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

When life goes up in flames

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God, sometimes there are no words.

What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?

Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.

Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.

They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”

Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.

I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.

They seem so small. 

But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again: 

You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.

You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission. 

And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.

You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.

As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.

For this is what the LORD says:

“. . . As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

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?

_________________

Photo by Jordan Whitt 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)

_______________________________________________________________

The second photo is mine. The others, in order, are by Mónica Obando MolinaBiegun WschodniRod Long, Yoal Desurmont and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash.

 

The hands that keep holding

There’s a huge, turreted home that I pass on my morning runs. It sits well back from the road, peeking out from behind giant rhododendrons heavy with mauve blossom and trees squat or tall, blue-green or russet, leafy or needled. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounds it all, a boundary preserving the peace.

It’s beautiful. But for a while, when I ran past it, I could only feel the lead ball of grief in my gut.

It is a children’s hospice, and one morning when I’d passed it, I’d seen a woman sitting in her SUV with the lights on. She was still there when I ran back past. I wondered if she knew that the lights were still on, or if she would be surprised when she tried to start the car and her battery was dead. I walked to her window to ask. She thanked me. But when I said goodbye, wishing her a good day, her “thank you” seemed to hold a sadness that couldn’t be hidden even by her calm graciousness.
For days, the car was there each time I ran past. And then it wasn’t. And I could no longer run past without picking up once again the grief that I’d sensed in that mother. I was willing to share it, glad to pray for her and for them and for all the families and staff in the hospice. But some days it seemed too heavy and I wondered whether I’d have to change my route. Until a friend challenged me to change my perspective.
She’d been inside, in where they have king-sized beds so the whole family can sleep together. In where there are always fresh-baked cookies and home-made meals, a room for art and another for music and a grand staircase welcoming families in. “It doesn’t feel sad inside,” she said. It’s a place where smiles are treasured, pain is soothed, and grief is shared. It seems, in many ways, more about life than death. About finding life and hope and even joy in the same place as the devastation of death.
Here, where life and death walk together, neither laughter nor tears have to be checked at the door. Whole families come and stay for breaks before the final days arrive, continuing with play and school, and when that final time comes, they return here to a place where they already know themselves loved and cared for. In between, they can call from home in the middle of the night and find a familiar voice ready to help. And after their child dies, families continue to receive care.


Now, when I run past, I give thanks. I see in my mind a pair of great Hands cupping the whole estate, and I feel welcomed in through the open gate, into that place of knowing myself held. I feel the tenderness in those hands, the strength, the love that is stronger than death. I relax and breathe more deeply, soaking in the peace that comes from knowing that these families are being cared for, that I am too, and my own family. That no matter what comes, we will be held. I can breathe in the world’s pain, and then let it go into the hands of the One who has already lifted it and let it crush him and has come out the other side, strong and vibrant and still perfectly loving, and always ready to care—often through human hands (whether they know it or not)—for all of us in all of our pain.