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).

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?

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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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