How do we live the routines and rhythms of our lives as though each moment is tinged with glory? How do we see through the unwanted surprises to the reality that sustains us through them?
Often, for me, needed reminders come through the liturgical calendar as I see all over again how Jesus' story and mine are woven together. Take, for example, the day one year ago, as we stood at the turn (as we do again today) from Pentecost Sunday into the long season of Ordinary Time that stretches all the way until the start of Advent.
As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.
Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.
They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.
It's as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.
We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.
A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.
The streamers are shimmering in the light.
It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God's Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?
How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?
As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.
“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.
As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.
I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don't really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.
It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.
It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story.
It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”
I’m invited to remember what I know:
- God never wastes suffering.
- In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
- And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.
I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there.
It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it's not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It's not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it's not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. "Consider it a sheer gift, friends," James says, "when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way." (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.
The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus' Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22)
We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don't face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we're facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).
PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen's sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card's book, A Sacred Sorrow.
As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it's hard for him too.
As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”
I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn't being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.
We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not.
I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”
How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I'm trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It's a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.
P.S. In case you missed it last week, here's a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus' invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.
I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers. Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.
But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest.
I've also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.
Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.
The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.
These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me.
I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase).
I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.
If you'd like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus' invitation to come to him and find rest, I've created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus' invitation and step into it. Each day, we'll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)
Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):
Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn't know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.
I've since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.
This year, for the first time, I'm growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I'm being given a broader perspective.
Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.
Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.
For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.
Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.
They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?
I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.
But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:
- the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
- the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
- the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time.
As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I'm reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.
Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.
There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
(Philippians 1:6, The Message)
PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I've seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn't seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I'm creating for you.
I've been thinking again lately about Jesus' invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we'll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I'm turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on "course." By "course" I'm referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you're already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.
Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them?
The question wrote itself in my mind as yesterday's preacher spoke from Acts 2, focussing on the little phrase, ". . . as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4). The Spirit's enabling is the secret to how we can live a life that matters because, as Jesus reminded us, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). The Spirit empowered the gathered disciples to speak coherently in languages they’d never learned, overcoming their natural human limitations.
But just fifteen minutes before the service began, I’d been talking about learning to respect my limitations. Sometimes I still find my limitations frustrating. Often I see them as gifts. (And it's quite possible for them to be both at the same time!) They have made space for me to know that God loves and wants me, not just my work. They help guide me into the work God has for me to do, and to say no to what is not mine to do. And, often, my limitations are what God uses to help me understand and love someone else well in the midst of their own limitations.
So which is it? Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them, giving us grace to live well within them?
As I ponder and pray, I’m realizing three things:
- God’s ways are higher than mine, and just because I can’t tidily explain how two things fit together doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. Take free will and predestination, or Jesus’ complete humanity and divinity. Our minds struggle to hold them together, yet if one is separated from the other, we slip into a belief that is so one-sided it is no longer true.
- When heaven invades earth, it doesn’t obliterate it. Jesus’ divinity didn’t override his humanity. He remained fully human and limited, needing to eat and sleep, becoming weary, and remaining susceptible to the ultimate limitation: death. He wasn’t superhuman so much as the perfect human.
- God doesn’t promise to empower me for everything I want to do, or even everything I think I should be able to do. He will, however, enable me for the work He has prepared for me to do.
For some years I did work I should not have been able to do with my medical condition. Was I walking on water by the Spirit’s enabling, or was I keeping myself from sinking by desperately pulling myself along, hand-over-hand along a high bar, wondering when my arms would give way and I would drop into the water waiting below?
Perhaps some of both.
Definitely a lot of the second.
Limits are a good and important part of our humanity, reminding us of the profound grace that we are not God, and keeping us close to the One who loves us and is able to do what we can’t.
Sometimes God empowers us to do what would otherwise be humanly impossible: speak in languages we haven’t learned, love people we can’t otherwise love, and thrive in situations that seem impossible. Sometimes we’re given the ability, for a moment, to walk on water.
Many other times, God works through our limitations, rather than taking them away. He says to us what he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Slowly I’m learning to recognize when I’m walking on water, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and when I’m pulling myself along above the water in my own strength. One of the markers, I think, is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden light. If I feel like I’m pulling myself hand-over-hand through my exhaustion, there’s a good chance I am.
There’s hard work which results in weariness but is also marked by peace and joy and hope—signs of the Spirit at work (Gal 5:22-23)—and there’s hard work that just drains away more and more life. Can we allow ourselves, in that place, to let go into Jesus' strong arms, trusting that his strength will catch and hold and help us in my weakness?