God writes a better story

I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It’s so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control. 

“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.

Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.

As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me. 

Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits. 

What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?

A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That’s not just a different story, it’s a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.

Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I’d love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it’s the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.

______________________

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

One way to dive deeper into God's love

As I was pondering and praying about this blog post last evening, I felt like I was standing on the end of a high diving board—as though I’ve been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time and once I take this next step, there’s no turning back. As I pictured myself standing there, toes curled over the edge of the board, a song from twenty years ago that I still have on my exercise playlist came to mind:
The long awaited rains
Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground
And carved their way to where
The wild and rushing river can be found
And like the rains
I have been carried to where the river flows, yeah
My heart is racing, and my feet are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turing back
Once my feet have left the ledge
And in the rush I hear a voice
That’s telling me to take a leap of faith
So here I go
I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go
The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive
So sink or swim, I’m diving in. . . (Steven Curtis Chapman, “Dive”)

It’s strange to think that when that song was released in 1999, I was partway through my first year of obstetrics specialty training. Five years of that residency training, four and a half years in Afghanistan, and ten years recovering and discovering God’s love from a whole different vantage point—I’ve done a lot of diving into new situations in those years. (And yes, sometimes finding myself in over my head!)
When I completed medical school and began obstetrical specialty training, I had no idea that I’d only get to witness and assist the birthing of new physical life for ten years—five years of training, and five of practice as an obstetrician. Nor did I know either the pain or the (even bigger) gift that would follow.
While I was working as an obstetrician, though I did glimpse the holiness of the process, my focus was on managing the situation, keeping mom and baby safe, and trying to stay more or less (preferably more) in control of an often uncontrollable process.
Then when my body could no longer handle the stress of being, for a time, the only doctor for 150,000 people in a little mountain village in central Afghanistan, I was forced to face head-on the reality that I am not in control. I couldn’t even manage my own body, let alone anyone else’s. I could barely sit up for a meal, and one long night it took two tries to drag myself, crawling on hands and knees, to the outhouse to empty the little bucket for which I had become increasingly grateful. It has been a long journey back to some semblance of health—much longer than the week it took me to get home, stopping en route to rest for a while and then be flown business class the rest of the way because I was too sick to sit up.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because one of the loveliest gifts of these past ten years has been the surprise that just as I stepped out of practicing obstetrics, I unknowingly stepped into experiencing obstetrics in a whole different way, from a variety of different angles.
I’ve discovered that I’m the baby, carried safely in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I’ve lived and pondered the privilege that we have of carrying Jesus within us and bearing his life into the world. I’ve experienced God midwifing me wisely and gently through the whole process.
As I’ve pondered these roles, it has been impossible for me to avoid the sense that God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry. Each of these roles has offered me comfort and encouragement and help in understanding many aspects of our relationship to God as we live this holy, mysterious, and sometimes painful life with him.
I’ve shared a few bits of this here over the years, but mostly I’ve written about other things on this blog while I’ve been completing a theology degree and spiritual director training and writing a book about learning to trust God’s love as illustrated by the story I’ve just told you in brief above. The book hasn’t yet been published, but in the meantime I’m bursting to share some of what the professor who supervised my book-writing termed “obstetrical theology,” and it seems now is the right time to share it. In case the mention of theology frightens you, don’t worry. There’s nothing abstract or dry about the way God has revealed himself in the birth drama. We’re all carried and born, after all, and in revealing himself in these roles that we can all in some way relate to, God offers us the kind of practical, tangible comfort I suspect we all need when life feels a bit out of control. So will you join me over the coming weeks as we dive a little deeper into the love of God as he has revealed it to us through all the different roles in the birth drama? I’m excited to share this with you!

____________

FOR REFLECTION:
When you relate to God, do you relate to him more often as your father, your mother, your husband, your baby, or your midwife?
Do any of the roles seem strange or uncomfortable to you? Do you have any sense why that might be?
Is there anything you’d like to say to God about all this as we dive in?

______________

If you’re excited about this series and haven’t yet subscribed to receive my weekly blog posts by email, would you consider doing so? That helps me serve you in multiple ways: you won’t miss any of these posts, you’ll have access to the extra little surprises I’m preparing for those on my email list, and you’ll help me get the book I’ve written for you published. (Not surprisingly, potential publishers want to know people are interested in reading an author’s words!)
My sincere thanks to so many of you who share the posts you find helpful with others who might be interested. I can write these words, but only you can get them to that friend of yours who might be helped by them today.

_______________

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When God builds you a house

I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.
I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to  say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.
Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”
But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . .  The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)
I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:

““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . .
But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .
God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .
‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . .
What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)

My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.

“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)

And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.

“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)

God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.

“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)

We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10).
God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).
But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)

When your heart grows faint


“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).
“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.
The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.
He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.
And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

When you feel the wind

Photo by Tim Stief on Unsplash

Each summer in Prince Edward Island, I pause on the dirt road and watch the gulls on the grassy field. I pull my jacket tighter around me against the wind, tug my hood over my head, and maybe, if the wind is strong enough to snatch my breath, turn and walk backwards into the wind. But the gulls stay standing, dozens of them, or hundreds, all facing fearlessly into the wind as though watching, waiting, sharing a single mind, a single attentiveness.
Out here in Vancouver, I sit by my window and watch the PEI gulls’ west coast cousins soar on windy currents, carried. They swoop and ascend again, circling, scarcely moving their wings. It looks like joy, like play. I want to soar too, to surrender to the wind and let it carry me rather than turning my back and pulling my jacket tighter.
What do the gulls remember that I don’t? How can they face so fearlessly into the wind, even play with or in or on it?
They don’t seem to care that wind collapses houses, tears up trees, and sinks boats.
They’re probably not aware that it also flies flags and dries towels, scatters seed and powers lightbulbs.
They don’t know that, for individuals and nations, it has often been God’s messenger, parting the Red Sea, removing the plague of locusts, and bringing quail for the people to eat. Or that the Spirit first came with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.
Somewhere deep down they might know that it cleanses—sweeping the sky clean of clouds and blowing away chaff.
Something in them seems to simply accept that the wind is. That in it, or beyond or behind it, is a greater, stronger Reality, and if instead of fearing it, fighting it, or trying to figure it out, they turn into the wind and take off into it, trusting it to hold them, it will lift them, carry them.
Is it any wonder that their surrendered soaring looks like joy, freedom, play?
Their flight seems a fully alive game of tag with the God who also soars on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:10; 104:3-4)
The gulls know by instinct what I need to practice remembering:
Winds, even ones that threaten to snatch my breath, are God’s messengers and are under his control, carrying the power of his presence to both uplift and uproot, to scatter seed and offer energy and sweep life clean again.
It’s only when I think power needs to be my own, held in my own small grip, that I fear the wind.