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) 

"You've got a problem, God."

“You’ve got a problem, God. What are you going to do about it? I’m available to help if you want my help.” Several years ago, a friend told me of hearing the leader of a large and flourishing ministry in India say that when a problem arose, this was how he responded. I haven’t forgotten it. In a way that I’ve seldom seen, he modeled boundaries even in his relationship with God. He didn’t forget that the ministry was God’s work, not his. He was available to do whatever part God gave him to do, and he worked hard and with great love, but he refused to carry weight that was not his to carry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of fearless directness with God as I’ve been reading Ruth Haley Barton’s wonderful book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. In it, she weaves profound insights from the life of Moses with modern day stories and prayer practices, helping us learn to live the truth that genuine Christian leadership can only be sustained by a life deeply rooted in God.
As I’ve read her book, I’ve been struck by the many remarkably honest conversations between Moses and God. One of those conversations was in Numbers 11 when the people of Israel whom Moses had been leading for so long were yet again complaining.

“The burden of leadership had become too much, and Moses did what he always did: he went marching into God’s presence to tell him that he just could not go on this way.
At first he blustered, accusing God of giving him more than he could bear. He even resorted to throwing out cynical rhetorical questions. ‘Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child?’” (v. 12). But cynicism and anger were just a cover for the more tender emotions of sadness, despair and loneliness. Eventually Moses got to the heart of his frustration and despair and said, I give up. ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once’ (vv. 14-15).
This was an extreme statement, to be sure, but it brims with such unedited honesty and truth that one has to at least admire Moses for saying it. And it definitely took the conversation where it needed to go. Moses’ ability to be honest about his desolation brought him to the end of his self-reliance, which in turn opened up space for God to be at work.” (Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening. . ., 169-170)

At first this kind of “talking back” to God, in addition to feeling somehow freeing, felt jarring, almost rude. (Okay, more than almost.) How, I wondered, does arguing with God fit with abiding in the vine, or with submission and obedience and taking up your cross? How do we live the truth of our oneness with God through Jesus while wrestling openly with God?
Well, there’s this:
Deepening intimacy invites deepening honesty, and the deepest of honesty doesn’t stop to ponder how to word things politely. It trusts enough to pour out the pain.
And maybe the truth of our oneness with him is part of what holds open space for this kind of honesty. If we already know we are safely and eternally welcomed and held, maybe we can stop fearing the aloneness that for many of us is a reason we avoid conflict, and dare to be honest with God. (Or, to say it another way, surrendering to God is first of all about surrendering to love, stepping deeper and deeper into relationship and the honesty that entails, and accepting a call to a particular task flows out of that.)
And maybe, in Jacob and Job, the Psalmists and Jesus, we’ve been given plenty of examples of wrestling with God because God knew it would be hard for some of us to go there, and wanted us to know it is not only safe, but a (perhaps essential?) part of the journey into deeper trust and the freedom to get on with living our calling at each stage of life.

“Jesus himself used his solitude in the Garden of Gethsemane to wrestle with God about whether there was another way for him to fulfill his calling than the hard road of the cross. All of his life he had known what he was on earth to do, but when it was time to walk all the way into it, he had a few things he needed to say to God about it. He stayed in that garden until he knew for sure that this was God’s way for him—until he had really come to terms with it—and then he emerged to walk the path that was laid out for him. Perhaps this kind of passage is characteristic of all true calls. There is a difference between knowing your path and walking your path.” (Ibid, 82)

 

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Finding our place in his story

When we entered the sanctuary yesterday, we saw them: hundreds of little paper crosses strung between the balcony and the large wooden cross raised at the front of our place of worship. Our lives, our worship, our suffering, all connected to each other’s and to His.
It reminds me of how  a magnet held under a sheet of paper covered with scatted iron filings shapes lines of intricate order out of the chaos. Here, joined to his cross, our stories settle into place and begin to make sense.
It seems so right as we begin this Holy Week to find once again our small place in his big story. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. It was also Annunciation Day, and in the juxtaposition of the two, Mary’s yes to God’s invitation merged with Jesus’ yes, the human story intertwined with God’s story at yet another node. To Mary the invitation to bear God’s Son into the world. To Jesus the invitation to bear fallen humanity back into into intimate friendship with God. Both said yes. Both knew the deep joy and the deep suffering of their calling.
And now we too are invited to take up our crosses and follow, to enter more deeply the privilege of sharing both in Christ’s resurrection and in his sufferings.
We’ve been coloring the crosses for weeks, each Sunday School class, connection group, seniors’ gathering setting aside time for each person to color a cross in a way that expressed their gratitude for grace or shared what they wanted to bring to the cross. Each cross was a little bit of someone’s love, their surrender, their yes. And now the crosses hang as we enter Holy Week, our lives all linked to his: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Our lives all linked to his, and to each other’s. I can’t find my own cross. It doesn’t matter. I know that it’s here somewhere, here in the stringing of connected lives, the singing of worship linked to the cross and, through the cross, to the multitudes around his throne who continue to sing to the One in whom all of history finds its proper place, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

What to do in the tough times


One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.
These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.
There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.

Child of My love, lean hard
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;
I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;
Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion
In its weight to thine unaided strength;
For even as I laid it on, I said,
I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,
This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];
So shall I keep My child within the circling arms
Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear
To impose it on a shoulder which upholds
The government of worlds. Yet closer come;
Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care
So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.
Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;
But, loving Me, lean hard.
(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)
 

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Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash

When you can't see the way ahead

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Last Monday was a disappointing day. Within a few hours, a knee which had been bothering me got suddenly worse, I received a “not a good fit so have to pass” email from a potential publisher, and I ran into major complications with the new website I’m trying to set up. It seemed like in every area, the path on which I’d been running was blocked, and I couldn’t see the way ahead. Clear skies had changed to fog.
But in the fog, a picture came. A little girl faced her father, her hands in his, each of her feet on one of his. Each time he lifted his foot and took another step, she bent her knee and allowed her leg to move along with his. She was not walking on her own, yet she was still moving forward. And she didn’t have to know the way to keep moving in the right direction. She only had to keep her feet on her father’s, her hands in the hands of the one who knew the way.
That picture reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful chapter, “Is Growth a Decision?” in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In it he wrestles in wonderfully helpful ways with the question of how our wills and God’s will fit together. One of several tools he offers to our imagination and understanding is the grammatical middle voice, which we have almost completely lost in English. He writes,

“Active and passive voices I understood, but middle was a new kid on the block. When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counseled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: ‘I take counsel.’” (p. 103, underscore mine)

He goes on to say,

“Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (p. 104)

How that looks will vary from day to day. But in this foggy week when the path ahead is not clear, living in the middle voice looks to me like choosing to keep my eyes on my Father rather than straining to find the path, putting my hands in his and my feet on his, enjoying him while I wait to see what the next right step is, and then willingly bending my knee when he bends his.
It’s not easy, I’m finding. I keep trying to turn around to see the path. But fear is my best clue that I’ve stepped off my Father’s feet and am running around frantically trying to find the right path myself. And when the weight of anxiety reminds me to turn back to him and I admit to him that I don’t have a clue and see him smiling down at me, reminding me that he knows the way, that he is the way, I feel like I can breathe again. I even find myself smiling back at him.
Walking on the feet of my Father doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly or that I don’t have to do the hard work. Together we have walked into physiotherapy, researched website hosts (again!), and made numerous calls to gain technical assistance. It does mean that instead of feeling alone in the fog, I remember that I am accompanied. Instead of panicking because I can’t see where the path leads, I am able to relax (at least a little!), knowing that I am small and loved, and that Someone bigger than me is with me and is faithfully leading the way to the best and truest destination.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash. Used with permission.