This might change your year

How often do you think of Jesus as your servant? 

Perhaps more importantly, what do you feel as you read that question? A recoiling in immediate dismissal of the possibility? That mix of fear and guilt in the pit of your stomach when you see flashing red lights behind you? Quiet resting in that part of who Jesus is?

Michael Card’s words have been both challenging me and giving me hope this week:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

I’ve memorized Philippians 2 where Paul reminds us that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (v. 7). I’ve listened to half a dozen Maundy Thursday readings and sermons about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13). I know Jesus’ statement that “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). But it feels quite different to quote those verses or tell those stories than it does to think of Jesus as my servant. Not just in the past, laying down his life to gain my salvation for me. Not just in a distant place, getting a home fixed up and ready for me (John 14:2) and praying for me (Heb 7:25, 9:24; Rom 8:34; 1 John 2:1), but here and now, with me, attentive, taking care of my needs before I even ask as does His (our!) Father (Matt 6:8, 33; Is 65:24). It’s another of those concepts that is so mind-blowing that it almost feels like heresy—except Jesus Himself makes it so clear: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. . . .” The Creator of the Universe has made himself our servant!

He is, of course, our Servant Lord—not someone we order around. But as Michael Card again points out, we don’t need to order a servant who is so attentive and knows perfectly what we need—witness the risen Christ with his nail scarred hands standing on the beach making breakfast for his tired, hungry disciples who’d been working all night (John 21). And note, as we see him standing there, that Christ’s servanthood didn’t end with his death. This same One who came to serve continues his serving of us through this life and into the coming kingdom where “he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them” (Luke 12:37). 

Our faith is one of paradox: God’s sovereignty and our free will; a Saviour who is both fully God and fully man, Lion and Lamb, Servant and Lord. It sometimes feels easier and more comfortable to slip to one side or the other of these paradoxes—but that’s precisely when we both slip into heresy and miss the richest gifts that God has to offer us. It’s as dangerous, incorrect, and prideful to treat Jesus as only our Lord and refuse Him as our Servant as it is to presume that He’s there simply to provide for our desires and not bow to Him as our Lord.

We need to pay serious attention to Jesus’ words to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). I think Michael Card is right: those words aren’t just about a one-time acceptance of Jesus’ death for us, but about the humility of daily accepting the tender, attentive care of our Lord who chooses to be our Servant even as we learn from him how to serve others. This is who He is. Accepting Him as our Servant as well as our Lord is part of making our home in Jesus and His love—the single condition Jesus lays out for our fruitfulness (John 15:4,9).

I can’t help but wonder: are so many of us so weary because we try to serve Jesus as our Lord but don’t also know Him as the One who delights to serve us daily?

Where do I accept Jesus’ care, and where do I, like Peter, push Him away, refusing to be served by Him? What holds me back from accepting His care? And how might my life change as I keep learning not only to bow moment-by-moment to the Almighty God who is Lord of all creation and of me, but to receive without hesitation the care of that same All Powerful One who is ever-present and attentive, praying for me, listening to me, stooping to wash my filthy, smelly feet, preparing a table before me, a home for me, and guiding me along right paths?  

It’s not enough for Jesus to be the Lord; He must be my Lord. It is also not enough to know Jesus as the Servant. If I want to hear His heartbeat and make my home in His love, I have to receive His serving of me.

One final question, then: How do I receive Jesus as Servant while still reverencing Him as Lord? Perhaps the first step is simply to notice and savour the daily ways Jesus loves and serves us, and to fall on our knees in awe and thanksgiving. (Don’t we all get more joy out of serving when the person we’re serving receives and delights in our gift than when they push it, and us, away?) And then—once we’ve received and savoured and have been filled up again—to join Him in His serving, not working for but with our Servant Lord.

When Advent doesn’t look the way you hope

Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash

Advent, for me, seldom looks the way I think it should. And, as I wrote two weeks ago, though I often find it uncomfortable, that uncomfortable place is usually precisely where the grace is.

This year is no different. 

I began Advent with anticipation, and with a plan to read through Malcolm Guite’s Advent devotional, Waiting on the Word. I didn’t expect the restlessness that would arise, the recurrent moments when, even though I’d chosen that plan and wanted to mark Advent, some other part of me would resist lingering with the reading, reaching for a detective story instead. 

How is it that, even in this month of preparation for one of the holiest events of the church year, I find myself once again saying with Paul, “I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge” (Rom 7:22-23, The Message)?

And yet, right here, once again, is grace, because instead of keeping the Advent story’s good news at a comfortable distance, reading the words and singing the songs, I find myself clinging to it for dear life. 

Right here in the awareness of my own need and my inability to fix myself is the starting place for the real living of Advent, the awe and the gratitude and the kneeling at the manger because God knows me and still He comes. Long before he entered the world as a baby, he knew my beauties and my failures and that I couldn’t fix myself, and instead of condemning or rejecting me, he came to be with me and to do in me what I can’t do in myself.

And, more than this, He comes not only for me, He also comes through me, choosing to live His life in me for the blessing of the world.

It’s been like this since the beginning, when He came through people who were as messed up as any of us. He isn’t ashamed to be known as the Son of David—a man after God’s own heart, to be sure, but also one who in the heat of passion not only committed adultery but murdered the husband of the woman he had stolen. He came through the line of Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute and Abraham, who, in fear, said that his wife was his sister, causing her to be taken into another man’s harem. He comes, now, into the world through you and me.

It’s right in this place where I feel most strongly my need for God that I’m most truly able to live Advent, to give myself over to God, just as I am, for him to come and live in me and through me and with me, doing in me what I can’t do.

I recognize the grace of answered prayer here too: I’d wanted not only to mark Advent, but to live it deeply. I’d prayed for God to make Himself a little more at home in me, to set me a little freer to be His alone, living in Him and with Him and for Him. Seems like that’s precisely what He’s doing in letting me see all over again both my desperate need for Him and His gracious love that brings Him right into the middle of my need and my longing. 

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.