The limits of discipline {OR When God’s love tastes like ice cream}


I was walking along the seawall, hands pulled up into my sleeves away from the chilly dusk air, arguing with God about a bowl of ice cream.

I’d been reading a book on prayer, and questions about fasting were sharpening both my desire to have that bowl of ice cream, and my guilt about that desire.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation unfolded, but I do remember thinking, “I’m sure this isn’t that big a deal, but we need to talk about it because I’m not able either to enjoy the ice cream or to happily forego it.” And I remember the gentle choice: “Which do you want? Do you want the discipline not to have the ice cream, or the freedom to enjoy it?

There was, I’m afraid, a bit of self-pity as I wavered between the choices and finally reminded God that I’m a body as well as a soul, “and, please, tonight, I just want that bowl of ice cream. And I want to be able to enjoy it without guilt.”

That was when He asked the question that left me trying to hold back the tears until I could get inside: “Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline as well as in your discipline?” There were other questions later about whether wanting a bowl of ice cream (or, rather, half a cup of vanilla frozen yoghurt with fresh fruit) is a problem or a normal, healthy, desire to enjoy one of God’s many good gifts, but God knew that we needed first to face the bigger issue—the fear that some lack in me would keep me from being close to him.

“Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline?”

It was as though a sudden wind blew through and the needles of a two-month-old Christmas tree gave up trying to hold on and fell, revealing dry, naked twigs, the branches too dead even to draw close and cover their shame. I was discovering that my self-discipline which, when fueled by passion, has helped me go far, is, on its own, pretty shabby. And the legalistic “should” was being shown for what it is: at best a guardian, at worst a bully, but either way powerless to help me be the person I want to be:

“I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; meekness, but not humility; scrupulosity, but not virtue; self-assertion or bravado, but not courage; lust, but not love; commiseration, but not sympathy; congratulations, but not admiration; religiosity, but not faith.” (psychoanalyst Leslie Farber, quoted in Benner’s Desiring God’s Will, p. 50)

And then, having revealed the true state of the tree, the same wind whispered the invitation to lay the dead trunk on its side and shape it into a welcoming manger. When we find our limits, we also find grace, and Love waiting to reassure us that what sheer will can’t do, Love can.

“. . . [R]elying on willpower. . . is still living a willful life. The kingdom of self and the kingdom of God are like oil and water; they just do not mix. Genuine surrender does not depend on discipline and resolution. [Genuine surrender] is leaving all that behind and being seduced by Love, even if that takes time. Seductions always do!” (Benner, Desiring God’s Will, p. 73)

No ice cream has ever tasted so good as that bowl, every spoon full of God’s tangible love.


Next week I’m off on a course so won’t be here blogging. I look forward to listening together again when I return!

Why you can trust the process


When life seems faded and pale, a dim echo of glory,

or surreal, too busy and bright,


you can rest, friend, and trust the Artist, because you are not self-made.

“We are God’s masterpiece” (Eph 2:10, NLT), all of us being loved together into a Life more magnificent than we can dream.


Masterpieces aren’t made in a day. There are stages and phases and layers, and if you try to rush the peach onto the blue, you just end up with mud. “Soul work is slow work,” a wise friend says, and the master Artist delights in each step of the process.

“We who with unveiled faces all (already!) reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinithains 2:18)


And we can be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)


We are His masterpiece, continually being loved toward completion by the One who delights to claim us as His own and sign His name to us.


Painting and photos of the stages by the lovely Patricia Herrera. Used with permission.

What Jesus does with chains


For half an hour, Pastor Darrell leads us through Acts 16, showing us how Jesus is setting every person in the passage free. He invites us to write on a slip of paper our answer to the questions, “From what do you want to be free today? Of what do you need to be free today?”

I’m hungry, hungry for freedom. I write and write and when Lilac prays, acknowledging that some of us are thinking we’re okay and others are wishing for a thousand slips of paper, I know where I fit.

We file forward for communion, placing our slips of paper in a basket then receiving a piece of bread to dip in the cup, trading chains for freedom, letting ourselves be emptied of death to be filled up instead by the One who is Life. I dip the bread into the juice and look up into eyes that hold mine as though to press the truth deep into my heart, as though to burn through the chains with his eyes and his simple, astounding words: “Jesus shed his blood to set you free.” I return to my seat and sit, tears filling my eyes, watching Jesus hold out his body, his freedom, Himself to every person that comes near, offering each one the chance to be set free into His love.

And then, when we’ve eaten and drunk and been filled with Jesus and His love, Pastor Darrell tips the slips of paper into a metal bucket and lights a fire inside. Flames lick at the papers and smoke curls upward, our thanks rising with the smoke as all that has bound us crumbles to ash. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay,” we sing, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke—the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

I trace the word “free” through Scripture and see once more that the whole history of God’s people is a story of freedom, of God setting us free from one bondage or another:

“Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them. . .” (Ex 6:6)

“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” (Ps 119:32)

“Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12)

Sometimes Jesus sends an earthquake to shake chains free. Sometimes he burns through them with his fiery eyes, or slices through them with the always-sharp sword of the Word. He has been known to sever chains with a few simple letters scratched in the sand with his finger, with a bit of spit on someone’s eyes, or with a touch. But always, always, Jesus responds to chains the same basic way: by removing them.

If we will let him.

God offers freedom. He doesn’t force it.

Sometimes I think I want freedom with my whole heart, and other times, when I look at the practicalities of it, it seems just a little too scary and though I feel like my answer should be “of course!” a more honest answer is closer to “ummm. . . maybe?” or perhaps even “no, not really, not right now.” Or, when I’m really honest, “Sure. But on my terms.” Which, when you’re talking to God, is the same as “no thanks.” There’s a security, of a pitiful sort admittedly, but a security nonetheless, in my small, familiar prison.

A fellow Regent student nails the issue in a class paper:

“No matter how long I have been paralyzed, the awful question remains valid: ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6) Do I want to be really well, imbued with true-new life, or is what I am really seeking somehow to have my cake and eat it, too, to be in the world and of it?”

A few lines later he adds words that I can’t get out of my head,

“Here is the awful question behind the awful question: can God be trusted?” (James Holmlund)

That’s where I was lingering in the days leading up to the encounter with fiery freedom. Can God be trusted? I refused to settle for “yes, of course.” Our hearts are made to need details—that’s why God tells us so often to remember. So I started a list: God making a path for his people to walk through the sea on dry ground; Jesus lifting himself for one more breath to cry out, “It is finished!”; God answering prayer after desperate prayer through years overseas and providing for me caring friends and a beautiful place to live and His own close and gentle presence through these years of illness and loss and beauty and gain and being led into a new way of living.

I’ve been looking, every day, into the eyes of Jesus, because I know that, like Peter, when I’m gazing into the eyes of Jesus I remember that He can be trusted—enough to step out of the boat and begin walking toward Him. I need to keep looking at Him, keep seeing Him looking at me, because a lifetime of freedom is a lifetime of moment-by-moment choices to trust.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

What I love most about Jesus

IMG_3072We all have those moments when we’re aware of our fragility. They might come as we look ahead to the fall schedule—full of good things, but still full. Or as we realize that we’ve fallen into the same trap again, succumbed to the same old lie. Or at the end of a long day or the beginning of a new venture or in the slow and steady middle when we’ve forgotten the excitement of beginning and can’t yet see the joy of the goal.

Too often I still try to fix that fragility. Or hide it. Or cut it off. I think I need to be strong to make it through. Sometimes we sing that conviction, asking God to overcome our weakness that we can shine out Your light.”

But what if His plan is not to overcome our weakness but to shine through it? What if He wants to show the world love more than He wants to show it power? Or what if the power He wants to show the world is the limitless power of perfect love, a strength strong enough to hold and love all the broken pieces of us as well as the healthy ones? What if all my attempts to be strong are nothing more than a failure to surrender to the Love so strong that it doesn’t fear brokenness?

The flower hangs half-broken, its lovely head down, swinging limply from the crease where its stem’s fibers glisten damp and dark and stringy. I’m sure it is going to die anyway, that flower already mostly broken, so I finish the break, pinching it off to place in a vase for a day or three as it continues its slow death.

Jesus never does that. His love never gives up. He straightens the stem, splints it, and gives it time to heal.

A bruised reed he will not break.

The wick smoulders dim red, trying vainly to burst into flame but filling the air instead with a spiral of dark, smelly smoke. I lick my fingers and reach over to pinch it dead without a thought, except maybe a thought about the unpleasantness of the smoke.

Then I watch Jesus respond to the same weak wick. He bends down, stooping until the wick is level with his kind eyes, really seeing it, and blows ever so gently, not extinguishing but feeding it with life-giving Spirit-breath. The wick rests, receives, and bursts into flame.

A smouldering wick He will not snuff out.

What I love most about Jesus—today, at least, and most days—is His gentleness. Linger here with me, will you, and find yourself safe and loved and tended as we prepare to step into fall?

Jesus, as the calendar turns to the next month and summons us into a new term, a new season, a new year, keep this ever before us: You do not change. You who have led us gently through the summer invite us to follow you gently into the fall. To let ourselves be held. To stop trying to make ourselves strong enough to face it all, smart enough to figure it all out, or efficient enough to get it all done in a hurry. You never tire of inviting us to come and rest and let ourselves be loved and touched and mended, to stop fretting about the smoke and let ourselves feel Your gentle Spirit-breath until we burst into bright flame.

Put aside the Ranger

I’ve been like the Ranger. I’ll bet that at some point you’ve been too. A person of character and integrity playing a key role in the drama. Playing it well. Caring, encouraging, fighting valiantly to protect others against some evil. But preferring to fight in the shadows, hood pulled up over my head. Hiding my real self.

Elrond’s words pierce me, words spoken when he handed Aragorn the sword that once had been broken and called him to take his rightful place as the king of Gondor. “Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be.”

The words challenge me. Excite me. They’re good words. Freedom words. Oh, yes, I want to be who I was born to be! Sometimes. And sometimes not. Then they’re frightening words.  They feel heavy.

“God, It’s too hard! I can’t do it! I can’t!”

He sends reassurance: “God’s mercies are new every morning — not as an obligation to you, but as an affirmation of you.” (Ann Voskamp)

One of those great mercies is that he doesn’t let us stay hiding in the shadows of some seven billion other clones, each clamoring to be a little faster, stronger, better.

He loves us. Me. You. Yes, you. He likes you, too. He wants you to be who you were born to be because He planned you just the way He wanted you.

“Become who you were born to be.” Not because he wants to make things harder for you. Because he wants to set you free. Because his love has made you great and he doesn’t want you to miss out on the joy of being who you’re born to be. Because he doesn’t want the rest of his body to miss out on it either.

Why do we fear becoming ourselves? Is it because we’re afraid who we are isn’t enough? That we’ll be judged by those who want to mold us in their own image?  That’s just the point. Faster, better, busier: they’re all measured against others. I will fail if I’m trying to be who someone else was born to be. 

Or do we fear that we’ll try and fall flat? That we won’t know who we were born to be, or won’t be able to get there? That’s the other key. I will fail if I think that becoming myself means making it happen myself. I am not made to be an independent individual. I am made to be a person, joined to and filled with the Persons at the center of the universe. Joined to and part of Christ’s body.

I was born to be me. You were born to be you. And that truest you-ness is hidden with Christ in God. Until you are united to him, you’re not the you you were born to be. And when you are united to him, then you no longer carry the weight of becoming the real you by yourself. You’re in him, and he in you, and he’s making you into the you you were born to be. He’s completing the work of creation that he began when he dreamed you. That is good news!

There’s a freedom in becoming yourself. What do you have to lose? Your life, perhaps. But it will be given back to you once you’re free to live it fully. And while you’re trying to be someone else, you stand to lose everything. Including yourself.

There is fear in hiding, and fear in stepping out. We get to choose our fear. The difference is that one leads to real joy.

We weren’t all born to be king of Gondor. But we were all born to be someone that no one else can be.

“So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body,  let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” (Romans 12:5-6 The Message)


An edited repost from the archives, part of a summer series leaning into God’s repeated command to remember.

Image credit: amyandra