Comfort when life is messy

Welcome! Pull up a chair. If you’re reading this online rather than via email, you’ll notice that I’ve been working this week to transfer my blog to a new home to better welcome you, and the move is still in process. If you can’t see the search button or the list of topics, that’s because I haven’t unpacked them yet. The pictures aren’t hung and nothing is quite in its right place, but I’m so glad you’ve come anyway. The kettle’s on and we’ll pause in the midst of the mess to notice that God is here too.

The fact is, sometimes I hear God’s heartbeat most clearly when I haven’t managed to tidy everything up. Maybe it’s because then I most need to hear his heartbeat reminding me that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that the Holy Spirit delights to hover over formless chaos and from it shape ruby-throated hummingbirds and the milky ribbon of stars in a clear winter sky and the sun glinting on the tips of salty ocean waves.

Creation is like that. We see a newborn baby or the first green shoot of spring peeking up from the ground and it awakens within us hope, and tenderness, and a desire to protect the new little life. The mystery is great, and the awe, and the hope. But also the mess. Someone got dirt under their fingernails planting those bulbs. Someone made space within herself and carried that baby-in-formation through three-quarters of a year of nausea and back pain, heartburn and mood swings, weariness and the little guest tucking himself up under her ribs or kicking her bladder or doing aerobics when she was trying to sleep. Someone breathed through the pains, and soaked the carpet when the water broke, and wondered if she could do it, and gave all her strength to push this new bit of life out into the world, slippery with fluid and blood and caked with white vernix. The coming of new life is messy.

That’s one of the reasons that the Psalmist’s understanding of God as midwife so delights me. People who choose to make their life’s work caring for women and the life coming into being through them aren’t generally afraid of the mess. Nor of the unpredictability of the process. And so in the messiest and most dangerous moments in his life, the Psalmist cries out to the divine Midwife.

In Psalm 71:6, when the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text reads, “It was you who cut me from my mother’s womb,” picturing God as the midwife cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth.

In another of the most painful times of his life, when his sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness and exhaustion and desertion by friends, David finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (Ps 22:9) The Hebrew literally says, “Yet it was you who pulled me out of the womb. . . ,” picturing a midwife helping a baby be born.

It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned for comfort to the image of God as Midwife. From the cross, his raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as speaking v. 22 in the context of his suffering (Hebrews 2:12). As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in his agony, this entire psalm may well have become his prayer, its poetry wrapping up all the outer details and inner wrestlings of those hours leading to his death, holding open space for trust during his excruciating birthing of us, “a people yet unborn” (v. 31), into the inner life of the Trinity. Every part of him burned: his pierced hands and feet, his dislocated joints; Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that his heart had melted within him (v. 14). He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey” (v. 13). If Jesus was indeed praying this whole psalm on the cross, then for help in the tearing, burning intensity of his labor, he turned to the divine Midwife: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them,” he reminded himself (v. 4). Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered him and thousands before him he could commit his body and spirit.

I’m intrigued that David and likely Jesus as well (both men!) found comfort in the image of God as Midwife. In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his letter, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” He paints a startling picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant and Christ is the baby growing inside of us.

It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies that as much as they might love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy—Christ being formed in me—can feel scary and out of my control too—particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. When fear rises, or I’m aware of my messiness, there’s comfort in knowing I’m in good hands, being cared for by the same skilled Midwife who was there at my own birth, unseen but present and wise and tender. That midwife is still guarding my life and skillfully working to safely deliver the life that is coming into being in and through me.

How is it for you to consider that strong and gentle hands are holding you and all that concerns you, even in the times you might not feel those hands?

Is there anything you’d like to say to your divine Midwife right now?

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Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.

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.

When you want to make a difference in the world

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There are those moments in life where you are given the gift of seeing Jesus do in your own life what he promises to do in everyone who believes in him. All of a sudden you know by heart what you had known by word. You know by experience what you had known by faith.
One of those moments happened for me recently. In the middle of a conversation, I found myself a bit short of breath. I was surprised, since I didn’t otherwise feel anxious. As I explored the experience later, it turned out to be a huge gift that opened up for me greater understanding—experienced understanding—of Jesus’ words:

“‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

During our conversation, I had felt a bigger-than-me compassion for the person across from me. As I prayed about the experience later, I discovered that there was some anxiety underneath—was I listening well? asking good questions? being helpful?—but it had been swallowed up by the love flooding through me. Only the tip of the anxiety, masked as shortness of breath, poked through like the tip of a rock in a rushing river, a gift left to remind me that the love flooding through me hadn’t come because I had managed to pluck out all the rocks and make the river bed smooth. The love was sheer gift, not my own, and not dependent on anything I had done except to believe (and even the ability to do that was a gift).
And I saw all over again:
My job is never to be the river, just the banks between which the river flows.
The freedoms are many:
I don’t have to be afraid of myself, not even my rocky places. God is eager to pour himself into and through me, rushing over and around the rocks, covering and caressing and smoothing them into submission. God’s love pouring through me wears the channel deeper and shapes the banks according to the pattern of the water’s flow, doing in me what I can never do no matter how hard I try to shape myself into Christ’s image.
And so my calling is not to walk bent over, scouring the riverbed for rocks. Persistent worry about flaws, limitations, and even sins makes as much sense as my scouring the rocky bed of a river trying to pick out every little stone so the water can come. The water floods in as a gift to all those who drink deep of Jesus, not as a reward for those who have managed to make the riverbed perfectly smooth. (Thank God!)
My calling is to lift up my head and drink deep of Jesus’ love and then get on with loving others with the love he pours into me. 

Good news when life gets messy

DSCN6980There’s a little voice whispering in my head, “Let it go, move on. No one wants to hear about Easter any more. That was three whole weeks ago.”
The little voice might be right. It might not. I’m coming back here anyway because I need the whole fifty days of Eastertide, and I suspect I’m not alone. I need to keep remembering that the coming of new life isn’t instant, that if I really want Jesus’ resurrection life to be lived in and through me I have to be prepared for a long process. A life-long process.
I can’t help but wonder how we got deluded into thinking of Easter as a quick and easy single day filled with Easter bunnies and spring flowers and little chicks as the symbols of new life. Pretty pastels, velvet bows—let’s pretend the coming of new life is tidy and pretty and neat. Controllable. Quick.
It isn’t.
In my experience as an obstetrician, the coming of new life is often long and almost always messy and painful.
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Jesus died before he was raised again—a slow and excruciating struggle.
All of his followers struggled through stretches of confusion and unbelief and fear before the reality of the resurrected Jesus settled into their souls.
A grandmother prays through the night for her grandson.
A woman weeps for a friend.
In the reshaping of a relationship there are stretches of pain and fear so great one thinks she might break, and then a chance to breathe before the next contraction comes.
When we see that the messy places of life are places of giving birth—or being born—they are so much less frightening than if we think the standard is tidy pink bows and we’re failing to uphold it.
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Transformation is always a process, folks.
The messy and painful places are the places in which Jesus’ resurrection life is pressing through whatever is in its way to become more fully enfleshed in us. So let’s get over the myth of quick and easy and learn to breathe with each other and give hugs and massage backs and not panic when we feel like we might break.
There’s a good chance that Jesus’ life is coming into being in us in some new, deeper way. And that is always worth it.

IMG_3553“My dear children, for whom I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” (Gal 4:19)