Hope for the messy moments

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)

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Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

What Love does with barriers

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It was early morning and the baby and her dad were the only ones on the playground. The baby was crawling happily under the swingset. I stopped jogging and watched as her dad crept a few meters away and crouched behind one of the large cement blocks ringing the playground.
The baby began crawling toward the block. Now and again her dad would tap on the top of the block or wiggle his fingers above it, reminding her he was there, keeping her moving toward him. Finally one small hand then the other reached up and grasped the edge of the block, and the baby pulled herself to standing, peeking over to see her dad smiling at her.
I wrote last week about anger. I omitted the obvious question.
It’s one thing to believe that anger on behalf of someone else might be pointing me to an injustice, calling me to act and giving me courage to do it. But what about when it’s anger over something that has happened to me? Surely then it’s selfish and sinful? Maybe. (It’s easy for sin to get mixed up in anger.) And maybe not.
When I’ve let anger spur me to action on behalf of another I’ve been saying two things: “You matter” and “What is happening to you is wrong.” If I refuse to let myself feel the anger that comes on my own behalf in a situation that is clearly wrong, am I disagreeing with God that I matter?
I feel the mountains tremble and shake with His anger as He runs to the aid of His child who is crying out. (Ps. 18) Every one of His children matter.
The dad turns the barrier into a plaything. The spacious trust of child in father and father in child delights me.
Scripture is full of commands to “put off” anger. I’ve wondered how. Avoiding it doesn’t work. Stuffing it just drives it deeper. It seems the only way to “put off” anything is to start by coming closer. To look at it, listen to it, touch it—in the presence of Jesus.
And as Jesus wiggles his fingers and smiles at me and I learn to stand, there are surprises:
He’s not afraid of my anger. Like everything else in life, He wants to turn it into a place we can explore together, one more place to enjoy His love and give Him mine.
Often beneath my anger lies untruth, an unwillingness to see or admit my real hopes and desires, hurts and needs. Sometimes honesty is enough to dissolve anger. Nine years I’ve felt anger every time I thought of him pacing back and forth across the office, shouting  at us. And within five minutes of getting up off the toshak where I was still cowering and standing up to the man and, in my imagination, telling him the truth about what he was doing to us and to the people we served, the anger was gone and compassion had settled in its place. The man had shrunk, and I could see him for who he was, a bully so small and empty that the only way he knew to make himself feel better was to trash everyone within reach of his words.
Sometimes my anger holds wisdom. Anger shows me what matters to me. (I only feel angry if something I value is being threatened.) Resentment usually tells me I’m doing too much.
Often, the anger is around a choice that I’ve made. I’ve offered to do something when I was already tired. I’ve said “sure, that’s fine” when it wasn’t really fine at all. Sometimes there isn’t even another person involved—I’ve just been listening to the “shoulds” in my head, pushing away my desire for rest or play, when perhaps God wanted to use my resentment to show me what I really need and call me into his gentle, gracious way of living. Maybe obeying the command to “put off” anger involves learning to honor my God-given choice. “Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to givenot reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Like all emotions, anger is meant to move us deeper into right relationship—with God and others and ourselves. It can only do that as I learn to listen to it in the presence of Jesus—the One who is truth and love.
 
Taking it deeper:
Next time you feel angry about something, stop and ask what it’s trying to tell you. What is it that matters enough to you that you feel angry when it’s threatened?
What is your anger inviting you to be honest about?
See God peeking out from behind the concrete block of your anger, inviting you to come closer, to explore and learn and grow and delight in playing with him in the safe space of his never-failing love.

A surprising face of love

IMG_1184How did it happen? How did the God-man who overturned thieves’ tables and called religious leaders snakes get labeled “meek and mild?”
Jesus was not afraid to feel angry. Or to express it.
I am.
I’d rather feel almost anything else. I’ve wondered why.
Sure, I’ve seen the devastation that poorly controlled anger can cause.
Yes, I like to please people rather than rock the boat.
The same culture that taught me that big boys don’t cry made sure I knew that good girls don’t get angry.
But perhaps the biggest, truest reason I’m afraid to feel angry is that anger insists on action. It’s easier to curl up in the corner, out of the battle, than to address the problem. Easier, less scary, less risky—unless risk is measured in terms of missed life and ignored calling.
I pray to hear the heartbeat of God, to let mine beat in rhythm with His. When did I forget that that might mean feeling His anger as well as His peace and His joy?
I’ve known His anger in the past: “It’s so wrong that we’re turning these kids off studying the Bible!” “It’s awful that all those women are dying for lack of access to care!” I’ve suspected that anger is linked to calling, that the place we feel God’s anger most deeply is the place we’re called to partner with Him in addressing the injustice.
“Passion” is a big word with a lot of layers to live.
I watch the One in whose image I am made, the One “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Num 14:18; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) The One who “time after time . . . restrained his anger.” (Ps 78:38) And then I watch as several hundred times this God who is Love expresses His anger.
Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Anger can be an expression of love. The fierce protectiveness of a mother for her baby, the anger of a man when he finds his wife in the arms of another: is the ability to express appropriate anger in defense of life and relationship what sets true love apart from sentimentality?
God isn’t quick to explode. But when relationship is broken or injustice occurring, He isn’t afraid to point out the problem. And then He lets His anger go. “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” (Ps 30:5)
Slow to get angry but unafraid to express it as a means to restoring relationship, quick to let it go and welcome the other back into relationship: that’s how God lives His anger as an expression of His love. It’s how we’re asked to live it too.

“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life. (Eph 4:26-27 MSG)

God of perfect love, this scares me. I’d rather a smaller version of love, one which allows me to feel safe and comfortable emotions all the time. But I want to be free to receive and give your love in all the ways you might ask. Open me up to the fullness of your love. Live your love in me.

The surprising gift you don’t dare refuse

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We’d just found our housemate unconscious on the cold cement floor and my heart was raging mad. Not at her, but at our guests who cared more about having to wait forty minutes in their warm, comfortable vehicle than about our friend’s life.

I wrote that story last week. Some of it, I think, was good writing. Some felt weak. This morning I realized why. I was afraid of my anger. I tried to soften it, cover it, apologize for it when I needed to let it be seen. It was part of the story and, in this case, a marker of real wrong at work in the situation.

Satan has two tactics when dealing with our anger. The first is to whisper that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for feeling angry, that our anger is bad and dangerous and to be feared, and that we’ll never please God if we feel angry. And so we try to destroy or hide our anger instead of allowing it to energize us in the battle against Satan and toward relationship with God and each other. If he fails at that, Satan tries to turn our hand to train the powerful weapon on other people or back on ourselves, taking a tool intended to spur us to action in the service of life and teaching us to use it in the service of destruction instead.

In one sense, anger is a product of the fall: we didn’t know anger until after the fall. There was no need for this energy-full emotion that makes us feel what is wrong, involving us in the reality of it and spurring us toward making it right.

At a much deeper level, our capacity to feel anger is part of our imaging of the God whose infinite love and longing for right relationship includes anger against anything that threatens to destroy His beloved creation.

It’s a deep and daring trust that is willing to feel God’s anger, knowing it will call us to action.

Anger can kill. It requires great respect and caution. But the reality is, we will feel it. We’re meant to feel it. In this broken world, there’s no way to love without sometimes feeling anger. I watch Jesus turning over the tables of crooks in the temple, restoring His Father’s house to a sacred place of relationship. (Luke 19:45-46) I see him indignant at the tomb of Lazarus, his anger over the destruction Satan had brought on his friend paired with decisive action: “It doesn’t have to be this way!” (John 11)

Surrendered to the Holy Spirit, controlled anger can help push us up the hill of our apathy and fear to act in ways that bring holiness in the world. I hear the anger in the voices of some of the most godly men I know when they don’t just speak of other men enslaving women in prostitution, but act to do something about it. I once stood up to a gynaecologist who was verbally abusing one of my junior residents; it was anger over the injustice that fuelled my small courage.

Carefully handled, anger can be a gift. Join me in letting God teach us to use it well?

“Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Eph 4:26-27 NRSV)

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For further exploration:

Since our anger—like every other part of us—has been distorted by the fall, there’s no doubt that this powerful emotion needs a trigger guard and cautious handling. We’re given guidelines and constant Holy help:

  • Never train your sights on other people. (Eph 6:12)
  • Learn when to let it go. (Eph 4:26-27)
  • Hand it over to the One who can handle it before it gets too hot to hold. (Psalm 94, 109, etc)

Here are a few questions that help me in the handling of the gift of anger. What others would you add?

  • What is underlying my anger in this situation? (Love? Fear? Envy? Hurt pride?) Is there sin I need to confess?
  • What does this anger show me about what really matters to me? To God?
  • What might be God’s invitation to me here?

When it all rises up in you

 

It doesn’t happen all that often. Mostly I’m just so grateful to be His. But that day was different and I wasn’t liking it. I know He can handle the rest of the mess. The fear. The ache. But this? Anger? At Him?

I tried to pretend I was okay with the situation. I didn’t want to express the anger. Didn’t want to feel it. I love Him. I need Him. I don’t want to shout at Him.

“I trust you.” I do. But maybe not enough to obey when he urges honesty: “Let it come. It needs to come out.”

I try to hide: “I’m not really angry.”

He finds me: “Then why did you uncheck that song on itunes?”

We both know the answer already, but His question demands a response. Fine then: “I don’t want to listen to that song because it clashes too hard with my reality. It makes me want to yell at you and I don’t want to do that. “

I don’t say what I’m thinking, that just today I don’t want to lie still in his presence either (will the silence break me open?) That today I’m even afraid to ask for help, afraid that if he doesn’t answer quickly enough the unanswered questions will all rush out and I’ll find myself vomiting the contents of my churning heart all over his bright white holiness.

The story I’m (now) glad I overheard

It happened as they were driving up the ramp onto the ferry. Sensing something not right, she had just taken the baby out of his carseat. “If anything went wrong, I wanted him on my lap.” She still felt the same when she was telling the story the day after she had sat long in the car with the windows down. The day after she had thrown away her shorts spoiled by her baby’s bellyful of purple cherries.

“When something goes wrong, I want you on my lap.” Not strapped down. Not turned away. He’d rather have a lapful of purple cherries than have me out of his reach (and where’s that, anyway?). Rather have us beating our little fists on his chest than turning away to ache alone.

“Long enough, GOD—

you’ve ignored me long enough.

I’ve looked at the back of your head

long enough.   Long enough

I’ve carried this ton of trouble,

lived with a stomach full of pain.

Long enough my arrogant enemies

have looked down their noses at me.

                   . . . . .

Take a good look at me, GOD, my God;

I want to look life in the eye,

So no enemy can get the best of me

or laugh when I fall on my face.

                   . . . . .

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—

I’m celebrating your rescue.

I’m singing at the top of my lungs,

I’m so full of answered prayers.”

(Psalm 13, The Message)

Related posts:

Beating on the chest of God

When life disappoints