One way to stand firm

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m trying to remember a verse and there’s a word that I can’t remember or that I misremember, that is quite possibly the word that, when I look up the verse, will hold the greatest gift for me. It has almost come to seem like one of God’s ways of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Pay attention here.”
It happened yesterday with a couple of verses from the story of God’s delivery of Israel through the Red Sea. As the people stand at the water’s edge with the Egyptian army coming after them, Moses says to them:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex 14:13-14)

As I was pondering these verses that had been in the morning’s Scripture reading from the pulpit, the phrase “stand still” came to mind. But when I looked up the verses again, “stand still” was not there. Rather, the two commands are to “stand firm” and to “be still,” or, more accurately according to the Hebrew, “be silent.” For me the two commands to “stand firm” and “be silent” carry quite a different, and richer, layer of meaning than simply “standing still.” And, funnily enough, they speak directly into a struggle of the past couple of weeks. (Thanks, God.)
I’ve noticed these weeks, as I’ve been trying to get back into the fall rhythm after weeks away with people, how unsettled I am. It has taken me time to understand what was going on, and it has likely been a combination of things—simple transition and jet lag, a busier than usual schedule, and a medication dose that was too high. But it was when I sat to be still and silent before God, putting down my pen and my journal and closing my mouth, that I finally began to feel more settled.
I am to stand firm in what I know to be the truth of God’s character and my calling—not just what I’m to do, but more importantly who I’m to be and how I’m to live out that calling in a posture of listening and utter dependence on God. But I’ve been learning all over again these weeks that I can only stand firm when I make time to be still, to let not only my hands and my mouth but my thoughts (as much as possible) be silent for a stretch of time each day.
Ruth Haley Barton shares how a wise spiritual director once said to her, “Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” (Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 29)
Her words ring true as I settle into silence with God, put down my pen, open my hands and say, “Here I am.” Sometimes all that I’ve noticed in those times is the racing of my thoughts. This time I could feel myself able to breathe again, and could sense the loosening of my anxieties.

“In solitude God begins to free us from our bondage to human expectations, for there we experience God as our ultimate reality—the One in whom we live and move and have our being. . . In silence we not only withdraw from the demands of life in the company of others but also allow the noise of our own thoughts, strivings and compulsions to settle down so we can hear a truer and more reliable Voice.” (Invitation. . ., p. 34-35)

Solitude an silence, even for twenty minutes a day, allows the stirred-up sediment in my soul to begin to settle.
Solitude and silence help me cease striving as they turn me from looking at the army of thoughts and needs and fears that pursue me to look instead at the God who is always working to set his people free.
They help me accept God’s own invitation, spoken through the Psalmist,

“Be still [“cease striving”] and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 

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)

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

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

What to do in the tough times


One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.
These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.
There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.

Child of My love, lean hard
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;
I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;
Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion
In its weight to thine unaided strength;
For even as I laid it on, I said,
I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,
This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];
So shall I keep My child within the circling arms
Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear
To impose it on a shoulder which upholds
The government of worlds. Yet closer come;
Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care
So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.
Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;
But, loving Me, lean hard.
(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)
 

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Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash

Home when you have none (OR The place you can rest)


When I was 18 months old, our little family of three flew back to Nigeria after a few weeks in England. Flights were overbooked, we were bumped and rerouted, and eventually we wound up, exhausted, at the Cozy Inn in Accra, Ghana. There were no curtains on the windows, and no cold water in the taps. The bed was made with a single sheet tucked tightly overtop the single blanket. But when my mother put me in the middle of the large bed, hopefully out of reach of the cockroaches, I closed my eyes and said with what might have been a sigh of relief or contentment, “ ’ome.” Home, for me, was the place I could rest.
Since then, I’ve called many places home, including a mud-brick house without electricity or running water in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, and, most recently, a high-end condo in Vancouver with swimming pool and fitness room and plentiful running water (both hot and cold) included in the rent. For a long time, I felt I didn’t belong here; my landlady needed a good tenant more than she needed the rent that it was worth. Lately, I’d started to believe that maybe, by some miracle of grace, I did belong here; I increasingly know and am known by name, and have been having meals and deep conversations with neighbors. My presence here seemed to matter. And then this week, I received The Email, “We have decided to move forward with selling the condo and will transfer ownership in February 2018. As such, I’m sorry to tell you we need to end your tenancy on Jan 31, 2018, as the new owner will be moving in shortly thereafter.”
I needed to reread the email several times over the next couple of days to be sure I hadn’t dreamt it. There’s something distinctly unsettling about being kicked out of the place you’ve learned, over almost six years, to call home.
There’s grief in leaving this place.
This oven, which has cooked Hawaiian pizzas and chicken and sweet potato fries to share with good friends.
This bedroom where I learned to dance my prayers because my body needed some way of praying my joy and grief and longing.
This living room where I’ve found myself again and again on holy ground as I listen with people to their stories and together we notice where God is in them.
This window through which I’ve watched fireworks enough times that I no longer startle (at least not as badly) when they sound like incoming rockets.
Here, through beautiful times and some excruciatingly painful ones, I have learned a little more deeply that God is good, and I can trust him. That doesn’t mean I always do trust. In the days after receiving The Email, I was short of breath with anxiety. But I threw myself on God anyway, knowing that He welcomes me as I am and doesn’t ask that I fix myself before running to His arms. That’s something else I’ve learned here: there’s one kind of trust in a child who isn’t afraid to play with a puppy. There’s another kind in a child who, fearing the puppy, runs to the safe arms of her daddy. Sometimes I’m that first little girl. More often, I’m the second.
There’s grief in having to leave, but I know there’s gift too. Most of the gift will probably take time for me to recognize as gift, but this piece I can already see: here in this place where my home is being pulled out from under me, I am learning all over again, and more deeply, that God is my true home. That might sound like a stale Sunday School answer. And if it weren’t that I have no idea where I’ll be living in two and a half months’ time, it might feel like one. But home for me is still the place I can rest, and in the moments when the uncertainty of not knowing where I’ll sleep raises panic in me and I run crying into the arms of my Abba, I discover that once again I can be that trusting toddler snuggling in and whispering, “ ‘ome.”

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.” (John 15:9 The Message)