What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?
Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.
Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.
They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”
Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.
I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.
They seem so small.
But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again:
You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.
You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission.
And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.
You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.
As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.
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.
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens.”
The invitation has never been rescinded.
My POTS (chronic illness) has been worse these past couple of months than it has been for years—maybe because, despite much help from friends and movers, I pushed past my limits in moving homes a couple of months ago. It’s hard to be back here. It’s frustrating and discouraging and unpleasant to be lightheaded more of the time.
I find myself chafing at accomplishing so little, and realize that my sense of worth is still far too tied up with what I can do. And in that place I hear once more Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” and I realize that my burden is far more about my expectations of myself than God’s expectations of me. John Milton’s beautiful poem comes to mind once more, and with it the realization that it’s my heart’s posture of willingness toward God, not my ability to do what others can, that can make me a faithful servant.
On His Blindness (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly* ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.” (italics mine)
(*fondly = foolishly)
God meets me in the story of another man, too, a mighty prophet who, just after the mightiest demonstration of God’s power in his life, found himself so weary and weak that he was unable to go on and took himself off to the desert to lie down under a tree and pray for death (1 Kings 19). I’ve noticed before God’s tenderness in caring for him. God didn’t forget that Elijah was dust. He let him sleep, then woke him to the scent of fresh-baked bread. After he ate, he let him sleep again, then woke him in time for the next meal.
But this time it’s what comes next that grabs my attention. Elijah has now been strengthened enough by the care for his body that he has been able to travel to “the mountain of God.” There, he goes into a cave for the night. And God meets him in the cave. He asks Elijah to tell Him what’s going on for him. (Is this always the first part of healing—accepting God’s invitation to tell Him our fears and frustrations?) And then—I love this—God tells Elijah to go out on the mountain where God is about to pass by. But it’s not the God Elijah was expecting.
Backing up for a moment, it’s clear that Elijah knows about God’s power. It’s not long since he single-handedly faced off against 450 prophets of the idol Baal and saw God send fire to consume a giant offering, thoroughly drenched with water to make the task as difficult as possible. The fire swallowed not only the bull and the wood, but the stones and the soil, too, and lapped up the water in the surrounding trench. Then, Elijah found himself empowered to outrun Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel. Elijah knows about God’s power, knows how to call upon it and trust it and feel it in himself. But might it be harder for him to relate to the gentle, mothering side of God, the God who wakes him from a nap with the scent of fresh-baked bread and whispers words of comfort? Can he let himself be vulnerable enough to trust this God in his weakness and weariness and despair?
In the days between the show-down with the prophets of Baal and his arrival at the mountain of God, he had no other choice. Wearied beyond his ability to drag himself out of his fatigue, he accepted the rest and the food. But now that he has become a bit stronger and has been able to walk from his hiding place in the desert to the mountain of God, will Elijah go back to experiencing God primarily as the God of power? And will God go back to revealing himself in that way, as the one who not only sends down fire, showing Himself powerful, but also empowers His servants to outrun chariots?
At God’s invitation, Elijah goes out on the mountain. There is a great and powerful wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. God is not there either. Then fire. Surely here! Elijah knows God’s power descends in fire! But no. It’s almost as though God is parading these sights and sounds of power before Elijah to bring to his attention the way he usually, maybe subconsciously, thinks of God. And then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. And here, finally, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Here in the place Elijah least expected him, God comes, correcting Elijah’s lop-sided view with a truer, or at least more complete, view of who God is and what God is like. Tender as well as strong. A mother as well as a mighty warrior (cf. Is 42:13-16, Is. 49:15, 25-26).
This God who sympathizes with our weaknesses doesn’t give Elijah another assignment in which he is one man standing against several hundred, nor does God strengthen him again to outrun the king’s chariot. He assigns him now to anoint others to front-line leadership. A king over Aram, a king over Israel, and Elisha, a prophet to come alongside Elijah and succeed him.
Once upon a time, God empowered him in his weakness, giving him supernatural strength to carry on. Now he asks him to live more strictly within his human limits and learn another side of God, the God who is tender as well as strong, who respects his human limitations and loves him in them and gives him work that he can do, work that is less flashy but is still important work, God’s work. Sometimes God assigns us to outrun chariots, sometimes to stand (or sit, or lie) and wait in readiness. And sometimes he invites us to sleep and eat.
Might weakness be the only place we learn the tenderness of God? And might it be the place we discover our incorrect, or at best, lop-sided, views of what God is like, and the place where God corrects those views?
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The invitation has never been rescinded, only echoed through poems and prophets and our own lived experience of hearing God’s gentle whisper and finding him feeding us with the bread of his own body, then giving us work to do that fits.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you”—many things, I think, but certainly who He is and what He is like and how we can live well in weakness as well as in strength—”because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)
Photos (in order) by Hernan Sanchez, Kinga Cichewicz, Rob Bye, Lily Banse, and Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds, kids are out of school, and many of us in the next couple of months will head to the beach or the cottage or the campground for a week or two. You might want to take a novel, but if you are looking for something a little more meaty, here are a few books I’ve read recently that might catch your interest. And even if you’re not looking for a new book, hopefully the quote I share from each book will give you something to ponder—a tiny echo of the heartbeat of God for you, or an invitation from the heart of Jesus as we head into this season.
I’ve read (and loved) a couple of Dallas Willard’s books in the past but have known little about the man himself, so I was intrigued to read this book and discover that Willard’s intimacy with God came out of a deeply painful childhood. (Is intimacy with God only ever developed through finding ourselves loved in some sort of pain?)
Now that I have a broader picture of this man and his life and ideas through reading Becoming Dallas Willard, I want to go back and reread The Divine Conspiracy, which, Moon says, “may prove to be [Dallas Willard’s] most significant contribution to Christian thought” (p. 207). It’s years since I read The Divine Conspiracy, but as I pull my discarded library copy off the shelf, I see Richard Foster’s words in the foreword, “The Divine Conspiracy is the book I have been searching for all my life. Like Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, it is a masterpiece and a wonder. . . I would place it in rare company indeed: alongside the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo.” (As an aside, I loved learning in Becoming Dallas Willard that The Divine Conspiracy was only written because Dallas’ wife, Jane, having repeatedly had people ask her after Dallas’s teaching sessions if that material was written anywhere, finally said to him, “If you don’t write this, I’m going to!”)
And now, a quote from Becoming Dallas Willard:
“Knowledge, biblically speaking, always refers to interactive relationship” (p. 197).
The Road Back to You, which Suzanne Stabile co-authored with Ian Cron, is perhaps my favorite book on the Enneagram, and a great starting place for people who have no idea what the Enneagram is but are interested in understanding themselves and others more deeply. Suzanne’s second book, The Path Between Us, focuses on relationships between people of different types and how our personality differences affect those relationships. There are lots of good suggestions here for ways to grow ourselves and ways to love people with a whole range of personalities. I really like the helpful tables in the Study Guide as well, which help us recognize what each personality type wants, what we fear, what we offer, and the best and worst parts of each of us.
I’m glad I read this book, though if I could have only read one, I’d still have chosen The Road Back to You.
And now, the quote:
“When it comes to relationships, it’s really important to remember that you can’t change how you see—you can only change what you do with how you see.” (The Path Between Us, p.60)
I can’t make myself not see the places danger lurks, or the ways things could be improved, but I can choose to keep taking my fearful self back to the one who loves me just as I am, and loves me deeply enough to slowly calm my fear and teach me grace.
If this book sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve already quoted from it once or twice in recent blog posts. I love this book.
I wondered at first if I’d find it relevant. Maybe it would have been when I lived the hectic life of project leader or medical director of a small hospital and clinic system, training nurses and supporting colleagues as well as treating patients. But now, in this place of quiet conversations and written words? This book is just as relevant. Sharing fresh insights from the story of Moses, as well as wisdom gleaned from her own many years of growing into Christ-centered, God-empowered leadership, Barton brings me back again and again to the essential reality that maintaining my own life-giving connection with God is the best choice I can make for myself and for those my life and words might impact. And, at the end of each chapter, she offers quiet practices that hold space for me to grow a little more deeply into relationship with God.
I have so many passages marked and starred that it’s hard for me to choose a quote to share from this book, but here’s one of the many:
“Jesus himself seemed to understand how quickly our passions, even the most noble ones, can wear us out if we’re not careful. Early in his ministry with the disciples, he began to teach them about the importance of establishing sane rhythms of work and rest. In Mark 6, Jesus had just commissioned the disciples for ministry and had given them the authority to cast out demons, preach the gospel and heal the sick. After completing their first ministry excursion, they returned excited about their newfound powers and crowded around Jesus to report on all they had done and taught. But Jesus didn’t have much time for their ministry reports. Immediately he instructed them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). He seemed to be more concerned with helping them to establish rhythms that would sustain them in ministry than he was in their ministry reports. He was more interested in helping them not to become overly enamored by ministry successes or inordinately driven by their compulsions to do more than he was in sending them back out to do ministry.” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 119-120, bold mine)
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)