The good news of being (un)worthy

This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”

I have resisted.

“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.

And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. 

But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”

I’m realizing that the word “worthy” always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?

I’m realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.

Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.

Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.

Lived: And we’re called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).

In case we’re tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God’s love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.

And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).

Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word “worthy” is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?

  1. Both Jesus and Paul use the word “worthy” more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
  2. As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”[1]
  3. As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don’t think carefully about what we mean by “unworthy,” we can easily slip into the error of equating “unworthy” with “worthless.” And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we’ve been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.

No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.

What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God’s love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?

Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.

He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2Thes. 1:11).

__________________


[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.

Photo by Jared Subia on Unsplash

One small step toward becoming the person you want to be.

My family doctor once asked me two questions that I return to again and again. She asked them when I was struggling with depression, but she could just as well have asked them in one of the times my physical illness has flared and I’ve felt hemmed in by my limitations, or, for that matter, by a situation outside of me.

What kind of person do you want to be?

What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?

The questions could, I suppose, feel heavy, but to me they feel like grace. No matter what is going on inside me or outside me, I still have choice. No matter how much is beyond my control, there’s always something I can do to cooperate with God’s work in me. These two simple questions lead me out into a spacious place where I am no longer trapped or helpless but remember again that God gives me choice and agency and authority at least in the small bit of creation that is myself.

Among all of God’s creation, he honours us humans particularly with this: we get to participate with God in shaping ourselves. We are, of course, completely dependent on God to sustain us in being, to give us choice, to do in us the many things we cannot do in ourselves. (“Without me you can do nothing” John 15:5.) Yet also, as part of our bearing the image of a sovereign Creator, God makes us co-creators with him in the shaping of our own selves and lives.

So:

  • I want to be a person who hears God’s heartbeat. Today I can be still in his presence even for a few minutes, opening my heart to him.
  • I want to be a person who is honest. Today, rather than trying to push away the uncomfortable questions and emotions, I can sit with them in Jesus’ presence and tell him what I’m feeling.
  • I want to be a person marked by gratitude. Even on a difficult day, after I’ve let Jesus into the hard feelings, I can look for his grace in the day and write out the things I’m thankful for (starting with his welcome of me just as I am).

It’s a big responsibility, but also a gracious one, this participation in our own transformation. It’s a plan designed by a God who loves and honours and cherishes us, and who is so gentle and gracious and kind that He receives our smallest attempts to cooperate with Him like a mother delights in the bouquet of dandelions brought to her by her two year old. He well knows that we can’t transform ourselves, not deeply and thoroughly like Jesus can. But still He honors us and the choice He has given to us, and invites our consent and cooperation in the process, and even on the hard days (maybe especially) on the hard days, our job is to open to this One who loves us and do the bit we can to cooperate with what he is doing. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?

How the long road can be grace

Six of us from my soulcare group were gathered with a table in our midst. The person leading the reflection that night had decided to do something different. She had spread on the table a selection of fifteen or so different photos from her recent pilgrimage—a slightly open door with a shaft of light entering, a path with a cross at the end, a stained glass window. She asked us each to select a photo that touched us emotionally, either attracting us or repelling us, and then led us through a series of questions, helping us pay attention to why the photo was touching us and how God might be wanting to speak to us through it.

I struggled to choose a photo. I wanted the blue and mauve and gold stained glass that showed God the Father upholding his Son on the cross. I tried to choose that one. But as my friend started to ask the questions, I realized I had to put that one back on the table and pick up instead the plain one with the long and winding path. The dusty, boring one with only a few greyed colors in the whole image.

It was the night before my first appointment in a new complex chronic diseases clinic, and the realities of my illness were more on my mind than I often allow them to be. I didn’t want them to be stealing my focus, but sometimes sadness is there and when it is, it’s best to be honest about it. Not that I find that easy. I’d found myself wanting to pull away that evening, to stay home and avoid the vulnerability of the group. It was only as we were sharing what was going on in us over a meal that I’d realized why it had been so hard for me to come: I was afraid that if I was honest about struggling with the same issues again, or didn’t have energy to keep up my part of the relationship equally, that even those close to me would get tired and leave.

My head knows better. One of the great gifts of this group is the space for us all to be honest about our struggles and walk with each other through them. My heart still sometimes fears. I don’t like that. I want to be able to fix my heart, to have perfect trust, and not ten years from now but today. Or, preferably, yesterday.

But though, by God’s grace, we do change, that work is slow. As my spiritual director often says, “Soul work is slow work.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need to be reminded again and again that the goal of our journey is far less about reaching perfection (particularly the way my frightened part defines it, as getting rid of my same old struggles, never messing up, and generally being able to be the strong one, the one helping others) and far more about increasingly opening to love and learning humility and both receiving and offering vulnerability and grace.

And if the goal isn’t so much about arriving as about learning to know the One with whom we walk, maybe that long and winding route is the shortest path. It’s there in the weary days that we discover God’s faithful gentleness in the journey.

I see this in Israel’s journey:

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Exodus 13:17-18

Sometimes we’re ambivalent about freedom. We need the longer winding path to experience God’s faithful presence and provision again and again before we can trust enough to step into the freedom God offers. As it was with Israel, the winding path may be part of God’s gentleness and commitment to working within our limitations and making it easy enough for us that we don’t turn back in terror.

And sometimes God is slow to heal struggles because if he removed them all at once, they’d be replaced by something worse. Paul’s thorn kept him from pride (2 Cor 12:7). The persistence of the other tribes in the promised land kept the land from being overrun by thistles and wild animals:

“I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hives, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.” 

Exodus 23:29

The longer route can allow us to grow in ways we need to grow in order to receive the gifts waiting for us.

That night of our soulcare group meeting, I needed to be honest with God, myself, and my friends about my sadness and fear. I needed to sit with the picture I didn’t want and be on the part of the path that felt the same as last month and the month before and that stretched into the distance with no change in sight. And there was grace in that—the healing grace of tears, and of recognizing again that more than I want a stained glass life I want to walk close with Jesus. There was the grace of being reminded that even if I can’t see the end, the path does lead somewhere beautiful and even if this particular snapshot shows only this winding path, it’s only one small snapshot amidst all the other bits and pieces that make up this life and the infinite life to come.

And there was the grace of being allowed to bring home the stained glass photo as well and sit with it and remember that more than anyone else ever could, Jesus understands. And that even when fear or loneliness or something else is snapping at our feet, and even when we can’t see God, He is present, quietly upholding us in gentle and powerful love.

____________________________

Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission.

Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

_________________________________

Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash

Why time can never be ordinary again

How do we live the routines and rhythms of our lives as though each moment is tinged with glory? How do we see through the unwanted surprises to the reality that sustains us through them?

Often, for me, needed reminders come through the liturgical calendar as I see all over again how Jesus’ story and mine are woven together. Take, for example, the day one year ago, as we stood at the turn (as we do again today) from Pentecost Sunday into the long season of Ordinary Time that stretches all the way until the start of Advent.

As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.

Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.

They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.

It’s as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.

We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.

A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.

The streamers are shimmering in the light.

It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God’s Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?

How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?

As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.