The place where you’re loved AND liked

A row of Canadian flags decked a portion of my bike route this morning, marking the route for a 5k Canada Day Fun Run. Since my years in Afghanistan, I can’t see a Canadian flag without feeling a tenderness and a deep gratitude—I get to live here! This is my home! How was I so blessed to be born in a country where, for the most part, we’re free and safe when so many millions haven’t been given that gift?

I hold my Canadian citizenship with deep gratitude. And yet, as I’ve been reading James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom, I’m reminded once again that my truer, deeper citizenship lies elsewhere. None of us are born into the kingdom of God, yet we are all invited to come home, to belong in that new country where we find true, unshakeable freedom, and love, hope and joy. 

To be sure, there is a cost. Receiving the full benefits of life as a citizen of that country requires giving up our right to rule ourselves. And yet, as Smith writes, “The yes of surrender is greater than the no of self-denial. What is gained is far greater than what is lost” (p. 16).  He quotes Dallas Willard,

“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”

p. 14-15

I’ve been flipping back and forth through the book, looking at all the lines I’ve marked and starred, trying to choose which bits to share with you. Will I talk about what Smith says is “the essence of the magnificent journey of living as a Christ-follower: turn to Jesus and expect Jesus to act” (p. 26)? Or discuss what he means by “living from above,” or share his wisdom around listening to God? The chapters on relaxing into faith, embracing hope, and discovering a deeper joy have their own share of stars.

I’m delighted to find a chapter arguing that God’s love is not only agape, but includes and encompasses all of the forms of love—affectionate mother-child love, friend love, and romantic love—and this reminder is where I finally settle. God not only loves us in a selfless, providing sort of way. He likes us.

Smith asks,

“What if God loved us not only with agape love but also with storge, phileo, and dare I say, eros? . . . Theologian Emily Brunner, whose work I greatly admire, disagrees with me. He wrote, ‘If he [God] loves, his love is not eros but agape. He loves because he wants to give not to get. . . . We, as sinners, are not lovable to him.’ I beg to differ. I realize this is challenging to the shaming story so many Christians believe, the one that hinges on our being rotten to the core and therefore, as Brunner believes, ‘not lovable’ to God.

I am not denying my sinfulness, my ugliness, or my selfishness (as established in the opening story). We are all in this condition. [And yet in John 15:15 Jesus calls us friends, and] friends are friends because they like each other. There is something they find lovely in their friend. I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic, as if he were actually saying, ‘I know friendship is built on really liking someone and wanting to be with them because you enjoy them. But you guys are lousy and awful, and I don’t enjoy being with you. Still, let’s be friends!’”

p. 114-5

We need more than provision, more than the kind of love defined by Dallas Willard, “To love is to will and to act for the good of another” (cited on p. 117). As Smith says, “I need agape love. I need to be cared for, provided for. But I also need others to say to me, ‘How good it is that you exist. And I need to feel the same way about myself” (p. 117-8).

Thankfully, there is a place where we’re told precisely that, and we’re continually invited to journey deeper in, into this kingdom, this heart of God where we’re not only loved but delighted in.

Hallelujah!

Sing to God a brand-new song,

           praise him in the company of all who love him. . . 

And why? Because God delights in his people. . .

(Ps 149:1,4 The Message)

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Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

When life takes a detour

As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it’s hard for him too.

As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”

I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn’t being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.

We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not. 

I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.” 

How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I’m trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It’s a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.

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P.S. In case you missed it last week, here’s a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

One place to find grace

Confession time: A few days ago when I began rereading the Gospel of Matthew, I was sorely tempted to skip the opening genealogy. I was hungry for more than a dry list of ancient names and the stories that cling to them. I wanted to hurry on to be with Jesus, to see him touching lepers and welcoming children, to hear him speaking words that press their devastating and healing life into the deepest parts of me. I wanted to get to the exciting part.

But as I began to read the list of old names, I was reminded: We don’t find Jesus by skipping the stories of our ordinary lives, but by going deeper into them. In the miracle of grace, Jesus’s story is rooted in ours, and ours in his.

Three days after I began to read Matthew, I’ve only made it through the first six verses. Not because the names are putting me to sleep, but because there’s so much grace packed into that list of names.

Take, for example, verse 5.

Salmon the father of Boaz,

Whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed,

Whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse, 

And Jesse the father of King David.

Matthew 1:5-6a

I find myself in the story with little Boaz, hearing stories of spies and a pile of flax on the roof and a red cord dangling out the window which guaranteed the safety of his mother and her parents and siblings. He would have been told that when two Israelite spies were checking out the best way to conquer his mother’s city, she hid them from the king of Jericho who wanted them dead, and in her choice to show them kindness, her own life was spared. Would he have been told the full story of grace—that his mother, back then, was a non-Israelite, and a prostitute?

I’ve known the drama of the basic story in Joshua 2-6, but I hadn’t thought much beyond the sparing of Rahab’s life. 

Not only was her life spared, but she was allowed to make her home among the Israelites. 

Not only was she allowed to live among the Israelites, but one of them married her. Did Salmon just think her beautiful, or did he recognize the treasure of her courage and conviction that had spared the lives of the spies who were about to destroy her city? Was Salmon himself one of those two spies whose lived she had saved, or had he just heard the stories? 

There was a lot Rahab didn’t have to offer. By Israelite standards, she didn’t have the right ethnicity, the right religion, or even the right moral character. And what she didn’t have, as well as what she did have, put her in precisely the right position to be able to offer what was needed.

Even her occupation meant that her house was a public place, a tavern or hostel of sorts, where travellers could spend the night, and so the spies found their way to her house.

As she faithfully offered what she had—her courage, convictions, a roof and some flax—the spies’ lives were saved, and then hers, and then ours as she bore the man who would become the great grandfather of King David and continue the line leading to Jesus. 

And what she offered was also exactly what was needed to shape the character and imagination of her son, who, with his own mixed ethnicity family history and the valuing of courage and loyalty and life, did exactly what was needed to welcome the courageous, loyal, non-Israelite widow Ruth into the family and together to bear the baby who would grow up to be the grandfather of king David.

I’m preparing to lead two workshops at a Christian doctors’ conference in ten days time. In my better moments I’m hopeful and excited about it. In other moments, insecurities and fears surface. I haven’t practiced medicine for eleven years. Will I still fit in a group of other doctors? Will I be able to connect in ways that allow God’s love and encouragement to flow through me? At its heart is the question that all our hearts ask in one way or another: Am I okay?

But here I find grace: I may not have up to date knowledge of obstetrical guidelines, or experience in the current Canadian political context as it impacts the practice of medicine. do have a self and a story uniquely crafted by the creative God who just asks me to offer what I have.

So do you. 

What I don’t have (a current medical practice) has created space for what I do have (among other things, a certainty that God can be trusted in the hard bits of our lives).

What we don’t have and who we aren’t is part of who we are and how we’re perfectly placed to offer our gifts for the specific needs that are ours to meet.

Here’s to letting go of our fears of who we aren’t and what we don’t have, and offering ourselves and our stories to the God who writes a more intriguing and grace-filled plot than we could ever dream. 

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Woven into Christ (and my new word for 2019)

We’re a week into 2019, a week into new hopes and dreams and intentions, new directions and new words for the year.  As I take my next steps into 2019, I’m so grateful for the church calendar that reminds me that the new year began back at the beginning of Advent, and that the foundation on which to build this next year of my life has already been firmly laid in the story we’ve just lived through with Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
On the first Sunday of Advent, baskets full of ribbons were passed along the rows of worshippers and we were each asked to select a piece of ribbon and personalize it, writing a line of a hymn, a prayer, our name—some little offering of ourselves and our lives. Then, week by week, we watched as those ribbons were woven into banners standing at the front of the sanctuary. The weavers began from the top and bottom of the banners, line upon line of golden shades, then rich reds, slowly working their way in toward the middle. Below the platform where the worship team leads us, where the preacher speaks the words of God, was this steady reminder that as we listen and sing and pray, our lives are being woven into a beautiful tapestry.
For the first three Sundays of Advent, all we could see was bands of gold and red slowly taking shape at the top and bottom of the fabric. Even in themselves, they held beauty, a little of God’s glory imaged in the multi-toned layers of our lives.
And yet, they were somehow empty too. Incomplete. Mysterious. What was taking shape? Were these bands of color—as beautiful as they were—all there was? I was faintly disappointed. But only because I hadn’t waited long enough.
We met two days before Christmas on the final Sunday of Advent, and there,  in the middle of each banner, in white ribbon, the needed centre was finally taking shape. Or, rather, the centre that had always been there but not yet visible began to appear among us in a form that we could recognize. A name on one banner. A title on the other. Jesus. Christ.  Disappointment made way for joy as the centre was filled, the lines of red and gold now shining with new beauty as they took their proper place not as the main focus of the image, but as pointers, our lives put in proper perspective by the One at the centre.
The banners have hung at the front of the sanctuary through Christmas and the turning of the year and on into the season of Epiphany which has now begun. Epiphany—the revealing of Jesus’s glory—isn’t this what we all need every day of this new year? Our small lives gathered up into his, woven into his story, with Jesus shining forth at the centre of our lives and our communities?
I often begin the new year pondering and praying about a word for the year. This year I’ve wondered about several. There are places I’ve become lazy, and I want to grow again in discipline. But what is discipline if my life isn’t marked by love? And the truth is that unless my discipline is rooted in love, unless I really want to do something, my desire fuelled by love, my will-power falls flat pretty quickly. Or gets sidelined by fear.
Love, then. I long for my life to be marked by love. For that to happen I need to keep making my home in Jesus’ love. But as I sit with the word, I find that when it comes right down to it, even love as a guiding word for the year feels empty. It is, of course, a crucial part of the weaving of a meaningful, beautiful life. But even love finds it proper place not as the centre but as a pointer, guiding me back to the only One who can fill that central place, the One in whom everything holds together and from whom love comes. All my hopes and goals for the year, no matter how significant, only have meaning when they take their proper place around Jesus. Without him at the centre, even the best dreams are meaningless, the best goals both irrelevant and impossible.
This, this, is the Word I want written on every piece of my heart, every moment of my days. This is the Word that holds me together, weaving all the bits of life into a whole that makes sense. JESUS.

Learning to see


I walked into the room and sat down in a comfy chair across from my spiritual director. The table next to us held a glass of fall flowers, the small cross that I love to hold, and, behind the candle, a small, colorful painting.
I almost always love the way my spiritual director arranges the physical space for our times of listening together. The colours, the ways the various items offer reminders of life while holding space for needed lament, and the reminder of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all—together they offer a hospitality that helps settle me and open me up to God. But (confession time) I used to groan inside every time my spiritual director chose to use this particular painting as part of the arrangement. I couldn’t look at it without recoiling from it. I didn’t want to look at it long enough to try to understand it. I didn’t say anything. I just looked elsewhere to avoid what looked to me like a red misshapen face or a miscarried fetus, a small green face layered with distorted orange-red like a frightening Halloween mask. I quietly wondered what beauty my gentle spiritual director could possibly see in such a fearful image.
But this time, instead of turning away, I found myself turning toward it. I’d begun to notice the change in me the last time she displayed the picture. That time, instead of focussing on the fearful red, I’d seen, instead, the white face, quietly attentive to the small one. I hadn’t spent long with the image that time, but this time those beginnings of different seeing drew me in so I could hardly take my eyes from the picture. This time, as I struggled to find words to tell my spiritual director about an experience in which I’d found space to be myself and had felt loved, I ended up motioning toward the image and saying, “It was like that. Safe.” Now the image showed me the most tender scene I could imagine—the larger person with the white face holding the small one, offering a calm, steady gaze in which the child could begin to learn that she existed and mattered, and was seen and loved and safe. This time, instead of turning from the image, I turned again and again toward it, hungry for the gentleness it portrayed, and aching to feel once more the hand cupping my head and see the face that never leaves or looks away but keeps steadily loving, quietly holding me in being and making me who I am.

Intimacy by Valerie Sjodin. Used by permission Valerie Sjodin ©️ www.valeriesjodin.com.

At first, I was so absorbed by the beauty of the interaction that I didn’t look at anything other than the faces. I kept turning to see that white face tenderly looking at me, the hand cupping my head. But later, as I looked again at the painting, another surprise was waiting. The red that I’d first interpreted as death and distortion was, in fact, a heart—the life-giving love that filled the relationship. It wasn’t the love that was distorted. It was my seeing. And once my eyes were taught to see, I didn’t want to stop looking.
I could also now see, and delight in, the mystery in the painting—the flowing, fiery colors shaping themselves into the heart that frames and sustains the interaction. This is not a love that I can create or control, or even fully understand—and that is part of its beauty. It’s vast and wild and tender and freely pouring itself out to me, and never going away.
I wish I could find the words to do justice to a book I read this summer that offered me a fresh glimpse of this tender, fiery, mysterious love that takes my breath away with its magnificence. The book is called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, and in it Gregory A. Boyd reminded me of something I already knew: Jesus is the perfect revelation of God—a God who loves so deeply, and is so committed to our freedom and flourishing, that he stoops low to be in relationship. That relationship includes meeting us where we are and willingly bearing our sin as he not only acts toward us but lets us act on him. But God’s willingness to stoop and let people act on him did not begin with Jesus. All through the preceding history, God stayed in relationship with his people, continuing to love even when they saw him through dim eyes and could only understand his character in light of their culture around them. Like a parent with a tiny child, God let himself be understood in the only ways the child could understand him at that stage, and slowly, as the child grew, continued to reveal more and more of himself. There is no other way for a child to learn, nor, for that matter, for anyone to learn the heart of another. We have to start from what we know, and slowly, with experience, grow deeper into the truth.

. . . God has always revealed his true character and will as much as possible while stooping to accommodate the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people as much as necessary. In his love, God was willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of an ANE [Ancient Near East] warrior deity, to the degree this was necessary, in order to progressively influence them to the point where they eventually would be capable of receiving the truth that he is actually radically unlike these violent ANE deities.
. . . [B]y making gradual changes, God beguiled his people into the gospel, wherein it was revealed that God would rather be killed by enemies than kill them.” (Cross Vision, 73-74)

And so we are invited to look and keep looking into the face of love which is gazing on us, and to slowly learn to see there both who God is and who we are.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

And now, may we each live in the blaze of this blessing which God himself commanded his priests to pronounce so that his people would always know that the face that looks upon us is one of blessing and grace and generous peace.

“The Lord bless you

and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)