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. 

When you want to know God is pleased with you

As I was praying recently about a couple of difficult situations, I wrote in my journal, “I think, ultimately, what I need to know to let both these situations go is that You are pleased with me.”
There is some truth in that. Disappointing people is an inevitable part of being human and a necessary part of discipleship. Even Jesus chose just twelve disciples to receive much of his teaching, and only three close friends to come into his most sacred experiences of transfiguration on the mountaintop and agony in the garden. He left crowds that were pursuing him, and went off by himself to pray. In other words, he shut down the laptop, turned off the phone, and did what he knew he had to do to fulfill his calling. Even when people wanted it otherwise. When I let God’s view of me be my measuring stick, I am not bound by the feelings of guilt and shame and fear that tag along if I disappoint a person who is holding up to me their own, different, measuring stick. In that sense, I need to know that God is pleased with me. When my focus is on Him, I can let my worries about what others might think go.
But sometimes I find myself obsessively trying to figure out if I could have or should have done something differently. Most often that second-guessing comes from unthinkingly assuming that if I’ve disappointed another person, I’ve disappointed God. It sounds ridiculous even to write that. But some part of my heart has grown up believing that if someone is disappointed with me, I must have done something wrong. And if I’ve done something wrong, then obviously God must also be disappointed with me.
I too easily assume that God being pleased with me equates to my getting everything “right” (according to a set of vague rules that live in my head and seem to change depending on what another person wants from me). Perhaps what I need to know is exactly the opposite: that I am still safely held and accepted and loved even when I don’t get everything “right,” or when, despite careful thought and prayer and counsel from others, I don’t even know what’s “right” in a complex situation.
I’ve always assumed it was a good thing to want to please God. Slowly I’ve come to see that there’s a healthy desire to please God, and an unhealthy, obsessive distortion of that desire.
The distorted desire is more than a desire to please God; it’s an obsessive attempt to figure out what he wants in a particular situation so I can be assured of his pleasure and acceptance. It is knuckles clenched around the steering wheel, trying to control every detail of the situation and putting my trust not in his love but in my ability to get things right. It misses the adventure of freely giving my whole self—my limited, broken, beautiful self—to God and seeing where we end up together.
The healthy desire, on the other hand, flows from love.  It is open-handed and open-hearted, freeing me to listen and follow, to do my best and leave the outcome to God. It is adventurous, trusting and full of hope—a response to the One who calls:

“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (SS 2:10)

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

 

________________________

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

Balancing needs: the freeing truth

How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others? It’s one of the places that has caused the most tension in my life, and it showed up again in a dream last week.
In the dream, I was walking back toward my apartment (calmly, I thought) when a friendly-looking policeman asked me if anything was wrong. I was surprised he asked, but I answered that I was heading back to my place because I had heard that there was a fire, or a burglar, and I was going to check it out.
“Why don’t you let me do that for you?” he offered.
I unlocked the back door and let him into the stairwell, following behind him. As we began to ascend, I almost ran into a man squatting against the wall of the stairwell as though trying to avoid attention. His unshaven face matched the scruffiness of his clothes. But it was the sneer on his face that bothered me. What was he doing camping out in the stairwell of our secure building? I asked him to leave, and he began to shout unprintable words at me, making sure I knew what a horrible, selfish person I was. Despite the risk to my home, I had felt very little emotion until this point in the dream. But here guilt surfaced, and shame, in tension with the persistent sense (now confirmed by the profanities being hurled at me) that this person was trouble and I was right to ask him to leave. But this homeless man had needs too—big ones. What right did I have to put my own first? The tension paralyzed me.
Returning again to the dream in my awake state, my paralysis eventually gave way to a reminder that a First Responder was with me. And that he had offered to help. And that the stairwell wasn’t a great home for this man. And that probably the First Responder had resources to offer this man that I didn’t. Even realizing all that, and even in my awake and supposedly rational state, I struggled to trust the policeman’s word that he would take care of the man and find him a better place to live. “Will you really?” I asked. “You’re not just saying that?”
“Carolyn Joy,” I sensed God say to me later, “’Let Me be God’ means that you are not solely responsible to meet the needs of everyone around you. You can do what I ask you to and leave the rest with me, knowing that I will do my job well.”
Slowly I began to see: The question is not whose needs matter most (which is what I seem to think when I feel guilty and selfish about saying no); it’s whether I’m the right person to meet this particular need at this particular time. Am I able? Willing? Called?
Take up your cross and follow Me. Not take up the cross of everyone within your reach. Take up the one I give you to carry. And follow Me, not your own overblown sense of responsibility.
I watch Jesus heal a lot of people—and leave others unhealed as he goes off to be alone with his Father.
I see him feed crowds—and sit on a well, resting, while his disciples go in search of lunch for them all.
I see him walk on water and calm storms—and sleep in the back of a boat while his disciples  fight their way through the worst storm of their lives feeling like Jesus doesn’t care.
Even Jesus was called to meet some needs and not others. Even he learned to trust his Father with the rest.
Sometimes balancing needs means getting off the teeter-totter and kneeling down.

I’d taken the dream to my counsellor, and as I walked home in the crisp fall air I heard a friendly voice, “Hey, it’s Carolyn!” I turned and saw two men with bulging bags of recycling slung over their shoulders. Their faces boasted several days’ growth, but they looked well and happy. The one who had called out saw me trying to place him and smiled, “Under the bridge. They’ve found us a place inside now.” I hadn’t dreamed he would remember my name. Sure, I’d stopped to chat when they lived under the bridge, and I’d taken them home-cooked meals a few times. And once I’d asked if I could bring enough for myself too and sit and eat with them. It hadn’t seemed like much. I hadn’t offered a bed, hadn’t found them a home. But it had been enough. The One who had promised I could do my bit and trust him with the rest had kept his promise, and had stepped out of my dream into my waking life to tell me so.

 “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

When you lose sight of the truth


Dear Self,
You know those times when things that were clear before now seem confusing, or even clear in the opposite direction? (“How could you ever have thought God was calling you to write, or to help others listen? Look at you! You can’t even listen yourself!”) Those times when everything seems dark and you’d rather eat chocolate than stick with your prayer time because Scripture doesn’t seem to have anything to say to you and what’s the point anyway? Those times when you’re restless and it’s hard to settle and you’re afraid to say anything because what if your wise friend or spiritual director agrees that you aren’t cut out for this after all?

There are a few things you need to remember in those times, Self. But since those are the times you’re most likely to forget these things, I’m writing them out for you here so that when those times come you can reread them and remember the truth.
First: take a deep breath and remember that it’s okay. You are not the only screwed up mess in the whole wide world even though in those moments it might feel that way. You’re just experiencing the down of the ups and downs that are a normal part of every serious disciple’s life. It doesn’t feel like it right now (that’s part of the nature of this—it claims past and future and absorbs them into its apparently eternal present), but this will pass and you’ll come back into the light and feel close to God once again. Saint Ignatius called the downs—the times when you feel empty and confused and far from God, when you lose sight of who He is and who you are—spiritual desolation.
Second: When did you last eat? Take a day off? How’s your sleep? In other words, does this desolation have physical, psychological, or spiritual roots? You’re human, remember, and one of the surest ways to set yourself up for spiritual desolation is to act as if you aren’t.
Your Father doesn’t forget that you’re dust, so let your heart line up with his gentle heart and go for that walk you need.
Take the nap. Get the counseling. But in the process don’t forget that your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Remember that, as strong as he may seem, he’s a coward and a bully, always aiming for your weakest spot (so know yourself!) and convincing you to keep quiet about the struggles (because, like an illicit lover, he knows the game is up when he’s exposed). He’ll chase you to the ends of the earth if you turn tail, but if you stand up to him, you’ll find he’s quick to disappear.
Now: if the sadness and confusion are more than physical or psychological—
(and, Gallagher says, we can be sure the enemy is at work in someone who

  • is growing in love for and service to God,
  • has “considerations” or reasons concerning their spiritual life which seem convincing to them, and,
  • arising from those considerations, is discouraged or disquieted in a way that reduces their emotional strength in serving God)

—then don’t forget these things:
You’ll be tempted to change decisions you made in the light. DON’T! As Saint Ignatius reminds us, in times of spiritual desolation it’s the devil whispering in your ear, so to change decisions in a time of desolation is to let the devil be your spiritual director. (But note that this rule applies to spiritual desolation; if you’re exhausted from overwork, changes in your schedule to permit rest might be precisely what you need.)
All those things about how pathetic you are that sound so obvious and convincing and true? This is not the time either to go along with them and beat yourself up, or to get into an argument with them. Just accept that the voice you’re hearing is not God’s voice and move on to the next step.
There are a few things you can do to help yourself in these times: 1) Ask God for help 2) Remind yourself—through meditation on Scripture and remembering past experience—of God’s loving faithfulness. 3) Pay attention to what is going on in you. Prayerfully try to understand if you’re in spiritual desolation, where it began, what caused it, and what actions will help you reject it. 4) Act in the way opposite to what you’re tempted. If you’re being tempted to skip or shorten your prayer times, be careful to stick to them, and stay even a few minutes longer.
Know that this pain isn’t pointless. As you choose to lean into God in the tough times, he uses them to strengthen your faith. To grow in him, you need these painful times as much as you need the times of spiritual consolation.
Those are a few of the basics, Self. They’ll get you started. But also don’t forget how helpful you’ve found Gallagher’s The Discernment of Spirits with its deeper exploration of the rules of Saint Ignatius and its many case studies in which you’ve seen yourself. From time to time you’ll probably want to pull it off the shelf and review all this more deeply again.
Until then, may you deeply savor God’s love in times of consolation, and stand firm in his truth in times of desolation, receiving them both as gift. You are His and He won’t let go.
Love, Me

_____________________________

Photo #1 by Macie Jones on Unsplash. Photo #2 by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.