One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.
These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.
There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.
Child of My love, lean hard
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;
I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;
Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion
In its weight to thine unaided strength;
For even as I laid it on, I said,
I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,
This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];
So shall I keep My child within the circling arms
Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear
To impose it on a shoulder which upholds
The government of worlds. Yet closer come;
Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care
So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.
Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;
But, loving Me, lean hard.
(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)
I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.
The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.
I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.
I still find it hard to need help.
I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)
I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.
Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.
Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:
Let me not run from the love that you offer,
But hold me safe from the forces of evil.
Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .” . Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.
When I ask Jesus at the beginning of each Lent how he is inviting me to walk with him toward the cross, I’m often surprised by the answer he gives. One year, the invitation was to focus on various aspects of being embodied. (“Isn’t Lent as a time to suppress our appetites and mortify our bodies, not celebrate them?” I’d wondered. “But isn’t the journey to the cross and through death where Jesus most fully experienced his humanity, and gave us back our own, joined to his, now host to God’s indwelling presence?” the answer had returned.)
Jesus’ Lenten invitations are always, in one way or another, about connecting my story to his story and freeing me to live the fuller, truer story of grace—which, of course, is precisely the point of Lent.
This year as Lent begins I find myself in a busy time when I’m being stretched in many ways, and the gentle invitation which overarches all the smaller daily invitations is simple and direct: Let grace be grace.
Sacrifice can be an expression of love, and discipline is essential for discipleship. But for this good girl, it’s easy without even knowing it to turn discipline into a place to hide from grace. Sometimes I don’t need another layer of discipline so much as I need to remember that it’s only a means, and that the end (which can, at times, be obscured by the means) is living in love. And so the call this year is to trust. To let grace be grace and love be love.
This year, if Lent is about self-denial, it’s about the denial of that part of me that wants to—and insists I can—earn love. (And by denial I don’t mean ignoring that part of me, but bringing it into Jesus’ presence where it slowly shrinks.)
If turning, then turning from those persistent voices that insist I need to fix myself (give up something, work harder, trust more deeply) to be loveable, and turning again and again to the Voice that says I have always been beloved and nothing I do or don’t do can change that.
If about repentance, then repentance for trying (even without realizing it) to earn this love that can only be received.
It is not to be a Lent of self-flagellation, but God-celebration, a Lent of the real, messy, honest me living loved and delighting in grace—the grace that takes my place on the cross and the same grace that meets me in the details of my life now and invites me to receive that grace, to rest in it and delight in it and let it be enough.
It seems Jesus is giving the same invitation around the globe. After I had written this post, I read Sarah’s beautiful post which felt like another piece of God’s invitation to me, an echo making the invitation still deeper and more beautiful. You can read it here: Lent in Love.
Revisting this post from the archives because—really?—so much of what I need to remember to dare to take this long Lenten journey with Jesus is right here.
Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving? Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”
I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.
The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life—or let the illness become a new place to hide—than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”
Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.
I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so I learned to ignore the messages my body was sending me. My body shouted louder. I bought industrial strength ear protection and kept on working. And in the process I forget (if I ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.
I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.
I keep needing to begin again.
She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.
Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.
“. . .for He knows how we are formed,
He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)
And—(this is what I need to know!)—
“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)
It’s so clear, there in the psalm:
“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .
Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:
The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)
He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:
“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”
I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.
My dearest sister,
Two days before my third birthday, when Dad put you into my arms, I scarcely glimpsed the gift I was receiving. I knew this live doll who wiggled and woke and ate was a wonderful creature. I was happy to have a sister. I didn’t know I was being handed a person who would grow into one of my dearest friends, someone who would show me in a thousand beautiful ways what Christ looks like.
It wasn’t long before we began to play school. I was the teacher, helping you learn to write your letters. I didn’t realize you were becoming my teacher, too, helping me sound out the meaning of the Word as I saw Him living in your skin.
You kept loving me even when I didn’t want to wear matching clothes, and didn’t want you to play with me and my friends.
You forgave me a million slights and pushing-you-aways, and never stopped believing in me or wanting to be near me.
As you twirled and sang and made our new baby brother laugh with your silliness—”Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was green as peas”—you began a lifetime of helping me realize that God’s love is celebration as much as seriousness.
In you I see how sacrifice and celebration can co-exist—how joy is not just the fulfillment but the fuel of costly love.
When I returned home from Afghanistan too sick to shop for my own clothes, you put your fashion talents to work and brought home outfits for me to try.
You sat on my bed while I rested, and brought your children to read with me. You taught them by your own love to love me, and they learned that we all have limitations and that mine didn’t make me any less precious.
Almost every time I’ve returned home from a far country or the other side of this one, you have shown up at the airport or the house with a bouquet of flowers or a balloon and a hundred hugs, always delighted to have me home though you know it won’t be long before I’ll fly off again.
You would love to keep me here close to you, but you have encouraged me to find my wings, to keep growing into the person God has made me to be.
You have given me space when I needed it.
You always think the best of me. You aren’t blind to my faults and weaknesses, yet somehow they don’t seem to matter much to you. Somehow—amazingly—you never make me feel as though I’ve been a disappointment. Your love makes space for all of me. You know your job is not to change me but to love me. And you never make me feel like you want to change me. Somehow, love like that does end up changing me, setting me free, because it opens up safe space for the real me to creep out of hiding and begin loving too.
When I’m at risk of thinking I can understand grace by figuring it out, love like yours keeps me grounded. I have learned far more of what Christ looks like through your hugs and laughter and back rubs than through my careful thinking. Some mysteries can only be understood from the inside; love can’t be analyzed, only received.
I can’t count the meals you’ve made, the gifts you’ve given, the cards you’ve created. And you’ve never made me feel like your extravagant love has cost you more than you wanted to give. Your love enables me to consider that God’s love just might not be a “have to” love but a “want to” love, an “I like you and love you and enjoy you and want to be with you and delight in you just as you are” kind of love. God knew I’d need to see that full-of-delight kind of love again and again to believe it, and you are one of the ways He keeps coming to me with flesh on to help me remember that this kind of love really does exist.
So, dearest sister, thank you. You didn’t choose to be my sister. You did choose—and do keep choosing—to let your body and soul host Jesus so that your loving is not only yours but God’s, your face and arms and feet mediating divine grace.
You are beautiful, dear sister, and I am so grateful for my third-birthday present. You remain a once-in-a-lifetime priceless gift that keeps growing and becoming more precious and treasured with every birthday that passes.
Happy fortieth birthday, and here’s to an eternity of continuing to enjoy God and each other more deeply. I love you so much!