When God builds you a house

I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.
I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to  say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.
Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”
But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . .  The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)
I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:

““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . .
But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .
God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .
‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . .
What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)

My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.

“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)

And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.

“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)

God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.

“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)

We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10).
God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).
But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)

When you long for stillness

There’s something about being out of the city that gives me life.
Maybe it’s the silence, or at least the exchange of engines roaring on the streets outside my window and heavy feet on the floor above my head for the gentler sounds of birdsong and wind in the leaves.
Maybe it’s that, immersed in the expansiveness of creation, I slow enough to remember myself small again, in a good way, and hand over the burdens meant for God’s shoulders.  There in that smallness I find myself part of this world which goes on minute by minute being created and sustained in love.
Maybe it’s the rich beauty that summons and soothes and draws me toward the One who is Beauty itself.
Whatever the mix of reasons, some nameable, some not, I come a little more alive when I can run in the woods or walk on the beach or drive along roads framed with white trunks and hay bales and the sun playing on water.

On the early morning ride back to the airport, the sun played tag with the fine morning mist, darting, disappearing, leaving a trail of gentle brightness behind her.


What could have felt like a long drive filled with sadness to be leaving was instead a joyful play of light and shadow, a final life-filled gift from the One who knows me well as I headed back into the city and into a busier stretch.
I know you. I love you. I am going with you and I will give you rest.
The day after I arrived home, not feeling quite ready to plunge into the fall busyness, the mailman knocked on my door and handed me a gift that was as unexpected and as grace-filled as the early morning hint of a rainbow and the empty seats beside me on both of my flights home.
I know what you need and I delight to give it to you.
The gift the mailman handed me was Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat
I love pretty much anything Ruth Haley Barton writes, and her newest book is no exception. It’s warm and welcoming and freeing, offering, as all her books do, not only life-giving encouragement and gentle challenge, but wise steps and insightful questions to help me move forward. She begins by lifting the burden of retreat being yet another heavy ‘should’. It is, rather, an invitation, with the implications of freedom to say yes or no, and the affirmation that I am wanted.

“. . .[W]e know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted, and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.
And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well.” (p. 3)

I long for quiet time alone with God in much the same way I look forward to the times I can escape the bustle of the city. I know I need still time to keep hearing God’s voice and to keep from wearing out, and I do my best to prioritize it. But, even knowing that as deeply as I do, sometimes a persistent little voice still tries to convince me that retreating is selfish or lazy or just plain impractical.
What that little voice fails to remember is that retreat is not my idea. It is Jesus’ idea.
Right smack in the middle of the disciples’ first ministry report (Mark 6:30-31), when the disciples were all excited about what they had been able to do and eager to get on with it,

“Jesus invites them to retreat. Literally! His words, ‘Come away to a deserted place. . . and rest a while,’ shut down the conversation they wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, Well, that’s different! What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.” (p. 3)

The One who knows me better than I know myself, knows my tendency to lose my way and think too much depends on me, gently interrupts my chatter about the article I’m writing and the workshops I’m preparing. He sees my mix of excitement and weariness and my need and longing to step back and be re-centered in who He is before moving any further into the busyness of the fall, and He graciously calls me to close the door and turn off the phone and the laptop and let Him settle and recenter me in His love. He reminds me once more that this is not a luxury, but a necessity, a part of being human. And that He has led the way.

“Of all people who might have been able to convince themselves they did not need to retreat in order to hear God, Jesus would have fit the bill. But instead we see him regularly retreating to the mountain, into the wilderness, across the lake, and into the garden in order to stay in tune with God’s heart and plan for him.” (p. 90)

Echoes and invitations as we start this season

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds, kids are out of school, and many of us in the next couple of months will head to the beach or the cottage or the campground for a week or two. You might want to take a novel, but if you are looking for something a little more meaty, here are a few books I’ve read recently that might catch your interest. And even if you’re not looking for a new book, hopefully the quote I share from each book will give you something to ponder—a tiny echo of the heartbeat of God for you, or an invitation from the heart of Jesus as we head into this season.

Gary W. Moon, Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower

I’ve read (and loved) a couple of Dallas Willard’s books in the past but have known little about the man himself, so I was intrigued to read this book and discover that Willard’s intimacy with God came out of a deeply painful childhood. (Is intimacy with God only ever developed through finding ourselves loved in some sort of pain?)
Now that I have a broader picture of this man and his life and ideas through reading Becoming Dallas Willard, I want to go back and reread The Divine Conspiracy, which, Moon says, “may prove to be [Dallas Willard’s] most significant contribution to Christian thought” (p. 207). It’s years since I read The Divine Conspiracy, but as I pull my discarded library copy off the shelf, I see Richard Foster’s words in the foreword, “The Divine Conspiracy is the book I have been searching for all my life. Like Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, it is a masterpiece and a wonder. . . I would place it in rare company indeed: alongside the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo.” (As an aside, I loved learning in Becoming Dallas Willard that The Divine Conspiracy was only written because Dallas’ wife, Jane, having repeatedly had people ask her after Dallas’s teaching sessions if that material was written anywhere, finally said to him, “If you don’t write this, I’m going to!”)
And now, a quote from Becoming Dallas Willard:

“Knowledge, biblically speaking, always refers to interactive relationship” (p. 197).

Suzanne Stabile, The Path Between Us

The Road Back to You, which Suzanne Stabile co-authored with Ian Cron, is perhaps my favorite book on the Enneagram, and a great starting place for people who have no idea what the Enneagram is but are interested in understanding themselves and others more deeply. Suzanne’s second book, The Path Between Us, focuses on relationships between people of different types and how our personality differences affect those relationships. There are lots of good suggestions here for ways to grow ourselves and ways to love people with a whole range of personalities. I really like the helpful tables in the Study Guide as well, which help us recognize what each personality type wants, what we fear, what we offer, and the best and worst parts of each of us.
I’m glad I read this book, though if I could have only read one, I’d still have chosen The Road Back to You.
And now, the quote:

“When it comes to relationships, it’s really important to remember that you can’t change how you see—you can only change what you do with how you see.” (The Path Between Us, p.60)

I can’t make myself not see the places danger lurks, or the ways things could be improved, but I can choose to keep taking my fearful self back to the one who loves me just as I am, and loves me deeply enough to slowly calm my fear and teach me grace.

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry.

If this book sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve already quoted from it once or twice in recent blog posts. I love this book.
I wondered at first if I’d find it relevant. Maybe it would have been when I lived the hectic life of project leader or medical director of a small hospital and clinic system, training nurses and supporting colleagues as well as treating patients. But now, in this place of quiet conversations and written words? This book is just as relevant. Sharing fresh insights from the story of Moses, as well as wisdom gleaned from her own many years of growing into Christ-centered, God-empowered leadership, Barton brings me back again and again to the essential reality that maintaining my own life-giving connection with God is the best choice I can make for myself and for those my life and words might impact. And, at the end of each chapter, she offers quiet practices that hold space for me to grow a little more deeply into relationship with God.
I have so many passages marked and starred that it’s hard for me to choose a quote to share from this book, but here’s one of the many:

“Jesus himself seemed to understand how quickly our passions, even the most noble ones, can wear us out if we’re not careful. Early in his ministry with the disciples, he began to teach them about the importance of establishing sane rhythms of work and rest. In Mark 6, Jesus had just commissioned the disciples for ministry and had given them the authority to cast out demons, preach the gospel and heal the sick. After completing their first ministry excursion, they returned excited about their newfound powers and crowded around Jesus to report on all they had done and taught.
But Jesus didn’t have much time for their ministry reports. Immediately he instructed them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). He seemed to be more concerned with helping them to establish rhythms that would sustain them in ministry than he was in their ministry reports. He was more interested in helping them not to become overly enamored by ministry successes or inordinately driven by their compulsions to do more than he was in sending them back out to do ministry.” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 119-120, bold mine)

As we begin this season with whatever it may hold, may we be open to Jesus’ voice calling us to come aside and let him help us rest in his love.

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Photos (in order of appearance) by Lê TânBen WhiteAlexis BrownAaron Burden, and Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

"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

Where heaven enters your story

When I think of John the Baptist, I tend to think of the tough, slightly intimidating prophet clothed in rough hair and eating insects for supper with a side of wild honey which he has harvested with his own hands. He’s brave and a little scary, his skin as tough as his words. It’s hard for me to relate.
But this week, with the help of a painting, John’s story is touching me in a different way, and making me kneel in worship at another aspect of the Christmas story. In Bette Lynn Dickinson’s beautiful painting (above), Zechariah and Elizabeth stand close together, marveling at the gift they have been given, this miracle baby born in their old age. The train of baby John’s swaddling clothes flows away into the distance, paving the path Joseph and Mary and the donkey walk, making smooth the way for the Lord. Our Lord, still hidden in Mary’s womb, rides a donkey into Bethlehem as he will later ride into Jerusalem, his way made smooth with coats thrown onto the road before him.
As I look at Bette’s painting, I am struck by the smallness of John, his fragility, his humanness. It’s this little baby held in Elizabeth and Zachariah’s arms, this fragile gift who can do nothing for himself, who will grow to smooth the rough places, preparing the way for the Lord. But it’s not just a task for when he’s strong and grown. At the most fragile time in his life, when he still needed the safe, cushioned warmth of the womb to survive, this baby was already preparing the way for the Lord, leaping inside his mother at the approach of his unborn cousin, Jesus. How amazing that we in our human frailty, as well as our moments of strength, can go before the One who goes before us—the One who invites, summons, and does for us everything we cannot do for ourselves—to prepare his way!
I love the way Bette’s Advent paintings all show our story interwoven with His story. The infant Jesus doesn’t just descend from heaven, invading earth to save it as one unconnected to it. He grows as a shoot from the apparently hopeless, severed stump of Jesse, the slowly unfurling fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Isaac and David. To be sure, Jesus is fully God—Emmanuel, God with us. But he is also fully human, with (very!) human ancestors; he is Mary’s biological son, David’s great, great grandson. Heaven doesn’t just touch earth, visit it, or invade it. Heaven enters it in the fullest way possible, God weaving God’s self into every cell of a human being, and thus into the personal histories of us all, for we are all, through Adam, connected to Jesus’ story and he to ours.
Baby John, tiny and helpless, miracle and sheer gift (as every human is!), this vulnerable little package of flesh and spirit, is filled with Spirit and given the honor of going before the Lord, smoothing his way. John’s story is interwoven with Jesus’ story, John himself filled with Jesus’ Spirit to enable this interweaving. Our stories are all interwoven with Jesus’ story, each of us graced with a unique way to pave his path or bear him into the world, a way that flows as much from our own personal set of frailties as our strengths. Yes, John was specially chosen and  called. But so are you. And so am I.
 

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Painting by Bette Lynn Dickinson. Used with permission.
Advent may be almost over, but it’s not too late to let Bette’s beautiful Advent paintings and accompanying devotional help you soak in the wonder of the Christmas story. Explore Bette’s work here, savor her Advent devotional, “A Pregnant Pause” here, or sign up here if you’d like the devotional deposited directly into your inbox.