Balancing needs: the freeing truth

How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others? It’s one of the places that has caused the most tension in my life, and it showed up again in a dream last week.
In the dream, I was walking back toward my apartment (calmly, I thought) when a friendly-looking policeman asked me if anything was wrong. I was surprised he asked, but I answered that I was heading back to my place because I had heard that there was a fire, or a burglar, and I was going to check it out.
“Why don’t you let me do that for you?” he offered.
I unlocked the back door and let him into the stairwell, following behind him. As we began to ascend, I almost ran into a man squatting against the wall of the stairwell as though trying to avoid attention. His unshaven face matched the scruffiness of his clothes. But it was the sneer on his face that bothered me. What was he doing camping out in the stairwell of our secure building? I asked him to leave, and he began to shout unprintable words at me, making sure I knew what a horrible, selfish person I was. Despite the risk to my home, I had felt very little emotion until this point in the dream. But here guilt surfaced, and shame, in tension with the persistent sense (now confirmed by the profanities being hurled at me) that this person was trouble and I was right to ask him to leave. But this homeless man had needs too—big ones. What right did I have to put my own first? The tension paralyzed me.
Returning again to the dream in my awake state, my paralysis eventually gave way to a reminder that a First Responder was with me. And that he had offered to help. And that the stairwell wasn’t a great home for this man. And that probably the First Responder had resources to offer this man that I didn’t. Even realizing all that, and even in my awake and supposedly rational state, I struggled to trust the policeman’s word that he would take care of the man and find him a better place to live. “Will you really?” I asked. “You’re not just saying that?”
“Carolyn Joy,” I sensed God say to me later, “’Let Me be God’ means that you are not solely responsible to meet the needs of everyone around you. You can do what I ask you to and leave the rest with me, knowing that I will do my job well.”
Slowly I began to see: The question is not whose needs matter most (which is what I seem to think when I feel guilty and selfish about saying no); it’s whether I’m the right person to meet this particular need at this particular time. Am I able? Willing? Called?
Take up your cross and follow Me. Not take up the cross of everyone within your reach. Take up the one I give you to carry. And follow Me, not your own overblown sense of responsibility.
I watch Jesus heal a lot of people—and leave others unhealed as he goes off to be alone with his Father.
I see him feed crowds—and sit on a well, resting, while his disciples go in search of lunch for them all.
I see him walk on water and calm storms—and sleep in the back of a boat while his disciples  fight their way through the worst storm of their lives feeling like Jesus doesn’t care.
Even Jesus was called to meet some needs and not others. Even he learned to trust his Father with the rest.
Sometimes balancing needs means getting off the teeter-totter and kneeling down.

I’d taken the dream to my counsellor, and as I walked home in the crisp fall air I heard a friendly voice, “Hey, it’s Carolyn!” I turned and saw two men with bulging bags of recycling slung over their shoulders. Their faces boasted several days’ growth, but they looked well and happy. The one who had called out saw me trying to place him and smiled, “Under the bridge. They’ve found us a place inside now.” I hadn’t dreamed he would remember my name. Sure, I’d stopped to chat when they lived under the bridge, and I’d taken them home-cooked meals a few times. And once I’d asked if I could bring enough for myself too and sit and eat with them. It hadn’t seemed like much. I hadn’t offered a bed, hadn’t found them a home. But it had been enough. The One who had promised I could do my bit and trust him with the rest had kept his promise, and had stepped out of my dream into my waking life to tell me so.

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

 

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.

Dust you are: a call to pay attention

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Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving?

Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”

I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.

The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”

Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.

I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so you learn to ignore the messages your body is sending you. Your body shouts louder. You buy industrial strength ear protection and keep on working. And in the process you forget (if you ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.

I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.

I keep needing to begin again.

She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.

Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.

“. . .for He knows how we are formed,

He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And—(this is what I need to know!)—

“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)

It’s so clear, there in the psalm:

“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .

Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:

The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from

everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)

He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:

“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”

I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.

 

Taking it deeper:

Notice how your body responds when you are under stress. Does your body respond with muscle tightness? Diarrhea? Irritability and edginess? Sleep disturbance? Migraines? Dry mouth? Sweating?

List your top three or four. (If you have trouble, ask those close to you to help you notice.) Now (here’s the challenge): pay attention to your body so that when you feel those symptoms you step back and ask God to help you see, “What is really going on for me? What is causing me stress right now?”

(If you’re like me, there may be the temptation to think those things “shouldn’t” cause you stress, or you “should” be able to move past them more easily. Then you might find it helpful to ask, “Jesus, how do you see me right now? How do you want to love me in this place of facing my frailty?”)

 

(“Taking it Deeper” adapted from Regent College Living Well Forum on Stress and Transition by Rod Wilson, February 5, 2015)

When you’re afraid of looking bad

 

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I’d been to see my internist. We’d been struggling to figure out why I had bad stretches and what we could do to improve them. He’d asked me to keep a closer record of heart rate and blood pressure in a good week and then “when—no, if” I had another bad spell to record everything again and come back and see him.

I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if I didn’t have another bad stretch?” Then I found myself thinking, “But then he’d think I’d made it all up.” It didn’t matter that it had all been long since tested and proven in a medical setting; that’s where my mind went.

“I don’t want to look bad.”

I recognized the bottom line instantly. I’d never been so honest with God about it before. I’d never realized it so clearly before, though now that it was out I could see it was the bottom line in my fear of writing vulnerably, of speaking up in a group, of just about everything.

I didn’t have time to register either the surprise of the realization or the relief of having it out in the open before I sensed a response, “I don’t want you to look bad either.” Huh? Was that God speaking? Now I had a lot more to register.

“You don’t?”

Maybe I’d thought I had to look bad to make His grace look as good as it is.

Maybe I’d figured He’d want to let me look bad now and again to beat the pride out of me.

Maybe, watching Jesus be mocked and spit on and hung naked, then hearing the command to take up my cross and follow, I’d just assumed looking bad was part of the deal and hadn’t thought to ask what I was believing about God’s heart.

What kind of lover wants to make his beloved look bad? Love is always “the resolve to make the loved party great” (Dr. J.I. Packer).

In all of Jesus’ suffering, the Father’s heart was never to make his Son look bad. It was to give him the highest possible honor, raise him to the highest possible place—and to seat us in that place of honor with him (Eph 1:19-23; 2:6-7; John 17:22-23)

God is always for us.

That doesn’t mean people will always see us bright and beautiful. Sometimes we’ll slip and fall, and part of restoration is being honest about the mess. (But then there’s a startling beauty in the courage to let the mess be seen, and in the grace that encircles it all.) And sometimes we’ll be misunderstood as we follow close on the heels of the one who was accused of blasphemy and demon possession because he was loving people he wasn’t supposed to love in ways that threatened the comfortable religious status quo.  True love, daring love, has a way of being misunderstood.

But somehow when we know that God’s intent is always to honor us, the risk of looking bad loses a lot of its fear. Maybe because it no longer feels like failure. Or no longer holds the threat of rejection. Or there’s nothing left to earn or prove. We can just get on with what we’re called to and leave the outcome to the God who is already and forever for us.

“This I know, that God is for me.” (Psalm 56:9)

How to live confidently (without being perfect)

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At first, at least, many of us fear it. But it’s so true what she says, that that same fearful vulnerability is “also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” (Brene Brown)

Dr. James Houston, with his 90 years of experience, would agree. In his words, “friendship is based on the mutual sharing of weakness.”

It’s one thing to know the value of vulnerability, and quite another to be willingly vulnerable. There’s no substitute for just taking the plunge – again and again and again – and discovering that, though it might or might not get easier, the rewards are worth it. But here’s a little encouragement to help you dive in the first time. Or the thousandth.

You are made in God’s image. You are a unique prism, reflecting Him like no other. If you don’t let us see you, we miss out on seeing that bit of God’s beauty reflected in you. You are being crafted, written, shaped, not just for yourself but for us too.

Our story is who we are, and if we deny it, we deny not only our own selves – we deny the very Author Who’s writing this redemptive epic.” (Ann Voscamp)

A friend puts her hand on the books. “These are God’s. They’re given to you to share.” And I can’t help but think of Jesus’ statement, “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work.” (John 14:10)

I hear the hesitation. I’ve felt it too. “But that’s Jesus talking about himself, not about me.” True. He was a unique channel of God’s self-revelation. He listened perfectly, obeyed perfectly. We don’t. But Jesus follows that statement with the startling words, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) And it’s only a few lines later that he tells us how this is possible: “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20)

Our words aren’t inspired the way Scripture is. We can get things wrong. Still, over and over through Scripture, the declaration is made: “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Is 51:16, 59: 21; Jer 1:9; cf. Ex 4:12; Matt 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12; 21:14-15; Eph 6: 19) It’s God’s way. He puts His words in our mouth, writes His laws on our hearts, puts a Counselor within us to lead us into all truth. By some miracle of grace, He chooses to speak into us and through us. “. . . it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt 10:20)

If all those promises feel like too many words and you need one single line to tuck in your heart and carry with you into every vulnerable situation, try this one:

“I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20)

Those fifteen small words (all but one three letters or less) wrap us around and fill us, defusing our two biggest reasons for hiding.

“It’s not safe to share.” No. Maybe not. You might be rejected, unappreciated (. . . though I daresay it will happen a lot less when you share your real self than when you show us your mask.) But even if it does happen, you won’t be alone. You’ll never dare to open your broken places and find yourself rejected by God. “I am in my Father and you are in me. . . .” Your life is hidden with Christ in God. There’s no safer place than tucked into Jesus who Himself is in his Father.

And those quiet fears that you don’t really have anything worth sharing? That whatever’s inside of you is, at best, ordinary, at worst, garbage?  “. . . I am in you.” When you drop the mask and let us see into the real you, you’re not just sharing your (broken yet beautiful!) self with us; you’re sharing the God of the universe made flesh for love of us. The crumbled open places of brokenness? Those are the places we glimpse little rainbowed refractions of the Light of the universe who has made His home in you.

The sculpture with its open brokenness tells the honest-to-God truth: real confidence grows not out of flawlessness or whitewash but out of leaning close and offering the daily given grace – and finding our broken selves loved.

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I’m leaving this morning to share bits of brokenness and grace with a group about to begin my Bible study. Pray for us, will you?

Though I won’t be around these next few days to respond to comments, might you consider sharing anyway? What fears keep you from letting yourself be seen? When have you experienced grace in vulnerability – either in your own, or in someone else’s daring to trust you with their heart? What helps you take the risk of showing us your real self? You might even want to risk loving your brothers and sisters today by responding to the comments they leave.