Why you can dare to step out

DSCN5739_2
Immediately: I don’t always love the word. It can feel pressured and pushy and rushed, someone demanding something now. But in Matthew 14, it’s full of comfort, and turns the story on its head for me, helping me see what the story is really about.
Matthew 14 is the story of Peter walking on water, and I read it repeatedly last week, trying to understand. At first, I got stuck on Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I wanted to say, “That’s not fair, Jesus! Peter had huge faith! I don’t know anyone else who’s had enough faith to step out of a boat and walk on the surface of the water, especially in the middle of a storm, even for a few steps!”
But on about the fourth day, things started to come clearer. Dallas Willard helped me see that the Greek word Oligopistos, Littlefaith, is a sort of nickname that Jesus coined for his disciples,and I realized that it’s not a condemnation, just a statement of fact, and one with a promise attached, like those verses I love in Isaiah 41:13-14:

“’I am the LORD your God, who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel,
for I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

Oligopistos, yup, that’s me. Littlefaith. That’s why I need Jesus with his ability to trust his Father perfectly on my behalf. Once I have accepted the truth about my smallness and, and along with it, the love of the One who delights to care for me in it, it’s no longer a threat, no longer something that upsets me or that I have to prove otherwise.
And then I started to notice the way the story unfolds.
It begins at the end of a long day, the end of a long stretch of ministry (Mark 6:30-45). Everyone is tired and needing a break. The previous miracle is over and the leftover loaves have been gathered and the disciples have seen that this God, their God enfleshed among them, somehow makes meals where even the leftovers far exceed the quantity of original ingredients. And immediately Jesus sends his disciples off while he dismisses the crowds. He cares deeply enough about their need for rest to do by himself what we used to call in medicine the “scut work”—all those important details that no one wants to do but that are essential for smooth running of the day.
Then, a few hours later, when the disciples are far out on the lake, paddling into a storm, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water and, not surprisingly, they are terrified. (How often have they seen that before? What would you think?) And immediately Jesus comforts them. “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He sounds a lot like a parent comforting a child who’s afraid of the monster under the bed or the ghost in the cupboard: “It’s okay, Daddy’s here. Don’t be afraid.” And they are comforted.
Or at least Peter is. He trusts that voice enough to say, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus smiles at this eager student who wants to try what the teacher is doing and says, “Sure. Come.” And Peter comes. But in a moment Peter discovers that even though he’s no longer afraid of Jesus, he’s still afraid of his situation, and he cries out again in fear, but this time he cries to Jesus. And immediately and effectively, Jesus reaches for his hand and saves him. Always present, always attentive, perfectly able to deal with whatever arises.
I see the heading to the passage in my Bible, Jesus walks on water, and I see why it has taken me so long to understand the story: My focus has been on Peter walking on water.
But like all gospel stories, this story is not first about Peter’s faith, but about Jesus’ faithfulness.
It’s not about a growing ability to walk on water, but a growing relationship.
It’s not about the disciples’ failure but about Jesus’ attentiveness and care and how safe his followers are with this teacher—safe enough to risk stepping out and trying the tentative steps of trust. Each new attempt to trust and try something new, each failure of their faith, becomes a place to learn a little more of Jesus and then to trust him a little more as they discover how safe they are with him. And by the end of the story, they have a much better idea who he is—“Truly you are the Son of God!”—and they are brought to worship.
And as I write my prayer for the year—that Jesus would help me learn to trust—I hear the disciples’ similar prayer, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus’ surprising response. “You have enough faith. Just get out there and use it” (Luke 17:5-10 paraphrased). Jesus doesn’t condemn small faith. He knows we’re Oligopistos and he alone trusts his Father perfectly. And He knows what I’m learning: that the presence of this gracious, generous, creative, and very adventuresome God is a perfectly safe place to risk baby steps of faith, and that, like a muscle being strengthened, faith will grow as we step out, accompanied by Jesus, and discover his perfectly faithful care in every situation.
___________
1Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Franciso: HarperSanFranciso, 1998), 211.

Why you can dare to enjoy the process

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera
Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

Its colors grace my living room now, a tangible reminder of the resurrection hope who lives in me even when I can’t feel him. Today, as I remember the painting’s beginnings, it offers another hopeful reminder: the Artist who is shaping me into my true self is skilled enough to welcome me freely and fearlessly into the creative process.
The painting began one day about four years ago. I was to be the first to put paint on the fresh canvas.
I could hardly wait. That in itself was a small miracle.
The teacher in my mandatory high school art class once told me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.” If I hadn’t been afraid to pick up a paintbrush before that, I certainly had been since. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what people would think.
So why my excitement? What had changed?
I was sharing a home with an artist. This was her idea. She had done it before with people who, in their words, ‘can’t paint.’ She told me I couldn’t ruin the picture.
Sometimes, for people afraid to begin, she would take a brush and scribble across the canvas to emphasize: they could not spoil the painting.
She went before, showing me how to hold the brush and where to start and how to mix the paint. She came behind, and however my brush stroked the canvas, the brush of the master artist incorporated and surrounded, and the first strokes of a not-so-timid-anymore but still-mostly-untrained artist became a seamless part of the beauty.
I could let go and enter the process with joy, knowing that my strokes were small and few in the bigger picture, trusting the promise and the promiser: As I worked together with the master artist, I could not ruin the picture.
There are days I need that reminder again. Most days, if I’m honest. Every day, actually. I need the Master Artist to whisper again and again in my ear, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” I need him to remind me once again that I can relax and enjoy the process because I’m not the sole creator of my life. The Master Artist, brush in hand, is not only coaching but coming behind, filling and surrounding and incorporating dark and light into unbelievable beauty. He promises that, as we work together, every stroke I make on my canvas, the careful ones, the let-go-and-have-fun ones, the ones where I really mess up badly, as well as every loving touch or careless scribble or angry slash that someone else makes across my canvas, will be used in the shaping of the final glorious image—Christ in me.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. . .  (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)

What your heart needs for all the days after Easter

IMG_3190
My Easter weekend was messy. I wanted to stay and comfort Jesus in the garden; I soon asked him to comfort me instead. I wanted to love Jesus in his suffering, to focus on him, to serve him; I couldn’t get my mind off keys lost and assignments unfinished and the floor that needed sweeping. I found myself sitting squarely among the disciples who fell asleep, denied, betrayed. Who ran away. Who failed.
But in that place my heart understood. The cross speaks truth: I can’t do what I want to on my own. I can’t love, can’t listen, can’t trust. Can’t fix myself. But the cross speaks another truth too, about who Jesus is.
I’d been watching Jesus walk toward the cross. His friends and family should have been supporting him, serving him, comforting him as he walked that long road. Apparently they shared my inability to fix themselves because Jesus was the one who stooped and washed their feet, prayed and broke the bread, spoke three chapters of encouraging words and prayed tenderly and confidently for them in their hearing. His friends weren’t able to give him the hour of comfort he asked for; he left them to sleep and got on with loving them all the way to the cross. With one of his last breaths he entrusted his mother to his best friend. With another, he begged forgiveness for those who had put him on the cross.
He rose, and his loving continues. Once more, he is the one comforting, strengthening, encouraging. “Peace be with you.” When he should be the honored guest, he takes the role of the host, leading the Emmaus couple through the Scriptures, taking bread at their table, giving thanks, and breaking it. Building a fire on the beach to cook breakfast. Summoning the fish to the nets of his friends. Jesus is always the host.
The pastor says the manger was a clue. Manger: those six letters in English an animal feeding trough, in French the verb “to eat.” Right from his birth, Jesus was serving himself up. (Thanks, Pastor Tim!) Here, here alone, at the manger, the cross, the empty tomb, here, at the Lord’s table, enfolded in the arms of the risen Jesus, is our nourishment, our satisfaction, the only One who keeps us alive and lets us grow into who we’re made to be.
All weekend I kept wanting to step out of the mess and into the celebration. I finally found a truer celebration in the middle of the mess. This, after all, is the reason for the celebration: Love comes into our mess. Even when Easter dinners have to be cancelled or challenges press in close around the table, the celebration goes on. Because Jesus is the meal. Jesus is the celebration. Jesus is the one who offers himself again and again in our doubt and fear and confusion, in our longing and inability and aches, declaring forgiveness and sufficiency, satisfaction and completeness. This is where joy is, finding Jesus present, alive and laughing and loving, right in the middle of our mess.

Christ in you: when life gets messy

DSCN1766
It was time for my requisite nap and I was lying down asking Jesus, “How do you see last night?”
I’d led a soulcare group. We’d listened to what Jesus was saying to each of us through the story of the angel’s surprise announcement to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God into the world. We’d talked about bits of our stories. And throughout, a critical voice had kept interrupting my soul’s stillness with doubts and accusations. Were we connecting? Was I moving too slowly? Too quickly? Did anyone even understand what I was trying to express when it was my turn to share my experience?
I had brought with me a prayer, a few verses of Scripture, and some lines I’d previously written, thinking they tied together Mary’s experience with our experience of carrying Christ within us and bearing Him into the world. I’d planned to offer them as a gift to my group, but, unsure whether they’d connect with where the group was at, I’d ditched them all. Was I listening well to God and to the group, I wondered, or was fear getting the upper hand? I left feeling I’d failed.
“Jesus, how did you see last night?” I questioned. “How did you see me in it?”
Rest, favored one,” I sensed him respond, using the word the angel used of Mary and Paul uses of us1. “You gave me your yes, and that’s all I ask.”
How easily I forget that it’s my job to give my yes and God’s to make life flourish.
And how quickly I forget that Mary’s yes didn’t exclude her from morning sickness and mood swings and postpartum bleeding; her yes brought her into the painful, messy, miracle of carrying God’s life in her and birthing Jesus into the world.
Through vicious village gossip and the gnawing pain of pelvic bone separation, through teary conversations as she and Joseph let go of the dream that their first child would be the child of their shared love, through questions and fears and hours of inadequacy—“how on earth can I raise the son of God?!”—what is remembered is Mary’s yes and what God did with it.
 
___________
1.In the original Greek of the New Testament, the verb charitoo, “to cause to be the recipient of a benefit, favor highly, bless,” is used just twice, once of Mary in Luke 1:28 (where it is a participle and is translated “highly favored”) and once of us in Eph 1:6 (where it is an active verb and is translated “freely bestowed” or “freely given”).

"You in me and I in you": learning to live the mystery

DSC_0366The first day of the course was hard. I had only slept a couple of hours the night before. Even at the best of times, my brain processes things slowly, though richly and deeply, and with fatigue and nervousness added to the mix, I found myself unable to complete any of the exercises in the time given. “Please slow down!” I wanted to cry to the facilitators. “I can do this, really I can! I just need a little more time.”
“You’re failing!” a voice in my head prodded anxiously. “Pull it together! Hurry up! Just try a little harder!”
Another voice mocked, “You might as well stop trying. It’s obvious you’re not cut out for this. You’re already failing.”
But finally that afternoon, when I could sit alone with Jesus for long enough to let the other voices still, He reminded me of truth: I am His and He is mine. He delights in me and desires me and it doesn’t matter one iota to Him that I couldn’t complete the exercises in the minutes allotted. It doesn’t make me one tiny bit less in His eyes. It doesn’t even make me less close to Him. Instead, it drives me closer and makes me love Him more, as I’m reminded again that I can do nothing on my own—can’t come close to Him, can’t settle myself in His presence, can’t hear His voice—and He draws me, settles me, helps me hear, just because He delights in me and wants me close.
The next morning we listened to the story of blind Bartimaeus. We were instructed to put ourselves into the story, to imagine ourselves on the road, in the middle of the crowd. “What is the road like?” Instantly I was back in Afghanistan, my black shoes greyed by the clouds of powdery dust that rose with each step. It was hot and I was sweating and I could feel the press and shove of bodies around me. A woman hidden beneath a dusty burqua tugged on my sleeve, clinging, slowing me with her pleading.
“Imagine you are Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. What do you hear, what do you feel as Jesus approaches?” I didn’t even get to how Bartimaeus’ might be feeling. As soon as I found my place as the beggar, sitting at the side of the road, I was surprised by a lightness within me. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what had happened: I’d dropped the weight of having to be Jesus. I only realized when I took my place at Jesus’ feet that I’d experienced the scene first as though I was Jesus, crowds pulling at my clothes, begging for healing, I feeling the weight as though their needs were mine to bear.
There’s a tree behind the home where we met. Its bottom has been hollowed by death but its top is wildly, vibrantly alive. I can’t explain it; I only know that the rent ascends and descends from perfect love, and opens wide enough for me to step inside and stand wondering at the mystery which opens upward, too high for me to see the top. I want to stay there, to live in the love that opens wide for me and welcomes me in. I am there, held and surrounded and forever belonging.
The mystery is too big for me. We, together, are Christ’s body, Jesus living in us and through us. He looks out of our eyes at crowds and loves beggars. Sometimes we are the way He bears burdens and touches blind eyes with healing. But He is in us only because we are in Him, held and loved, ourselves beggars being healed into disciples. We rest, forever safe in the embrace that carries the weight and keeps loving us in the reality of what is in any given moment.