"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

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.
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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.
May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.
May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.
Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.
Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:
The real call in Ash Wednesday

Let grace be grace: Learning to see


I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?
Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)
But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”
And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.
Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.
Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.
I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”
Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.
“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”
Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.

Not because we must

IMG_1302It was just the two of us around the table the day I first heard the words that are shaping my life during these days of Lent. I was hungry for Jesus and had emailed ahead and asked my spiritual director if we could, please, share communion when we met. After we had listened to God’s heartbeat together, she pulled the plate bearing the bread close and, smiling, spoke the simple words that filled my eyes with tears, “We come not because we must but because we may.”

I’m pondering, these days, the various habits in my life that have arisen out of a must: the run each morning, the nap each afternoon, the need to stay home most evenings. Most of my quiet, listening life began from a must. But I’m realizing that though I still need them all, most of these habits have deepened from a must to a may: I do them now not just because I have to but because I want to, because God meets me and loves me there, because they have become treasured places where I can meet him and love him back. I do them now because, in the seven years of this slower pace, Jesus has been dismantling, brick by brick, my wall of misbeliefs about who He is and who I am. I’ve learned that God is not the one who drives me. That he wants the real me, not the me I think I should be. And I’m learning to see my limitations as training wheels, helping me find my balance, guiding me into a way of listening and loving that fits the personality, giftings, and body God has given me.

It’s easy, though, even when a must has morphed into a may, for me to keep hiding behind the must. It feels far safer to my people-pleasing self to turn down an invitation based on “I can’t. . .” or “I have to. . .” than a simple choice to be still. Stillness, in my mind, has appeared too close to laziness for comfort and even though I’ve known that God calls us to stillness (Ps 46:10) the part of me that’s afraid of what people will think whispers, “You’d better look busy, or at least look like you have a good reason for not being busy.”

But here’s the truth: while God calls us to good, hard work, he also calls us to stillness. And the work, if it’s love-work that lasts, can only flow out of the stillness that lets us know ourselves small and dependent and loved. That’s why Jesus so often left the crowds that followed him and headed off somewhere to be alone with his Father (Luke 5:16).

My soul and body confirm what God commanded and Jesus modelled: I’m not made for a hectic pace. It shuts me down. It cuts me off from God and others and myself. It keeps me from being able to love. So I’ve decided: The world can go on chattering all it wants about importance and busyness and making sure I matter. I’m choosing (yes, choosing, not because I must but because I may) to keep living a life that holds enough space for me to hear my Father whispering over me that I already matter.

The must of my limitations has been a gift from God to me, creating enough space for me to begin to hear his heart beat with love. The growing freedom that has allowed the shift from must to may has been his gift too. Now everything within me cries to love him back by choosing to stand rooted in the truth of who he is and who I am, listening and loving and giving myself to be ever more wholly his not because I must but because I may.

Lent is a lot about choosing. Choosing to repent, to turn back again from whatever distractions have been nipping at our heels and swirling in front of our eyes to see and follow Jesus. Choosing to follow. Choosing to love. Choosing, in my case this year, to keep listening, only with even more intentionality, owning this way of living now as a may rather than a must, an even more conscious choice to live in ways that help me listen to God’s heartbeat and be who He has called me to be for the sake of the world.

Jesus,
We walk these next steps of the journey with you
in the same way we come to your table—

not because we must

but because we may:

because you have drawn us close and made us long to be closer still,

because you have graced us with freedom to choose,

because you have loved us so gently we have found ourselves loving you.

And now, fuelled by that love and that longing, we do choose—

life in the freedom of may rather than a cowering behind must,

and a growing into full-bodied, whole-souled attentiveness

that opens us to love.

Grace us, we pray, with eyes clear to see you

hearts bold to follow

and an ever-deeper conviction of your love

that roots us firmly in the truth

of who you are and who we are in you.

In the name of the One who chose us

not because he had to

but because he could,

Amen.

A prayer as we enter Lent

DSCN4380Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to the man who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.
You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.
You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep thrum thrum of your heartbeat.
You are the one in whom our journey ends.
We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.
Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.
Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.
Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.
Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.
 

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Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as he uses this season of Lent to help shape in us his heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball’s article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent