Hope for the messy moments

I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”

I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!

So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?

***

The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.

Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.

I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.

I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.

As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers. 

I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”

After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”

The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.

This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.

And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.

As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.

***

It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.

Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.

As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:

“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

________________________

Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.
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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.
May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.
May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.
Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.
Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:
The real call in Ash Wednesday

Where God just might come nearest

Is there a place you’ve experienced as a “thin place,” a place where heaven seems especially close to earth, and God, though everywhere present, somehow seems nearer? Most often I’ve heard the term used for bits of land where pilgrims have walked and worshipped and sought God for centuries. Iona, for instance. But the chair where I regularly curl up to spend time alone with God, a particular painting, a beach, a bench—I’ve known each of these as a thin place.






People can be thin places too. As Ann Voskamp observes, “Every child’s a thin place.”










I’ve been wondering: what if we experience children most easily as thin places simply because they haven’t yet learned to hide their hearts?
What if beneath all the masks every human being is a thin place, or contains thin places?
And what if . . . what if the wounds and cracks and places of brokenness in myself, those ones that I try so hard to fix, as well as the hopes and joys and longings that I sometimes feel I need to hide, are in fact thin places that I’m trying to thicken, some of God’s portals that I’m trying to block and barricade?


I sat in my counselor’s office, trying once again to conquer a particular memory from Afghanistan. I wanted to be able to sit with it without feeling paralyzed by panic or dread or helplessness. But once again I had to retreat into Jesus’ arms. Only there, with my focus on his arms around me, was I able to sit with the memory and be okay. At first I felt discouraged. Defeated. It felt like failure that I couldn’t stand up to it myself. Then I sensed Jesus ask, “Would it be okay if you never manage to conquer it by yourself, if instead it is something that keeps you always in my arms?”
Right away I was aware of the gift in the question. I want Jesus. More than I want healing. I want to be close to him and open to him. And I know that I need help staying in that place; in my stronger moments when I’m less aware of my need for him I get distracted and run off to other things. Anything—even something painful—that keeps me every moment in his arms is a gift, nudging me toward what I most deeply want.
And yet, if I’m honest, I hesitated. My deepest self wanted that closeness. The rest of me wasn’t entirely thrilled about the way of getting it. There was a sadness in seeing the brokenness in myself, and a longing for healing and wholeness.
In my experience there are thin times as well as thin places, and for me the early morning moments suspended between sleep and rising are a thin time when my heart often understands something that my mind hasn’t yet been able to grasp. The morning after that counseling experience held one of those thin moments when, at least for that moment, my whole self grasped something that until then I’d only half-known:
Jesus’ invitation to make my home in his arms was not second best, a consolation prize when he chose not to give healing. It was healing, and the invitation into true wholeness—the wholeness that knows myself as his, safe and loved no matter what.
It was an invitation into the wholeness that, rather than insistently trying to thicken the thin places, sees and accepts them because Jesus sees and accepts them as places that keep me close to him.
It was an invitation into the understanding that “perfect” as the voices in my head define it (flawless in my independent self) has much more to do with our culture’s obsession with independence and autonomy and appearance than with God. In God’s eyes, “perfect” is about wholeness and completion, love and union. And in the wildly creative economy of grace, not only our weak and wounded places but even our sinful tendencies, those very places where our union was broken, remain thin places through which his love can most easily flow, remaking our union, and more deeply than before: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God. Let Me be the One who makes you perfect, not by reshaping you into something whole, separate from myself, but by filling your cracks and empty places with my living, loving Self.”


I’ll still wrestle and forget and need lots of help living in this place where I can accept and maybe even occasionally, with Paul, delight in my weaknesses because Jesus meets me there.
In the meantime, maybe even my wrestling and forgetting can be a thin place where Jesus meets and fills me with his love again and again and again.

How to let grace be grace

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has been ringing in my ears throughout Lent. Sometimes as I’ve heard it, I’ve been able to lean in and let go and receive grace, other times not. As I spoke with the friend who helps me listen I had to confess that I felt like I still didn’t really have a clue how to let grace be grace.
She said this: “Maybe it’s just about where you look.
Yes. That’s it. Will I focus on my failures (real or feared), or will I focus on Jesus?
Why do I forget this?
The dying Israelites had to look at the snake on the pole to live (Num 21:8-9).
Peter had to look at Jesus to keep from sinking (Matt 14:28-31).
And my Grandpa told me when he was teaching me to drive, “Look where you want to go.” Look at the Way, not at the ditches. We have to look around enough to know where the ditches are, but then, to get where we want to go, we have to return our gaze to the road we’re wanting to travel.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses—[all of whom looked more at God and his promises than at their sins or their circumstances]—let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Let grace be grace: Learning to see


I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?
Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)
But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”
And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.
Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.
Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.
I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”
Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.
“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”
Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.