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)

For the moments you’re weary

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens.”
The invitation has never been rescinded.

My POTS (chronic illness) has been worse these past couple of months than it has been for years—maybe because, despite much help from friends and movers, I pushed past my limits in moving homes a couple of months ago.  It’s hard to be back here. It’s frustrating and discouraging and unpleasant to be lightheaded more of the time.
I find myself chafing at accomplishing so little, and realize that my sense of worth is still far too tied up with what I can do.  And in that place I hear once more Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” and I realize that my burden is far more about my expectations of myself than God’s expectations of me. John Milton’s beautiful poem comes to mind once more, and with it the realization that it’s my heart’s posture of willingness toward God, not my ability to do what others can, that can make me a faithful servant.

On His Blindness (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly* ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (italics mine)
(*fondly = foolishly)


God meets me in the story of another man, too, a mighty prophet who, just after the mightiest demonstration of God’s power in his life, found himself so weary and weak that he was unable to go on and took himself off to the desert to lie down under a tree and pray for death (1 Kings 19). I’ve noticed before God’s tenderness in caring for him. God didn’t forget that Elijah was dust. He let him sleep, then woke him to the scent of fresh-baked bread. After he ate, he let him sleep again, then woke him in time for the next meal.
But this time it’s what comes next that grabs my attention. Elijah has now been strengthened enough by the care for his body that he has been able to travel to “the mountain of God.” There, he goes into a cave for the night. And God meets him in the cave. He asks Elijah to tell Him what’s going on for him. (Is this always the first part of healing—accepting God’s invitation to tell Him our fears and frustrations?) And then—I love this—God tells Elijah to go out on the mountain where God is about to pass by.
But it’s not the God Elijah was expecting.
Backing up for a moment, it’s clear that Elijah knows about God’s power. It’s not long since he single-handedly faced off against 450 prophets of the idol Baal and saw God send fire to consume a giant offering, thoroughly drenched with water to make the task as difficult as possible. The fire swallowed not only the bull and the wood, but the stones and the soil, too, and lapped up the water in the surrounding trench. Then, Elijah found himself empowered to outrun Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel. Elijah knows about God’s power, knows how to call upon it and trust it and feel it in himself. But might it be harder for him to relate to the gentle, mothering side of God, the God who wakes him from a nap with the scent of fresh-baked bread and whispers words of comfort? Can he let himself be vulnerable enough to trust this God in his weakness and weariness and despair?
In the days between the show-down with the prophets of Baal and his arrival at the mountain of God, he had no other choice. Wearied beyond his ability to drag himself out of his fatigue, he accepted the rest and the food. But now that he has become a bit stronger and has been able to walk from his hiding place in the desert to the mountain of God, will Elijah go back to experiencing God primarily as the God of power? And will God go back to revealing himself in that way, as the one who not only sends down fire, showing Himself powerful, but also empowers His servants to outrun chariots?
At God’s invitation, Elijah goes out on the mountain. There is a great and powerful wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. God is not there either. Then fire. Surely here! Elijah knows God’s power descends in fire! But no. It’s almost as though God is parading these sights and sounds of power before Elijah to bring to his attention the way he usually, maybe subconsciously, thinks of God. And then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. And here, finally, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Here in the place Elijah least expected him, God comes, correcting Elijah’s lop-sided view with a truer, or at least more complete, view of who God is and what God is like. Tender as well as strong. A mother as well as a mighty warrior (cf. Is 42:13-16, Is. 49:15, 25-26).
This God who sympathizes with our weaknesses doesn’t give Elijah another assignment in which he is one man standing against several hundred, nor does God strengthen him again to outrun the king’s chariot. He assigns him now to anoint others to front-line leadership. A king over Aram, a king over Israel, and Elisha, a prophet to come alongside Elijah and succeed him.
Once upon a time, God empowered him in his weakness, giving him supernatural strength to carry on. Now he asks him to live more strictly within his human limits and learn another side of God, the God who is tender as well as strong, who respects his human limitations and loves him in them and gives him work that he can do, work that is less flashy but is still important work, God’s work. Sometimes God assigns us to outrun chariots, sometimes to stand (or sit, or lie) and wait in readiness. And sometimes he invites us to sleep and eat.
Might weakness be the only place we learn the tenderness of God? And might it be the place we discover our incorrect, or at best, lop-sided, views of what God is like, and the place where God corrects those views?

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The invitation has never been rescinded, only echoed through poems and prophets and our own lived experience of hearing God’s gentle whisper and finding him feeding us with the bread of his own body, then giving us work to do that fits.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you”—many things, I think, but certainly who He is and what He is like and how we can live well in weakness as well as in strength—”because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)

________________
Photos (in order) by Hernan SanchezKinga CichewiczRob ByeLily Banse, and Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The surprising secret to learning endurance


How do I keep going? At some point, all of us will probably ask this question as we face one situation or another that seems to go on and on: the challenging marriage, the noisy neighbors, the work or the pain or the child or the pager that keeps us up all night.
How do we hang in through the challenges and let them do their work in us, not breaking us, not making us bitter, but pushing us closer to Jesus and deeper into God’s love?
There’s a place for discernment: Am I being asked to stay in this situation? Is there some change I’m being invited to make, some attitude or belonging or position I’m being invited to let go of at this time?
But often the challenges come in work to which we’ve been called, a relationship to which we’ve committed, or a situation that arises unbidden and must be lived: the illness, the eviction, the normal phases of personal and family life.
How, then, do I learn endurance?
I’m surprised by words in a passage I long ago memorized. How have I not noticed them before?

“[I]f we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor 1:6, italics mine).

I’m learning what Paul knows: Determination might be able for a while to produce gritting-my-teeth endurance, but only the comfort of being loved and accompanied can produce patient endurance, that kind of love-based endurance that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).
The startling implication keeps rolling around in my head: We develop endurance not by trying harder but by learning to receive Love’s comfort.
I usually think of endurance as the opposite of comfort. I endure discomfort of one sort or another, and when comfort finally comes, I would no longer say I’m enduring; it feels more like relief or pleasure. But this is one more place where God’s thoughts are not mine, where he turns my perceptions and assumptions up-side-down. Or, rather, right-side-up. The world’s comfort is a comfort that cannot co-exist with suffering. It has to drown it, fix it, or remove it, and therefore it leaves me alone and helpless in the face of suffering, still fearing suffering and trying desperately to fix it. God’s comfort, on the other hand, comes from finding myself loved and accompanied in the suffering. The worst part of suffering is its loneliness, so the more deeply I know I am loved and accompanied, the more fear releases its hold on me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23).

How, then, in my real daily life, do I learn to receive God’s comfort?
Often it’s a matter of just showing up. When I make the space to come, I find Jesus waiting to comfort me through a few words of Scripture, a lightening of the burden as I hold it out to him, or a simple sense of his presence.
But sometimes there are other barriers: my own fear or anger or sense of failure, or a sense of God’s absence without me knowing why.  What then helps me receive God’s comfort?

  • Reminding my heart that God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). I’m not bothering him, not being wimpy or a failure when I come again for comfort. He wants me in his arms.
  • Being honest with myself and God about my emotions. I can’t receive comfort if I’m trying to hide. (And when it feels too hard to be honest, I can at least be honest about that and receive Jesus” gentle love in that place.)
  • Paying attention to the small things. God is creative and often sends comfort in the hug of a friend, the words of a song, or a few quiet moments with a mug of lemon-ginger tea. As I notice and savor these small gifts, writing them down and turning them over in my memory, I settle a little more deeply into trusting His love that is new every morning.
  • Asking God how he wants to meet me in this place. Sometimes the answer comes through the memory of Jesus’ own suffering and the reminder that someone who understands is walking with me. Sometimes it comes through a few words of Scripture that stand out, or a picture that shapes itself as I prayerfully ponder whether there’s a picture that portrays how I’m feeling.

Over these months as I’ve been waiting to find my new home, I’ve felt like the ground beneath my feet has been removed. (Apparently at least some of where I was finding my security wasn’t so solid!) A picture came of myself suspended in midair, with nothing beneath my feet, my arms clinging to God because he was all I had to cling to. But as I sat recently with the friend who helps me listen, she wondered aloud whether there might be further gift for me in that picture. We sat in silence together, asking Jesus if there was a gift he wanted to give, and my attention was drawn to new parts of the picture. Before, I’d noticed only my arms clinging to Him; now I could now see His strong arms around me. I’d been so focused on the empty space beneath my feet that I hadn’t noticed that I was held, nor realized that I am much safer where I am than standing alone on my own small feet. As the search for housing continues and I seek to learn patient endurance in this place, I’m returning often to this picture, listening again and again to God’s comfort, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.”

 
__________________
Photos (in order) by Emma Simpson and Echo Grid on Unsplash.

Jesus' 21st century hands

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.
The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.
I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.
I still find it hard to need help.
I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)
I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.
Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:

Let me not run from the love that you offer,
But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .”
Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash

The surprising question for a deepening spiritual life


I’m flipping through a book I was sent, and I’m only a few pages in when Phileena Heurertz’s words stop me:

“According to Father Thomas Keating—a Cistercian monk—at the time of conversion we orient our lives by the question, ‘What can I do for God?’ Seems appropriate, right? But when we begin the spiritual journey our life is dramatically altered toward the question, ‘What can God do for me?’”

My guard is up already. A journey built around the question, “What can God do for me?” It feels self-centred. But she continues:

“This isn’t a narcissistic, exploitative question toward a disempowered God. It’s the exact opposite. This is the central question of a humble person who has awakened to their true self and to the awe-inspiring adoration of an extraordinary God.” (Pilgrimage of a Soul, p. 15-16)

For days I turn her words over in my mind. Could she be right? Is the direction of a deepening spiritual life a move from ‘What can I do for God?’ toward ‘What can God do for me?’ rather than the other way around?
As I ponder, I realize my journey has already been taking me in that direction. I’m discovering more and more deeply all the time how, in myself, I have nothing to offer. At first that felt shameful. Now it feels freeing. Jesus knows this truth, and wants me to know it too: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants to set me free from trying to be God so I can enjoy being my own small self and letting God be his all-sufficient self in me. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my smallness, and with that settling into smallness has come a deepening trust and peace. But still. I wouldn’t have been daring enough to put it in those words. A shift from “What can I do for God?” to “What can God do for me?” the mark of a deepening faith? Really?
It seems God wants me to hear this, because he starts to speak in surround-sound. First I notice the Lord’s prayer.

“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.” (Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)

The starting line for this prayer is that I can do none of this on my own. No matter how much I might want to do something for God, the truth is that there’s nothing I can do. I’m completely dependent on God—for food, forgiveness, setting the world right, and protection (even—or especially—from myself). All I can do is ask God to do in me and in the world, for me and for the world, what only He can do.
I’m starting to catch on. The question that startled me and started all this wondering is the heart of the gospel, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I need to hear it again. It’s like Jesus walked up beside me and I didn’t recognize him. But then I realize that this itself, this learning to recognize the gospel where it shows up and live it in all my daily moments, is one more place to practice the humbling truth that I can’t do even this work in me—I can only open myself to God to keep doing in me what only He can do. And even this opening, while a choice, is summoned and enabled by grace.
I pick up Emily P. Freeman’s Grace for the Good Girl to read the next few pages, and within two pages of where I pick up, she speaks of Mary’s choice to trust when the angel came to tell her she would conceive a child. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). Emily writes,

“I love that Mary uses the word servant here, because it communicates that service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me.” (p. 63)

Over the page, speaking now about Martha when Jesus comes to dinner, she writes,

Martha’s desire to please clouded her willingness to trust. I understand this mistake of Martha’s perhaps more than any other. Given the choice to please God or to trust God, good girls become conflicted. We know we’re supposed to trust God, but trust is so intangible. It almost seems passive in the face of all there is to do. . . .
Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology. If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic” (64-5).

If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God. This is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please God—except when it keeps me from trusting Him. And it does that often enough that trying to please God might, for some of us, sometimes, actually be the opposite of trusting him. A fixation with pleasing God all too often pulls my focus away from Him and puts it on myself. I hear again the words that God has been speaking to me daily for at least a couple of years: “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.”
Emily’s words ring in my head, “Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, ‘streams of living water will flow from within’ (John 7:38 NIV).” (p.65)
The surround-sound conversation seems to be fading (until the next time Jesus sneaks up on me unawares), and God leaves me with words spoken through the apostle Paul to ponder:

“The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you” (Galatians 3:11 The Message).