For the ordinary moments

The Saint John’s Wort is blooming again, a feast for bees and for the eyes of passersby. In living its ordinary life, faithfully being itself, it becomes a gift to many.

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We need each other. Often enough, the way someone else says or writes something awakens me to a new understanding of something going on in me that I wasn’t aware of or couldn’t articulate until they said it. This week was someone’s simple statement of a misbelief in their earlier life—“Ordinary: BAD!”

I get it. Maybe that’s part of why I became a doctor and worked in Afghanistan until I couldn’t anymore. I thought I had to be extraordinary to be acceptable. 

Ordinary can feel to me like failure.

Let me pause here to say this: For the most part, I like doing things well. I want to be the best me I can be, empowered by Christ, for him and for others. I want to follow the command in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. . .” I think that’s healthy.

In my better moments, I also recognize that trying to be extraordinary can actually keep me from working “with all my heart, as working for the Lord”—because I’m pretty sure that “with all my heart” means fully present, engaged, loving, which I’m not when I’m striving to be extraordinary. (In the original Greek, the phrase translated “with all your heart” is “from the soul.”)  

“Ordinary: BAD!” As I read that simple misbelief that has been unknowingly twined through my understanding of life and work and also faith, I see a baby in a manger. 

Could God have chosen a more ordinary way to come among us, stepping right into our ordinary flesh, our ordinary time, our ordinary cycles of reproduction and growth, limits and dependency and relationships?

In doing so, did he not make the ordinary holy, declaring it a place where God shows up?

“Ordinary: BAD”? 

No. 

“Ordinary: GOOD!” Very good, even.

“Ordinary: BEAUTIFUL.”

“Ordinary: HOLY.”

Since God entered the ordinary, is anything ordinary anymore?

I need this reminder. 

I need it in the moments when I’m cleaning the bathroom and buying groceries.

And in the moments I’m sad or lonely or disappointed, or slowing to savour the taste of an orange.

I need it when I’m editing a paragraph and I need it as we begin summer and I want to sit outside and relax with a novel.

God is with us—in us!—right in the middle of the not-so-ordinary ordinary.

“It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.”

(2 Cor 4:6-7 The Message)

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” 

(Rom 12:1 The Message)

How to find rest in whatever today holds (and a free email course for you)

I ride my bike a different route this morning. The sky is grey and the first large drops land on my face. It’s warm and I’ve opened my jacket and the wind whips the corners behind me like wings. I notice all these things. But what I notice the most—what I savor this morning—is the flowers along the route. Rhododendrons in red and violet and yellow, neatly trimmed in front of sedate brick homes. Delicate Queen Anne’s lace thick along the path, wild rose bushes scenting the air and thorny gorse waking me up with its brilliant yellow flowers.  Tall stalks of white and blue flowers that I recognize but can’t name.

But it’s the poppies that entice me to circle back and ride a particular strip again. I know poppies well, of course. They’re the flower that we pin to our coats in November, a reminder of Flander’s field and the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom and peace and rest. 

I’ve also lived beside fields of red opium poppies, passing them each morning on the way to the hospital in our little corner of Afghanistan. Those farmers were seeking rest too—rest from the anxiety of not knowing how they’d feed their family through the next winter. And the parents who gave their crying babies milk from the opium plant were also seeking rest, some moments of peace for their frayed nerves.

Poppies elicit in me a whole range of emotions. Sadness, mostly, for all of us who seek rest and find some temporary form of it, maybe, but at far greater cost than we could imagine.

The poppies today say something different, though. I’ve never seen so many colors of poppies all mingled together in just a few feet of ground. Deep velvety red and saucy orange red and bright Halloween orange ones. Coral poppies with double petals, baby pink ones and dainty white ones edged with a subtle pink rim. Bright pink ones the color of a girl’s running shoes. Some are wide open and some still curled.

These poppies, too, speak of rest, but it’s not the rest of struggle and sacrifice, worn-out grief and sedated pain, but the rest of freedom and life and joy, of being loved and being themselves and dancing in the breeze. They welcome me, draw me in, inviting me, too, to come as I am and open wide and sing with them of the delight of being loved and the lightness of letting go of burdens not meant for me. 

I’ve been soaking, lately, in Matthew 11:28-30, and these poppies feel to me like the visual version of that invitation. “Come to me,” Jesus calls through them, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says it a different way a few chapters earlier, “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Look at the flowers. They don’t fuss about dressing to impress, and have you ever seen anyone dressed as beautifully as they are? Don’t you remember, I’ve committed to care for you?” (Matthew 6:28-30 my paraphrase). 

I step into the invitation and on into my day, walking more lightly.

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If you’d like to soak a little more deeply in Jesus’ invitation to come to him and find rest, I’ve created a free five-day contemplative email course offering space to listen to Jesus’ invitation and step into it. Each day, we’ll ponder a phrase from Matthew 11:28-30 and explore a question or prayer practice to help us receive the rest that Jesus offers. You can sign up for the course here. (If you signed up last week, the first email should be in your inbox in the next half-hour.)

Related posts (because Jesus has spoken to me through poppies more than once!):

A prickly waking

What He whispers through the poppies

When change feels slow

Last year, for the first time, I had a little balcony. I tucked four small Impatiens plants into each long planter and watched as they quickly spread and poured over the edges, framing my space with a cascade of color. I didn’t know where their name came from, but watching them grow, it seemed to fit. They seemed hungry for life, for growth, eager to escape the bounds of the container in which they were planted and fill the space with beauty.

I’ve since learned that the Impatiens walleriana in my little garden share a genus with touch-me-nots and take their name from the seed capsules which burst vigorously, spewing seeds up to several meters.

This year, for the first time, I’m growing my own Impatiens from seed, and as I watch them slowly unfurl into new life, I’m being given a broader perspective.

Even in ideal and identical situations, we all unfurl at different rates.

Six of the thirty-six seeds I planted were the first to sprout, a tiny shoot, then two green leaves.

For days, maybe a week or more, I saw only those six. I’d almost given up on the others. If I’d had more seeds, I might have replanted.

Now fourteen more shoots have pierced the earth, a few at a time, and I’ve regained hope for the sixteen seeds that haven’t yet come to life.

They’re all in the same soil, receiving the same sun, same temperature, same water. I don’t understand. A friend tells me it’s always like this—that they always appear in batches. She’s never managed to trace them through to their bloom, because by the time of bloom they’ve all caught up, but still she wonders. All her tulips of the same color bloom at the same time. Might the six Impatiens that first woke to the light turn out to be sisters, bearing the same color bloom?

I take a photo of my tiny plants all lined up in their rows to test her theory.

But in the midst of trying to uncurl the mystery and unfurl the science, I pause to listen to the deeper layers:

  • the good and healthy urge within me to live fully, to let life flow through me, filling the space around me with beauty.
  • the healthy desire to understand, a desire that can be twisted into a compulsive need to predict and control.
  • the marvellous grace that reminds me that, in ministry and in my own spiritual life as in gardening, some steps I can understand and predict and even, to some extent, control. Others are known and accomplished by God alone. I plant and water. God makes seeds grow, in His own time. 

As this 50-day season of Easter continues, I’m reminded that what seems lifeless may not always be—it just might not yet be time for its unfurling into new life. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, some of my Impatiens seeds a week in the soil, and others two or more weeks before new life appeared, and it has been eleven years since I last assisted a mother to bring new life into the world. This weekend I finally stepped back into a group of doctors, now with not only my long-past medical training, but also my experience of life as a patient, and my training in theology and spiritual direction. Past training that had been long planted in darkness reappeared in a new form, sending up green shoots to offer my fellow doctors.

Soul work is slow work, my spiritual director has reminded me many times. Yes. And within myself as within my garden, some work is mine to do, and some only God can do. He doesn’t always do it according to my schedule (thank God!), but he is at work in each of us who are opening to Him, patiently and persistently bringing to completion his beautiful work in us.

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

(Philippians 1:6, The Message)

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PS. Our church has developed a lovely practice of taking turns sharing a glimpse of God at work in our lives. Yesterday it was my turn, and I shared one of the places I’ve seen God at work, bringing new life—a different kind of life—out of something that at first didn’t seem very hopeful. Curious? Watch below, then scroll down for news about a gift I’m creating for you.

I’ve been thinking again lately about Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, to learn from him and keep in step with him, and his corresponding promise that as we do so, we’ll find his yoke easy and his burden light. I’m turning those ponderings into another free email course for you. (I needed a single word for that sentence so I settled on “course.” By “course” I’m referring to a contemplative mini-devotional series that I pray will offer encouragement, help, and peaceful space for those of us seeking to settle a little more deeply into the rest that Jesus offers in the middle of whatever life holds. Phew. See why I needed a single word?) More details to come, but if you’re already aching for rest, click here and enter your email address to receive the course as soon as it is released.

Why Jesus kept his scars

Scars speak.

We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.

The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.

A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.

Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.

The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too. 

To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”

To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”

They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?”

Jesus’ scars speak hope.

They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.

Jesus’ scars speak truth.

They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.

Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.

His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time. 

They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering.” 

Jesus’ scars are a place of hospitality.

They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I’m welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.

They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places.” 

They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

(2 Cor 1:3-4)

Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.

The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.

Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).

Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.

Jesus’ scars also question me, asking about my own.

Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?

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(PS. The free five-day email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, suggests some ways we can open our wounds to Jesus’ free-flowing love and grace. Check it out and sign up here.)

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.