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

The path or the goal?


Sometimes the challenge is in hearing the heartbeat of God.
Maybe just as often the challenge is in letting my heartbeat line up with God’s. I don’t want to let go of my comfort, my security, or my control; my favorite couch, the freedom to plan my days without worrying about someone else’s schedule, the quiet space I’ve come to love.
Yesterday, words that helped me face the truth came through someone who is not one of my usual spiritual directors:

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in William Bridges, Managing Transitions, p. 77)

When God has closed all the doors to moving to an unfurnished apartment with my own belongings and living on my own, and is graciously opening the door to sharing a friend’s furnished apartment, at least for a few months, might God be showing me a place I’ve confused the path with the goal and am in danger of clinging to the path I’ve chosen instead of letting him lead me to the goal by the route he knows is best?
The goal is not silence or solitude or order. Those are paths, and, for me, exceptionally helpful ones, to make space to listen to God’s heartbeat. The goal is union with God such that his love fills me. The goal is receiving God’s love, loving him back, and letting his love flow through me to my neighbour.
And, right now, opening my arms to God’s embrace and my hands to his gifts means letting go of my paths and plans, my couch and tables, and letting God teach me once again how to live and love and listen in community, and how to find in that new setting whatever stillness he knows I need to hear him.
There’s freedom here. And often joy. But there have been moments and days in the letting go when I’ve felt confused. Sad. Angry. Fearful. I can slip into the temptation to feel like what I want doesn’t matter and God doesn’t really care about me. That’s when I need to go back and remember that God is the God of unfailing kindness, and look for the little and big ways I’ve seen his kindness in the past and I see it in the present. Getting to stay in the same building. First month’s rent almost free. The memory of meeting my new housemate a year or two ago and thinking I’d almost prefer sharing a place with her to living on my own. I find myself excited, if a little nervous, to see how God will meet us as we walk this new path together over the next few months. Even when the path looks different than the one I’d chosen, this I know—that God is for me. He is giving me his best—Himself—and in the process, everything else besides.
And in the moments I struggle to trust, I’m awed at the grace that meets me there too. I encountered it again in Exodus 6 one morning last week. The Israelites are still in Egypt. God has just given them his very clear promise that he will deliver them and be their God and they his people, and that he will bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. God knows the path to the goal. “But they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (v. 9). And instead of getting angry at their lack of trust and giving up on them or retracting his promise, our Father who is gentle and compassionate, remembering that we are dust, responds to their disbelief with a command to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country” (v. 10-11). God’s faithfulness does not depend on my faith. God responds to their struggle to trust with a settled determination to keep his promises and thus slowly, gently teach his people whose trust has been broken by discouragement and cruel bondage that it’s safe to trust again. That he is not like the taskmasters under which they currently serve. That he is for them. And always trustworthy.

“If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)

 

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Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash.

The challenge and glory of change

We speak of four seasons but isn’t each day a shifting and merging and flowing like the colors in the rainbow blend into each other or a baby becomes a toddler becomes a teen with no clear break in between?
In my corner of the world the bushes have started to burn and the leaves to let go their firm hold on the trees while flowering hearts still bleed. Roses bud and bloom and fruit all on the same morning. Flurries are predicted for later this week. I suppose this is fall, but it carries the lingering notes of summer while it leans toward winter.Do we live any day without changing a little in one direction or another?
I run past the roof under construction and somehow it seems right that there are both trees blazing glory and containers collecting garbage out in front. And more than a single warning sign.
There’s a part of me that thinks the signs have it just about right. Change can be a lot about letting go and throwing out, recycling and relearning and the pain-filled messiness of becoming. Danger: construction zone. I wish I could have a redo of an hour last week, find some kinder way to offer thoughts so that both of our becomings might have been less painful.
I grieve the leaving of another beloved pastor.
I mourn another aspect of illness.
Even good change involves loss and to heal we need to feel and we need to grieve. But creation seems to remember what this human often seems to forget: Change is not only loss, and there can be brightest glory in the letting go.
I see another tree and on it the One who shone brightest in the dying.
Every death into Christ carries the promise of resurrection, every letting go an invitation to let go into God and find ourselves more deeply loved than we could have imagined.
Each truly beautiful person I’ve met has had their share of suffering. They’ve been rolled and polished like pebbles tumbled by the waves. They’ve let go of possessions, certainty, dreams. They’ve learned to live with hands held open, reaching for the hand of God rather than clenched around anything else. It’s a lifetime’s learning.
Change can be messy and grief-filled. But change can also be grace, opening us to God, re-tinting us so we blaze glory. Change can make us more human, more awake, more fully alive. It can show us who God is and who we are and keep us clinging close, our imaged glory flaming to life as we fill with light from the Source.Why do I fear the little daily dyings that life holds when the One in whom life holds together holds me?
The sun sets to rise again, and with its rising, always new mercies.
Leaves fall and new buds spring.
An infant leaves the comfort of the womb to begin a fuller, freer life outside.
What, today, am I being asked to let go of so something new, in its time, can spring?
Knowing myself rooted in the One who is Life, can I let go with hope, maybe even with celebration?

When you feel hemmed in

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“Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: ‘Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them . . . but when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.” (Eze 3:24-27)

Sometime in our lives, we all find ourselves hemmed in. Week after week a writer is wordless, or just as a book is almost finished the possibility of publishing is threatened. One who defines himself by his service tangles with a band saw and winds up casted from fingertips to shoulder. Kids cling. A hospital bed beckons. Laundry hampers or do-lists or inboxes fill faster than they can be emptied.
There are times a whole nation can feel hemmed in. A shooting, a quake, an impending election.
But there is this: a baby is squeezed through an impossibly tight space, hemmed in for an eternity of minutes on its way to meeting the one who has loved and carried and labored to bear it into the world.
Can I trust that the tightest of hemmings is a path into freedom, an invitation into a new way of knowing the one who knows and loves me first?
Might I only learn who God is and who I am by passing through these hemmed-in places?
Maybe it’s when I can’t serve that my heart learns I’m precious apart from my serving.
Maybe it’s when I have to keep loving that my heart learns his grace is sufficient.
Maybe it’s when I realize I can’t control the future that my heart learns to trust the one who keeps holding and loving no matter what comes.
I’ve been soaking for a month in the picture from Psalm 139, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” I’ve found myself cupped and treasured, God’s hand beneath, his other hand above, hemming me in behind and before, laying his hand upon me in blessing and protection. I’ve loved that place of finding myself treasured and protected and held.
But when the hemming feels harsher and less comforting, can I remember that beneath the surface situation, the same strong and gentle hands still holds me?
Freedom comes only in learning to trust, and for most of us there is no such learning apart from being hemmed in and herded out of our cozy spaces.
Like a camera lens, my mind zooms out from what I see around me to the One who sustains it all, this whole universe held like a hazelnut in his hand, then zooms in again until I see myself held. Cupped there in his great hands, I reach up to stroke the fingers that form the roof above me, loving him as an infant who gently touches her mothers face. I turn over and curl up, settling into rest, placing my small hand on his great one, an offer of my small love, my choosing to trust this hand that holds me.
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The winds are blowing and the branches almost bare, but a few leaves still cling, reminders of the love that falls and folds, curls and cups, encircling us everywhere.
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When winds pick up

As I walked home one night from a soaking prayer evening, the world around looked like it had been soaking in God’s love too. All was still, a perfect reflection, tinted golden.
The scene that met me the next morning was completely different.
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Winds whipped dark water into jagged whitecaps. Even when I managed to peek between strands of hair that whipped across my face, blinding me, I couldn’t see a single reflection. Not even a broken one. Only rough turmoil.
I ran anyway, leaning hard into the wind that resisted every stride.
Rounding the corner, I saw numerous small boats anchored out in the deep water, well away from the shore. I watched one boat as wave after wave threatened to roll over it, then tilted the bow up and rolled underneath, threatening to dunk the stern. The little boat stayed afloat.
At first I felt sorry for whoever might have been on those boats. All that rolling. I began to feel seasick just watching.
But I rounded another corner and changed my mind. What’s a little seasickness once you see a boat that sits tilted, fixed and unmoving, gripped by the rock on which it has run aground? One wave after another hit hard, sending spray over the boat that shuddered and groaned but could not roll, could not rise and fall with each wave. Each wave pounded and tore and fractured the boat a little more as it sat, fixed and helpless, in the shallows.
When winds rise, I often forget that deep water is safer. I fear the waves, the rolling seasickness of change. It’s not hard to imagine myself spread eagle, clinging with all my might to a slippery black rock, trying to keep myself safe while the waves pound me to pieces.
But slowly I’m learning that the real danger isn’t the waves at all, but my clinging to control, to supposed security, when winds rise.
Slowly I’m learning to hear in the voice of the wind the summons to move out of the shallows, out of the clinging to the familiar, the apparently secure, out into the deep, deep love of Jesus where alone we are safe.

“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean

In its fullness over me

Underneath me, all around me

Is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward

To your glorious rest above.” (Samuel Francis)