When you need a reminder that you’re loved

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Six years ago, I glimpsed something in the gospels that, ever since, has shaped the way I enter Lent, and particularly this Holy Week we are now walking, the week between Palm Sunday and the cross. Simply put, it is this: In Holy Week, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind.

Now, in the moments when guilt tugs on my heart or shame weighs me down, when I hurt because the One is love is walking to the cross for my sin and I feel helpless and ashamed and sad, I can lift my eyes from the cross to the face of the one on it and see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

Sometimes, at first, I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it. 

The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

(Eph 5:25-27)

The two parables Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30).

I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world have been, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16).

The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It starts with words taken straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony, words that a Jewish man would speak to his fiancé before leaving her for a while to go and build a room onto his father’s house where he could bring her as a new bride and make their home together:

“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.”

(John 14:2-3)

Jesus’ last conversation finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .”

(John 17:24)

The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.

This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”

Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.

We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.

The first year I saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? Some other years I’ve hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.

In those times, I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.

This year, joy is pushing its way to the top again, past shame and mourning and guilt, because I am known, and in that place of being fully known, every bit of my sin and shame felt and taken and finished, I am wanted and chosen and loved, and nothing—nothing in me or around me—now can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s nothing left to hide or rationalize or pay for, nothing to judge myself for because it has already been judged, and then taken and paid for and forgotten (Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34). In all of that seeing and knowing and taking, God’s love for me has not been the least bit diminished. Here at the cross, my fears of “If they knew what I’m really like” are put to rest. God does know. And He doesn’t reject me. He brings me closer and makes me his own.

The long-spoken words echo through Jesus’ silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10).

The gift of holy confidence

“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me.  I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”

“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.” 

Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious. 

As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”

That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?

The questions kept coming:

  • What if God wants you to be big? 
  • What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
  • Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?

It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.

It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).

Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process. 

Trust can look many different ways.

In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.

When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.

And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”  

(2 Cor 3:4-6)

As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death. 

But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.

Jesus’ invitation in our suffering

A couple of months ago I asked you the question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?”

Quite a few of you responded, “anxiety.” Since anxiety has also been a frequent companion of mine, as well as one of the places God has most deeply met and loved me, I wrote the free email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, for you.

Many others of you shared stories of pain and struggle and grief—losing a partner or a parent to dementia or death, navigating the energy-sapping realities of chronic or life-threatening illness, waiting for a child to believe or a job to come or hope to arrive. There are so many forms of suffering!

As we continue our journey with Jesus through Lent, I can’t help but wonder how Jesus might want to be with us in our suffering. 

Lent, I think, extends to us multiple invitations. 

Ash Wednesday , with its call to “Remember that you are dust” reminds us of our humanity and frailty, as well as the gentle compassion of the One who also remembers our dustiness.

“As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him,

for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust”

(Ps 103:13-14) 

Lent’s emphasis on fasting and repentance and prayer calls us to look with Jesus at our lives, to notice the places we have turned away, and to notice them not in order to beat ourselves up but to let Jesus help us turn back to him. We’re called to let go of habits that get in the way of our relationship and form new ones that help to bring us close, not out of obligation but out of a desire to return to our first love.

But I think Lent also extends an invitation to us in our suffering. It invites us to remember, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross, that we never suffer alone. Whether we are aware of Jesus’ presence or not, we are accompanied in our suffering by the One who himself faced suffering in so many of its forms—the agony of abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness; the weight of sin’s consequences; sleepless nights, systemic political and religious injustice, physical torture and death. Lent invites us to bring our own wounds and place our hands in Jesus’ nail-pierced ones and walk this journey together.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear: Jesus shared in our humanity for two reasons: 1) so he could destroy the devil and free us from our fear of death and 2) so he can help us in our own suffering. (Hebrews 2:14-18) Might honouring his sacrifice involve not only the discipline of repentance and choosing to love but also choosing to receive his love by letting him into our suffering?

Sometimes when we see someone else suffering, we hold back from sharing our own wounds. We’re tempted to think, “Their suffering is so much greater than mine. I have no right to pay attention to my own suffering. I should just be able to get over it.” 

But the invitation of this season is precisely the opposite. It is to look at Jesus and see the pain of his suffering, yes, but not to bury our own pain but to let him meet us in it. This is part of why Jesus suffered, so he could understand our pain and walk gently with us through it. And letting Jesus meet us in our suffering is a huge part of how we are enabled to turn from sin and turn back to God, since our sin so often arises from our suffering. We choose cookies or facebook or something more potent to numb the loneliness we don’t want to let ourselves feel, or we hurt people with our anger because the pain in us pushes its way out.

So as we continue walking with Jesus the long and weary road toward the cross, let’s pause for a moment. Let’s accept his invitation to sit down with him on the edge of a well or a grassy hillside—somewhere away from the crowds for a few moments of quiet conversation. If Jesus asked you, “What’s your greatest struggle, your deepest pain, right now?” how would you answer? Would you even know how to put your pain into words, or would you hope he can read your eyes, your posture, your silence, because you have no words for the pain you are feeling? Would you be afraid to speak because you’re not sure what might come out, and you’re not sure if Jesus could handle your anger, your tears, or your fears?

Know this: Jesus has walked this road of suffering as a human made of dust. He knows from the inside pain so excruciating that his capillaries burst and he sweat blood with the agony of it all. He gets it. And he extends to us his hands which still bear the scars and asks us to let him into our pain. He doesn’t want us suffering alone.

“Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers.

We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.

So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”

(Heb 4:14-16, The Message)

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PS. If you missed The Gifts of Anxiety course, you can still get it here.

And if you missed the chance earlier and would still like to respond to my question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?” email me at Carolyn@hearingtheheartbeat.com. I read and pray over every response.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The Gifts of Anxiety (and a free course for you!)

We’re a week and a half into Lent and I’m curious. What do you find the hardest about Lent? What do you love the most about it?

One of the things I love most about Lent (and about life) is that it’s an invitation, not an expectation. Jesus knows I can’t fix myself. Instead, he invites me to open a little more to him, to let him into the places that I’m hurt and hiding, and find him loving me there and calling me out into his love and light.

Lent is about opening, in the same way that bulbs at this time of year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) are sending roots down into the dirt and shoots up into the light and the sun’s first warmth of spring. 

Sometimes, though, the process of growth seems complicated and discouraging. 

I opened the blinds this morning to discover that squirrels, unperturbed by the generous helping of cayenne pepper that I’d sprinkled on the soil, have made a meal of my tulip bulbs. Last week a solitary squirrel snacked on a single bulb. This morning my planters look like the scout posted an e-vite and brought a whole group of hungry friends to the feast.

I don’t mind helping out one hungry critter, but really? There are so many trees around here, so many bulbs planted right at ground level, I do wonder why the squirrels chose to bring their party to my second-floor balcony. Maybe I inadvertently created a favourite new menu item: hot and spicy tulip bulbs. Maybe the second-floor view provided a better party atmosphere. Either way, I’m saddened by the destruction of the beauty I was trying to nurture, and, yes, also frustrated with my furry friends. 

Sometimes my insides feel like the planters on my balcony. I’ve planted and watered and waited and just as the green shoots come up, bursting with promise, a horde of anxious thoughts creeps in when I’m not looking and makes a meal of my hopes.

That’s when I need to be reminded of this all over again: The invitation in life, and Lent in particular, is to let Jesus into those many places that I can’t fix myself, the places where the cayenne pepper isn’t working to keep away the habits that are hurting me.

And here’s the beautiful not-so-secret secret: In God’s up-side-down way of working, he takes those places that I can’t conquer and makes those the very places where he comes closest and loves me most deeply and heals me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

The anxious thoughts that come like hungry squirrels digging up the quiet beauty that I’m trying to cultivate don’t get the last word, because I’m learning how to open my anxiety to Jesus. And what starts as anxiety quickly becomes a place where I get to know Jesus better and find myself more deeply and gently loved than I could have imagined.

I know I’m not the only person who sometimes finds the calm, colourful garden I’m trying to grow threatened by anxious thoughts, so I’ve written a five-day contemplative course for you called The Gift of Anxiety. Anxiety has been a frequent companion of mine over the years, and gradually I’ve discovered that anxiety has helped me grow closer to Jesus in ways that my strengths haven’t. In this course, I share some practices that have helped me work with anxiety so that it brings me closer to Jesus rather than distracting me from him. If you’re curious to see how Jesus might meet you in your own moments of anxiety, click here and enter your email address to sign up for this (free!) course. I hope you find it helpful!

In the meantime, as we continue to walk toward the cross with Jesus, intentionally opening the anxious and painful parts of our hearts to him, may Jesus continue to do in us what only Jesus can do, settling us a little more deeply into his love.

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Photo by Leon Overweel on Unsplash

One way to walk more freely

Some weeks ago, I wrote these words:

“God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry.” 

The Biblical drama is rich and multilayered. We are, first of all, the baby, created by love, and tended compassionately by the One who, like a mother, cannot forget the child she has borne, and like a father, protects and provides for his children. We are small and dependent and tended and safe. 

But we also—incredibly—find ourselves in quite a different place in the birth drama, not infants now, but wooed and pursued, wedded and loved, and carrying within us the life of Jesus. We are the bride of Christ, sought, chosen, loved with an almost embarrassing passion, and sharing the life of Christ.

How is it that we miss the passion in the story when we even call the sufferings and death of Jesus “the Passion”?

This, for me, is the heart of Lent. As I watch Jesus walk toward the cross, I hear his invitation to walk with him, not as a distant observer, but as one whom he loves more than anything in the world. One for whom he is giving everything. 

Lent is a time to look again at our relationship, to talk about what is getting in the way of closeness, to take down the walls that have grown up between us. It’s a time to regain my first love.

Lent is walking with the one I most love towards his death, listening for his last words, every word extra precious. It’s dying a little myself along the way.

Lent is a time of humility and vulnerability, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a deepening love and closeness in this relationship at the center of my life.

As I write, a small wooden cross sits on the desk beside me, a heart made of olive wood beside it. I move them back and forth from desk to dinner table to the little table by the chair where I journal and read. Why? The heart reminds me that I am loved. And the cross reminds me how much I am loved and where I am loved—right in the worst of my brokenness and rebellion and sin.

That dual reminder of my sin and God’s love is, for me, a gift, because this relationship with Jesus is like any other: as long as I keep up my guard, only sharing the tidy places, there will always be that lurking fear, “If he knew what I’m really like. . .”

Here’s the truth, the wonderful, freeing truth: Jesus does know exactly what I’m like, all the good, all the bad, all the brokenness. And he signed up to love me anyway, chose to make me his own, even though gaining me cost him his life. 

It’s only when the worst of me is seen and I find myself accepted right in that place that I know I am truly and securely loved and can relax and stop fearing what might happen if I slip up and let my real self show.

Alcoholics know this: the path to freedom begins with owning the truth, “I am an alcoholic.” It’s the same for me. The path to freedom always begins with the acceptance of truth: I am a sinner. And, right here in the middle of my inability to fix or free myself, I am loved and valued and wanted enough to die for.

It’s that combination that sets me free—honesty, and being loved.

Truth, and grace.

It’s that pair that allows me to enter Lent in a healthy, healing way, not as a time to beat myself up, but also not as a time to keep hiding from my sins. Instead, it’s a time to look my sins, as well as my limitations (which are not sins) in the face, acknowledge them openly, bring them to Jesus, and be set free to walk a little more closely with the One whom I love, and who loves me.

What goes on in you when you consider these weeks of Lent as a walk with the One who loves you with all his heart and life?