When a door is open

Lately I’ve found myself returning again and again to the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians for the perspective and comfort offered here. In just a few pages, Paul offers insight into so many key questions:

  • How does God feel toward us in our suffering? (1:1-11)
  • How can we be confident without being proud? (3:1-6)
  • And how do we proceed when a door is open for ministry but we don’t feel peace? Why? (2:12-14)

This week it’s that last question that has held a gift for me.

Here’s how Paul shares his own experience:

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

(2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

It’s quite striking to me that Paul can say “The Lord had opened a door for me” and “I left” and not offer more of an explanation. If I was the one writing, I would have felt obliged to clarify my intent. Was I offering the situation to my readers as an example to be followed—that if God opens a door and we don’t have peace, we should follow our emotions? Was I saying, “I didn’t do things the best way here but it’s okay because. . .”?

But Paul doesn’t say either of these explicitly. He just offers the facts as he sees them:

  1. God had opened a door for him to preach the gospel.
  2. He had no peace because he was worried about a missing co-worker.
  3. In the midst of this tension, he chose to leave and go looking for the co-worker rather than walking through the open door. 

And Paul seems fine to leave it there, not needing to analyze or agonize or explain because he is confident that wherever he goes, God is with him and in him and flowing through him.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

Yes, we prayerfully and carefully look at all the aspects of the situation. An open door is a precious opportunity not to be taken for granted. So is peace of mind. There are whole helpful books written about how to navigate this tension. (Hint: peace matters).

But this week the gift for me was this simple reminder: There is a spaciousness and freedom in this place where God’s work and ours overlap. As we prayerfully listen and choose as best we can, we can rest in the truth that God’s presence is limitless and his loving work in the world is vast. Wherever we end up, God is with us and in us, and can through us spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. 

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

Walking shoeless (OR When you feel unfinished)


Sometimes a particular dream catches my attention, as though it is wiser than I am and wants to tell me something if only I’ll pay attention. When I pause to ponder and pray about it, I often notice things that seem obvious once I see them, but I was too blind, or my mind too busy, to see them in my waking life.
One of those dreams came last week. In it I was feeling inadequate next to a friend whom I love and respect, and afraid that she’d tire of our friendship. We were at a course together, and as she came by my room to pick me up on our way to the next session a few steps across a small, dry courtyard, I observed aloud that we were both in sock feet. She looked at her feet, seeming mildly surprised, then smiled and shrugged as though she was used to discovering that she wasn’t quite put together. I, meanwhile, stopped to try to find my shoes. I couldn’t find them, but I wouldn’t stop looking—under the bed, in the closet, again and again searching places I’d already looked. The next class was beginning. Eventually, my friend went on ahead.
As I lingered with the image of being shoeless, I noticed that we were both in sock feet. None of us in this life has it all together, no matter how it may seem when I make the mistake of comparing my inside to someone else’s outside. The difference between my dream friend and myself was not that she had it all together, but that she had learned not to let her lack of togetherness derail her from her calling.
I remembered, too, God’s command to Moses: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Standing there together, both of us shoeless, my friend and I were on holy ground. Maybe we’d find that we always are, if we paused to pay attention, for where can we flee from God’s presence? My incompleteness, our incompleteness, is never the end of the story because God is alive and active and at work in both of us, as well as between us and through us. God is as eager to show us more of who He is as He was to show Moses more of Himself when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. And He’s still perfectly able, through that knowing of Him, to complete us with Himself—whether that means offering faith in the face of fear or, as it did with Moses,  transformation from being someone with such severe anger issues that he murdered a fellow human, into being one of history’s greatest leaders. That completion comes in the following, though, in the leaning in and clinging close and paying attention not to my inadequacy but to God’s sufficiency. The question is: Will I follow, shoeless, my attention on the wonder of the bushes burning around me, or will I stop and refuse to move until I find my shoes?
_____________________________
Photo by Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash

The gift of the in-between

 
The wheels of time turn and here we are once again in that week after the end and before the beginning.
Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church calendar year, the day we particularly remember that, all appearances to the contrary, Christ is King over the world. Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent, that time of waiting for the Light to come, tiny at first but carrying the promise of burning away the fog and destroying the darkness.
I’m sensitized to the in-between this year as my time in my old home is coming to an end and I don’t yet have a new one. There’s a letting go without a new earthly place to rest, and I’m aware of the empty space at my feet.
I prefer planning to surprises, even pleasant ones. I like control, and predictability, and stability. In-betweens don’t offer much of that, so mostly I’m not a big fan of in-betweens.
But, between the long hours of feeling like I’m living a nightmare, I’m aware of something deeper going on. There are moments when I taste freedom, and the joy that comes with it.  And I’m glad God loves me enough to take me through these places, because things happen in these uncomfortable places that don’t happen when things are predictable and comparatively secure.
Here, for example, I see reality. I realize how much of my sense of security has been in things other than God, and I see that the ‘security’ offered by those things is no more substantial than empty space at my feet.  Here, too, God invites me to sit down and know that He remains rock-solid even when all I want to do is back away from the edge and the empty space. Here He invites me to trust. Presses me to put all my weight on him. And so sets my heart a little freer from its attachments to all those things that don’t really provide security so my heart can belong to Him alone.
I read yesterday of a significant in-between moment in the lives of the people of Israel. After God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and cared for them as they wandered for forty years in the desert, he had them pause just before he opened the Jordan for them to cross and led them into the promised land. The purpose of the pause? To set the people apart once again as wholly God’s, marking their bodies and souls as God’s through the act of circumcision. After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the reproach of Egypt? This, I think: that their bodies and souls belonged to someone other than God. In Egypt, they were not physically free to be God’s alone and get on with worshiping and living for him (Ex. 3:7; 5:1-4, etc.) And in the desert, their hearts were still tied to Egypt (Ex. 16:3). So before God took them into their new earthly home, he grounded them in their deeper, truer home. He called them back to choose Him—choose Life!—and marked them again as His chosen and precious people, people under his rock-solid care and guidance and love.
This, I think, (I hope!), is what is happening to me. Before leading me to my new home, God is “circumcising my heart,” cutting away attachments to what is not Him so I can be more freely and fully His. And this, I think, is one of the big gifts of these in-between times, these large or small time-outs when ordinary business is interrupted with illness or an unwanted email or anything else that upsets our plans and makes us uncomfortable. Here we are both invited and helped to see more truly and choose more freely and shift our trust to the only One who is worthy of it.
It is a mutual process. I choose to lean in and let God do the work of freeing me. I choose to be His. But only He can set my heart free. I love how this is reflected in Deuteronomy 30. In verse 2 and 10, we choose to love and obey the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul. And in verse 6, at the centerpoint of those two, is the most wonderful promise for the zillion times when my desire to be freely and fully God’s only underscores my own inability to make it happen:

“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

Thank you, LORD. Your kingdom come, your will be done in me.

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Photo by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash.

Beneath busy: one way to slow down when the world is spinning

Busyness: it might be the single biggest threat to my vocation to listen to God’s heartbeat and help others listen. Busyness, or, rather, hurry—the soul counterpart that too often accompanies the body’s busyness. My body operates under restrictions, and so, compared to most other people’s schedules, mine will never be truly “busy.” I don’t have the externally imposed busyness of young children pulling at me, the 9 to 5 requirements of an office job, nor, as I once did, the 80+ hour a week demands of a medical career.

Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t stop the soul-virus of hurry from attacking my system. Maybe I’m even more aware of its insidious attack because my schedule is necessarily limited, so I’m forced to admit that the problem lies inside me.

I remember again the advice Dallas Willard gave to John Ortberg when Ortberg, a busy pastor with a young family, called Willard long distance to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. There was a long pause, and then the answer came, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” The words stick with me because I need them so badly.

The words of another wise pastor challenge me even more deeply. He’s speaking as a pastor to other pastors, but I’m certain these words apply to me too, and perhaps in some way to all of us who are set apart to be Christ’s bride. How can we who are his hear his voice if our souls are always running off in one direction or another? How can we follow the great commands to love God and love others if our souls are racing too fast to pause and listen and love?

“The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my waste-basket is the letter addressed to the ‘busy pastor.’ Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

‘The poor man,’ we say. ‘He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.’ But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 17, bold mine)

Over the page, he challenges me further.

“Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reason; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? . . .

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . . .” (Ibid, p. 18)

For me there’s a third reason, perhaps tied up in the vanity he mentions, or hidden beneath it. That reason is fear. I fear rejection so I say yes to avoid disapproval. I fear I’m not enough so I try to prove myself by what I do. I fear missing out so, instead of trusting that what I have is enough, I hold out hands to take everything offered, even when it’s too much. Sometimes I don’t know exactly why I’m tempted to say yes when I probably should say no. But here I find a lovely gift, because no matter what the root issue is, I’m finding one simple practice that helps me more than any other to settle and rest: a return to the truth of my smallness. A return to the joy of my smallness, and the freedom of it.

I picture myself sitting on Jesus’ knee, or held gently in his hands, treasured. Or, as I prepare to sit and listen with another, I picture myself as a little girl holding the hand of my Father who is taking me to work with him. This is his work. For this hour, he’s giving me a front-row seat and a little part to play, but the work is his and the weight of the responsibility remains with him. As I smile up at him, my smile mirrors his own.

Here in this place of smallness, I know myself treasured, so there’s no need to race around trying to earn love.

Here in this place of smallness, I remember that someone else is in charge, that it’s not my job to meet all the needs in the world, only to take the hand of the One who orchestrates it all and show up with him at the places he invites me to join him.

And only here in this place of knowing myself small and loved do I begin, slowly, to find myself free enough to say the yeses and no’s that let me live fully without succumbing to the soul-numbing race of hurry.

I don’t have all the answers for how to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” I don’t always faithfully live the answers that I do have. Drivenness runs deep within me, and the call to ruthlessly eliminate hurry will be for me a daily process of listening and choosing for the rest of my life. I do know that here, small and held, is the only place I can hear clearly enough to sense the moment-by-moment invitations, and know myself safe enough in God’s love to dare to follow.