For the ordinary moments

The Saint John’s Wort is blooming again, a feast for bees and for the eyes of passersby. In living its ordinary life, faithfully being itself, it becomes a gift to many.

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We need each other. Often enough, the way someone else says or writes something awakens me to a new understanding of something going on in me that I wasn’t aware of or couldn’t articulate until they said it. This week was someone’s simple statement of a misbelief in their earlier life—“Ordinary: BAD!”

I get it. Maybe that’s part of why I became a doctor and worked in Afghanistan until I couldn’t anymore. I thought I had to be extraordinary to be acceptable. 

Ordinary can feel to me like failure.

Let me pause here to say this: For the most part, I like doing things well. I want to be the best me I can be, empowered by Christ, for him and for others. I want to follow the command in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. . .” I think that’s healthy.

In my better moments, I also recognize that trying to be extraordinary can actually keep me from working “with all my heart, as working for the Lord”—because I’m pretty sure that “with all my heart” means fully present, engaged, loving, which I’m not when I’m striving to be extraordinary. (In the original Greek, the phrase translated “with all your heart” is “from the soul.”)  

“Ordinary: BAD!” As I read that simple misbelief that has been unknowingly twined through my understanding of life and work and also faith, I see a baby in a manger. 

Could God have chosen a more ordinary way to come among us, stepping right into our ordinary flesh, our ordinary time, our ordinary cycles of reproduction and growth, limits and dependency and relationships?

In doing so, did he not make the ordinary holy, declaring it a place where God shows up?

“Ordinary: BAD”? 

No. 

“Ordinary: GOOD!” Very good, even.

“Ordinary: BEAUTIFUL.”

“Ordinary: HOLY.”

Since God entered the ordinary, is anything ordinary anymore?

I need this reminder. 

I need it in the moments when I’m cleaning the bathroom and buying groceries.

And in the moments I’m sad or lonely or disappointed, or slowing to savour the taste of an orange.

I need it when I’m editing a paragraph and I need it as we begin summer and I want to sit outside and relax with a novel.

God is with us—in us!—right in the middle of the not-so-ordinary ordinary.

“It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.”

(2 Cor 4:6-7 The Message)

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” 

(Rom 12:1 The Message)

When God walks the paths of your life

A couple of my friends are walking the Camino de Santiago, setting aside these weeks to step away from life’s noise and busyness and seek God in a more intentional way.

Though I can’t walk with them, in a small way I’m making my own pilgrimage as I follow in photos. 

There are days of rain and days when the sky is still. . .

days when the invitation is to keep putting one foot in front of the other . . .

and moments of surprise when the light shimmers through stained glass in the tiniest of churches. 

There are castles and huts and chapels perched in the most unlikely places.

And even, sometimes, an invitation to take off your shoes and rest.

At the moment, my pilgrimage is simpler, more familiar. I walk the same routes again and again, lay my head in the same bed each night. But still there are moments of encounter. 

The poppies that have been bringing joy along my bike route for weeks have been joined by a mist of tiny yellow and white blossoms that makes my heart ache with the beauty. 

A fellow traveller carrying his bed in bags asks if I know an appropriate place he can pee and I see again that we’re all human, all equal, all fearfully and wonderfully made with the same basic needs and desires and beauty. 

Instead of stained glass, the light shines, multicolored, through a glimpse of grace in the life of one with whom I sit and listen.

And as I make my own pilgrimage, seeing my own moments here in parallel with her photos, I notice this:

A pilgrimage is less about where we walk than Who we walk with and what we pay attention to.

And this: It all belongs. The rain keeps the grass green. The days of faithfully putting one foot in front of the other lead to the moments of stained-glass splendor, which shine more brightly for having walked the plainer section.

And it is beautiful.

Because no matter where we are, no matter what our path is like, we do not walk it alone.

As we make a pilgrimage of this life, seeking God in our days, we soon discover that God is right there beside us, walking with us through the rainy stretches and the calm and sunny ones—and that our lives have become roads He travels.

“And how blessed all those in whom you [,God,] live,

                  whose lives become roads you travel;

       They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,

                  discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!       

God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and  

                at the last turn—Zion!” 

(Psalm 84:5-7 The Message)

“I look behind me and you’re there,

then up ahead and you’re there, too—

your reassuring presence, coming and going.”

(Psalm 139:5 The Message)

“Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God.”

(1 Peter 1:17b The Message)

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Want more? Here’s a free course with practices to help anxiety shift from a barrier to one of the paths on which God walks into our lives. And here’s one offering space to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s gracious invitation to rest.

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Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission. (Thanks, Karen!)

Why time can never be ordinary again

How do we live the routines and rhythms of our lives as though each moment is tinged with glory? How do we see through the unwanted surprises to the reality that sustains us through them?

Often, for me, needed reminders come through the liturgical calendar as I see all over again how Jesus’ story and mine are woven together. Take, for example, the day one year ago, as we stood at the turn (as we do again today) from Pentecost Sunday into the long season of Ordinary Time that stretches all the way until the start of Advent.

As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.

Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.

They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.

It’s as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.

We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.

A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.

The streamers are shimmering in the light.

It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God’s Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?

How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?

As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.

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

How to live a healthy rhythm of labor

I woke on Saturday with a sense of dread hanging over me. I was tired, my website was still a mess, the deadline for a writing contest was two days away, and I didn’t yet have an idea for a blog post. The kitchen and bathroom floors have needed washing for weeks. The washing basket was full, and I’d had to eat crackers and peanut-butter for my pre-run snack because the bananas were too green and I hadn’t made it to the store to buy bread.

I didn’t list all those things as I woke. They were just there, a dark cloud of weariness and dread as I entered the day. It was early and I lay there for a bit, telling God how much I hated started a day dreading it. Beyond that I don’t remember how the gift came. It wasn’t something I figured out. It was just there, an understanding and an invitation and another piece of the puzzle being put into place so that the whole image was all of a sudden clearer. 

The understanding: I have choice here. No one is dying. 

The invitation: Live a healthy rhythm of labor. 

I’ve seen women who were for the first time experiencing the burning pressure between their legs push not only with contractions but try to keep pushing in between. In only a few minutes they were exhausted. If, on the other hand, they pushed with contractions, when the uterus was doing a huge part of the work to push the baby down, and rested and breathed when the contraction waned, they could keep up the rhythm of push and rest for much longer, and made much quicker progress in delivering the baby than if they tried to push constantly. Rest and breathing was also important for both mom and baby to get the oxygen that they needed. 

In the hard work of intense labor, the rests are as important as the pushing.

So on Saturday morning, I sensed the invitation to stop and breathe between contractions. More concretely for this introvert who’d been engaging with people all week, the invitation was to keep all social media turned off and not even do my usual quick email check while I ate my snack before I ran. For this self who comes alive with writing and slowly shrivels with trying to figure out too many new technological issues at once, the invitation was also not to look at the website. It was to set all that aside and just be my small self, alone with God, without any of the roles or trappings or obligations. There in his presence, I could finally see things more clearly: nothing on my do-list was truly urgent. It would all still be there in a few hours and no-one would have died for it not having been done sooner. The only thing that hurt a bit was my pride. Who wants the mess of their website or their floors visible to visitors? But God has been doing his slow, patient work in me, and, for that morning at least, the inner freedom to shut out the world and be quiet with God was worth far more than the sting of possibly being misperceived and judged (or correctly perceived in areas I’d rather keep hidden!).

As I saw the invitation to step back into a healthy rhythm of labor, I also saw once more where God was in it all: The Divine Midwife was midwifing me.God had just put a hand on me, helping me sense whether there was a contraction or not, whether his power was in that moment at work in me, encouraging me to add my effort to his, or whether this was a moment to rest and breathe and prepare to work together again shortly.

For me, facing the day with dread is often a sign that I’m trying to keep pushing, relying on my own effort, when I’m being invited first to rest and breathe. 

The exact signs will be different for everyone, but each of us can, over time, learn to recognize when we’re pushing solely in our own effort, and when we’re adding our strength to cooperate with something that God is already doing in us.

I’ve mentioned the understanding and the invitation, but not yet the puzzle piece being put into place so that the whole image became clearer. 

The puzzle piece: I’ve long wondered how all this fits into the time I lived in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, sometimes as the only doctor for 150,000 people. Was that an exception, an impossible situation that couldn’t have been lived in a healthy rhythm? What about my obstetrical training when I had to work 24, 28, and sometimes even 36 hour shifts? Does this invitation to live a healthy rhythm apply only to those who don’t have a busy job or small children or another circumstance that may keep them running for years? 

Certainly there are stretches of our lives when we seem to have little control over our own time. But even then, as I look back once again at my own situation, I see places I could have chosen differently and didn’t, usually because I was afraid of disappointing someone. Yes, there were huge, real constraints on my time and energy. But at least as big a part in my failure to live a healthier rhythm of labor was my over-active sense of responsibility to please everyone.

It takes time to learn to recognize when we’re pushing in our own effort and when we’re cooperating with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul said, “struggling with all [God’s] energy which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), but there are hints and promises to help us in the process. I can

  • Begin to notice signs that indicate I’m trying to push when I’m being invited to rest. What happens in my body, my thoughts and emotions, my relationship with God and others when I’m pushing in my own strength vs. when I’m cooperating with God and living a healthier rhythm of pushing along with Him and then resting and then pushing again?
  • Pay attention to the clues we’re given. I’ve found love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 a good starting list for noticing what’s going on in me and what it might mean. I can work hard but with a sense of joy and gentleness, or I can drive myself anxiously and aggressively. In the first case, I’m pushing along with something the Holy Spirit is already doing. In the second, I’m likely trying to bring something to birth in my own effort.
  • Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in noticing well, in following the nudges to rest, and in letting Jesus heal me in the places I need to be healed so I’m not being driven by fear of what others might think but am responding to God’s nudges.

The wonderfully encouraging news in this process?

The promise: We’re not on our own in this process of learning to listen and live a healthy rhythm of labor. We have an ever-present Midwife who knows us and is always with us and in us, midwifing the birth of our lives more deeply into God’s, and of God’s life in and through us into the world.

“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Rom 8:22-28, The Message)

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Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash