Your needs and the needs of others: the good news about balance

It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him? 

This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I’ve long stumbled over:

“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). 

How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.

I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.

So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”

Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.

            Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call. 

Jesus’ vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.

In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.

 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).

Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.

How to live a healthy rhythm of labor

I woke on Saturday with a sense of dread hanging over me. I was tired, my website was still a mess, the deadline for a writing contest was two days away, and I didn’t yet have an idea for a blog post. The kitchen and bathroom floors have needed washing for weeks. The washing basket was full, and I’d had to eat crackers and peanut-butter for my pre-run snack because the bananas were too green and I hadn’t made it to the store to buy bread.

I didn’t list all those things as I woke. They were just there, a dark cloud of weariness and dread as I entered the day. It was early and I lay there for a bit, telling God how much I hated started a day dreading it. Beyond that I don’t remember how the gift came. It wasn’t something I figured out. It was just there, an understanding and an invitation and another piece of the puzzle being put into place so that the whole image was all of a sudden clearer. 

The understanding: I have choice here. No one is dying. 

The invitation: Live a healthy rhythm of labor. 

I’ve seen women who were for the first time experiencing the burning pressure between their legs push not only with contractions but try to keep pushing in between. In only a few minutes they were exhausted. If, on the other hand, they pushed with contractions, when the uterus was doing a huge part of the work to push the baby down, and rested and breathed when the contraction waned, they could keep up the rhythm of push and rest for much longer, and made much quicker progress in delivering the baby than if they tried to push constantly. Rest and breathing was also important for both mom and baby to get the oxygen that they needed. 

In the hard work of intense labor, the rests are as important as the pushing.

So on Saturday morning, I sensed the invitation to stop and breathe between contractions. More concretely for this introvert who’d been engaging with people all week, the invitation was to keep all social media turned off and not even do my usual quick email check while I ate my snack before I ran. For this self who comes alive with writing and slowly shrivels with trying to figure out too many new technological issues at once, the invitation was also not to look at the website. It was to set all that aside and just be my small self, alone with God, without any of the roles or trappings or obligations. There in his presence, I could finally see things more clearly: nothing on my do-list was truly urgent. It would all still be there in a few hours and no-one would have died for it not having been done sooner. The only thing that hurt a bit was my pride. Who wants the mess of their website or their floors visible to visitors? But God has been doing his slow, patient work in me, and, for that morning at least, the inner freedom to shut out the world and be quiet with God was worth far more than the sting of possibly being misperceived and judged (or correctly perceived in areas I’d rather keep hidden!).

As I saw the invitation to step back into a healthy rhythm of labor, I also saw once more where God was in it all: The Divine Midwife was midwifing me.God had just put a hand on me, helping me sense whether there was a contraction or not, whether his power was in that moment at work in me, encouraging me to add my effort to his, or whether this was a moment to rest and breathe and prepare to work together again shortly.

For me, facing the day with dread is often a sign that I’m trying to keep pushing, relying on my own effort, when I’m being invited first to rest and breathe. 

The exact signs will be different for everyone, but each of us can, over time, learn to recognize when we’re pushing solely in our own effort, and when we’re adding our strength to cooperate with something that God is already doing in us.

I’ve mentioned the understanding and the invitation, but not yet the puzzle piece being put into place so that the whole image became clearer. 

The puzzle piece: I’ve long wondered how all this fits into the time I lived in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, sometimes as the only doctor for 150,000 people. Was that an exception, an impossible situation that couldn’t have been lived in a healthy rhythm? What about my obstetrical training when I had to work 24, 28, and sometimes even 36 hour shifts? Does this invitation to live a healthy rhythm apply only to those who don’t have a busy job or small children or another circumstance that may keep them running for years? 

Certainly there are stretches of our lives when we seem to have little control over our own time. But even then, as I look back once again at my own situation, I see places I could have chosen differently and didn’t, usually because I was afraid of disappointing someone. Yes, there were huge, real constraints on my time and energy. But at least as big a part in my failure to live a healthier rhythm of labor was my over-active sense of responsibility to please everyone.

It takes time to learn to recognize when we’re pushing in our own effort and when we’re cooperating with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul said, “struggling with all [God’s] energy which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), but there are hints and promises to help us in the process. I can

  • Begin to notice signs that indicate I’m trying to push when I’m being invited to rest. What happens in my body, my thoughts and emotions, my relationship with God and others when I’m pushing in my own strength vs. when I’m cooperating with God and living a healthier rhythm of pushing along with Him and then resting and then pushing again?
  • Pay attention to the clues we’re given. I’ve found love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 a good starting list for noticing what’s going on in me and what it might mean. I can work hard but with a sense of joy and gentleness, or I can drive myself anxiously and aggressively. In the first case, I’m pushing along with something the Holy Spirit is already doing. In the second, I’m likely trying to bring something to birth in my own effort.
  • Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in noticing well, in following the nudges to rest, and in letting Jesus heal me in the places I need to be healed so I’m not being driven by fear of what others might think but am responding to God’s nudges.

The wonderfully encouraging news in this process?

The promise: We’re not on our own in this process of learning to listen and live a healthy rhythm of labor. We have an ever-present Midwife who knows us and is always with us and in us, midwifing the birth of our lives more deeply into God’s, and of God’s life in and through us into the world.

“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Rom 8:22-28, The Message)

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Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

When you struggle to settle


It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.
Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.
I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.
Gradually I began to understand.
In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.
Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:
A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.
My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
Hallelujah.”

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

For the moments you feel disconnected from God


Moving week do-list:

  • arrange for hydro
  • finish packing
  • clean bathroom, windows, fridge
  • pick up key
  • buy microwave

The list continues. Most of it can’t be put off. Time and energy run short, and though I try to pray, in the busyness I feel disconnected from God and from what’s going on in my own heart.
I don’t like it. It feels like I’m missing the richest part of life. I don’t want to live this way for long.
Friends help move, unpack, clean. I receive God’s care through them.
And in the midst of it all, there is gift in this reminder, and in the invitation to rest here: My security does not depend on my holding onto God, but on His holding onto me.
 

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Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

For the overwhelming moments


It’s a busy stretch right now as I prepare to present my final master’s project in ten days’ time. Room booked? Check. Posters printed? Check. Paper done? Script finished? Slides prepared? I want this first public sharing of the book I’ve been working on for several years to be a blessing to those who attend.
In the midst of the busyness (which sometimes degenerates into anxiety), I’m sensing myself reminded, through an image and a phrase, how to live this time.
The phrase? “It’s not mine, it’s ours.” The book, the accompanying papers, the presentation aren’t mine, they’re ours—a love-gift that God and I have been offering to each other for years and are now preparing—together—to share with others. The responsibility is not mine to carry alone.
And the image? I’m flailing around in the ocean, grasping wildly at a life-ring, trying to pull myself up out of the water and stand on it. It flips over, dumping me unceremoniously back into the water and leaving me coughing and spluttering as it bobs to the surface again a few feet away. Jesus, walking on the water, reaches out his hand to me, inviting me to stop trying to stand on (or even cling to) the life ring and let him help me back into the boat instead.
The life-ring, I’m discovering, can be just about anything. My own intuition. A structure or protocol or tradition. Detailed planning. Friends who are helping me out. Anything that is good and helpful and sometimes even life-saving, but that isn’t meant to be the foundation for my security. Anything, in other words, that is not Jesus.