicine was an incredible honour. And the way I carried it crushed me. So it's not surprising that some part of me reacts to busier times with a fear that the spaciousness that these years of illness and healing have held will disappear.
I’m realizing this too: I don’t need to fear the spaciousness disappearing because:
- Spaciousness is part of who God is.
- God has given us choice.
- Spaciousness is more than external silence and solitude and stillness. It is an inner posture.
Spaciousness: part of who God is
God is eternal and infinite. He has all the time in the world, so he is never in a hurry. And, while he invites us to participate in his work in the world, he calls us to let that action flow out of a place of stillness and of making our home in his love.
“Be still and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
(Psalm 46:10, NIV)
“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me."
(John 15: 4, The Message)
Choice-Makers: Part of who we are
God gives us real choice. He makes us stewards not just of our talents but of our lives and our selves. This has been a long, slow lesson for me. My default has been to feel like when I’m confronted with a need, I need to meet it. I’m learning that while there are times that need is mine to meet, there are many times that pressing through limitations to meet that need is more about pride, fear of what someone might think if I say no, or a desire to feel significant than it is about calling or love. To do the things that I know I’m called to, I have to have quiet space in God’s presence to listen. To steward this body entrusted to me, I have to listen to and honour its needs.
There are times God specifically nudges me to do or not do something. And there are many other times that guidance comes through paying attention to the practical realities of my life and using my God-given reason and desires, noticed and held open to God, to help me discern, as Emily would say, “my next right step in love.”
Spaciousness is as much an inner posture as an outer reality
Life has seasons, some busier and some more quiet. I am given the authority and responsibility to choose in ways that help me stay open to God, allowing for times of silence and solitude and intentional prayer. But I’m discovering this too: the crushing pressure that my soul and body so fear is at least as much about my tendency to carry responsibility too heavily and to grasp for control and fear what people might think of me as about the actual number of tasks on my do-list or hours worked. And as I linger with God and slowly, slowly learn to trust and release my desire for control and affirmation and security and change to God, I find myself little by little more able to live in the inner spaciousness that God offers, even in the busier times.
And so I return to the One who can do in me what I cannot do in myself and ask Him to draw me closer still, to help me learn who He really is, to give me the courage to choose, and in all this to settle me a little more deeply into His spacious, gracious love.
“We confess we live distracted lives, and our insides often shake with constant activity.
We have grown accustomed to ignoring our low-grade anxiety, thinking that it’s just a normal part of an active life.
This might be typical, and it might be common. But let it not be normal.
Instead of trying to figure out how to calm the chaos and hustle around us, we rejoice with confidence that we don’t have to figure our way back to the light and easy way of Jesus, because you have already made your way to us.
We have your Spirit living within us, which means there’s hope for us after all.
You invite us into each moment to simply do the next right thing in love.”
—Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing.
What’s on your own “these are the days of” list?
What helps you savor the spaciousness that is part of who God is? Are there any choices you are aching to make to free you to live in this spaciousness?
PS re free courses:
Click here if you missed out on the first round of The Gifts of Anxiety and would like to sign up to get the five free lessons dropped straight into your inbox. And if you signed up and missed some or all of the emails, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know which ones didn’t arrive and I’ll get them to you right away. I don’t want a technical glitch to get in the way of you receiving this gift that I made for you! Thanks for your patience with this unanticipated bump along the way!
If you want more guided help settling a little deeper into Jesus’ love and into the life that you were made for, you might be interested in Emily’s book and course. Click here to watch the book trailer, and here to get the course and other bonuses free ($129 value) when you preorder the book by April 1.
We’re a week and a half into Lent and I’m curious. What do you find the hardest about Lent? What do you love the most about it?
One of the things I love most about Lent (and about life) is that it's an invitation, not an expectation. Jesus knows I can't fix myself. Instead, he invites me to open a little more to him, to let him into the places that I’m hurt and hiding, and find him loving me there and calling me out into his love and light.
Lent is about opening, in the same way that bulbs at this time of year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) are sending roots down into the dirt and shoots up into the light and the sun’s first warmth of spring.
Sometimes, though, the process of growth seems complicated and discouraging.
I opened the blinds this morning to discover that squirrels, unperturbed by the generous helping of cayenne pepper that I'd sprinkled on the soil, have made a meal of my tulip bulbs. Last week a solitary squirrel snacked on a single bulb. This morning my planters look like the scout posted an e-vite and brought a whole group of hungry friends to the feast.
I don’t mind helping out one hungry critter, but really? There are so many trees around here, so many bulbs planted right at ground level, I do wonder why the squirrels chose to bring their party to my second-floor balcony. Maybe I inadvertently created a favourite new menu item: hot and spicy tulip bulbs. Maybe the second-floor view provided a better party atmosphere. Either way, I’m saddened by the destruction of the beauty I was trying to nurture, and, yes, also frustrated with my furry friends.
Sometimes my insides feel like the planters on my balcony. I’ve planted and watered and waited and just as the green shoots come up, bursting with promise, a horde of anxious thoughts creeps in when I’m not looking and makes a meal of my hopes.
That's when I need to be reminded of this all over again: The invitation in life, and Lent in particular, is to let Jesus into those many places that I can’t fix myself, the places where the cayenne pepper isn’t working to keep away the habits that are hurting me.
And here’s the beautiful not-so-secret secret: In God’s up-side-down way of working, he takes those places that I can’t conquer and makes those the very places where he comes closest and loves me most deeply and heals me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
The anxious thoughts that come like hungry squirrels digging up the quiet beauty that I’m trying to cultivate don’t get the last word, because I’m learning how to open my anxiety to Jesus. And what starts as anxiety quickly becomes a place where I get to know Jesus better and find myself more deeply and gently loved than I could have imagined.
I know I'm not the only person who sometimes finds the calm, colourful garden I'm trying to grow threatened by anxious thoughts, so I’ve written a five-day contemplative course for you called The Gift of Anxiety. Anxiety has been a frequent companion of mine over the years, and gradually I've discovered that anxiety has helped me grow closer to Jesus in ways that my strengths haven't. In this course, I share some practices that have helped me work with anxiety so that it brings me closer to Jesus rather than distracting me from him. If you're curious to see how Jesus might meet you in your own moments of anxiety, click here and enter your email address to sign up for this (free!) course. I hope you find it helpful!
In the meantime, as we continue to walk toward the cross with Jesus, intentionally opening the anxious and painful parts of our hearts to him, may Jesus continue to do in us what only Jesus can do, settling us a little more deeply into his love.
Some weeks ago, I wrote these words:
“God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry.”
The Biblical drama is rich and multilayered. We are, first of all, the baby, created by love, and tended compassionately by the One who, like a mother, cannot forget the child she has borne, and like a father, protects and provides for his children. We are small and dependent and tended and safe.
But we also—incredibly—find ourselves in quite a different place in the birth drama, not infants now, but wooed and pursued, wedded and loved, and carrying within us the life of Jesus. We are the bride of Christ, sought, chosen, loved with an almost embarrassing passion, and sharing the life of Christ.
How is it that we miss the passion in the story when we even call the sufferings and death of Jesus “the Passion”?
This, for me, is the heart of Lent. As I watch Jesus walk toward the cross, I hear his invitation to walk with him, not as a distant observer, but as one whom he loves more than anything in the world. One for whom he is giving everything.
Lent is a time to look again at our relationship, to talk about what is getting in the way of closeness, to take down the walls that have grown up between us. It’s a time to regain my first love.
Lent is walking with the one I most love towards his death, listening for his last words, every word extra precious. It's dying a little myself along the way.
Lent is a time of humility and vulnerability, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a deepening love and closeness in this relationship at the center of my life.
As I write, a small wooden cross sits on the desk beside me, a heart made of olive wood beside it. I move them back and forth from desk to dinner table to the little table by the chair where I journal and read. Why? The heart reminds me that I am loved. And the cross reminds me how much I am loved and where I am loved—right in the worst of my brokenness and rebellion and sin.
That dual reminder of my sin and God’s love is, for me, a gift, because this relationship with Jesus is like any other: as long as I keep up my guard, only sharing the tidy places, there will always be that lurking fear, “If he knew what I’m really like. . .”
Here’s the truth, the wonderful, freeing truth: Jesus does know exactly what I’m like, all the good, all the bad, all the brokenness. And he signed up to love me anyway, chose to make me his own, even though gaining me cost him his life.
It’s only when the worst of me is seen and I find myself accepted right in that place that I know I am truly and securely loved and can relax and stop fearing what might happen if I slip up and let my real self show.
Alcoholics know this: the path to freedom begins with owning the truth, “I am an alcoholic.” It’s the same for me. The path to freedom always begins with the acceptance of truth: I am a sinner. And, right here in the middle of my inability to fix or free myself, I am loved and valued and wanted enough to die for.
It’s that combination that sets me free—honesty, and being loved.
Truth, and grace.
It’s that pair that allows me to enter Lent in a healthy, healing way, not as a time to beat myself up, but also not as a time to keep hiding from my sins. Instead, it’s a time to look my sins, as well as my limitations (which are not sins) in the face, acknowledge them openly, bring them to Jesus, and be set free to walk a little more closely with the One whom I love, and who loves me.
What goes on in you when you consider these weeks of Lent as a walk with the One who loves you with all his heart and life?
Two days from now I'll be reading and singing and praying with my brothers and sisters, then lining up with them, slowly moving toward the front of the sanctuary where a fellow human will look each of us in the eye and mark a cross of ash on each forehead, reminding us that we are dust. Loved dust.
As we begin once more this journey with Jesus toward the cross, I find myself drawn back to words that I prayed several years ago. They are still my prayer:
Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to St. Anselm who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.
You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.
You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep lub-dub of your heartbeat.
You are the one in whom our journey ends.
We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.
Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.
Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.
Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.
Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.
Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as He uses this season of Lent to help shape in us His heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball's article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent.