The mystery of God’s lovingkindness

Since I saw some months ago that Michael Card had written a new book, I’ve been waiting for it to arrive. It’s not because Michael Card wrote it, though I love his music and the other couple of his books that I’ve read. It’s not even because I need another good book to read. (I have a few on the go!) It’s because Card has written the book about a single word from the Hebrew Bible, a word that I’ve fallen in love with over the years and researched and knew I still didn’t fully understand. I was eager to explore more deeply the meaning of this mysterious word that, some might say, is the most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures. The word is hesed—translated, among other things, as “lovingkindness” or “faithful love”—and the title of Michael Card’s book is Inexpressible: Hesed and the mystery of God’s Lovingkindness.

The book arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been savoring every line. In my view, it’s worth buying the book for the brilliant cover which, in itself, fuels meditation and leads me into worship, and for the appendices which bring together all the verses in which this word is used and the various ways the word is translated, allowing me to soak more deeply on my own. And that’s without all the wonderful writing in between about the richly layered meaning of hesed, the God of hesed, and the magnificent mystery of finding ourselves objects of hesed.The combination of serious research and theology and beautiful, accessible writing led me, in each chapter, into worship of our God of hesed who loves us in such a magnificent way that it is inexpressible in ordinary language and needs this special, multilayered word, hesed, which itself defies a tidy definition, to give us some still-inadequate way to speak of this love.

As I’ve read Inexpressible, it has also added another layer to the lines I wrote a few weeks ago:

“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.” 

God picturing himself for us in all these different roles is another manifestation of his hesed.  God’s love simply can’t be contained in a single metaphor or definition, though it has been ultimately expressed in the living Word, Jesus, the embodiment of hesed.

The inability of a single word or metaphor to contain God’s love makes it all the more important that we savour each small glimpse of God’s love that God gives us in each of the many different metaphors. Each may only be a taste of something far beyond our comprehension or ability to imagine, but it is a taste, one more small way that God invites us to know him and settle into his love a little more deeply.

We all have our bruises and fractures, and each one of those wounds needs tending in a different way. And so this God who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, this God who leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one lost sheep, does that for the broken parts of us as well, coming to each hurting part of us in the way that that part can most easily receive God’s love and the tender care and comfort that it needs. God comes to the small and frightened part of us as a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and tenderly holds the child and wipes away her tears, and as a father who defends and protects and affirms. He comes to the lonely part, the insecure and unchosen, as a bridegroom who chooses and cherishes and delights in the beauty of his bride. God moves back and forth between the images in Scripture, inviting us to come and receive love in whatever way we need it just now, always welcoming and calling us to return and make our home in that love.

This week I’ve been back in the image offered to us in Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being. . . We are his offspring.” In this picture, we’re unborn babes, living and moving in the One who has brought us into being and sustains us moment by moment as a mother does her unborn babe. We are separate persons, yet utterly dependent and given all we need for life and growth.

I first awakened to the significance of this picture some years ago through a dream. In it, I found myself bicycling in four-lane traffic.  I sensed God inviting me to rest in his love, and responded that I wanted to but didn’t know how in the midst of the traffic. He called me to come and see. I found myself still pedaling my bike, though the traffic had disappeared and I was surrounded by love as though it were some sort of amniotic fluid, though not liquid. It was easy to pedal, easy to breathe, easy to rest. Realizing that there was no need to continue my frantic efforts, and wanting to explore this new space, I stopped pedaling and got off my bike. I found I could push out in all directions and remain surrounded and held in the love, neither liquid nor solid, yet not intangible either. It held me. I sensed God encouraging me to push out and explore, to try to find the limits of the love that conceived me and carries me, sustaining me in being. I might be unaware of it, but I cannot change it. My whole life and self is held in this everlasting love. 

“Your hesed, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,

your faithfulness to the skies.” (Psalm 36:5)

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,

his hesedendures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)

What difference might in make in your day to remember that you are living it sustained and surrounded by the hesed of God?

When you need a little comfort

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:

O God,

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?

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Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

One way to dive deeper into God's love

As I was pondering and praying about this blog post last evening, I felt like I was standing on the end of a high diving board—as though I’ve been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time and once I take this next step, there’s no turning back. As I pictured myself standing there, toes curled over the edge of the board, a song from twenty years ago that I still have on my exercise playlist came to mind:
The long awaited rains
Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground
And carved their way to where
The wild and rushing river can be found
And like the rains
I have been carried to where the river flows, yeah
My heart is racing, and my feet are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turing back
Once my feet have left the ledge
And in the rush I hear a voice
That’s telling me to take a leap of faith
So here I go
I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go
The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive
So sink or swim, I’m diving in. . . (Steven Curtis Chapman, “Dive”)

It’s strange to think that when that song was released in 1999, I was partway through my first year of obstetrics specialty training. Five years of that residency training, four and a half years in Afghanistan, and ten years recovering and discovering God’s love from a whole different vantage point—I’ve done a lot of diving into new situations in those years. (And yes, sometimes finding myself in over my head!)
When I completed medical school and began obstetrical specialty training, I had no idea that I’d only get to witness and assist the birthing of new physical life for ten years—five years of training, and five of practice as an obstetrician. Nor did I know either the pain or the (even bigger) gift that would follow.
While I was working as an obstetrician, though I did glimpse the holiness of the process, my focus was on managing the situation, keeping mom and baby safe, and trying to stay more or less (preferably more) in control of an often uncontrollable process.
Then when my body could no longer handle the stress of being, for a time, the only doctor for 150,000 people in a little mountain village in central Afghanistan, I was forced to face head-on the reality that I am not in control. I couldn’t even manage my own body, let alone anyone else’s. I could barely sit up for a meal, and one long night it took two tries to drag myself, crawling on hands and knees, to the outhouse to empty the little bucket for which I had become increasingly grateful. It has been a long journey back to some semblance of health—much longer than the week it took me to get home, stopping en route to rest for a while and then be flown business class the rest of the way because I was too sick to sit up.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because one of the loveliest gifts of these past ten years has been the surprise that just as I stepped out of practicing obstetrics, I unknowingly stepped into experiencing obstetrics in a whole different way, from a variety of different angles.
I’ve discovered that I’m the baby, carried safely in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I’ve lived and pondered the privilege that we have of carrying Jesus within us and bearing his life into the world. I’ve experienced God midwifing me wisely and gently through the whole process.
As I’ve pondered these roles, it has been impossible for me to avoid the sense that 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. Each of these roles has offered me comfort and encouragement and help in understanding many aspects of our relationship to God as we live this holy, mysterious, and sometimes painful life with him.
I’ve shared a few bits of this here over the years, but mostly I’ve written about other things on this blog while I’ve been completing a theology degree and spiritual director training and writing a book about learning to trust God’s love as illustrated by the story I’ve just told you in brief above. The book hasn’t yet been published, but in the meantime I’m bursting to share some of what the professor who supervised my book-writing termed “obstetrical theology,” and it seems now is the right time to share it. In case the mention of theology frightens you, don’t worry. There’s nothing abstract or dry about the way God has revealed himself in the birth drama. We’re all carried and born, after all, and in revealing himself in these roles that we can all in some way relate to, God offers us the kind of practical, tangible comfort I suspect we all need when life feels a bit out of control. So will you join me over the coming weeks as we dive a little deeper into the love of God as he has revealed it to us through all the different roles in the birth drama? I’m excited to share this with you!

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FOR REFLECTION:
When you relate to God, do you relate to him more often as your father, your mother, your husband, your baby, or your midwife?
Do any of the roles seem strange or uncomfortable to you? Do you have any sense why that might be?
Is there anything you’d like to say to God about all this as we dive in?

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If you’re excited about this series and haven’t yet subscribed to receive my weekly blog posts by email, would you consider doing so? That helps me serve you in multiple ways: you won’t miss any of these posts, you’ll have access to the extra little surprises I’m preparing for those on my email list, and you’ll help me get the book I’ve written for you published. (Not surprisingly, potential publishers want to know people are interested in reading an author’s words!)
My sincere thanks to so many of you who share the posts you find helpful with others who might be interested. I can write these words, but only you can get them to that friend of yours who might be helped by them today.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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.

How to tell true love


You’ve probably noticed by now that smallness is a common theme around here. You’ve probably guessed some of the reasons for that. One of the most obvious is that I’m regularly aware of my smallness.
But there’s also this: I’ve long suspected that one of the best marks of real, trustworthy love is the way it relates to smallness.
On the one hand, real love is gentle and protecting, patient and kind. Small people and small things are safe in the hands of Love. Safe, and cherished, and treasured.

“Love is patient, love is kind. . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4,7)

On the other hand, real love has no need to sustain the power differential. It doesn’t need to be needed to satisfy some ego need in itself. It doesn’t need to keep smallness small. I’ll never forget Dr. J.I. Packer saying in a theology class that the best definition of love that he knew was “the resolve to make the loved party great.”

“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. . . it is not self-seeking.” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)

To say it more simply, real love guards and protects us in our smallness. . .

“You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; . . .“

. . . and takes us beyond our smallness too:

“. . .you stoop down to make me great.” (Ps 18:35)

In less than a week, Advent will begin, and we’ll be given four weeks to pay special attention to how unafraid God is of our smallness. Unafraid, and unashamed to share in it. God chose for Jesus’ birthplace not a palace but a stable. For his mother, a young, vulnerable woman, not married, not rich, not highly educated. Jesus set aside his strength and invulnerability and entered our weakness, showing us that we don’t need to fear smallness. And he continues to live his life in small, weak people. People whom he makes great by joining himself to us in our smallness and lifting us up with him to share in the life and love of the Trinity, and the mission of God in the world.
A friend comes for supper and shares pictures of her trip to Israel. I’m most struck by pictures of the Bell Caves. In one picture, the 96 year old man who co-led the tour rests in a wheelchair, hands folded. In another (professionally taken, so I can’t post it) he stands, straight yet tiny in the vastness of the cave, as a beam of light descends through the bell’s apex, blessing him, crowning him.
It images for me what happened in another small town in Israel some 2000 years ago. The light of God’s face which had been shining on us for millennia (Num 6:23-27) descended to live among us where we could see God’s face turned toward us, his smile now visible to our human eyes. And, in that smile, those eyes—God’s love now lived in human flesh—we could know that God joins us in our weakness so he can lift us to our full stature, beyond our full stature, making us co-heirs, crowned with God’s glory and grace.
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Photo by Julie Hindmarsh. Used with permission.