Hope for the messy moments

I smile as I pass the new sign below my neighbor’s mail slot: “Please no junk mail. (I love you.)”

I smile because there, in gold and turquoise, is a struggle with which I identify. How hard it is for some of us to make simple requests of even a minor character in our lives without needing to make sure the other person is okay. How much more difficult in relationships that matter to us!

So what do we do when, despite our best efforts, a relationship feels threatened? How do we find perspective again? And how can this painful process turn into a place of grace?

***

The friend leading our soulcare group meeting spreads colored pencils and markers on the table and invites us each to choose a sheet of paper. “Let’s take a few minutes to be still,” he says as he invites us to reflect on our recent lives and choose one aspect—one emotion or encounter or situation—that we want to spend some time with in the presence of God. “It can be anything,” he says. A joy or a pain or a place of confusion.

Then we’re to choose a pencil, or several, and, if we can, express that experience on the page using only color and texture. Or we can draw a metaphor or story that represents the encounter and the feelings in it.

I settle on the experience I want to bring to God. I’m not much of an artist, but I don’t need even the drawing skills of a grade one child to express this emotion. I can feel myself wanting to grab the red colored pencil in my fist – a child’s grip – and scribble, red coloring the page angry.

I hold back. What if my friends see? What if they hear the furious scratch of the pencil on the page? I’d rather not feel anger. If I must feel it, I’d prefer to keep it safely tucked out of sight. But I know there’s no path to healing except through the pain. We have to give emotions voice, laying them honest and open before God and perhaps a counselor or wise spiritual friend before we can follow them to the deeper layers from which they spring—the fear, the memories of past pain that lie hidden in our minds and bodies. For God to meet me in the pain, I have to risk letting my anger be seen.

As I scribble, tears rise, tears of frustration, then of deeper sadness, of hurt and embarrassment, exposure and shame. The red that I first felt as anger is now the bleeding of pain and the flush of shame. There’s relief in discovering the layers beneath the anger. At least now I can cry and pray those deeper layers. 

I write the emotions I’ve discovered beside the scribbles. In another corner of the page, the questions my heart is asking: “Where did you go?” In another, the lies my thoughts are telling me about myself, “A bother,” “A drain,” “Alone.”

After a while, the person leading us asks the question: “Where might Jesus be in this? How might he want to be with you?” Or, if that question seems too hard, we can answer instead, “How might you want him to be with you in this?”

The red on the page shifts again to become more about Jesus’ blood than my anger or shame. It’s not that the pain has gone away, but that I’m no longer alone in it. My pain is his, my embarrassment hanging with Jesus’ body exposed on the cross. There with him, “alone” turns to “belonging,” “sent away,” to “called close.” “Rejected” to “I have chosen you.” A cross takes shape on the page, its arms wide enough to contain my hurt and angry scribbles, covering my shame with his love.

This is one of the many wonders of the cross: Here where our greatest fears and ugliest angers and deepest shames are exposed, we are welcomed and loved by the One who enters it all with us.

And now that the emotions have been brought from my heart into the light and all the broken parts of me have been welcomed by Jesus, I begin to feel differently. I can see now that the anger was springing from fear of losing a friendship that I value, and from the shame of feeling seen too clearly, parts of myself that embarrass me identified by another. Mine was a little girl’s instinctive fear of someone who matters going away.

As the anger and shame are gathered up into Jesus, and I, too, gathered safely into Jesus’ arms, the silence in the friendship also changes shape. I’d made it bigger than it was, something other than it was. I find I can receive it now not as rejection or frustration with me but as invitation to return again to the foundation of the friendship, to choose to trust, hold space, give the benefit of the doubt, not from a forced and lonely place, but from the safe and gracious space of Jesus’ arms. Perhaps my friend was simply busy and tired. Or perhaps my wise friend knew that nothing else needed to be said—appreciation had already been expressed, misunderstandings clarified, reassurance given—and it was now time for me to face my fears alone with the only One who can heal my heart. Words of a friend can only go so far; the deeper healing of our fears has to happen in Jesus’ arms.

***

It’s time for us to share communion and we place the plate of bread, the cup of wine on the table in the midst of the scattered colored pencils and the pages on which we’ve poured out our hearts. This is where Jesus comes to us: right in the middle of the mess.

Since we’re short on people and no one has prepared to lead communion, I offer. Something has stirred in me and I know I’m being invited to speak Jesus’ words with my own mouth, receiving his embodied declaration that he has chosen and called me close, and lives in and through me just as he does in and through my friend. I speak His words, my cheeks wet with the gracious affirmation that no misunderstanding, no slowness to trust or exposure of my messy heart can ever change the way Jesus loves and values and holds me.

As I offer the bread and the wine to the person sitting next to me, overcome by the wonder that Jesus does part of his work in the world through me, I hear once again the promise spoken first to Israel and now also to us:

“But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:8-10 (bold mine)

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Photos (in order) by me, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, and Debby Hudson on Unsplash

God writes a better story

I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It’s so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control. 

“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.

Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.

As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me. 

Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits. 

What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?

A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That’s not just a different story, it’s a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.

Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I’d love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it’s the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

How the long road can be grace

Six of us from my soulcare group were gathered with a table in our midst. The person leading the reflection that night had decided to do something different. She had spread on the table a selection of fifteen or so different photos from her recent pilgrimage—a slightly open door with a shaft of light entering, a path with a cross at the end, a stained glass window. She asked us each to select a photo that touched us emotionally, either attracting us or repelling us, and then led us through a series of questions, helping us pay attention to why the photo was touching us and how God might be wanting to speak to us through it.

I struggled to choose a photo. I wanted the blue and mauve and gold stained glass that showed God the Father upholding his Son on the cross. I tried to choose that one. But as my friend started to ask the questions, I realized I had to put that one back on the table and pick up instead the plain one with the long and winding path. The dusty, boring one with only a few greyed colors in the whole image.

It was the night before my first appointment in a new complex chronic diseases clinic, and the realities of my illness were more on my mind than I often allow them to be. I didn’t want them to be stealing my focus, but sometimes sadness is there and when it is, it’s best to be honest about it. Not that I find that easy. I’d found myself wanting to pull away that evening, to stay home and avoid the vulnerability of the group. It was only as we were sharing what was going on in us over a meal that I’d realized why it had been so hard for me to come: I was afraid that if I was honest about struggling with the same issues again, or didn’t have energy to keep up my part of the relationship equally, that even those close to me would get tired and leave.

My head knows better. One of the great gifts of this group is the space for us all to be honest about our struggles and walk with each other through them. My heart still sometimes fears. I don’t like that. I want to be able to fix my heart, to have perfect trust, and not ten years from now but today. Or, preferably, yesterday.

But though, by God’s grace, we do change, that work is slow. As my spiritual director often says, “Soul work is slow work.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need to be reminded again and again that the goal of our journey is far less about reaching perfection (particularly the way my frightened part defines it, as getting rid of my same old struggles, never messing up, and generally being able to be the strong one, the one helping others) and far more about increasingly opening to love and learning humility and both receiving and offering vulnerability and grace.

And if the goal isn’t so much about arriving as about learning to know the One with whom we walk, maybe that long and winding route is the shortest path. It’s there in the weary days that we discover God’s faithful gentleness in the journey.

I see this in Israel’s journey:

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Exodus 13:17-18

Sometimes we’re ambivalent about freedom. We need the longer winding path to experience God’s faithful presence and provision again and again before we can trust enough to step into the freedom God offers. As it was with Israel, the winding path may be part of God’s gentleness and commitment to working within our limitations and making it easy enough for us that we don’t turn back in terror.

And sometimes God is slow to heal struggles because if he removed them all at once, they’d be replaced by something worse. Paul’s thorn kept him from pride (2 Cor 12:7). The persistence of the other tribes in the promised land kept the land from being overrun by thistles and wild animals:

“I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hives, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.” 

Exodus 23:29

The longer route can allow us to grow in ways we need to grow in order to receive the gifts waiting for us.

That night of our soulcare group meeting, I needed to be honest with God, myself, and my friends about my sadness and fear. I needed to sit with the picture I didn’t want and be on the part of the path that felt the same as last month and the month before and that stretched into the distance with no change in sight. And there was grace in that—the healing grace of tears, and of recognizing again that more than I want a stained glass life I want to walk close with Jesus. There was the grace of being reminded that even if I can’t see the end, the path does lead somewhere beautiful and even if this particular snapshot shows only this winding path, it’s only one small snapshot amidst all the other bits and pieces that make up this life and the infinite life to come.

And there was the grace of being allowed to bring home the stained glass photo as well and sit with it and remember that more than anyone else ever could, Jesus understands. And that even when fear or loneliness or something else is snapping at our feet, and even when we can’t see God, He is present, quietly upholding us in gentle and powerful love.

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Photos by Karen Webber. Used with permission.

Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

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Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

Photo by Chris Mai on Unsplash

One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash