Flying lessons: Why we can dare to live fully

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I receive an invitation to participate in the final week of a group that has been working through Rational Worship, the Bible study that I started writing almost ten years ago when I was back at my parents’ home, too sick to be out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day. I wrote it because I needed to be reminded why it made sense to give myself to God again when I’d already done that and everything—health, career, ministry, life as I knew it—seemed to have fallen apart.
I’m excited that the group is using it. I will delight to be present during their final session, to witness their engagement, their joys and struggles, discoveries and hopes. But on my way to the excitement, I encountered another, more timid part of me, first. The little voice that can be so loud in my head started telling me I’ll disappoint the group. That I should stay safely hidden on the other side of written words rather than step out into the open. That I’m really not good enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, prepared enough to engage.
That’s when I realized it was time for me to turn back to the truths in Rational Worship again myself, to be reminded once more that my offering myself to God only ever makes sense not because of who I am, but because of who God is.
I recalled the heron I watched as I prepared to share the Rational Worship study.

He sits long, watching amidst the grid of stone and steel.
He doesn’t dip for food and I wonder what he’s waiting for. Does he even know?
I wait with him, glad for the quiet moments.
In the stillness a longing rises in me. I have begun to take wings, to fly beyond the steel grid of fear that pins me to earth. But I long to fly higher still, farther and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love.
The bird has wings, made for the air. I have feet and a soul and I’m made to be filled with God Himself. My choice not to step into this is as irrational as a bird who refuses to fly.
This alone is true living, this alone is true worship, this offering of my body each moment to be filled with God.

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It has been five and a half years since I shared the study here, and that longing to fly higher and deeper into the wide spaces of God’s love is with me still, though sometimes I need to dig through layers of fear to find it.
As I turned back to the beginning of the study, my soul began to breathe like I’d been swimming underwater and had finally surfaced to gasp in once more the same life-sustaining truth: I don’t have to be strong, or “enough” in any other way, to offer myself to God. He is enough, and when I offer myself to God, I gain Him and all of His enoughness. That’s why the invitation to offer myself as a living sacrifice to God is placed where it is—at the end of eleven chapters celebrating God’s wisdom and grace, sovereignty and love, and immediately following four verses of overflowing praise for God’s more-than-enoughness:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy,
to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –
this is your spiritual act of worship. . .” (Romans 11:33-12:1)

Therefore. Could there be a more comforting way to begin this verse than with the reminder that my ability to be an acceptable sacrifice is far less about my own ability than about God’s incomprehensible wisdom, his holy “otherness,” his lavish generosity, and his centrality in the universe, all of which, in his unfathomable mercy, he offers to us? His job is to be God in all his sufficiency. Mine is to show up, bringing myself as I am—fear and all—to this One who loves me, and who is and will always be enough. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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If you’re interested in revisiting with me the truth of God’s character, and why it makes sense to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God even when life seems to have fallen apart, click on the images below to download your free copy of the six week Bible study, “Rational Worship: Offering Ourselves to the God of Mercy” and the accompanying Leader’s Guide. (You may wish to right-click and choose “download linked file” to save the pdfs to your computer.) Or go here for more about what it offers and how it came to be written.
It might just be the perfect summer encouragement, a chance to soak again in the joy of who God is.
And if you’d like company on the journey, slip your email into the box in the right side-bar for weekly grace delivered straight to your inbox. I won’t be writing directly about the study in these coming posts, but I pray that all my posts offer encouragement and practical help as we keep learning to fly higher and deeper into the wide-open spaces of God’s love together. It’s a grace to journey with you!
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Vast floods of mercy

           As we walk the journey to the cross during Lent, we come face to face again and again with God’s love and mercy.  What is this love that chooses to keep walking toward Jerusalem when Jesus knows the cross that awaits at the end of that walk?

           But that kind of love sometimes feels like too much to bear, and so we also, often, encounter our own resistance to that love. As we face that love, we become painfully aware of our own lack of love, and so we pull away. Our shame tells us we’re unloveable. Our pride wants to earn love, not receive it freely. Our fear flees the risk of trusting that the love won’t leave, and clings instead to bank accounts, relationships, anything we think we might be able to control a little more than we can control God.

           This week two gifts have helped me find my way a bit further through my own resistance, taking steps a little deeper into God’s love. The first is the question that someone in my soul care group asked: “What’s the central question in your life right now?” As I’ve pondered the question, it has drawn me deeper and deeper, helping me see the places I resist God’s love and leading me toward his mercy. For example, I began with the surface layer question, “Where will my next home be?” But as I sat with that, I realized my question was deeper: “Can I trust that God is unfailingly kind and that he will provide?” Once I realized that the answer to that question was “yes,” I discovered that my real question was different, “Can I trust that I will hear well and won’t somehow mess the whole thing up?” That in turn led me deeper still. I’ll be tucking that soul care group question away for frequent use as it helps me listen for what is most important to me right now, and what might be the hurdles that are getting in the way. Then I can sit with those painful places in God’s presence and let him do his work there to set me a little freer to trust.

           I’ve also lingered with some lines from Denise Levertov’s marvellous poem, “To Live in the Mercy of God,” letting her words and images remind me of the strength and persistence of God’s love and mercy in the face of my resistance. This waterfall of mercy is not easily diverted by my struggle to receive, thank God!

“. . . To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself

unabating down and down

                              to clenched fists of rock.

Swiftness of plunge,

hour after year after century,

                                                   O or Ah

uninterrupted, voice

many-stranded.

                              To breathe

spray. The smoke of it.

                              Arcs

of steelwhite foam, glissades

of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—

rage or joy?

                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,

God’s love for the world. Vast

flood of mercy

                      flung on resistance.”

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.

Christmas' surprising announcement

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The cheerful postman wearing a Santa hat delivered Mom’s package, and as I opened it and hung the ornaments she had sent, I found myself both grateful for her care and sad about not being with my family this year (though I know it’s right, and I’ll enjoy being adopted for the day into a friend’s extended family here.)
I let myself feel the sadness and gave thanks for the gift of family that I want to be with, then lit the Advent candles and put on Handel’s Messiah. I suppose I was looking for Someone to be with me in my loneliness. Someone who had experienced loneliness himself.
I was surprised how quickly peace began to settle in. Perhaps it was simply that Someone was with me and in feeling his presence I didn’t feel alone anymore. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed.
At first I thought that peace had come as I’d heard the choir sing and had been reminded that the story is not about me, lifting me out of my too-small focus.
And then I realized that was exactly backwards: the story is, incredibly, about me, and it was that reminder of immense, tender love that comes looking for me that was settling me into peace.
This is the good news of Christmas—we matter this much.
To us a child has been born and a Son given. To us angels sing good news and God announces the arrival of comfort and presence and peace. To us God comes and makes his home not merely among us but in us.
I reread Mary’s familiar song and for the first time I notice how unashamed she is to celebrate what God has done for her.
He hasn’t forgotten me! she sings. “He took notice of his lowly servant girl.” (Luke 1:48 MSG)
I matter! she sings. “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v. 48-9 NIV)
And so do you and you and you! she cries to all generations. “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” (v. 50 MSG)
As crazy as it seems considering our earthy beginnings, the One who has always been at the center brings us right in to stand with him at the center of this story. Christmas happened because of you and God’s love for you, because of me and his love for me. The omnipotent God left his home to come among us, weak and needy, to die and rise to make us his forever. What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?
Christmas is about me and my mattering. But not just about me, but about a love so big, a story so beautiful, a God so worthy of praise that I can take my small but significant place beside Mary and the angels and sing Hallelujah! to the One who loves (loves me!) like this.
 
Taking it deeper:
What arises within you as you read the question, “What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?”
What, if anything, is keeping you from stepping confidently into sharing God’s conviction that you matter?

Accepted!

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“God came as a baby!” I overhear one mom saying to a new mom looking a little worn out with the care of her totally helpless newborn who needs to be changed and fed and cuddled night and day. A friend writes it in a newsletter, “He came not as a triumphant King, but a tiny, vulnerable baby, so that we would see He knows our weakness and our struggles.” Another friend explores the wonder of it on her blog: God needy?!
I’m hearing the familiar truth this year against the backdrop of a question I recently read, a question God seems to be asking me, “I can accept you as you are—but can you?”
I hear it in a multitude of versions:
I can accept you as you are—with your tendency to withdraw when you feel like you’re failing—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—with your fear and your questions—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—even with your struggle to accept your own limited, sinful self and rest in My love. Can you?
At first a little voice in my head asks if it’s really God I’m hearing. It sounds like the gentle, welcoming voice of the God I’ve come to love, but what about those verses about being perfect? Does God really accept me as I am, or does he want to change me? Slowly I’m realizing that acceptance and change are not only not mutually exclusive but necessarily intertwined. It is only in finding myself accepted as I am that I can change in ways that are deeper than the masks I wear. When I accept that I’m accepted, I begin to relax. My defenses come down and I open to love, and that love reshapes me from the inside so that I become loving too.
Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as he is, inviting himself over for the meal which makes public Jesus’ acceptance of him, and that love turns Zacchaeus’ grabbing, hoarding nature into one which gives and loves and makes right.
Jesus accepts Peter as he is, a tempestuous follower who in one instant is brazenly slicing off an attacker’s ear to defend his Lord and in the next denying he ever knew him. And through Jesus’ acceptance as he looks at Peter rather than looking away after Peter speaks those words of denial, through Jesus’ acceptance as he gives Peter a three-fold chance to reaffirm his love coupled with Jesus’ own threefold affirmation of acceptance, Peter is transformed into a rock who will not again deny his Lord even when it costs him his life.
“I can accept you as you are”—isn’t that the point of Peter’s vision of the unclean animals . . . and of the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles . . . and of the whole book of Galatians—that we don’t have to follow the law or cut off parts of ourselves or otherwise make ourselves “perfect” in order to be accepted? That, in fact, we are missing the whole point of the gospel if we insist on trying to make this sort of perfection a prerequisite for acceptance? Only in Galatians is the severest possible curse—“let them be eternally condemned”—leveled, (twice!), and it is against those who preach that we can’t trust this love, that we are not accepted unless we first shape up.
I look back again to the baby—God accepting us so fully as to become one of us, taking on our flesh with its limitations and eccentricities, and continuing to wear it—complete with scars—into eternity.
This is the point of the cross, too—not judgment (we would then be on that cross), but an acceptance deep enough that Jesus hangs there in our place, arms open in embrace.
The God who became needy, accepting us in our neediness, became sin, accepting us in the worst of our offenses.
The table-top tree stands in the corner, dressed with tiny red and gold crosses, reminding me that the incarnation which we celebrate speaks the deepest of acceptance. The manger scene sits underneath, and a dove with the word “Peace” perches near the tree’s top, inviting me to respond, to surrender to the peace that comes with knowing myself accepted as I am.