The One who leads us into the new year

As we climb into the car I’m awed by the delicate ferns hand-drawn on the windshield. New every morning. God strews new beauty across the world each night. Does he do it for the sheer joy of creating? Or for the joy of surprising his beloved with never-fading, never-stale love? Does he smile when I sit in awe, letting the marvel of his unfailing kindness sink deep?
We run at the park and as the sun finally peeps her face above the horizon I pause. I have to. The tiniest lights are sprinkled across the grassy field, strung up and down each blackberry vine, draped on each twig of each bush. Winter’s barrenness has been transformed into a delicate, magical fairyland, only better because it’s real. It’s as though God’s joy could no longer be contained and he poured it all out like a child with a bottle of silver sparkles, making everything shimmer with glory. It’s as though his love could no longer be contained and he sprinkled it all over everything, willing me to notice and enter into his delight.

Above photo by Dapo Oni on Unsplash. Used with permission.



Today a new year begins. At the start of a year I often sense myself drawn to a word to focus on during the year. Until now, that word has been some way I wanted to grow: courage, for example, or faithfulnessLast year, my word was trust. I’m not ready to leave that word behind. I need another year with it, or, more probably, the rest of my lifetime.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve sensed myself invited to carry a different sort of phrase with me into the new year. This phrase is not about who I am or what I need to do. It’s about who God is and what He does. Isn’t that how trust develops, after all, not by looking at myself, but by looking at God? Not by trying to create trust, but by letting it grow naturally as I keep paying attention to His actions and discover that He is trustworthy?
The phrase comes in a psalm I’ve lived in and mostly memorized, but somehow these couple of words have never caught my attention before like they have now. They come in the last verse, a sort of summary of God’s character that has been lived and noticed throughout the psalm.

“He shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Psalm 18: 50 NIV 1989)

This unfailing kindness is not just for David, nor even just for David’s biological descendants. We who are in Christ are all now David’s descendants, grafted into David’s line as we’re grafted into Christ. And the unfailing love is not a matter of who we are anyway, but of who God is. At the heart of God’s character is hesed, that wonderful Hebrew word that is sometimes translated love, and sometimes lovingkindness, and here in Psalm 18 is translated with that phrase that has caught my attention: unfailing kindness.
Kindness: God’s love is a practical love, at work on my behalf in ways that extend beyond the essentials, overflowing into extras that will make my moments a little more special.
Unfailing kindness: I don’t need to fear that this is a honeymoon, that God’s kindness will disappear once he has me hooked. His kindness will not fail. It’s a kindness that paints even ordinary moments (if there are such things) with extraordinary glimpses of beauty, wakening me to newly painted ferns frosted on the windows and sparkles strewn across the grass. It’s mercy new every morning, touching even the coldest and most barren of places with the tender truth of his love.
It’s a kindness that arranged (even in this busy travel season with mostly full flights) for two empty seats beside mine on the five-hour Toronto-Vancouver segment of my return flight, offering space for me to stretch out and nap between a lovely but busy time with family and a return to house-hunting and packing. It’s a kindness that is going before me into the future, an unfailing kindness that I can trust even when I don’t yet see exactly how that unfailing kindness is shaping the future.
The certainty of that unfailing kindness  is freeing me to enter this new year with deep joy, trusting the truth of the words written on the front of the journal my sister gave me for Christmas, words that showed up again in a hand-written card from a friend: The best is yet to come. That statement doesn’t imply the absence of challenge or suffering. It does declare that no matter what this year holds, there is someone stronger entering it with me, inviting me deeper into his heart that beats with unfailing kindness, bringing beauty wherever he goes.

When God tells you to party

An ice cream sundae? Dancing in your living room? How do you celebrate? And why?

And when was the last time you did?

Recently He smiled the question, “What shall we do to celebrate?” It wasn’t because of a big external accomplishment. No “A” in a course. No new job or promotion. We were celebrating a breakthrough in my understanding.  A receiving of love. And really, isn’t that always the best reason to celebrate?

God parties

God sets the precedent. He celebrates. Sometimes with quiet enjoyment and rest (Gen 2:2-3). Sometimes with vigorous, enthusiastic dancing and singing (Zeph 3:17). Once by replenishing the wine supply when the wedding guests had already had too much to drink (John 2:1-11). But when the reason for celebration is your return home, your creeping a little deeper into his love  (for the first time or the hundredth), then he throws an all out party (Luke 15). And he invites all his friends to celebrate with him. “Rejoice with me! Rejoice with me!” It’s a strong note in this Heartbeat of love.

God made us to party

God created the world overflowing with the most extravagant of decorations: many colored streamers strung across the sky morning and evening, whole hedges of wild roses, buttercups scattered like confetti in the grass. Cherry blossoms hung loosely to fall with the slightest breeze, crowning our hair and making a carpet beneath our feet like the petals scattered before the bride at her wedding. Creation is an extravagant display of a glorious love.

And He made us to enjoy it. We see not only light and darkness but violet and fuscia and periwinkle. We savor the scent of damp earth and lilacs and a pine forest on a summer evening. Touch, taste, hearing, each opens us further to the rich love poured out. (And while we’re on that track, don’t you think the design of our bodies so that laughter decreases stress hormones, strengthens our immune system, and makes us live longer was intentional?) We were made to join in his celebration.

God commands parties

Every time I read it again, this command surprises me. I get so used to thinking of the tithe as something we give away. To God. For His use. And that’s part of it. But in Deuteronomy 12 and 14 the command is different. Summarized, it’s, “Set aside a tenth of your income each year, and use it to party in my presence” (Deut. 14:22-27, cf. 12:6-7).

And in the midst of that command is this one: “See to it that you do all I command you. Do not add to it or take away from it” (Deut 12:32). Don’t omit the gifts for those serving in the temple. Don’t forget about the part that’s to be offered to Me, the blood poured out on the ground and the fatty pieces burned up. And don’t forget to party in my presence. Why? Because God has blessed us (12:7). And so we will learn to revere God (14:23). Celebrating in his presence is one of the best ways to remember who He is: an extravagant, gracious God. And who we are: loved beyond belief. Joining in the party is one of the best ways to receive that love and love him back. (I picture myself in an extravagant party hall and wonder: how often do I show up to this lavish party at which I am one of the honored guests and sit in a corner with my laptop, head down, shushing the other guests, turning away from the host who is leaning in, asking for a dance, and mumbling, “I just have to finish this?”)

Ann Voskamp’s words hit home: “Calendars can con: there are really only as many days left as you actually live. In the end, everyone ends up at the length of their lives – but only a few live the whole width of a life.”

There’s a surprising amount of choice in how we live this celebration, this width of a life (Deut 14:26). The key thing is to celebrate with God, in His presence. And to recognize why.  Sandwiched between the Deuteronomy commands to party is the reminder, “You are a people holy to the LORD your God. . . . The LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession.” (Deut 14:2) It guides how we party. It also gives us reason to party. We are – YOU are – His treasured possession!

So how will you answer His question, “What shall we do to celebrate today?” His love is reason enough to celebrate all day every day for the rest of our lives!

Click here to download and print or use as your desktop image.

P.S. Want to share how you’ll celebrate today in the comments?

Where to find God

Photo by Glen Robinson

He entered the world yesterday morning, five weeks early.

I got to be there.

It set me thinking about the preciousness of small things. The tiny toes and the little lips that kept puckering into the cutest kiss that dissolved so quickly I could never quite catch it with the camera. The fine fuzz crowning his head and the eyes still too shy to open.

He’s a tiny bundle with a name that gives him plenty of room to grow. His third name reflects my grandpa’s cousin who gave his life loving God. His first means “son of the right hand.” I pray he will always remember it.

The surgeon who stood at the table reminded me of a moment long forgotten by me. She had been a medical student, I a resident. It was a small thing, something quite ordinary. But ten years later she remembers it vividly.

Maybe it’s because God is in the moments, not just the days, the details of the ordinary as much as the great interventions. It’s here – in the small things – that grace is given and faithfulness lived.

Benjamin, Ben-yamin, in the details of your days, may you learn that you are a son of God’s right hand. Through the moments of your life-long growing, may your stretching soul cling to Him, and so learn to love the hand that holds you.1 As the fragments and fractures of life in this world open up glimpses of glory, may you turn toward the strong right hand that will always be present to help you, and so discover how he delights in you.2 And in these ordinary moments (if any moments can be so named when all are filled with God’s presence), you will discover the path of life and the fullness of joy, for it is this right hand that holds eternal pleasures.3 Be blessed, son of the right hand.

You show me the path of life.

In your presence there is fullness of joy;

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps 16:11)

(I will be away this week, taking photos with the first, searching for blue beach glass with the second, playing phase ten with the third, while my sister and her husband focus on their fourth. We will be watching for God’s presence in the moments of each day, each noting favorite glimpses of grace. Care to join us? I’ll be back next Monday (July 16th) with a post that my eldest nephew is already eagerly helping me prepare. Stay tuned.

And may you know yourself securely held by the right hand of the One who loves you and created you to be His own.)

1Psalm 63:8; 2Isaiah 41:10; 3Psalm 44:3; 4Psalm 16:11

The joy that hides in my pocket

The sun sifts a golden path across the satiny surface of the clouds beneath us. A small ribbon of rainbow curves itself around its luminous source. Through gaps in the clouds I see, far below, lakes transformed into mirrors, reflecting back the silver brilliance from above.

It’s easy to remember up here. He made it. He loves it. He looks after it. It’s all painted with his glory. We fly, suspended 36,000 feet above the earth. Held, yes, by the forces of lift beneath the craft. Held more truly by the One in whom it all holds together.

Ears pop and water bottles crackle and suck in their emptiness as we descend. We fall through the layers where misty clouds wisp past, wrapping us in fog. For moments, we see nothing. Then down into the darker world below where we think we can see again. Clay colored roofs of long boxy warehouses. Train cars in long lonely lines, silent and discarded. Brown earth fringed with white frost. And the maze of white and yellow-lined runways with their numbered red and white, yellow and black signs directing traffic.

It’s harder to remember down here. That’s why I carry treasure in my pocket, a tiny nugget of potential life. Each time I slip on my coat, slide my hand into my pocket, my hand curls around it and I remember the larger hand curled around me, protecting, loving, holding.

“He made me. He loves me. He looks after me.” The words echo, reminding me of truth.

It’s just a tiny hazelnut, but it’s one of the best gifts I’ve been given. Maybe because it’s always there in my pocket, reminding me again and again. Maybe because it echoes the forever gift of love that is always reaching toward us.

The nut was given with words from Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century woman who lived close to the heart of God.

 “And then he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand – and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought: ‘What can this be?’ And answer came: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind: ‘It lasts, and ever shall, because God loves it.’ And so all things have being through the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. And the third is that God looks after it.

We need to know how small creation is, and to count all things that are made as nothing, if we are to love and have God who is not created. For this is the reason we are not at rest in heart and soul – that here we seek rest in things that are so little there is no rest in them – and we do not know our God who is all-mighty, all-wise, and all-good. For he is true rest.

God’s will is that we know him, and it rejoices him when we rest in him. For all that is less than him cannot satisfy us.

‘God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me. There is nothing less I can ask that is worthy of you, and if I ask for anything less I shall be always lacking, for only in you I have all.’

For his goodness encompasses all his creatures, and all his blessed works. He has made us for himself alone, and has restored us by his blessed passion, and keeps us in his blessed love. And he does all this through his goodness.” (Julian of Norwich in “All Shall be Well” abridged and arranged by Sheila Upjohn)

(Shhh. . . can you keep a secret? Come Christmas morning, I’m going to share the joy that I rediscover every time I put my hand in my pocket. Each person in the family from the Grandpa right down to his four year old grandson (not the eighteen month old, not yet) will find a little reminder in the toe of their stocking, a hazelnut to help them remember that they’re made and loved and looked after.  The adults will get a copy of Julian’s words above, and the children, the following paraphrased version. Both are available as printable pdfs below in case you’d like to share hazelnut reminders in stockings or on nightstands as well.)

The children’ version:

Once upon a time, about 600 years ago, there was a woman named Julian who asked God to help her understand how much He loved her, and to help her love Him back with all her heart. God answered her prayer and gave her some special pictures to help her understand how much He loved her.

In one of the pictures, God showed her something small and round, the size of a hazelnut or an acorn, in the palm of her hand. She looked at it and wondered, “What is it?” And God told her, “It is the whole universe – the world and the stars and everything.” She was surprised that it could last, because it was so small that it looked like it might just break or roll away. God told her, “It lasts, and always will, because God loves it.”

God gave Julian this picture to help her understand three very important things. The first is that God made the world (and you!) The second is that God loves the world (and you!) And the third is that God looks after the world (and you!)

God helped Julian understand that we need to know how small everything is, and that it exists because God loves it. When we think that toys and friends and other things in the world makes us happy and safe, we get scared because somewhere deep down we know that all those things can change. Toys break and friends move away and none of them really make us happy for very long, even though they’re lots of fun for a while. But when we remember that God made us and God loves us and God looks after us, it helps us not be scared. We – and everything in the world – are teeny tiny compared to God, just like the hazelnut in your hand is teeny tiny compared to you. But God never lets go of you. He made you and He loves you and He will look after you forever. So, if you like, you can keep this hazelnut in your coat pocket and every time you put your hand in your pocket, you can remember that God made you, God loves you, and God looks after you and the whole world.

 

Julian of Norwich hazelnut vision – printable adult and child versions

Julian_adult version

Julian_child version

Why God always has the last word

The evening was special, but not in the way I expected. We dressed up all fancy for the $100/plate banquet to which we had complimentary tickets (I taking a slightly rebellious pleasure in wearing a beautiful $5 Salvation Army find.)

 

I feared this banquet. It has been years since I’ve been part of Canadian professional circles. I don’t like small talk and prefer to be in the background than on center stage. I feared being back in a room of successful, powerful people. Would they wonder why I had been chosen for the award, I who have failed by the standards of the world, losing my medical career after only five years of professional practice? I who continue on disability, slowly improving then being set back, writing slowly and still unable to manage more than one course at a time? I, who have now chosen to go against the grain of the world which prizes power, letting my weakness be seen because it’s there that Jesus comes closest?

 

I feared too, that if I wasn’t intimidated by all the  “successful” people, me sinking down into inadequacy and shame, I’d be drawn into pride by the accolades. Drawn away from the One whom I love.

 

A couple of days before the banquet, He whispered again the wonderful news: He’s the physician, not me. I’m daren’t try to doctor myself.

 

In the course of an illness, or a lifetime, there are periods of higher risk. The patient may anxiously sense that she’s not doing well, or she may be comfortable and drowsy, oblivious to the risk. But the wise physician, knowing the risky stretches well, watches closely, plans the best care for each phase. This physician can be trusted.

 

Hear the good news again: It’s not up to me to fix myself (. . . or others. . .). I don’t have to be well before I come. I don’t have to root out the pride, fix the insecurities. Again and again and again, to those already given to Him and to those not yet His, he calls. Come broken, lay the heart open before Him, and let Him be the one to diagnose and treat.

 

And He knows how. There were gifts of His presence throughout the week, all adding up to living the evening in the joy of His whispered love, “You are Mine.” He led me back to words that expressed the longing of my heart, giving me the prayer to sing all day:  “. . . I want to sign Your name to the end of this day, knowing that my heart was true. Let my lifesong sing to You. . .” And then He answered it with His tangible love, leaving me knowing it was all His doing.

 

The award itself was empty: why celebrate what I’ve done when all that really matters is what He does? But the joy was full: being His was enough. And though I felt a little awkward and not particularly articulate (I’ll probably never be good at small talk), it didn’t matter. All that “success”? It’s all an empty mask behind which hide people who desperately need to know they’re loved.

 

God graciously strips off the masks, shows us our smallness so He can give us His love.

 

I’m still not sure how it happened. The awards were in the program. Someone announced that they would be presented next. The designated person got up and spoke about something completely different, sat back down and the next person went on, seemingly oblivious. It meant that the awards with the videotaped interviews ended the evening, leaving the challenge ringing in our ears: “Don’t get so caught up in the busyness that you forget to ask what really matters. What are we here for? Keep asking until you find an answer that really satisfies.” It was a gracious invasion into an evening of us puffing ourselves up like peacocks and patting each other on the back for our achievements. God always, in love, has the last word: it’s what He does that matters.