I wake, anxious, to a day filled with things that feel too big for me. I take some slow, deep breaths to calm my nervous system, stretch to release the tension that I’m carrying in my neck, feel the bed firm beneath me. I notice where my thoughts are racing ahead and making things seem bigger than they are.
All of this helps—a little.
But what I really need is to know myself held by someone wise and gentle and strong, someone who loves me and for whom this day is not too much.
I find myself praying the first lines of Ted Loder’s prayer in his beautiful book, Guerrillas of Grace:
I come to you now
as a child to my Mother,
out of the cold which numbs
into the warm who cares.
Listen to me inside,
under my words,
where the shivering is. . . (p. 22)
I linger, letting myself settle into the image of being held by the One who loves me and whispers to me, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.” After a while, we turn and look at the day together, and I sense the reassurance, “It’s okay, little one, we’ll do it together.” I’m a three-year old overwhelmed at the toys strewn across the floor, and what looked to my small eyes like an impossible task now becomes manageable as someone bigger, someone who loves me and has done this a million times before, begins to scoop toys from the floor and put them in their places, pointing out a puzzle and a book for me to put back on the shelf, a train for me to put in the basket. This day is no harder for God than it is for a mother to put together a twelve-piece puzzle and place it back on the shelf.
We long for love in its many forms, but there are times of particular vulnerability when only a mother’s love will do. Sometimes that tender wisdom and gentleness and care can be provided by another woman a little older than me, and sometimes I, a woman made in the image of our gentle God, can offer that care to another. But there are times God wants to meet our needs for nurture directly, and I’m so grateful that, though God refers to himself in Scripture as Father, he also gives us many mothering images, reminding us that God is neither male nor female, but the complete and perfect Parent who welcomes and cares for us with the best traits of both mother and father.
God is like an eagle stirring up her nest and hovering over her young as she teaches them to fly (Deut. 32:11), and a mother hen protectively snuggling her chicks under her wings (Ps. 91:4, Luke 13:34). God is a mother in the pains of childbirth (Deut. 32:18, Is. 42:14), unable to forget her newborn child (Is. 49:15). And when God proclaims to Moses who God is, the first word God uses to describe God’s self is “compassionate,” or, in Hebrew, rachum, sister to racham, or womb (Ex 34:6). At the heart of God’s character is a love so gentle, so patient and attentive, that God pictures it for us as womb-love, the love of a mother for her newborn child. It is a love that celebrates when we are glad, and aches with us when we hurt, holding out open arms and cuddling us close and wiping away our tears.
For this is what the LORD says:
“. . . As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)
As you notice the mothering aspects of God’s character, what stirs within you? Are there fears? Questions or confusions? Hopes or longings?
he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
I’ve long loved Isaiah 40:11. And I’ve always felt a little left out of it. I’ve wondered if it really applied to me, or if I just wanted it to so badly that I was stretching it to make it fit. I am, after all, neither a baby, nor a mother carrying or nursing young.
But yesterday God used a little stuffed lamb to answer my questions.
(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how God speaks, but if he can speak through a donkey (Num. 22) and surprise Elijah by showing up not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), why should he not speak through a stuffed lamb?)
My sister gave me this little stuffed lamb some years ago. The lamb arrived with a tag saying her name was Shalom. It sounded to me like a perfect name. (Isn’t the wholeness and peace of shalom always a result of knowing we are, as Psalm 100 reminds us, sheep in the care of a shepherd who is faithful and good and whose love endures forever?)
Shalom stayed tucked in my cupboard for years, then somehow managed to creep out and sit on my bed during the day. She looked at me pleadingly every time I came near. Finally, the longing in her eyes won me over and, though I never would have let on to anyone, I let her creep into bed with me at night and snuggle up close. She loves that.
Recently I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful new book called Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (a fellow Regent College grad). I already had suspicions, but as I’ve read the book I’ve become increasingly sure this little lamb represents some hidden, vulnerable part of me that is begging for care. I hear the question: Isn’t this all a bit too sentimental? But I’ve learned that I can only pass on the love that I let myself receive. And as Kim writes, “When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity —channels of empathy and grace.” So I’ve been paying attention, trying to learn more about that vulnerable part of me and what it needs from me and from God.
Sometimes its needs and longings feel overwhelming to other parts of me that are listening. But yesterday something shifted as I picked up Shalom and Isaiah 40:11 immediately came to mind. I’d been thinking about submitting my manuscript to an agent and I recognized that some part of me was frightened that if I stepped back into a busier, more public life, the shy, vulnerable part of me would get lost and trampled again, its needs neglected. My own attempts to comfort that part of me and assure it that it was seen and would be cared for were not enough. It was still frightened that it wouldn’t matter.
And that’s when it felt like God himself was speaking deep into me in his gentle whisper, comforting me with the reminder that he tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs—including the hidden, vulnerable parts, of each of us—in his arms and carries them close to his heart. And that he gently leads the stronger parts of us that are doing their best to get on with life, valiantly care for the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, and love others who also have (sometimes prickly) protective as well as vulnerable parts.
As God reassured me, I realized that even though most of me knows better, that hidden part of me had still felt I needed to protect myself not just from the busy world but from God and his demands. I’d needed his reassurance that each part of me matters to him and will be gently cared for. Faith, after all, is a life-long journey of intentionally opening ourselves to God and letting him teach every part of us what he is really like. God tends his flock like a shepherd, a good shepherd who knows what each of his sheep needs and provides it. Sometimes we need to be carried, sometimes protected from a predator with a rod, or guided by a staff, or led to still waters, or accompanied through a dark valley. The promise is not that God will always care in the same way for every person or every part of us, but that he will always be attentive and loving, caring in the unique ways that each of us, and each part of us, needs in that moment.
“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.“
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens.”
The invitation has never been rescinded.
My POTS (chronic illness) has been worse these past couple of months than it has been for years—maybe because, despite much help from friends and movers, I pushed past my limits in moving homes a couple of months ago. It’s hard to be back here. It’s frustrating and discouraging and unpleasant to be lightheaded more of the time.
I find myself chafing at accomplishing so little, and realize that my sense of worth is still far too tied up with what I can do. And in that place I hear once more Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” and I realize that my burden is far more about my expectations of myself than God’s expectations of me. John Milton’s beautiful poem comes to mind once more, and with it the realization that it’s my heart’s posture of willingness toward God, not my ability to do what others can, that can make me a faithful servant.
On His Blindness (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly* ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.” (italics mine)
(*fondly = foolishly)
God meets me in the story of another man, too, a mighty prophet who, just after the mightiest demonstration of God’s power in his life, found himself so weary and weak that he was unable to go on and took himself off to the desert to lie down under a tree and pray for death (1 Kings 19). I’ve noticed before God’s tenderness in caring for him. God didn’t forget that Elijah was dust. He let him sleep, then woke him to the scent of fresh-baked bread. After he ate, he let him sleep again, then woke him in time for the next meal.
But this time it’s what comes next that grabs my attention. Elijah has now been strengthened enough by the care for his body that he has been able to travel to “the mountain of God.” There, he goes into a cave for the night. And God meets him in the cave. He asks Elijah to tell Him what’s going on for him. (Is this always the first part of healing—accepting God’s invitation to tell Him our fears and frustrations?) And then—I love this—God tells Elijah to go out on the mountain where God is about to pass by. But it’s not the God Elijah was expecting.
Backing up for a moment, it’s clear that Elijah knows about God’s power. It’s not long since he single-handedly faced off against 450 prophets of the idol Baal and saw God send fire to consume a giant offering, thoroughly drenched with water to make the task as difficult as possible. The fire swallowed not only the bull and the wood, but the stones and the soil, too, and lapped up the water in the surrounding trench. Then, Elijah found himself empowered to outrun Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel. Elijah knows about God’s power, knows how to call upon it and trust it and feel it in himself. But might it be harder for him to relate to the gentle, mothering side of God, the God who wakes him from a nap with the scent of fresh-baked bread and whispers words of comfort? Can he let himself be vulnerable enough to trust this God in his weakness and weariness and despair?
In the days between the show-down with the prophets of Baal and his arrival at the mountain of God, he had no other choice. Wearied beyond his ability to drag himself out of his fatigue, he accepted the rest and the food. But now that he has become a bit stronger and has been able to walk from his hiding place in the desert to the mountain of God, will Elijah go back to experiencing God primarily as the God of power? And will God go back to revealing himself in that way, as the one who not only sends down fire, showing Himself powerful, but also empowers His servants to outrun chariots?
At God’s invitation, Elijah goes out on the mountain. There is a great and powerful wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. God is not there either. Then fire. Surely here! Elijah knows God’s power descends in fire! But no. It’s almost as though God is parading these sights and sounds of power before Elijah to bring to his attention the way he usually, maybe subconsciously, thinks of God. And then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. And here, finally, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Here in the place Elijah least expected him, God comes, correcting Elijah’s lop-sided view with a truer, or at least more complete, view of who God is and what God is like. Tender as well as strong. A mother as well as a mighty warrior (cf. Is 42:13-16, Is. 49:15, 25-26).
This God who sympathizes with our weaknesses doesn’t give Elijah another assignment in which he is one man standing against several hundred, nor does God strengthen him again to outrun the king’s chariot. He assigns him now to anoint others to front-line leadership. A king over Aram, a king over Israel, and Elisha, a prophet to come alongside Elijah and succeed him.
Once upon a time, God empowered him in his weakness, giving him supernatural strength to carry on. Now he asks him to live more strictly within his human limits and learn another side of God, the God who is tender as well as strong, who respects his human limitations and loves him in them and gives him work that he can do, work that is less flashy but is still important work, God’s work. Sometimes God assigns us to outrun chariots, sometimes to stand (or sit, or lie) and wait in readiness. And sometimes he invites us to sleep and eat.
Might weakness be the only place we learn the tenderness of God? And might it be the place we discover our incorrect, or at best, lop-sided, views of what God is like, and the place where God corrects those views?
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The invitation has never been rescinded, only echoed through poems and prophets and our own lived experience of hearing God’s gentle whisper and finding him feeding us with the bread of his own body, then giving us work to do that fits.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you”—many things, I think, but certainly who He is and what He is like and how we can live well in weakness as well as in strength—”because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)
Photos (in order) by Hernan Sanchez, Kinga Cichewicz, Rob Bye, Lily Banse, and Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.
On Friday morning, I sat at the breakfast table with my blue pottery mug of lemon-ginger tea. I’d sat there first with my bowl of cereal, but I had a little extra time before the Good Friday service, and the sun pouring through the windows, warming and soothing me, summoned me to sit longer and savor its gentle, healing welcome.
Most often in this temperate rain forest where I live, I experience the sun as a gentle force, a longed-for and welcome presence. But as I sat at the table on Good Friday, I was reminded that the sun that welcomes me with its warmth is an unthinkably immense, brilliant force with the power to nourish life or take it, to turn darkness to light, ice to steam, and clouds to clear skies. It summons leaves to bend toward it, holds planets in their orbits, and turns winter to spring with its coming.
If someone asked me what I most love about Jesus, I’d probably name his gentleness. That’s what has made me feel safe enough with him to love him. He always summons me back again, welcoming me to come and find myself loved no matter my condition.
But on this devastating, triumphant weekend, I saw again the strength that lies behind the gentleness. A strength to bring unending life into the darkest and most hopeless of dark places, the blackness of death itself. A strength that announces victory with his last breath, shatters the grave, and restores hope to the hopeless. That brings long-forgotten prisoners out of their tombs, and sets the captives free. A strength with the authority to judge, but the will instead to heal both captives and captors who are willing to be healed.
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23; c.f. Jonah 3:10-4:2; 4:11; 2 Peter 3:9; John 3:17)
This is blinding light, all-powerful holiness, but a holiness that is for us, intent on healing and setting right all that is wrong, on freeing and making whole and bringing to life again all the good that has been crushed and crucified. Easter weekend is where we see most clearly that God’s holiness is another name for his goodness, that his holiness and his love are two entwined sides of his same brilliant and overflowing life that he is always pouring out for our hope and healing.
“The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all. But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.”
(Malachi 4:1-2 NLT)
Photos (in order) by Julia Caesar, Kent Pilcher, Johannes Plenio, Lukas Budimaier, and Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash.
As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.
This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.
A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.
I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.
Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?
There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.
“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”
(Hosea 6:6, The Message)