The Gifts of Anxiety (and a free course for you!)

We’re a week and a half into Lent and I’m curious. What do you find the hardest about Lent? What do you love the most about it?

One of the things I love most about Lent (and about life) is that it’s an invitation, not an expectation. Jesus knows I can’t fix myself. Instead, he invites me to open a little more to him, to let him into the places that I’m hurt and hiding, and find him loving me there and calling me out into his love and light.

Lent is about opening, in the same way that bulbs at this time of year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) are sending roots down into the dirt and shoots up into the light and the sun’s first warmth of spring. 

Sometimes, though, the process of growth seems complicated and discouraging. 

I opened the blinds this morning to discover that squirrels, unperturbed by the generous helping of cayenne pepper that I’d sprinkled on the soil, have made a meal of my tulip bulbs. Last week a solitary squirrel snacked on a single bulb. This morning my planters look like the scout posted an e-vite and brought a whole group of hungry friends to the feast.

I don’t mind helping out one hungry critter, but really? There are so many trees around here, so many bulbs planted right at ground level, I do wonder why the squirrels chose to bring their party to my second-floor balcony. Maybe I inadvertently created a favourite new menu item: hot and spicy tulip bulbs. Maybe the second-floor view provided a better party atmosphere. Either way, I’m saddened by the destruction of the beauty I was trying to nurture, and, yes, also frustrated with my furry friends. 

Sometimes my insides feel like the planters on my balcony. I’ve planted and watered and waited and just as the green shoots come up, bursting with promise, a horde of anxious thoughts creeps in when I’m not looking and makes a meal of my hopes.

That’s when I need to be reminded of this all over again: The invitation in life, and Lent in particular, is to let Jesus into those many places that I can’t fix myself, the places where the cayenne pepper isn’t working to keep away the habits that are hurting me.

And here’s the beautiful not-so-secret secret: In God’s up-side-down way of working, he takes those places that I can’t conquer and makes those the very places where he comes closest and loves me most deeply and heals me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

The anxious thoughts that come like hungry squirrels digging up the quiet beauty that I’m trying to cultivate don’t get the last word, because I’m learning how to open my anxiety to Jesus. And what starts as anxiety quickly becomes a place where I get to know Jesus better and find myself more deeply and gently loved than I could have imagined.

I know I’m not the only person who sometimes finds the calm, colourful garden I’m trying to grow threatened by anxious thoughts, so I’ve written a five-day contemplative course for you called The Gift of Anxiety. Anxiety has been a frequent companion of mine over the years, and gradually I’ve discovered that anxiety has helped me grow closer to Jesus in ways that my strengths haven’t. In this course, I share some practices that have helped me work with anxiety so that it brings me closer to Jesus rather than distracting me from him. If you’re curious to see how Jesus might meet you in your own moments of anxiety, click here and enter your email address to sign up for this (free!) course. I hope you find it helpful!

In the meantime, as we continue to walk toward the cross with Jesus, intentionally opening the anxious and painful parts of our hearts to him, may Jesus continue to do in us what only Jesus can do, settling us a little more deeply into his love.

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Photo by Leon Overweel 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.

 

Where God just might come nearest

Is there a place you’ve experienced as a “thin place,” a place where heaven seems especially close to earth, and God, though everywhere present, somehow seems nearer? Most often I’ve heard the term used for bits of land where pilgrims have walked and worshipped and sought God for centuries. Iona, for instance. But the chair where I regularly curl up to spend time alone with God, a particular painting, a beach, a bench—I’ve known each of these as a thin place.






People can be thin places too. As Ann Voskamp observes, “Every child’s a thin place.”










I’ve been wondering: what if we experience children most easily as thin places simply because they haven’t yet learned to hide their hearts?
What if beneath all the masks every human being is a thin place, or contains thin places?
And what if . . . what if the wounds and cracks and places of brokenness in myself, those ones that I try so hard to fix, as well as the hopes and joys and longings that I sometimes feel I need to hide, are in fact thin places that I’m trying to thicken, some of God’s portals that I’m trying to block and barricade?


I sat in my counselor’s office, trying once again to conquer a particular memory from Afghanistan. I wanted to be able to sit with it without feeling paralyzed by panic or dread or helplessness. But once again I had to retreat into Jesus’ arms. Only there, with my focus on his arms around me, was I able to sit with the memory and be okay. At first I felt discouraged. Defeated. It felt like failure that I couldn’t stand up to it myself. Then I sensed Jesus ask, “Would it be okay if you never manage to conquer it by yourself, if instead it is something that keeps you always in my arms?”
Right away I was aware of the gift in the question. I want Jesus. More than I want healing. I want to be close to him and open to him. And I know that I need help staying in that place; in my stronger moments when I’m less aware of my need for him I get distracted and run off to other things. Anything—even something painful—that keeps me every moment in his arms is a gift, nudging me toward what I most deeply want.
And yet, if I’m honest, I hesitated. My deepest self wanted that closeness. The rest of me wasn’t entirely thrilled about the way of getting it. There was a sadness in seeing the brokenness in myself, and a longing for healing and wholeness.
In my experience there are thin times as well as thin places, and for me the early morning moments suspended between sleep and rising are a thin time when my heart often understands something that my mind hasn’t yet been able to grasp. The morning after that counseling experience held one of those thin moments when, at least for that moment, my whole self grasped something that until then I’d only half-known:
Jesus’ invitation to make my home in his arms was not second best, a consolation prize when he chose not to give healing. It was healing, and the invitation into true wholeness—the wholeness that knows myself as his, safe and loved no matter what.
It was an invitation into the wholeness that, rather than insistently trying to thicken the thin places, sees and accepts them because Jesus sees and accepts them as places that keep me close to him.
It was an invitation into the understanding that “perfect” as the voices in my head define it (flawless in my independent self) has much more to do with our culture’s obsession with independence and autonomy and appearance than with God. In God’s eyes, “perfect” is about wholeness and completion, love and union. And in the wildly creative economy of grace, not only our weak and wounded places but even our sinful tendencies, those very places where our union was broken, remain thin places through which his love can most easily flow, remaking our union, and more deeply than before: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God. Let Me be the One who makes you perfect, not by reshaping you into something whole, separate from myself, but by filling your cracks and empty places with my living, loving Self.”


I’ll still wrestle and forget and need lots of help living in this place where I can accept and maybe even occasionally, with Paul, delight in my weaknesses because Jesus meets me there.
In the meantime, maybe even my wrestling and forgetting can be a thin place where Jesus meets and fills me with his love again and again and again.

When "good girl" isn't enough

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I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.
This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.
BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.
AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.
It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.
Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”
She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.
Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.
But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.
And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.
He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”
The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.
Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.
She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.
And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.
He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.
He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.
In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.
The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

When healing doesn’t feel like healing

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One day I discover that I am the blind man whom people have brought to Jesus. Jesus takes my hand. His is warm and gentle and strong, and I know I can trust this hand. I let myself be led out of the village, out to where I don’t know the streets anymore, where I can’t call for help. I can’t say why, but I trust him enough to go there with him. I spend the day feeling my hand in his, savoring the delight of being cared for, tended, led. Knowing myself safe.
Later I find myself back in the story. The same hand that led me out to the place of my healing is preparing to touch my eyes. I’ve been waiting for this moment, eager for those kind hands to touch me again. I’ve been aching for this healing, trying to push down hope but hoping anyway that the impossible might become possible. What I get is the shock of spit, slimy against my eyelids, wet under his fingers. I want to push his hands away, to wipe his saliva off my face, to throw up in disgust. Who does he think he is? What gives him the right to spit in my face? I want to run. I can’t. He has led me outside the village and I’m blind and helpless and trapped. I thought I could trust this man and he’s rubbing my face in my own helplessness, rubbing my face in his spit. Against my will, tears form in my useless eyes. This doesn’t feel like the healing I was expecting. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, JESUS?!
“Do you see anything?” The mouth that spit in my face speaks gently. I am so confused. I feel his care. Dare I trust? My face is still wet with his spit. How can I trust this man? He has taken his hands from my eyes. I pause, afraid to open my eyes, afraid of what I won’t see, afraid of the end of hope. But there was kindness in his voice when he spoke, and there is kindness in the stillness that waits.
My heart opens a crack and my eyes do too. There is light and color and movement. “I see a little. There are people, I think, but they look like moving trees.” My hope has stirred and begun moving too, and my trust, and I’m glad I didn’t run from him when I wanted to. Glad I couldn’t run.
I can’t help but flinch a little as I see the shadow of his hands approach my eyes again (I see his hands approach!) but this time there’s no spit, and healing feels like healing. And this time I open my eyes more quickly and my heart wider and both my eyes and my heart see clearly what I couldn’t see before: I may be hemmed in by distance or disability, a held hand or spit-covered fingers, but the hand laid upon me is always a hand of blessing, a hand that longs and works for my deepest healing.

“You hem me in behind and before. You have laid your hand upon me.” (Psalm 139:5)