A love note just for you

They’re written all over the world, slipped into a bird song or the pink clouds of evening or the arms of a friend—love notes from God tucked into our days to remind us He sees and knows and cares.

Sometimes I find them in a familiar passage of Scripture or in one I haven’t read for a long time, a few words that feel like Someone slipped them into a most unlikely spot with a smile on His face, dreaming of me discovering them on an otherwise ordinary day.

That happened this week as I was reading through 1 Peter. The first part of chapter 3 is addressed to wives and husbands—not all that relevant to me as a single woman, one might expect. But there in the middle were two glimpses of who God is and what God loves that had me kneeling in awe and gratitude.

The first was the reminder in v.4 that “a gentle and quiet spirit . . . is of great worth in God’s sight.” For those of us who ache to step out of the world’s drive to do more and own more and accomplish more and instead live a listening life, walking (not racing) with Jesus, this is such good news. That gentle, quiet spirit that you want to cultivate? The one that the world devalues and dismisses? It is of great worth in God’s sight. Why? Well, for starters, it’s like the spirit of his Son who is also gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29; 21:5). And second, a gentle and quiet spirit is rooted in trust, humility, and making our home in Jesus’s love—which is precisely where God calls us to live, in this only place we can thrive (John 15:9).

A few verses on, Peter addresses husbands—even less relevant to me, one might think. But there in v.17 I glimpse all over again the magnificent mystery of Christ’s tender, respectful love for us. Marriage is, after all, meant to be a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church, and Jesus sets the standard for that relationship.

“Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her. . .” (Eph. 5:25-27 The Message)

I’ve soaked in Eph 5:22-33, memorizing the wonder of it. And on that background, Peter’s words to husbands make me kneel in awe:

“. . . treat [your wives] with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Pet 3:7).

Set aside for a second whatever might rise in you about women being called “the weaker partner” and hear what Peter is saying here. The emphasis is not on who is “the weaker partner” (an automatic assumption in the world of Peter’s time) but on treating her with respect rather than looking down on her. She is not a second-class citizen. She is a fellow heir. And Jesus treats us all, men and women, who are inarguably the weaker partners in our marriage with Him, not with impatience or disdain or even pity but with respect and special care, as fellow heirs with Him (Rom 8:17). As Walter Brueggemann says, commenting on Psalm 103:13-14, “the reality of our ‘dust’ does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.”

This, it seems to me, is foundational in allowing us to develop a gentle and quiet spirit. We can only begin to release our anxieties and our need to defend or prove ourselves when we know ourselves welcomed and cherished and even respected right in the middle of our weakness.

What’s it like for you to consider that Jesus doesn’t look down on you in your weakness but respects you and cherishes you in it?

As you think back over the past 24 hours, can you spot any words or encounters that might have been a love note left just for you?

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Photos (in order) by  Jamez PicardLea Khreiss, and Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

One of Advent’s surprise gifts (You won’t want to miss this one!)

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

We began, eight days ago, to live this in-between month when the secular calendar is winding down toward the end of the year while the church calendar has already begun its new year with the first Sunday of Advent. Are we at the end of the story or at the beginning in this season in which we remember the coming of Jesus as a baby, welcome his coming into our lives now, and ponder and prepare for his future coming in glory?

It seems fitting that the end and beginning be intertwined as we prepare to welcome the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One in whom past is gathered up and healed and future embraced and secured and both are brought together in the always present love of the One who holds us together.

There is, of course, a very important middle to this story, and we’ll relive that middle in a few months. But in this Advent season we’re invited to see the full scope: to step back and re-live the beginning and begin again to celebrate the approaching ending.

It’s not only time that’s gathered up into an eternal present in Advent. We ourselves are gathered up, held up, offered—the beginning and the culmination of the gift of ourselves from the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father and of us to ourselves as Christ enters our flesh.

Advent, in other words, shows us both who we’ve been and who we will be, and invites us to live a little further along the journey between the two. 

On the one hand, I read the news headlines—and my own journal—alongside the story of the first Advent and I feel so deeply our world’s need—my need—for a Saviour. I’m aware of my inadequacy and sin and smallness. How is it that the holy God who made us, whose heart broke as we turned away, would want to be close enough to us to enter our flesh?

Then I turn the page and in the second Advent I see you and me reflected in a completely different way. This time we are in possession of the kingdom (Dan 7:18, 22, 27). We are princes. we are the Bride, the King’s queen, co-ruling alongside the One who has made us his own. In another image, we replace the temple’s most holy place becoming the most holy place ourselves, our flesh made holy by the presence of the holy God who comes to make his home not just among us but within us. 

Advent season, then, not only reminds us how far we’ve fallen but how far we’ve been raised. We are paupers, and royalty. Sinners, and God’s holy bride. Desperately in need of a Saviour, and grateful recipients of all the life and joy and wholeness that the Saviour came to bring. Grateful recipients of the Saviour himself, the One who comes to us in our low condition, in our sin and need and cowering, not to condemn and shame but to love and save and elevate (John 3:17). The One who will come again, revealing himself as King and us as his bride, his queen. 

Could it be that all the ways God comes to us in the present, in this stretch in between his first coming in a manger and his second coming in the clouds, are to help us trust his goodness and love, moving us gradually from thinking and acting like the paupers we’ve been to thinking and acting like the royalty we’re becoming?

The central gift of Advent is, of course, God. Light curling small in the dark, placing himself not in a box under the tree but breaking open our boxes and placing himself in a womb and then a manger in preparation to hang on the tree, lighting the whole world. Without this central gift, there are no other gifts. But with it come dozens of other gifts.

Perhaps the most precious of those other gifts of Advent is ourselves.

This week, these lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Advent Sunday,” and Malcolm Guite’s reflection on her poem in Waiting on the Word have wakened me again to one way in which Christ, in his first and final advents and all the ways he comes to us in between, offers us this gift of ourselves. At Christ’s return his kingship will be reflected in us:

“. . . For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:

His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,

Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,

She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;

He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,

And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out

With lamps ablaze and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.”

As Guite says about the image of Esther triumphing in the presence of her king, 

“Here Rossetti seems to be suggesting that acknowledging the kingship of Christ, far from being a demeaning, belittling or infantilizing act on behalf of the submissive Church, is in fact a radiant affirmation of her own royalty.”

(Waiting on the Word, p.3, bold mine)

In Advent, we remember both. Our need and the gift. Our sin and Christ’s righteousness which now clothes us. Ourselves as beggars and ourselves as Christ’s bride, serving alongside the God who first came to serve us.

May we kneel—at the manger, the cross and the throne—and give thanks.

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 Emile 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