Hope for the messy moments

I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”

I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!

So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?

***

The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.

Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.

I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.

I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.

As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers. 

I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”

After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”

The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.

This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.

And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.

As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.

***

It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.

Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.

As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:

“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

________________________

Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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.