God of the details

In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when coloured pencils and binders are on sale, the nights are starting to cool, and the picnic basket has been traded in for school bags or briefcases. There’s excitement in the air—the goodness of beginning fresh—and sometimes also a bit of heaviness as we leave summer behind and enter the season ahead.

When change is in the air, I need to pause and look back before moving forward. What do I want to take with me? What will I choose to leave behind?

As we begin this season, I’m holding close the memory of a day last week, turning it over and exploring what it tells me about the God who is going before me and with me into the fall.

I was staying with friends for a few days. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist (particularly since the teacher in our mandatory grade ten art class informed me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”) But I’m drawn to beauty and color, and my friend, Linda, a watercolor artist, was helping me learn to play with paint. Together we gathered leaves and ferns and grasses and arranged them in wet paint, allowing the beauty of their forms to pattern the page and delighting in the surprise of how the colors merged and mingled. 

One afternoon, we set aside the paint and went to walk a nearby trail.

Dragonflies hummed by, and I tried repeatedly to catch their image with my camera, eventually whispering the longing in my heart, “Oh, God, even from a distance they’re so beautiful. Could you bring one close enough that I can really look at it?” 

But they were too quick and eventually I had to stop trying to grasp a gift that wasn’t being given and get on with receiving the gifts that were being given that day.

The following morning, Linda went out to get the mail. There, by her feet, was a perfectly formed dragonfly. His brief lifespan had ended, and the God who knows each sparrow that falls evidently keeps track of dragonflies too, letting this one bring Him glory even in his death.

As I sat and looked and worshiped the Creator, turning his tiny creature around and around in the light of the new day, I pictured God smiling as he’d received my prayer the previous day and planned the surprise for the following day, whispering, “That gift is for tomorrow.” 

I can be tempted to feel like the gifts of vacation are for a few days or weeks only, and to feel sad or heavy as I leave vacation behind. It is true, particular gifts are for particular days. But the heart from which they come does not change, and each day holds new gifts.

“The faithful love of the Lord never ends!

His mercies never cease.

Great is his faithfulness;

his mercies begin afresh each morning.”

Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT

We move into this new season preceded and accompanied by the God who has created us and the world around us—the dragonfly’s compound eyes, the fine hairs on its back, the lace of its wings—and who delights to show us his love in the details of our daily lives.

May we be given eyes wide to see God’s goodness, and hearts open to delight in Him as we begin this new season with Him.

One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

Why Jesus kept his scars

Scars speak.

We know this. We see a scar and want to know the story behind it.

The white scar on a friend’s palm tells where a sharp piece of ice punctured her skin when, as a child, she fell. The red scars on my left knee tell how, as a friend says, “the sidewalk came up and hit me” while I was running last fall.

A scar on a cheek may tell of combat faced and battle survived.

Sometimes people ask about the wide scar that peeks out at the neckline of my shirt. I can read the questions in their eyes. Was it heart surgery? An injury in Afghanistan? I tell them the much less dramatic story of teenage acne, a body that forms keloid scars and a dermatologist who biopsied that scar to make sure it wasn’t anything else. My over-keen body took his well-intended gesture and turned it into a bigger, bolder scar.

The scars Jesus still carries on his resurrected body speak too. 

To the first disciples, they said, “This is no hoax. It’s really me, Jesus!”

To me, they say, “You are loved this much!”

They say, “Don’t forget. Nothing can separate you from my love. Not even your sin—see the everlasting proof that it has been removed?”

Jesus’ scars speak hope.

They say, “There is life after death. Wholeness can rise out of brokenness. And wholeness doesn’t mean that all sign of the wounds disappear. It means they are no longer wounds, but scars, no longer the constant and limiting center of attention but a quiet reminder of courage and love and life that spring up in places of pain.

Jesus’ scars speak truth.

They question the world’s words that beauty must be unscathed and unscarred and young, reminding me instead of the lesson of the Velveteen Rabbit, that in order to become real you have to love and be loved and fall apart a bit. They whisper that all that is worth it to really live.

Jesus’ hands remind me that scars can be beautiful, marks of courage and love, of a life well-lived and a death well-died, of battles fought and won and challenges survived. Scars can be places of life, like a nurse log which, in its own death, offers life to others.

His scars tell me I don’t need to be ashamed of mine. Scars are marks of love—in some cases, maybe, my own small love and the love of Jesus in me that led me to stand up for something that mattered; but always, the love of Jesus for me as he carried me through that challenging time. 

They say, too, “No servant is greater than his master. I suffered and you’ll suffer too. But not alone—not if you let me come close in your suffering.” 

Jesus’ scars are a place of hospitality.

They offer paths along which to line up my life, a hiding place, a place of stability and security—a home. They remind me I’m welcome to come as I am, to make my home in his love, to settle down and cling tight and anchor my life to his, for here I am wanted and welcomed and safe.

They say to us all, “I get it. I know the pain of loneliness and rejection, of physical and emotional agony and feeling the heartache is bigger than you can bear. And I am with you. Press your wounds into my scars. Let my love touch your most painful places.” 

They remind me that, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The deepest pain can become the place of greatest intimacy as we press our wounds into Christ’s and let him turn our wounds into scars. And our scars in turn become places where we can accompany others most deeply and compassionately.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

(2 Cor 1:3-4)

Each scar carries a memory and tells a story.

The weather-worn scars of the huge trunk on the beach whisper of years of being tossed and beaten, cracks formed and crevices shaped and smoothed by sand and waves and time.

Paul’s scars offered irrefutable proof that he was a committed servant of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:17).

Jesus’ scars tell me his story, and where I fit in it. My own scars—in my case the unseen ones more than ones on elbows and knees—fit together with his to tell the other half of our story of life together.

Jesus’ scars also question me, asking about my own.

Are they still gaping wounds, or have they healed into scars? How do I think about them, feel about them? Am I ashamed, trying to fill or fix or cover them, or am I opening them to Jesus, letting his love enter and fill and flow through them like water through the scar in a mountainside, turning a wound into a waterfall of grace?

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(PS. The free five-day email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, suggests some ways we can open our wounds to Jesus’ free-flowing love and grace. Check it out and sign up here.)

How to reach your destination

It’s dark. They’re far out on the lake, far from the lights of any town. The sun has set and the last of the dusk has deepened into night. The moon they’d hoped for is hidden behind the clouds that have risen. They’d hoped to make quicker progress, but the wind has picked up and is pushing them back, fighting against them.
These fishermen know their boat well. They know the lake. They’re no stranger to storms. But tonight their nerves are frayed and tempers not far behind. The day has been long and they’d started it already tired. It was meant to be a quiet retreat day, away in the mountains with Jesus, a day to rest and regroup and talk about their ministry experiences, but a crowd had followed them and, rather than turning them away, Jesus had spent the day talking with them. And then told the disciples to feed all 5000+ of them. When they couldn’t, he did it himself. Out of one little boy’s lunch.
The crowds, the press, the demands, the worries of how they would feed all these people—all of these had weighed on the disciples. And then when Jesus told them to have the people sit down and broke the bread and fish and had the disciples distribute it to the people, there was the physical work of it all, the bending down, the carrying. And the confusion and disorientation. What they thought they knew for sure—that one little loaf feeds just one person—had been shattered. Could they trust their own eyes? Their certain knowledge of the way the world worked?
With just enough food for a single child, a hungry crowd had been calmed, and twelve baskets of leftovers picked up. What were they to make of this?
After that confusing day, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead while he finished dealing with the crowd. The disciples had hoped to make good time and reach the other side before dark fell in earnest. But the wind was in their faces and the waves crashing over the bow. They licked the spray from their lips, fresh water, but slightly salty now with their own sweat. Their wet clothes clung cold around their trunk, their legs. With every flash of lightening, the disciples could see each other’s strained faces.
And then, with one particularly bright flash, they all screamed. Not for fear of the lightening, but for the ghostly figure they saw walking towards them. Had they died after all? Had the frayed rope of their nerves snapped as they lost their final grip on reality? Could there be anything more terrifying than not knowing if you can trust your own perception of reality?
The figure speaks: “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  
They know that voice—well enough to trust even if they don’t understand.

“Then they were willing to take him into the boat,” John says, “and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” (John 6:21)

I don’t remember reading those words before. Maybe I’d skimmed over them because I didn’t understand. How can a boat that has been tossed around by waves for hours way out in the middle of the lake “immediately” reach the shore when someone steps into it? I guess when the someone is the same one who fed 5000+ with a child’s lunch and then walked calmly on the pitching, rolling waves to reach the boat, nothing that happens next could be terribly surprising.
But there’s something else here too, I think. In the midst of wind, darkness, and the terror of wondering whether we can trust what we know of the way the world works, or even our own senses, if we trust Jesus just enough to let him climb into the boat with us, immediately we reach our destination—because our true goal is not those good but small new year’s resolutions, not that project finished or discipline learned or income earned, as fine as those might be. Our true, eternity-long, goal is knowing Jesus his Father.

“Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:5)

And that can happen—in fact, often happens best—when it’s dark and the sea is rough and we’re not sure we’ll make it to our self-determined destination and all the things we thought we knew for sure (that you can’t feed a crowd from a child’s lunchbox, and that people sink when they step onto water) are shaken.
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Photos (in order) by Anandu Vinod,  Brandon Morgan, and Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

Shepherded into Shalom

“He tends his flock like a shepherd;

he gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

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.

(Psalm 100)

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The second photo is mine. The others, in order, are by Mónica Obando MolinaBiegun WschodniRod Long, Yoal Desurmont and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash.