Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

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Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash

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)

 

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Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

Flying lessons: Why we can dare to live fully

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I receive an invitation to participate in the final week of a group that has been working through Rational Worship, the Bible study that I started writing almost ten years ago when I was back at my parents’ home, too sick to be out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day. I wrote it because I needed to be reminded why it made sense to give myself to God again when I’d already done that and everything—health, career, ministry, life as I knew it—seemed to have fallen apart.
I’m excited that the group is using it. I will delight to be present during their final session, to witness their engagement, their joys and struggles, discoveries and hopes. But on my way to the excitement, I encountered another, more timid part of me, first. The little voice that can be so loud in my head started telling me I’ll disappoint the group. That I should stay safely hidden on the other side of written words rather than step out into the open. That I’m really not good enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, prepared enough to engage.
That’s when I realized it was time for me to turn back to the truths in Rational Worship again myself, to be reminded once more that my offering myself to God only ever makes sense not because of who I am, but because of who God is.
I recalled the heron I watched as I prepared to share the Rational Worship study.

He sits long, watching amidst the grid of stone and steel.
He doesn’t dip for food and I wonder what he’s waiting for. Does he even know?
I wait with him, glad for the quiet moments.
In the stillness a longing rises in me. I have begun to take wings, to fly beyond the steel grid of fear that pins me to earth. But I long to fly higher still, farther and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love.
The bird has wings, made for the air. I have feet and a soul and I’m made to be filled with God Himself. My choice not to step into this is as irrational as a bird who refuses to fly.
This alone is true living, this alone is true worship, this offering of my body each moment to be filled with God.

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It has been five and a half years since I shared the study here, and that longing to fly higher and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love is with me still, though sometimes I need to dig through layers of fear to find it.
As I turned back to the beginning of the study, my soul began to breathe like I’d been swimming underwater and had finally surfaced to gasp in once more the same life-sustaining truth: I don’t have to be strong, or “enough” in any other way, to offer myself to God. He is enough, and when I offer myself to God, I gain Him and all of His enoughness. That’s why the invitation to offer myself as a living sacrifice to God is placed where it is—at the end of eleven chapters celebrating God’s wisdom and grace, sovereignty and love, and immediately following four verses of overflowing praise for God’s more-than-enoughness:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy,
to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –
this is your spiritual act of worship. . .” (Romans 11:33-12:1)

Therefore. Could there be a more comforting way to begin this verse than with the reminder that my ability to be an acceptable sacrifice is far less about my own ability than about God’s incomprehensible wisdom, his holy “otherness,” his lavish generosity, and his centrality in the universe, all of which, in his unfathomable mercy, he offers to us? His job is to be God in all his sufficiency. Mine is to show up, bringing myself as I am—fear and all—to this One who loves me, and who is and will always be enough. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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If you’re interested in revisiting with me the truth of God’s character, and why it makes sense to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God even when life seems to have fallen apart, click on the images below to download your free copy of the six week Bible study, “Rational Worship: Offering Ourselves to the God of Mercy” and the accompanying Leader’s Guide. (You may wish to right-click and choose “download linked file” to save the pdfs to your computer.) Or go here for more about what it offers and how it came to be written.
It might just be the perfect summer encouragement, a chance to soak again in the joy of who God is.
And if you’d like company on the journey, slip your email into the box in the right side-bar for weekly grace delivered straight to your inbox. I won’t be writing directly about the study in these coming posts, but I pray that all my posts offer encouragement and practical help as we keep learning to fly higher and deeper into the wide-open spaces of God’s love together. It’s a grace to journey with you!
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A season of transformation


Some years by now the trees here are already bursting with bloom, but Saturday morning I pulled on my hat and boots and headed out into the thick fresh snow that had descended overnight.
“Lent” comes from a word meaning “spring.” That morning, it didn’t look much like spring.
How do we live this Lent, this season of preparation, when winter seems clearer than spring? How do we live the times when we wonder if the spring will come, the moments when we cry with David, “How long, O Lord?”
I step out of the foot-printed path into the deeper snow to make way for a woman brave enough to run in sneakers, a rim of bare leg showing above her ankle socks.
I slow and pause and enjoy the unique beauty of winter. Even when the benches are covered with snow, we’re invited to linger, to notice how God’s mercy is new on this morning.



Spring is not an isolated season but a moment-by-moment transition from winter to summer, a slow work of transformation when some days winter seems to have the upper hand and other days the fresh scent of irrepressible newness fills the air. Spiky witch hazel blooms poke through caps of snow, sun warms my shoulders when I turn my back to the wind, and snow melts into heavy, crystal drops that fall from burdened pine needles, pitting the bank beneath.



Along the road to spring’s resurrection is the death and dormancy of winter. Winter has its own important work to do in us. Here as nowhere else we learn the lessons of perseverance and patience and grace. We only really know how deeply loved we are when we come face to face with our own helplessness and find ourselves loved even in that place.
Here too we learn about ourselves. What am I clinging to? Where do I find my security? I’ll not quickly forget the words of one of my teachers, “When we’re in the midst of suffering, there is an invitation to let something go.”  What is God inviting me to hold more loosely so my hands are free to hold more tightly to his?
And here we find that the all powerful God who could put an instant end to winter instead enters it, meeting us in it (though it may take a long time for us to recognize the signs of his coming in the cold and dark of winter). As that same teacher said, encapsulating for me one of the key invitations of Lent and of the whole life of discipleship, “Suffering reduces me to the truth that I can’t do this. Oh, right! I have a Savior who was unfairly tortured, crucified, and rose again. Maybe I can talk to him and live this with him.”
We live the cycle of the seasons in many different ways during our lives. Each year, maybe, we live the rhythms of nature, allowing the cold and dark of winter to settle us into a different sort of rhythm than when the summer sun tugs us outdoors to play in its warmth. We live a longer cycle, too, from the newness of infancy through the seasons of planting and harvest of our adult years. But maybe in another way, this whole life on earth is a sort of springtime, a transitional season in which we live in that tension of the soul’s winter which is slowly giving way to Life’s light brightening within us.
The sun was warm that morning that I ran, and by the time I returned home, soft clumps of snow were starting to fall from the branches, denting the drifts below with a soft thud.

The path or the goal?


Sometimes the challenge is in hearing the heartbeat of God.
Maybe just as often the challenge is in letting my heartbeat line up with God’s. I don’t want to let go of my comfort, my security, or my control; my favorite couch, the freedom to plan my days without worrying about someone else’s schedule, the quiet space I’ve come to love.
Yesterday, words that helped me face the truth came through someone who is not one of my usual spiritual directors:

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in William Bridges, Managing Transitions, p. 77)

When God has closed all the doors to moving to an unfurnished apartment with my own belongings and living on my own, and is graciously opening the door to sharing a friend’s furnished apartment, at least for a few months, might God be showing me a place I’ve confused the path with the goal and am in danger of clinging to the path I’ve chosen instead of letting him lead me to the goal by the route he knows is best?
The goal is not silence or solitude or order. Those are paths, and, for me, exceptionally helpful ones, to make space to listen to God’s heartbeat. The goal is union with God such that his love fills me. The goal is receiving God’s love, loving him back, and letting his love flow through me to my neighbour.
And, right now, opening my arms to God’s embrace and my hands to his gifts means letting go of my paths and plans, my couch and tables, and letting God teach me once again how to live and love and listen in community, and how to find in that new setting whatever stillness he knows I need to hear him.
There’s freedom here. And often joy. But there have been moments and days in the letting go when I’ve felt confused. Sad. Angry. Fearful. I can slip into the temptation to feel like what I want doesn’t matter and God doesn’t really care about me. That’s when I need to go back and remember that God is the God of unfailing kindness, and look for the little and big ways I’ve seen his kindness in the past and I see it in the present. Getting to stay in the same building. First month’s rent almost free. The memory of meeting my new housemate a year or two ago and thinking I’d almost prefer sharing a place with her to living on my own. I find myself excited, if a little nervous, to see how God will meet us as we walk this new path together over the next few months. Even when the path looks different than the one I’d chosen, this I know—that God is for me. He is giving me his best—Himself—and in the process, everything else besides.
And in the moments I struggle to trust, I’m awed at the grace that meets me there too. I encountered it again in Exodus 6 one morning last week. The Israelites are still in Egypt. God has just given them his very clear promise that he will deliver them and be their God and they his people, and that he will bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. God knows the path to the goal. “But they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (v. 9). And instead of getting angry at their lack of trust and giving up on them or retracting his promise, our Father who is gentle and compassionate, remembering that we are dust, responds to their disbelief with a command to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country” (v. 10-11). God’s faithfulness does not depend on my faith. God responds to their struggle to trust with a settled determination to keep his promises and thus slowly, gently teach his people whose trust has been broken by discouragement and cruel bondage that it’s safe to trust again. That he is not like the taskmasters under which they currently serve. That he is for them. And always trustworthy.

“If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)

 

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Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash.