Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.
And roots, roots, and more roots.
I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.
Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.
Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.”
“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.
This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?
My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)
It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens.
“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . .
But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)
Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place.
Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:
"Wisdom comes only through suffering."—Aeschylus
"To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?" —Ivan Panin
"The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust - not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God." —Brennan Manning
It's not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It's grace. And it's choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God's presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?
I've been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I've had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it's unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it's more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I'm lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)
I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it's a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God's healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.
The process isn't comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don't know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I'm encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:
"Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking."
—James 1:2-5, The Voice (bold mine)
When life seems faded and pale, a dim echo of glory,
or surreal, too busy and bright,
you can rest, friend, and trust the Artist, because you are not self-made.
"We are God's masterpiece" (Ephesians 2:10, NLT), all of us being loved together into a Life more magnificent than we can dream.
Masterpieces aren't made in a day. There are stages and phases and layers, and if you try to rush the peach onto the blue, you just end up with mud. "Soul work is slow work," a wise friend says, and the master Artist delights in each step of the process.
"We who with unveiled faces all (already!) reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 2:18)
And we can be "confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)
We are His masterpiece, continually being loved toward completion by the One who delights to claim us as His own and sign His name to us.
Painting and photos of the stages by Patricia Herrera.
A repost from the archives.
I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”
I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!
So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?
The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.
Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.
I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.
I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I'd rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I'd prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.
As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers.
I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: "Where did you go?" In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, "A bother," "A drain," "Alone."
After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?" Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, "How might you want him to be with you in this?”
The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus' body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.
This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.
And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl's instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.
As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus' arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I'd made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus' arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus' arms.
It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.
Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I'm being invited to speak Jesus' words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.
As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:
“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."
Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)
I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It's so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control.
“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.
Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.
As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me.
Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits.
What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?
A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That's not just a different story, it's a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.
Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I'd love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it's the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.
In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when coloured pencils and binders are on sale, the nights are starting to cool, and the picnic basket has been traded in for school bags or briefcases. There's excitement in the air—the goodness of beginning fresh—and sometimes also a bit of heaviness as we leave summer behind and enter the season ahead.
When change is in the air, I need to pause and look back before moving forward. What do I want to take with me? What will I choose to leave behind?
As we begin this season, I’m holding close the memory of a day last week, turning it over and exploring what it tells me about the God who is going before me and with me into the fall.
I was staying with friends for a few days. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist (particularly since the teacher in our mandatory grade ten art class informed me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”) But I’m drawn to beauty and color, and my friend, Linda, a watercolor artist, was helping me learn to play with paint. Together we gathered leaves and ferns and grasses and arranged them in wet paint, allowing the beauty of their forms to pattern the page and delighting in the surprise of how the colors merged and mingled.
One afternoon, we set aside the paint and went to walk a nearby trail.
Dragonflies hummed by, and I tried repeatedly to catch their image with my camera, eventually whispering the longing in my heart, “Oh, God, even from a distance they’re so beautiful. Could you bring one close enough that I can really look at it?”
But they were too quick and eventually I had to stop trying to grasp a gift that wasn’t being given and get on with receiving the gifts that were being given that day.
The following morning, Linda went out to get the mail. There, by her feet, was a perfectly formed dragonfly. His brief lifespan had ended, and the God who knows each sparrow that falls evidently keeps track of dragonflies too, letting this one bring Him glory even in his death.
As I sat and looked and worshiped the Creator, turning his tiny creature around and around in the light of the new day, I pictured God smiling as he’d received my prayer the previous day and planned the surprise for the following day, whispering, “That gift is for tomorrow.”
I can be tempted to feel like the gifts of vacation are for a few days or weeks only, and to feel sad or heavy as I leave vacation behind. It is true, particular gifts are for particular days. But the heart from which they come does not change, and each day holds new gifts.
"The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning."
Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT
We move into this new season preceded and accompanied by the God who has created us and the world around us—the dragonfly’s compound eyes, the fine hairs on its back, the lace of its wings—and who delights to show us his love in the details of our daily lives.
May we be given eyes wide to see God's goodness, and hearts open to delight in Him as we begin this new season with Him.
A week or so ago, I received an invitation to speak. The topic I was given was “God’s heartbeat.” My first breathless thought was, “What a huge topic! How could I dare to address that?”
Then I remembered I write a blog called Hearing The Heartbeat.
Somehow it feels different. The blog is part of my attempt to pay attention, a weekly glimpse into some tiny corner of the way Mystery and Grace and Love intersect with my small life. It’s an aid to listening, not a presumption that I am an expert on the beat of God’s heart. And it's an offering to you in the prayerful hope that it will also help you glimpse places God's heartbeat echoes through your own life.
But as I sit with the topic I was given and my awe around it, I am brought face to face once again with the incredible truth: The God who created neutrons and black holes, bacteria and butterflies and elephants, the gentle curve of our ears and the intricate electrical system that keeps our own hearts beating wants us to hear His heartbeat!
He has designed each of our senses not only to help us know and communicate with each other, but to know and communicate with Him.
Without the eye's rods and cones, the optic nerve and the visual cortex of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to see the way God’s love overflows far beyond necessary sustenance into the extravagance of turquoise water and cotton-ball clouds and variegated impatiens.
Without the cochlea and the hammer and anvil of the ear, we wouldn’t hear God’s limitless creativity and kindness in birdsong or a Mozart concerto or a baby’s belly laugh.
We receive and share something of God’s protective, compassionate love through the sensors in our skin as a newborn curls her tiny fingers around our larger ones.
All of that is built right into us, our whole selves woven together that we might hear God’s heartbeat.
You’d think blue layered mountains and the wings of a hummingbird would send a pretty clear message of power and creativity and of love—He placed us here to live!—but even eyes that score 20/20 can be sightless when it comes to Love. And so God sent prophets to speak and poets to sing and finally came himself in human form, placing Himself still more directly within the reach of all of our senses (1 John 1:1).
He met his disciples not only through their eyes and ears but also, as he baked bread for them over hot coals, drew on that sense that has the strongest link to emotion and memory—smell. And he met the leper with the sense that best says, “You are accepted”—touch.
He wants us to know His heartbeat!
And He promises we will.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.”
John 10:27, NIV
"No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him—
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit."
1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The promise that we'll hear God's voice and his heartbeat is not a promise for an exclusive few, but for all who are His (1 John 2:20-21, 27).
As we look and listen and touch and sniff the beauty around us through which God speaks, as we read the stories of Jesus and listen to His whispers within us, what do we discover? What is God’s heartbeat that he is so eager for us to hear? Well, of course, it’s as rich and full of harmonies and harmonics as one might expect of a God like this, but if one had to describe its core in a single word, what might that word be? Here's a hint, or three:
"God told them, 'I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!'"
Jer 31:3 The Message
"I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us."
Romans 8:39-39 The Message
"And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God."
Ephesians 3:17-19 The Message
I'm off to enjoy some time resting and celebrating and soaking with my family in God's love over these next few weeks. (Talking about love, we'll be celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary!)
I'll see you back here in September. Until then, may we all be given eyes and ears and hearts open to God's love, and may God help us to settle a little deeper into his love.
“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love."
John 15:9, The Message